Buyers guide to pads and protection

Body armour is no longer the preserve of downhill racers. It’s not unusual to see regular trail riders riding around with a pair of knee pads.

It’s now so normal that you don’t even really notice or remark upon the fact. Knee pads are the new helmets – if you get what we mean!

Pads and body armour in general has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years. Protection is no longer as bulky or uncomfortable as it used to be. And because it’s comfier to wear, more people are wearing it and wearing it more frequently.

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Should you wear any pads or protection? It’s up to you. If you don’t want to, then don’t. But if you are intrigued then rest assured that these days you won’t look odd or out of place. You won’t draw any more attention to yourself. It’s normal.

Why wear pads or armour?

The obvious answer is protection against injury. But the more significant aspect is confidence. Knee pads spend most of their time doing no protective duties whatsoever. They’re just wrapped around someone’s knees as they ride around without incident. The duty that they are doing all the time that they’re being worn is giving the rider confidence and reassurance to have a go at stuff.

SixSixOne Riot Elbow PadsPads do do their job in crashes though. They virtually remove any chance of cuts and bruises to the protected area. It’s hard to find any info or evidence as to how much they reduce more serious injuries – such as broken bones – but pads can only help in such major circumstances.

Just knowing that you’re a bit more protected can make you attempt certain things that you wouldn’t otherwise. We’re not talking about leaping off cliffs here. A bit of steeper or rougher trail than you’ve ever done before won’t be as intimidating. Chances are you’ll have a crack at it and most likely it will turn out just fine.

Pads and armour can do wonders for your riding progression. Much more so than throwing money at a new bike or a new pair of forks. People who start wearing pads often find their riding skills – and their fun level – dramatically increase.

There are added bonuses to wearing pads too. First of all – they keep you warm! This sounds a bit facetious but it’s true. When mountain biking – especially in the UK – a pair of knee pads offer a welcome bit of extra warmth. The other benefit is that they stop you from all those minor scratches and scrapes that you get while mountain biking. Meaning that you no longer have unsightly shins. This bonus is mainly of interest to some female riders really.

For the purposes of this Buyers Guide we’re concentrating on regular trail riding. Full-face helmets and spine protectors and all that sort of thing is for DH riders. We’ll be doing a blog about DH protection sometime soon.

Some pads are bulkier than others. Generally speaking the more expensive a pad is the less bulky it will be. Fancier fabrics and protective materials are used and they all cost more. They also tend to fit and stay in place better than cheaper pads.

Some high-end pads use materials such as D30 for the armouring. D30 is a non-Newtonian material. Its natural state is fluid/flexible but it instantly rigidifies when something impacts it at sufficient velocity. The obvious benefit here is that using such material means that a pad can be extremely flexible during pedalling but it still does the protective duties in a crash.


This is a D30 hat but you get the idea!

Knees, shins and elbows

For regular trail riders the main focus will be on protecting knees, shins and elbows.

Knee pads are by far the most common sort of protection worn (besides a helmets and a pair of gloves anyway). Due to their proximity to the where the action is, knees are first in firing line when it comes to crashing.

Race Face Indy Knee D30 GuardYou never know when you’re going to have a crash so a lot of riders wear knee pads all the time on every ride. Gone are the days of keeping them in your backpack until you get to the top of the gnarly descent.

Elbow pads are a less common sight. Everyone who’s ridden off-road for a while will have whacked their knee at some point but elbow whacks aren’t anywhere near as common or as notable. But there are some extra-cautious riders who wear them, as well as riders who may have dodgy elbows already and wish to have a bit of protection on them.

Knee pads and elbow pads typically feature velcro straps at the top and bottom of the pad with a shaped knee ‘cup’ on the front-middle. The cup section can vary in thickness, stiffness, shape and size depending on the brand or intended usage. Usually the rear-middle is a porthole, for venting and comfort reasons.

Shin or shin-and-knee

SixSixOne Comp AM Shin PadsWhen it comes to shins there are two sorts of protection. Either shin-only or shin-and-knee.

Shin-and-knee pads usually have rigid plastic fronts and knee-cups. They’re more intended for downhillers than ‘normal’ riders. They can be heavy, uncomfortable, restrictive and sweaty to ride around in for extended periods.

Shin-only affairs aren’t a very common sight but some riders who just want to be shielded from shin cuts, scrapes and ‘shin eggs’ prefer them as there’s no restriction of knee movement whatsoever. Shin-only pads can also be worn with knee-pads for occasions when you want total knee-to-heel protection.

Which body armour, pads and protection should you buy?

Regular riders should just start out with a decent pair of knee pads. There’s no need to go OTT with either the cost or the level of protection. A mid-range set of pads from a respected brand such as SixSixOne or RaceFace will do the job just fine. Unlike entry-level pads, mid-range pads come in different sizes (small, medium large etc) so you can opt for a sizing that will fit you best.

Racers – and we’re talking about enduro racers here really – should go for the best pads available. You don’t want to be stuck in a set of clumpy, sweaty, heavy pads during a long day of racing. Multi-panel thin-fabric designs keep things light and well-fitting. Thinnish protective bits – or even D30-equipped bits – really help the pad to stay in place consistently and comfortably.

Shop for pads and protection at Merlin Cycles

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