This story originally ran as a Matter in the June 2016 print issue of Bike.
In the early 1990s, it wasn’t just our bikes that were in the dark ages. There were no hydration packs, our fluorescents were totally wrong and our brain buckets were just road helmets with visors. Meanwhile, bikes were getting faster, riders were attacking more aggressive terrain and one brand realized that our helmets needed to keep up.
Giro looked to its athletes for feedback on what could be improved in head protection. At the time of the 1992 National Championships at Mammoth Mountain in California, Giro was partnered with Ritchey’s racing team, and Giro’s Greg Shapleigh was chatting with team member Ruthie Matthes. On the helmet the team was wearing that year, Giro had extended its plastic shell to wrap around its bottom edge, a feature still used on most of its high-end helmets today. Matthes mentioned that the plastic rattled against the top edge of her sunglasses as the helmet moved. Shapleigh’s light bulb ignited immediately.
He shared the drive back to Giro’s Santa Cruz headquarters with Steve Sasaki, then a product designer with Giro. During the seven-hour trip, the two brainstormed about the various shapes a helmet retention system could take.
The ensuing development was driven primarily by Giro engineers Greg Marting and Mike Musal, as well as Shapleigh himself, all of whom still work at Giro. Initially, the team experimented with extending the helmet lower at the back of the head via a hinged joint. But to get it past the sweet spot, the skull’s occipital bone, the helmet became too bulky and cumbersome for practical use. They brought on an outside design consulting firm and made dozens of prototypes over a year to refine what eventually became the Roc Loc retention system. In 1994, Giro introduced Roc Loc on its flagship mountain helmet, and it was met with universal adoration. So much so that Giro even made an aftermarket version that could be taped into traditional helmets. Though the Roc Loc was initially conceived as an off-road-specific feature, it was quickly introduced on road, casual and children’s helmets.
The first version was made with simple elastic straps that stretched from the base of the Roc Loc to patches of Velcro under the pads at the front of the helmet. As sweat and repeated wear weakened the Velcro and its adhesive, the Roc Loc would start to lose its grip. The adjustable plastic versions we’re familiar with today are affixed via ‘snap baskets,’ which make the device removable and replaceable. That same concept eventually was used to make visors removable and adjustable, and to make strap attachments cleaner and more manageable. The evolved Roc Loc also allowed Giro to achieve a better fit with fewer shell sizes. Costs went down, and quality and safety went up.
But perhaps the thing that makes Roc Loc’s developers most proud is that their invention transcended mountain biking. Nearly every sport helmet in the world features a retention system that evolved from the Roc Loc. Rock climbers, snowboarders, kayakers and even equestrians have the Roc Loc to thank for their helmets’ fit and safety.