2009 Whisper on left, 2013 Whisper Deluxe ($240, CPSC-approved) on right
I could be wrong about this, but until the early 2000s and the UCI helmet regulations I don’t remember any Euro-exotic helmets available here in the states. Well, maybe the Briko Twinner. I don’t remember any helmet brand so suddenly coveted as Catlike when they were introduced. I suppose part of the reason was that Catlike’s distribution channel into the US market was rather slipshod at best, but then again the company was still rather new. Young companies don’t have the muscle to make a strong entry into a new foreign market. Another issue was that Catlike helmets were built to the EN1078 safety standard, which is somewhat less stringent than the mandatory CPSC standard for helmets in the US. Technically, Catlike helmets would only be legal in US races if the event was part of the UCI calendar.
I remember that my bike shop carried the helmet that first made Catlike a name, the Kompact. We got…like, 3 units. I wasn’t the buyer at the time, so it wasn’t my fault that all three were of the gaudiest colour scheme imaginable and none in large enough size to fit me. We sold two and the third had a broken buckle, and then the importer had no more product. Actually, I expected that the name Catlike would vanish.
Then a funny thing happened within a few years. The Kompact became fashionable among an unexpected demographic: Seattle’s messengers. I’m talking working messengers, not hipsters. To this day, I have no idea why. Maybe in a city with mandatory helmet laws, it was that the Kompact just didn’t look like a Bell or Giro. It had fewer but bigger vents that were rounder, more organic-looking. The all-white version was particularly desirable, somewhat anticipating the white colour craze that still continues to an extent today. Of course, maybe the mere fact that you just couldn’t buy one at your LBS was what made it cool. But Catlike’s brand didn’t really ascend until the Kompact’s replacement was introduced in the pro ranks by the Cervelo Test Team and Euskatel. If the Kompact seemed a little unusual, the Whisper’s style was brilliantly striking.
The Whisper was just peppered full of 39 round holes, and beneath the outer hardshell they led to generous channels around the rider’s head. The helmet’s exterior bore more than a passing resemblance to some sort of wasp nest. The Whisper was an expensive helmet, costing $250-300 from online retailers in the UK and Europe, but still US consumers shelled out for them, such was the demand. Catlike would be foolish to ignore such a market. However, if they were going to make a serious go at the US market, they’d have to do 2 things. First, they’d have to set up a stable importer. And second, they’d have to upgrade their helmets to meet CPSC standards. The CPSC-rated Whisper Plus was introduced a few years ago, but it was just within the past year that Catlike really took the plunge, establishing their own import center in the US, headed by the daughter of the company founder. Now a 15 year old company, Catlike finally has the confidence and wherewithal to make a serious challenge to the US helmet market.