Radical design is instantly recognisable, if not always appeasing. The shock of the new and all that.
The best design, however, unites form and function in a manner not previously considered. POC’s Octal helmet is a fine example. Its strength comes from its external structure, rather than from reinforcing ribs buried in the polystyrene shell.
Its aesthetic is challenging. This is some achievement, given its simplicity, and unintended. One senior figure at POC admits to being taken aback by the response to the Octal when at the 2014 Tour Down Under the team then known as Garmin-Sharp raced in it for the first time.
“People were losing it on the Slipstream website and on their Twitter feeds and Facebook,” director Peter Appleton recalls with an incredulous smile on a recent visit to London from POC's base in Stockholm. “They were getting hundreds of comments: 'I love it, I hate it.' There was no in between. That’s what great design does, I guess. It’s often polarising.”
POC is Swedish, though here we are perhaps stating no more than the obvious. There is something uniquely Scandinavian in the design of its products; what might be described as a striking simplicity. Complexity is easier to come by, and rarely as pleasing.
Three tenets underpin the Octal’s design. Firstly, not one of the three lead designers on the project had ever owned or ridden a road bike, according to Appleton, a former Olympic-standard mountain bike racer who presented them with his old, leather ‘hairnet’ style helmet and one of the earliest Styrofoam designs from Bell (circa 1983) and left them to their work.
Secondly, the design philosophy is underpinned by biomimetics: essentially, taking inspiration from natural organisms and even copying them (in this case, the humble beetle). Thirdly, and following directly from point two, its rigidity is gained from an exoskeleton structure, rather than from internal reinforcement. It is from the ability of its outside surfaces to absorb impact that the Octal gains its strength. POC claim that in this regard, their helmet has no competitors.
The strength of the response to the POC Octal helmet worn by Garmin-Sharp during its first appearances early last season surprised at least one senior figure at the brand. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
The design allows for greater protection of the occipital lobe at the back of the skull, and at the temporal lobe at the side. While protecting both areas is of obvious importance, POC’s access to data gathered over 20 years by Swedish neighbours Volvo confirmed that most cyclists involved in road accidents suffered trauma to the temporal area. The designers’ response was to lower the front of the helmet and to increase the thickness in this critical area. POC say the Octal offers 30 per cent more coverage of the skull than any rival.
Other benefits accrue from the design, POC claim. The helmet, they say, is the most aerodynamically efficient of any not designed specifically for that purpose (helmets worn for duties other than time trials, essentially). The huge vents afforded by a design unrestricted by an internal roll cage dramatically effect the stagnation points of on rushing air, which instead is channeled straight through the Octal’s capacious voids, instead of being brought to rest on the surrounding surface.
For all the Octal’s clever-simple design aspects, the most immediately obvious facet of the example pictured is its striking colour. Unsurprisingly for POC, this is not the result of mere chance. Their first helmet made was white with an orange interior, contrasting hues used on dummies in crash simulations. These colours, based on joint research conducted variously with Volvo, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Karolinska Institute, remain in much of POC's range.
The Octal's sizeable vents are afforded by a design that does not require an internal roll cage. POC claims superior aerodynamic performance as a result of the comparatively unrestricted airflow pic: Jon Denham
The colour informs all the products in POC’s AVIP range (its full title - Attention Visibility Interaction Protection – is more descriptive, if less wieldy); research that confirmed that by adding a white top to a dark jersey, recognition (distinct from mere perception) doubled from 120m - a distance that a motorist travelling at 100kph would cover in around 4.5 seconds. Add fluorescent orange to the top of a column that also contains black and white, and recognition increases to 670m, giving the motorist nearly 30 seconds in which to adjust his driving from the point of recognising a road user as a cyclist to passing him.
Cannondale- Garmin will race in POC helmets this season. The fit with innovators Cannondale seems fortuitous. Robbie Ketchell, Slipstream’s head of sport science, is working with the head of aerodynamics at Volvo to develop products in POC’s internal WATTS Lab silo, Appleton reveals.
The Octal is likely to remain a ‘Marmite’ product – one that inspires either approval or disapprobation – but POC’s association with Slipstream makes the WorldTour peloton a little more interesting and does something to bolster its fading reputation as the bicycle industry’s technological showcase.
Helmet pictured supplied by Bespoke Cycling, Jermyn Street