Rudy Project Wing: From Concept to Complete Speed (Part 1)

The aero helmet is arguably the most important piece of equipment in a cyclist’s arsenal in their quest against the clock. Powering in a pursuit position in the aerobars, it’s quite literally the leading edge against the wind for a rider.

Developing a protective helmet to help cut the smoothest path through the wind—to move it with minimal turbulence onto and over the body— and doing so with a modicum of cooling effect, is in effect the confluence of diametrically opposed concepts. Making a helmet aero, and cool, and work on a wide variety of riders? That’s a challenge.

“I see it like this,” said Jean Paul Ballard, a former F1 Racing concept design lead. “Everyone asks, ‘what’s the fastest helmet?’ It should always be rephrased as ‘what’s the helmet best suited to me as an athlete, for how my body moves, how my head moves, how I sit on the bike, what kind of cooling I need?’ Rudy Project wanted to create a new helmet that was tolerant of all these things.”

Rudy Project took the totality of that to task in developing a new helmet: The Wing.

Indeed, the cycling helmet industry is loaded with many iterations of tear dropped aero helmets. And while the end goal—speed—is always the same, the results have been very different, on athletes ranging from professionals who can hold their heads in a single tucked position, unmoved for four hours, to age group racers, weekend warriors that also want the advantage of speed, but had greater need to look around for safety, to look down to get bottles to stay hydrated, to receive airflow and stay cool in a long race. We knew a properly designed helmet could be designed better for the everyday athlete—and the pro.

Our baseline for improvement was Rudy Project’s previous time trial/triathlon helmet: the Wing 57, co-developed with aerodynamics expert John Cobb in 2013. That helmet was preceded by the Wingspan, debuted in 2009, also a Cobb partnership project. The goals? Quite simple: a faster helmet for a wide range of cyclists—and a cooler helmet. It’s quite common to achieve excellence in one category, but fail miserably in the other. To score wins in both categories would be a tall task.

The project to make the fastest time trial/tri helmet in the world began in Treviso, Italy. Rudy Project’s team of engineers at the company headquarters decided to make every investment in creating the fastest helmet in the world—for every rider. We relied upon our team of designers to create the helmet, but also partnered with Swiss Side. Known best for its range of aero wheels, the Zurich-based company led by CEO Ballard—a former F1 racing concept design lead—has been on the leading edge of wind tunnel testing, with a unique access to Airbus wind tunnel in Immenstaad, Germany. The tunnel itself is earning a reputation; while every tunnel can test airflow aerodynamics, the Airbus facility has the unique capacity to test thermodynamics, with the ability to calculate heat rejection via head forms wired with thermal measurement capability. “The facility is cutting edge in every way,” Ballard said. “The aero data is granular, but we can also now quantify cooling based on how much air can get through a helmet.”

The two companies also share several athletes in common like long course triathlon pro Andreas Dreitz, so creating a helmet that made their collective athletes faster took on greater importance for both companies. “The Wing 57 was a good baseline for us, but we agreed it was just that—good,” Ballard said. “We wanted this to be great, so we started effectively with a blank sheet of paper.”

To establish a baseline, the Swiss Side team provided Rudy Project a box to work within in terms of helmet length, height, and frontal volume, as well as a virtual and live testing subject: Dreitz. While he’s a front-of pack pro triathlete with wins in top races like the Challenge Roth Triathlon, he was also selected based on a riding style that matched up with most average triathletes; not terribly aggressive, and one who moves his head quite often looking around. “Andreas was a great choice for Rudy Project, as he’s representative of most riders,” Ballard said. “And we knew as a group that we didn’t want a long helmet, for example, as drag goes up as the tail goes up. For triathletes that look around, reach back for bottles and such, it was important to keep the tail short. “If someone like Andreas, or for that matter, most age group triathletes—had a helmet with a long tail, it would be poison.”

Rudy Project and Swiss Side decided that the helmet’s shape would be designed around wind angles between zero and 10 degrees of yaw, agreeing that sustained wind angles outside that range are generally seldom seen.

Beyond those parameters, the sky was the limit.

Rudy Project’s design engineering team lead the charge. With CFD programs at the ready, Rudy Project’s designers created several iterations of a new helmet. Rudy Project sent these 3D iterations to Swiss Side, who did a “virtual” fit and aero test with a virtual Dreitz, who’s head and body had been previously 3D-scanned. Swiss Side put the virtual prototypes on the virtual Dreitz, ran the numbers (testing in CFD in yaw sweeps out to 15 degrees) at wind speeds of 35 and 45 kilometers per hour, and pared the helmet designs down to a couple of true contenders. A handful of prototypes from those contenders were created, which would be packed and travel from Treviso to Immenstaad for the next phase: prototype testing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Wing development story.

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