It took some time, but the Big S has finally put its hat in the extended-coverage ring–literally. I wondered how the Specialized Ambush would stack up against lids from brands like Poc, Troy Lee Designs, Bell and Giro–you know, companies who’s primary business is helmets.
It’s amazing just how right Specialized got this one. The company has a knack for hitting its equipment out of the park, but I didn’t expect it to be this good–every detail about the Ambush has been given painstaking attention, making it simply disappear on my head. This can be chalked up to the helmet’s svelte build and low weight: A size small comes in at 300 grams on the dot. If you’re a normal person and lack perspective on helmet weights, that’s really, really light for a helmet with this much surface area.
Inside the in-molded EPS foam, Specialized uses an aramid skeleton. If that word sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same stuff used in the bead of foldable tires (and bulletproof vests). You might know it as one of its trade names, Kevlar or Nomex. Anyway, it’s super strong, light, and since it’s basically a rope, can be easily formed and then glued into any shape. According to Specialized, the aramid skeleton is what makes the extensive shaping and massive cutouts in the foam of the Ambush possible–which is part of why it’s such a great helmet.
I have either a shallow head or high ears, so for me, most helmets with added coverage don’t get along very well with sunglasses. Even on some of the most popular, highest-end “enduro” helmets, I’ve had to melt my own cutouts in the foam with a soldering iron for the temples of sunglasses to clear. It’s not exactly something you really want to be doing with an expensive new helmet. Some lucky, low-eared folks never have this problem, but I’m definitely not alone in this. If you’re as frustrated as I am with expensive helmets not working with eyewear, you should definitely check out the Ambush. The foam is tapered near the temples and the 360-degree retention device creates room between your head and the helmet, sort of like a hardhat.
The $180 Ambush has the best retention system Specialized has ever made. Coverage on the back of the helmet comes especially low–so low that Specialized needed to build the retention device directly into the back of helmet. Basically, the Ambush extends over where the retention system on most other helmets sits, which is typically below the back of the helmet. Since the helmet takes up this real estate, the retention has to be done between the helmet and head–it has to be super thin. So, rather than making a bulky part in the back, the retention has been extended around the whole circumference of the helmet. Thin plastic cords run around the helmet, through guides on the sides and front, and when the knob is clicked, the cradle-like system tightens evenly around the head. Not only is it comfortable, but it lifts the helmet off the front and sides of the head a bit allowing excellent ventilation and sunglass clearance.
Next up is the strap. Specialized has these Y-shaped things they call Tri-Fix web splitters that sit below the ear. These little pieces of magic do a few things: They spread the two upper lengths of webbing apart to make a wider U-shape (as apposed to a V) around the ears, hopefully negating the need for adjustment in the area. They also make it possible for there to be just one piece of webbing under the chin. With most helmets, the two pieces of webbing from in front and behind the ear, come together and run doubled up under the chin. It’s amazing how much more comfortable one thin strand of webbing is, and it’s easier to adjust, too. We all know how much of a pain it is trying to adjust a traditional helmet buckle. The strap on the Ambush is comfortable, and easily adjustable with one hand, while riding. And since the webbing is made of a thin material, there’s less stuff to soak with sweat. Specialized says that there are some folks the Tri-Fix system doesn’t work for due to its lack of adjustment for ear clearance, but I have yet to meet that person.
The Ambush’s visor is attached much like one on a typical downhill helmet, with screws on either side that allow it to pivot up and down. The center of the visor runs through a notched channel to provide well-defined micro clicks. It’s easy to adjust the angle without tools, while riding, and there’s enough range of motion for goggles to rest under the lifted visor after your face gets too hot from going full enduro. Just don’t forget to put the visor back down at the start gate, or you’ll never make the cover of Bike.
After a couple months of testing, I can confidently say that the Ambush is by far the best helmet I’ve used–I actually knew after the first ten minutes. It is simple and easy to fit, and is crazy comfortable for my noggin, it fits all the sunglasses and goggles I’ve tried it with, and somehow manages to keep sweat from dripping into them, and it ventilates incredibly well. All this adds up to headache-free helmet–literally and figuratively–that lets my protected brain focus on the trail.