Catlike helmets

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by Mark V on Aug 25, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Catlike helmets 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.

I happen to own three Catlike helmets: a pre-CPSC Whisper, a 2013 Whisper Deluxe, and a 2013 Kompact (now called Kompact’o). All are size large, which is partially why I like Catlike helmets. You see, I’ve never been happy with Giro or Bell helmets, as I seem to uncomfortably straddle the division between large and medium of those two brands. Also, all three of these Catlike helmets seem to favour a more elongated head shape than Bell/Giro. The first time I tried on a size large Catlike was 2009 in Taiwan, when I found an original, pre-CPSC Whisper at a Taipei bike shop. I bought it immediately, which should impress the reader because as an industry and media member, I am decidedly opposed to paying full retail for anything cycling related. That Whisper was the first helmet that fit snug yet didn’t leave pinch marks on my forehead. Also helping the fit was the fact that the auxiliary support (which is often generically referred to as a RocLoc, the name Giro gave the feature when it introduced it to helmet design in the 1990s) articulates down further than most helmets. The Whisper fits securely to my head with very little pressure at any given point. The extensive internal air channels deliver every bit of cooling air promised by the numerous intake holes; just as important, the Whisper’s large aft ports provide equal opportunity for the air to escape. And that’s the concept behind Catlike’s Dual-Flow design, that air coming in must be equally vented out. This is a helmet that is extremely well-vented, and it has found a number of fans in the XC racer set who appreciate the Whisper’s ability to keep a rider’s head cool even at low speeds.

Catlike helmets

Catlike helmets 2009 Whisper, 2013 Whisper Deluxe (gloss green), 2013 Kompact’o (gloss white)

Catlike helmets

If there was something that holds back the original Whisper, it was its straps . The buckle is just average in ergonomics and the MPS strap is difficult to adjust with only one hand. However, the auxiliary strap (now called MPSevo) of the current Whisper Deluxe (third Whisper version after the Whisper Plus) is perhaps the best on the market. The MPS has been pared down to lace-like proportions and is easy to adjust. Further, MPSevo has replaceable pads for the rider’s temple that gives even better options for accommodating an elongated head shape. The regular straps are again competent though not exactly innovative compared to the straps on the models like Specialized’s Evade aero-road helmet.

Catlike helmets

Interestingly, one can easily discern that a Whisper and a Whisper Deluxe are not from the same mould. Hold the two up alongside one another, and the Deluxe is definitely longer than the original. Less obvious is that the Deluxe actually has more foam; with about the same size of vents and internal channels, the Deluxe has a slightly “puffier” appearance…. sort of like a marshmellow that’s been roasted. It is possible that the Whisper Plus also fits slightly larger than the original, or at least I find that there is a bit more room to fit a hat under the Deluxe but not enough to change the overall fit. Overall, I rate the Whisper Deluxe as my favourite helmet ever for ventilation, comfort, fit, and style.

Catlike just introduced a helmet to supersede the Whisper series, the Mixino. Using the $240 Whisper Deluxe as starting point, the $280 Mixino has even more elaborate internal channels and thinner, more supple straps with the same MPSevo as its predecessor. To tell the truth, I would say that the Mixino fits a wider variety of heads by having a basic moulded shape that fits rounder craniums, relying on the lateral pads of the MPSevo to fit oblong heads like mine. To me, I would say that the sizing fits a little closer to Bell/Giro, or at least I again find myself uncomfortably between a large and a medium size in the Mixino. The front of the Mixino looks like an even more inflated version of the Whisper while the back of the helmet looks more web-like, but overall I would say that the Mixino’s aesthetics are somewhat softened versus the Whisper. As it was, I was in the market for a high-end road helmet, and given equal opportunity for a Whisper Deluxe or a Mixino, I choose the Whisper Deluxe.

Comparing the Whisper, Whisper Deluxe, and the Mixino, all three examples weighed 301-310gr in a size large. This is significantly more than what is typically quoted on these helmets, but they are size large, as opposed to medium. I was equally surprised that both versions of the Whisper weighed virtually the same.

Lastly, I was also looking for an everyday, commuter helmet. Catlike offers the $70 Tako to fit that role, but I still had a 10 year old jones for the Kompact, which is still available, now in a fully CPSC-approved edition for $115 retail. And still in that all-white colour. If the Whisper has looked like an insect nest to me, the Kompact reminds me of a fossilized skull. It uses a simplified version of Catlike’s auxiliary strap called LNP, which lacks the lateral padding but uses an equally easy ratchet to tighten. The helmet’s earlier Dual-Flow concept works admirably well even in this early version. If the Kompact has a fault, it would be that buckle that fits under ears, aligning the front and rear straps, doesn’t grip for shit. Perhaps the plastic pieces were originally moulded for thicker straps, but in use they just end up migrating down. I semi-permanently solved this issue by putting in a couple stitches through the straps with some heavy duty thread at the overlap, but I would expect that a $100 plus helmet would be good out of the box.

Catlike helmets

One other Kompact quirk is that I couldn’t get the helmet to fit well until I added a pair of pads to the rear interior quarters of the helmet. With Bell and Giro helmets, added pads are generally of the super-generic variety; I always had the feeling that if I needed to use them then I probably had the wrong size helmet. With the Kompact, it rather seems that the interior of the helmet is not well suited to displaying all the necessary CPSC stickers and such. Those pads included with the Kompact, which are specific to that model and of the same construction as the installed pads, need to be placed right over the stickers. I would speculate that the pads were always meant to go where I put them but the legal need to display the certification stickers conflicts. That’s rather unfortunate, since the fit went from so-so/”a bit swimmy” to “aww yeah” fit once I added the pads. The vent holes of Bells and Giros are usually longer, so the certification stickers are often placed in the sides of the holes on those helmets.

Catlike helmets

The Kompact now features a removable mini-visor. This is actually the first helmet that I’ve owned with a visor that wasn’t an enduro or BMX model; frankly, I am not convinced that the tiny visor on the Catlike and similar helmets from other brands provides much function. I’ll hold off from final judgment after I get a bit more offroad riding in with the Kompact. At the same time I have always been puzzled when people with roadie backgrounds see any form of visor on a helmet and then immediately classify (dismiss) that helmet as an “mtb helmet”, especially when the very same mould was originally introduced as a top-end road lid. At the very least, it should be obvious that cross-country riders and road riders should be looking for a lot of the same features in a helmet. And style-conscious road riders can simply just remove the visor. It is worth noting that the Whisper Deluxe also accepts a visor but does not ship with one (apparently you can get a colour coordinated visor as a separate accessory), but the new flagship Mixino has no provision for a visor. The Kompact also features a mesh bug net over the front three intake holes; the entry-level Tako also has the bug net. This may not keep out tiny nats and flies, but it would certainly be effective against bees and wasps.

In all Catlike makes their official entrance into the US market with high-end helmets of their signature exotic style, an old favourite as their mid-range, and a surprisingly nice entry level helmet (Tako). Catlike even brings along children’s helmets. On the mtb side, the new Leaf helmet is aimed squarely at the emerging “eduro” scene while high-end XC riders would choose the Whisper Deluxe, possibly with the optional mini-visor.

Catlike helmets Catlike helmets 2013 Catlike Mixino, $280 msrp

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