Armour? Light pads or knight of the realm...


Mountain biking is not the same as road cycling, roads are smooth with a good field of view. Roadies head out knowing they may get hit by traffic but they do not expect to every trip. Road cyclists do not expect to fall off every time they are on a bike, if at all. Mountain biking is different as you will be weaving round trees at speed and jumping, the rider can often not see what's coming up and it is far more reactive. N
o matter how good you think you are, you WILL fall off, and the better you become the more you will fall off as you push your limits. A lot of this is more a mental state as it is accepted it will happen and like any skill once it has happened a few times you become better at handling it.


As a result there are a range of impact protection armour, depending on what you want to do with it from light, flexible with limited protection to far more rigid but greater protection. It is always a balance between agility, absorption and weight. Some more expensive items deal with body heat also, as you get warm in this stuff. 

Legs/Knees

 Legs and knees are one of the most impact likely areas, instinctively when you come off your knees are amongst the first to brace. A lot of riders will wear knee pads just for this reasons. Depending on the seasons thorns, branches will also have a go at the lower part of the leg around the shin.

NukeProof Knee Pads
Some riders opt for just the knee pad, such as a  NukeProofs' Knee pads which are design to take the impact shock from the front and sides of the knee. These use padding and rigid internal plastic plates.

661 Knee/Shin Protection
Others use a hard plastic shell to protect the knee and shin, such as 661 Shin protectors which cover the knee and shin from a impacts, they offer some of the better protection but offer poor thermal management  and are often not adjustable offering limited flexibility.  


TLD Knee/Shin
A third type would be fabric based with limited hard plastic plates and instead using material that distributes or even reacts to impact such as some of the Troy Lee Design items. These are usually a bit more expensive but offer adequate protection and are light and comfortable to wear while allowing the skin to breath and keep cooler.

I used 661 initially but found the TLD range far more practical and fitted my requirements better from a comfort and protection perspective.

 Elbow/Arm

A lot of riders tend to neglect the arms and elbows as most of the time when you come off the bike you will instinctively use your hands to brace first. Elbows are quite susceptible to impact damage from an unconventional dismount even more so than the knees due to the range of movement they have, they may just get clipped by a tree. I have found that most of the time the hands will brace the initial impact of a fall but it then transfers to the fore arm and elbows either from a slide or roll and I have found they are quite susceptible to damage.


661 Elbow/Forearm
The choices for elbow protection are very similar to the knee guards in that they can cover just the elbow or they can include fore arm protection also as they come in similar types as the knee. These items effectively put a hard plastic shield around the outward facing areas. they are well protected and secured by a sleeve and two Velcro straps. I have found while they offer great protection the do not easily stay in place meaning you will constantly be adjusting them but if you are aiming for the more downhill activity they may be a better option.

TLD Elbow/Forearm

Troy Lee Designs have also released protection for this area that is mostly fabric with plastic inserts on the elbow and along the forearm to take impacts. This design does not use straps to hold it in place as it is more like a sleeve which is surprisingly comfortable and does not tend to move around while offering protection in areas you really need it.  These can be worn in the summer while still maintaining a comfortable temperature.


Torso

Not many riders wear torso protection due to the weight and heat. Generally speaking it is not common for your chest to be hit unless involved in DH riding. The chest area only really gets hit when riding into things or being hit by branches etc, that said I have found it is common for shoulders to be quite exposed and often will take some form of impact with an unconventional dismount.

Recently 2010 onwards there has been an increase in products for this area. Previously there was only really DH items such as the Fox Titan Sports jacket.

Fox Titan

This jacket is like a coat with a spine board to protect the back and is designed for DH being derived from moto cross products. The item has a series of hard plastic plates. It offers great protection over the top half of the rider and is relatively cheap compared to other products. That said even with such a good protection factor it is heavy to wear and restrictive, particularly around the arms. Again it is designed for jumps/DH where movement from peddling and leaning around berms is not a large part of the trail.


661 Sub Gear
However in recent years new types of protection have entered the market aiming at the XC and light DH riders. One of the items by 661 is a compression layer with pads. An all in one unit not needing additional pads to give some protection during XC rides. The sub gear is not adjustable so ensure it fits correctly for your size when purchasing an item. As it is a compression layer it rests closely to the skin which helps the body keep cool. It is not a bad product for those that need some protection but I must point out that this item is really hard to get off.

There is also a meet in the middle version by Troy Lee Design that offers better protection that the sub gear but retains agility unlike the Titan. TLD have released a shirt option that has articulated foam pads in various locations to help with hitting the ground and rolling and also has pads in areas such as shoulders which are likely to get clipped by nature. There is also a vest version that does not have the arm protection. The shirt fits well and is comfortable to wear and will hold its position. It will not protect as well as the titan so its best not to hug any trees at speed but as for coming off the bike it protects areas that would normally be used to slow the body down. 
 
At the same time TLD released a shorts version to protect the thighs and hips when sliding on the forest floor. They work well enough but as clothing manufacturers do not measure thigh circumference they can be restrictive on the thighs which tires the muscle out quicker.



Head


Most Mountain bikers will use a full face helmet for better protection as yes you do hit your head but you tend to land on your jaw first and a traditional helmet does not protect that. In recent years FF helmets have become more common on the trails. They protect the head better than a conventional helmet but are often heavier and have less ventilation which is often why riders carry them when not riding. Out of all the protection available this is the must have item, even though some riders still do not wear one. I have seen riders come off wearing a conventional helmet and the helmet being split in two.

TLD D3 Carbon
Full Face helmets vary in price a great deal, I started off with the 661 Evolution, it was a little heavy but kept my head safe. Never really had any issues with the helmet, Head got a little warm but after landing on my head a few times it is a strong helmet that will not break the bank. There are more expensive options available that are often lighter and better ventilated such as the TLD D3. These are carbon helmets so they are light and strong but in my opinion are worth the money having worn both types the TLD is comfortable to wear to the point of forgetting its there.


Neck

Protection for the neck is relatively new as it was mostly on motocross areas but in the past year or so they have started to appear more and more at trail centres. The idea is that they support the full face helmet so when you hit your head the force moves to the neck brace that then moves it to the shoulders breaking a collar bone instead of the neck. After minor unconventional dismounts the next day the neck often aches as it often has to absorb the force. The main contender for neck braces is Leatt, although more of the traditional MTB brands are releasing their own items. These items are surprisingly comfortable but if looking into this area it is best to get an adjustable one as it can be moved to fit better as well as accommodate different armour combinations. A Neck brace is designed to divert force to another part of the body that can handle to force better.

Summary

What armour to wear will depend entirely on what fits best for the rider and the way the rider rides the bike. I have tried all of the above and for how I ride I prefer the Troy Lee Designs line of protection. There are some instances where the heavier items from 661 are of more use and armour becomes more about knowing what to wear and when. A concerning amount of young riders do not wear armour at all, including helmet and those that do not wear armour simply have not come off properly yet. Most things will heal in time but everyone only has one spine and head, they do not heal so well. Keep in mind that armour will not stop you from getting injured it is designed to spread the force out over a larger surface area.