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Perhaps only in Italy does cycling design melt so seamlessly into the world of art. And so it came as little surprise that MET helmets celebrated its brand with the MET x Milan Design Week show this past spring. For design aficionados, Milan Design Week is simply a fixture in the city’s annual calendar, and it was with great pleasure that we jetted down to northern Italy’s industrial capital to fete this cycling helmet leader.
Founded by Luciana Sala and Massimo Gaiatto in 1987, and now based in the heart of the Alps, the company has focused on building bike helmets—and only bike helmets—for more than three decades. And to celebrate their own heritage Sala and Gaiatto could not have picked a better place in Milan than the workshop of their friend, contemporary Italian artist Velasco Vitali. MET’s elegant presentation, including top-of-the-line helmets Trenta and Manta, was perfectly at home among Vitali’s paintings and sculptures.
“I come from northern Italy, which is really known for making shoes, but our family got an early start producing materials for the interior of motorcycle helmets,” Gaiatto explained. “Molded helmets came out of motorcycle helmet technology and when we got into it there was just so much room to improve, because we essentially started from zero.”
“When we started building bicycle helmets, riders were still wearing the old hairnets,” Sala continued. “We always loved cycling, but we always have had a real appreciation for safety. We were perhaps the first people in Italy to use our seatbelts! We understood that there was a lot of room for improvement when it came to cycling helmets. And when I look back at our first helmets I can really see the history and evolution of our brand. And that really pleases me.”
Obviously, when speaking with Sala and Gaiatto, safety and security is a constant reference. But with any self-respecting Italian designer, innovation and elegance also remain a key focus. For years they have worked with Filippo Perini, who spent years in the Italian automobile industry as head of design for such upscale brands as Lamborghini and Alfa Romeo. “I love working on cycling helmets. Its really challenging and in many ways more challenging than cars,” Perini said. “In car design, you have much more freedom.
There are so many different shapes and sizes. There is a lot of room to make your own signature. But with helmets it is different. We really must use the functionality of the helmet to express design. Designing cars can be frustrating because there are so many different departments. With MET, however, our process is much leaner. All of our focus is on one helmet. Every new product is a challenge and each time I must ask myself, ‘What can we do that is different?’ But when you find a solution, it is just really satisfying.”
As Perini spoke he was constantly drawing one of his trademark helmets and, who knows, perhaps even adding a potential nuance. “I really love the Trenta and the Manta. The Manta is all about speed and aerodynamics. The Trenta, however, was really challenging as we were trying to reduce the overall size of the helmet while maintaining aerodynamics and the airflow, and putting all of that in an aesthetically pleasing package. We spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel to refine it. But it was really satisfying to see the final product.”
For those familiar with MET, the helmets are easy to spot in the peloton as they are worn by riders on UAE Team Emirates. Team leader Alexander Kristoff often sports the Manta in the classics while Irish climber Dan Martin prefers the Trenta, especially in the high mountains of the Tour de France.
“I started working with MET when I had the Saunier Duval team,” said UAE general manager Mauro Gianetti, “and when I started with UAE my first choice was MET. For me, they are at the top of their field. They have made helmets for 30 years—that is a guarantee of quality. And we can have a lot of input. Some of our riders are really invested in the R&D, and MET is really capable to respond quickly.”
Perini, in particular, loves the input from the team. “The game is just so high with the pros. Every gram counts, etcetera. You really have to find the perfect combination between weight, comfort, ventilation, protection and aerodynamics. The professionals are always just very hungry to have the best solution.”
One area where MET has really been a true innovator is with helmet surfaces. Although one of the more subtle areas of helmet design, Perini insists that the treatment of surfaces really can play a huge role in the aerodynamics. “This is something I have learned from years working with high-end performance cars. And for bike helmets it’s the same,” he said. “And there are other areas I am really focused on like ventilation. I really believe in cross-ventilation whenever possible. It simply allows for more consistent cooling. When it is just straight ventilation you have a problem with stripes and also when it is cold, the cold air really gets channeled in. But when it is cross-ventilated it is beautiful, because it gives your head more constant airflow. A lot of changes appear small. Some are hard to see really, but they keep improving.”
“Every year that we make a new helmet I see another step in that evolution,” Sala said when looking back over the company’s 32-year history. “The changes can be small. It is still a bike helmet and its primary goal is to protect, but we can really see the evolution. There have been times where we thought that we did everything possible and that it would be impossible to update a helmet any further. And yet we continue to evolve. That’s very satisfying!”