Modern cafe racers and the retro style is making a comeback… a serious comeback. There’s been a lot to like about this look, and I for one am a big fan. This retro resurgence is even attracting others who never really fit in with the chopper or supersport crowds – and even converting some of them! Newer products like naked bikes are becoming more popular here in the US and the gear choices are trying to follow suit.
To meet the uptick in demand, some helmet manufacturers are developing some bold new helmets that are taking steps in the right direction. As of 2016, we have more full-face choices than we’ve had in the past, but are still pretty limited overall. It’s a difficult task to combine the old with the new, and helmets are trying to capture the best of both worlds. I’ll be honest: while I was uber stoked to test out these new helmets, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed by some key missteps.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting too much from the Biltwell Gringo, but boy was I surprised. The fit, finish, and style of the helmet are spot on and with a sub $200 USD price tag, the Gringo is an option that just can’t be ignored. The Biltwell Gringo faithfully recreates the formula of old school motorcycle helmets, and it captures the design and feel of a true retro themed helmet, almost too well.
The sizing of this helmet is accurate and the proportions between the inner fit and the outer shell are the tightest I’ve seen. When worn, this is one of the lowest profile helmets I’ve had cradling my brain. I was lucky enough to not get any headaches or noticeable discomfort from pressure.
The downsides to this helmet are few… but noticeable. First, the lack of any venting is obvious and can be difficult to deal with. Especially if you live in warmer climates or are riding during the summer, you will need to keep the face shield up (Gringo S). Would it kill them to ninja a vent in there, somewhere? anywhere?? I’m not the sweatiest hog in the pen, but damn son… no venting can be killer in the summer time.
[Avalanche: Gringo appropriate weather]
The face shield on the Gringo S is definitely an after thought – it’s obvious that Biltwell just added a visor and a snap button to quickly satisfy the requests for a face shield. This thing is not built for precipitation, and it does not have a weatherproof seal. The chin strap is also precariously placed. It’s a bit too far back and cuts into my neck way too early. Finally, there are no pre-cut indentations for speakers (but can be jerry rigged and worked around if desired). There are small pockets in the padding to fit some equipment inside. Many current owners of the Biltwell Gringo know these facts, and to many, are not a deal breaker.
Comfort while riding with the Biltwell Gringo (and Gringo S) is pretty good. The inner lining is soft, snug, and fits well – due to the abundance of inner lining, the helmet is pretty quiet. It’s among the quietest lids I’ve worn. I have the Gringo S model and I can really tell the difference that no venting has on road noise. The interior fit of the Gringo is so well constructed that wind buffeting, resistance, and sound levels are well within comfortable ranges. If you’ve got a distance to go, in some cool weather, this is a solid helmet to ride with. Viewing angles are good and no unnecessary angles obstruct viewing.
The main selling point of this helmet for me, is the price. For under $200 USD you can have a DOT rated helmet that can look good and feel good, too. Just beware if you’re a summer or hot weather rider. You’ll want to also get some goggles (non-S Gringo) or some eye protection for when you have to keep the front open (Gringo S).
The Bell Bullit was the helmet I was most looking forward to reviewing… and also the one that let me down the most. I thought that an heirloom maker like Bell, with so many decades of helmet design experience under its belt, would be in better standing than the others – especially in the retro cafe-ish category. The retro design of the helmet, while beautiful in pictures, really falls a few notches once it’s on your head. It kinda makes you feel like an astronaut… a badass, earth-bound astronaut.
For the good: It’s a calculated helmet – they know their target audience. It’s got a little adjustable venting on the chin (controlled behind the chin bar), and an upper airflow venting route that exits via a rear wrinkle-like slit on the back of the helmet. Seriously… it looks like a wrinkle fold. It’s super low profile and hides itself well. The enormous face shield in the front is a love it or hate it kinda deal. I for one like the extreme viewing angles it gives and it really opens up the road in comparison to some of the smaller viewports I’ve seen. Although if I were to give a suggestion, the dark smoke shield is a must – it really makes the helmet come together. It makes the helmet much more attractive to look at and has a seriously positive effect on the exterior package.
The Bullitt has one of the best retro-styled constructions (as of 2016) and hits most of the check boxes for what a helmet should be. It has a calculated package that will satisfy most buyers. The Bell Bullitt has features that you would expect from a modern production helmet: adjustable chin and forehead venting system, smooth face shield action, DOT and ECE rated, and some awesome designs to choose from.
But for a retro helmet that costs $400+ USD (500+ USD for the Carbon versions), you’re left wanting a bit more. Not only is the Bullitt missing some modern comforts, but it’s lacking in the interior construction. It feels cavernous and empty, and some better interior padding is severely missed; this causes the lid to be among the noisier of the helmets I’ve used (more on this below). While the interior uses some leather, some soft liners, and removable pieces, for this price, it still feels lacking. The top of the dome’s interior lining is also positioned too far from the shell of the helmet itself, so it ends up sitting high on the head. It does settle in a bit as it breaks in, but it could have been avoided. As for fitment, this is a helmet that you’ll definitely want to try on before you buy. The sizing for the Bullitt is a bit confusing – the medium is a little too big for my cranium, while the small is way too small. You can definitely tell that this was an exercise in style over function.
Although the helmet has a high price and emphasis on design, the Bell Bullitt is extremely noisy. This is where that empty cavernous interior comes in… the pockets of emptiness really amplify the wind buffeting noise. If the helmet isn’t an exact fit for your head and neck, the resulting noise may be too much for many buyers. There were a couple times that I thought there were airplanes passing overhead because the noise was just so loud. Also, due to the road noise, my bluetooth communicator is often muffled or drowned out by wind noise – definitely not a good thing when you’re trying to talk with your riding friends. The visor also scratches the forehead of the helmet’s outer shell! My matte black finish has some vertical scratches that once seen, cannot be unseen. Like really? For a $400+ USD helmet, I really expected the design team to see how all the moving parts fit together.
Finally, when the shield is flipped up (30+ mph), the helmet whistles… like really whistles. The space between the helmet and the visor are positioned in such a way that the wind howls as it passes through. It’s so irritating, that I couldn’t ride with the shield up after a minute or two. On the flip side, it does serve a purpose as a reminder that the lid is up?
[Get me that Bullitt so I can make this call]
Now this helmet has a whole lot going for it. And among the choices we have right now, it’s towards the top of the list. If you do decide to get the Bell Bullitt, please please please, get a smoked shield or a bubble shield. These make a definite and noticeable improvement. The weight is a bit on the heavy side (unless you buy the carbon fiber versions now available), the visor scratches the outer shell, and swapping the visor requires a tool (a screwdriver or coin – flathead bolt). While this is a good exercise in design, and definitely a step forward, it’s just not going to be at the top of my list with all things considered. I really hope that Bell continues to develop this design and make improvements to future iterations of the Bullitt.
The Nexx XG100 was one helmet I was really excited for too. It has a flavor of MX, without going full tilt into the dirt. Conceptually, it has so many things going for it: detachable hood visor, detachable face shield (almost like goggles in actuality), cool designs, and retro look (without going full Lego-man head), and modern sensibilities (like venting).
Let’s start with what this helmet does well. The interior materials of this helmet are just awesome. It really feels like top quality premium materials were used for every nook and cranny of this bucket. It’s like having a luxurious micro suede snuggie wrapped around your face – freaking awesome. There are models with a two-tone suede like material that fits nicely. The fit is comfy snug and feels solid when you put it on. Not only does it have a great interior feel, but the outer shell designs you can get are also super sweet. It’s a DOT and ECE rated helmet that has a really solid construction.
Unfortunately, the interior is the best part of this helmet. The detachable face shield looks cool, but that’s about it. It’s actually a pain in the ass to take on and off while riding, and if you wear glasses, prepare to have to pull over to re-adjust. The chin venting, while a nice addition for a retro design, is non-adjustable. Like the other helmets in this list, the Nexx XG100 doesn’t have a pre-cut areas for speakers, but they can be hidden away behind one of the many interior flaps easily. The snap-on visor is a fun gimmick, but it just doesn’t apply very well to normal street riders.
Riding with the helmet is really comfortable and the rider experience is actually pretty pleasant. It’s surprising just how much of a difference the inner lining makes with this plush material. Because of the abundance (over abundance) of padding, the helmet doesn’t leave much room for road or wind noise at all. Unfortunately, there is a bit of lift that is felt when cruising at highway speeds. The helmet comes with both the visor and clip-on face shield, and I’ve tried mine with all its variations – unsurprisingly, the least amount of lift comes from the shield without visor. The visor is fun to take on and off the first few times, but after that it just becomes a chore.
Now for the shell… ohmahgerd the shape. The outer shell of the bucket looks like a lightbulb… a really really wide lightbulb. You can tell that this is one of those helmets that has a universal outer shell with varying amounts of interior material thickness to fill out the rest of the sizing chart. The crown of the XG100 helmet is just huuuuuuuge. Like so big, I felt like it was a mistake. Its fortunate that the gratuitous (but super comfy) amount of padding results in such a large footprint (headprint?) I can see why the pictures of this helmet are strategically angled. When you have a human inside of it, it looks like I’m about to crash my tinfoil UFO in Roswell.
The interior feels so good that you almost forget (or want to forget) about how dis-proportioned the outer shell actually is. If the outer hull (and I mean hull) of this helmet could match the feeling it gives in the interior, it would have been a home run. Unfortunately, it’s big, bulky, and heavy – not something that’s my speed. A tighter execution of the helmet and this would have been able to give the Gringo and a run for its money. Unfortunately, for a helmet in priced around $350 USD, there are other choices you can find that have at least a more convenient face shield.
While I may have found a laundry list of things I didn’t like about these helmets, there are still plenty of things I do like about each of them, individually. While I may not be going all-in and really sold on one of these, I do really appreciate that manufacturers are taking steps into the right direction. Trying to find that balance between modern comforts and retro styling is proving to be a difficult task – but we’ll definitely get some more head turning helmets in the years to come. For now, with all things considered (style, comfort, features, price) the Biltwell Gringo (and Gringo S) come out on top of our retro helmet throwdown… this time around.