Words by Andrew Juiliano
A box lands on Peter Stetina’s front porch at his home in Sonoma County, California. It’s not a large box, but excitement mounts as the former WorldTour pro turned gravel hunter tears open the top and gazes inside. A wave of color spills out of the box, flooding the front porch as Stetina lifts his freshly painted Lazer Bullet 2.0 helmet out to examine the custom design.
Shimmering mountains surrounded by a crisp blue skyline cover the racer's new lid. The familiar red and white Clif Bar peaks and intricate color fade across the helmet are flawless. The design is edgy yet simple. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to create. Weeks of work went into first creating the design, then to computer rendering, masking, and finally painting the helmet. It started as a blank canvas at Airtrix, a custom paint shop in Santa Barbara, California. From there, artists transformed it into a vibrant custom lid that Stetina will wear throughout the season and beyond.
Long before this one-off lid arrived in NorCal, it began as a stock Lazer Bullet 2.0 in the hands of Airtrix. The custom paint shop has customized all kinds of helmets and gear over the last three decades and is world-renowned for their eye-catching Red Bull helmet paint jobs. Airtrix’s work has climbed massive cols at the Tour de France, blasted across the desert at the Dakar Rally, and been projected across big screens worldwide in movies like Transformers 2. The small shop was founded in 1994 by Chris Wood, who still runs the business made up of a small crew.
"It's kind of like a choreographed dance," Wood explains of his shop from his second-floor office. There are always multiple projects in various stages of production going on in the paint studios downstairs. During an average year, Airtrix paints 500 to 600 pieces, though Wood recalls that one year they pumped out 1,000 unique, hand-painted designs.
Stetina’s custom graphic began as a concept from Lucas Euser at Clif Bar. From there, Wood rendered a computer design mockup in his design studio at Airtrix. The digital drawing is a crucial but challenging step in the process. It is a two-dimensional attempt to reconcile an artistic vision with the realities of painting on a three-dimensional surface full of vents, ridges, and curves. Design drafts are passed back and forth until Airtrix gets the stamp of approval.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the painting bay, one of four artists prep the blank Bullet 2.0 helmet. They clean the helmet surfaces and carefully cover the vents to protect the inner foam from the paints and finishes. "People often think that bike helmets are small and simple,” Woods says. “But that’s not the case. Sometimes we have to spend three or four hours just taping all the vents.”
With the vents covered, the crew applies a urethane base coat that will allow the paint to really stick. In the meantime, the printed designs are die-cut and precisely placed on the helmet. This provides a crisp and detailed masking outline for the paint layers to come. Depending on the complexity of the colors and design, some helmets require multiple masking stages. Each airbrush pass over the masking on Stetina’s helmet leaves a new layer of color and detail: a red mountain ridgeline, rocky slopes, Clif Bar logos, and Lazer logos.
It takes a skillful artist with an experienced touch to nail the fade above the craggy ridgeline on this design. Peter’s helmet will match his custom race kit, which also features a deep fade from light blue to black. "It's super difficult to do it right," Wood explains. It's a freehand fade, so the quality of the graphic is entirely dependent on the skill of the artist. Paint can accumulate differently on the slightest variations on the shell. The colors themselves can dry at different rates, causing a messy or un-uniform look. The clean fade on a helmet like Stetina’s is the mark of a master.
Once the paint dries, it's time to unmask the helmet, though the vents remain sealed. A final clear coating ensures that the colors stay vibrant and protected during regular use out on the road. With the final protective layer finished, the tape is removed from the vents and the helmet is ready to roll out into the wild. From start to finish, the whole process averages about four or five days, though Woods notes that every helmet is different. Some full projects can be jammed out in two days under tight deadlines. Others have taken up to 80 hours of labor on the painting alone.
A few days after the helmet's transformation, Stetina pulls the new lid out of a carefully packed box. The blank canvas has become a vibrant, perfectly matched extension of his one-off ensemble. From here, it'll roll through redwood groves on the potholed tarmac of the racer’s home roads. Next week, it might rumble along the logging roads and singletrack trails of Lake Tahoe. As fall approaches, it will return to the Midwest, where Stetina is eyeing the Dirty Kanza crown that slipped away last season. "The best part about this helmet is that it'll go wherever I go, whatever I’m riding,” Stetina says as he buckles the straps and sets out for the first ride in his custom lid.