I’m not a proponent of mandatory helmet laws and I don’t wear a helmet every time I ride my bike. I do think it’s important to understand and evaluate the risks of any potentially dangerous activity you do so that you can protect yourself adequately.
When it comes to mountain biking I used to wear only a helmet and gloves when I rode my XC bikes around. That was partially because I was young and didn’t injure so easily and partially because the trails I rode were not uber difficult so falling off didn’t happen very often. Now that I am riding steeper more challenging terrain and I’m 20 years older I’ve been converted to wearing bike armour for most mountain bike rides.
Initially I bought the heavy duty hard plastic pads shown in the photo above – from Troy Lee and 661. They provide a ton of protection from the knee to the top of the foot and from the elbow to the wrist. The downside is they are bulky and can be hot on a warm day.
The problem of course is that you don’t always need to be armoured like a gladiator. I tried wearing the pads above on a really hot day last summer on a trail that wasn’t super challenging and I nearly gave up on them entirely due to the discomfort of overheating. I also felt a bit silly wearing them for less demanding rides as they were clearly overkill.
So I picked up a set of 661 pads shown in the photo above. They are soft and protect just the knee/elbow joint. They are cooler to wear and their low profile fits easily under my clothes [see photo below] so I can have protection without looking like an extra from a Mad Max movie.
One benefit to the smaller 661 pads is that they work for other sports. I wear them under my snowboarding clothes for example.
I tend to bring both sets of pads with me when mountain biking and dial in which I use based on the type of ride, the weather and how much protection I want that day. For a shuttle or lift served run down a big mountain I’ll always grab the heavy duty pads. The hotter it is and the more I have to pedal uphill the more likely I’ll grab the lighter pads. Having a choice is nice and since they won’t wear out as fast when you swap between two sets the cost of owning two sets of pads isn’t any greater.
As any motorcyclist will tell you the best set of leathers and pads in the world are no good to you if you feel so uncomfortably hot you can’t actually ride your bike.
If you are in the market for pads the Troy Lee and 661 pads shown in this post are excellent, but I’d recommend you try on 3 or 4 different models and brands before deciding. Just like shoes not every pad works well with every rider. Comfort will go a long way towards making you happy on your bike.
Besides not getting hurt as easily wearing adequate protection when you are mountain biking will make you feel more confident riding technical sections and let you try stuff you just wouldn’t want to tackle otherwise.
You do need to keep in mind that even the most burly pads, gloves and helmet won’t prevent you from getting hurt in all cases. Your brain and common sense are always your best safety mechanism! When in doubt dismount and walk your bike or at least check out a techy section from both sides if your spidey sense is tingling.