The brave new world of mountain biking is more burly than ever. Protect yourself before...well, you know.
The universe of possibility on a mountain bike has doubled or even tripled over the past decade. The combination of highly capable bike designs and equally aggressive trail building are conspiring to push the envelope of possibility. As riders, we have to accept the erosion of our relative ability level if we don't keep pace. In other words, an advanced rider 10 years ago would hardly be intermediate by today's standards -- standards being set in places like British Columbia, Canada, and Park City, Utah.
For example, getting air is now par for the course...when said course is rated black diamond or above. Whether through mandatory drop-offs or kicker jumps, launching is an integral part of advanced mountain biking these days. And this carries greater risk.
Thankfully, there is also new level of protective gear including helmets, body armor, spine pads, goggles, and gloves to mitigate that risk. I took this bag of protective gear on trips to the Whistler Bike Park in B.C., and then to the Deer Valley Bike Park and Canyons Bike Park in Utah, on a mission to prop up my ability level. Here's what I found...
Specialized Dissident full-face helmet ($350): This full carbon fiber helmet provides maximum cranium protection while weighing only ~1,000 grams (2.2 pounds), making it one of the lightest on the market. This suits it to the broadest range of gravity-fueled endeavors, from chair-lift-assisted trail bombing to hardcore enduro rides. It breathes incredibly well, such that I rarely felt compelled to take it off on the lifts, yet a magnetic buckle makes it really easy when I wanted to. It comes with a padded travel bag, as well, that has room for goggles and much more, which makes for a great second carry-on bag. (Photo above: Top of the World, Whistler Bike Park)
CamelBak K.U.D.U 12 hydration pack ($200): This is the ultimate mountain biking pack. The key feature is a back protector that sits between the harness and its three-liter water bladder. From experience, I can say it works very well. My first ride in Whistler took me down a black-diamond trail called Pura Vida. Within the first 50 meters, I buried my front wheel into a root and launched over the bars, landing squarely on my back. It felt as if an airbag had deployed, and I was back on the bike in seconds. Beyond safety, there is ample room for strapping pads and a full-face helmet for XC black diamond riding. Plus, the elastic internal pockets keep tools, tube, and various trail sundries securely in place.
Smith Squad MTB goggles ($60): Goggles provide much more protection than simple shades by shielding your eyes and face alike. As such, they are quickly evolving from niche downhill gear to de rigueur mountain biking equipment, much like that of ski goggles. This new model from Smith addresses the broader requirements of such a goggle. It's amazing how well they breathe and absorb sweat. I rarely need to take them off, and fogging is nonexistent. Plus, they seamlessly integrate with Smith's Forefront helmet.
Dakine Sentinel gloves ($45): For downhill and enduro-style riding, I prefer to have some protection across my knuckles. But I find that hard plastic is uncomfortable and unnecessary. The Sentinel strikes the perfect balance of protection, breathability, and brake-lever grip. Having tested nearly a dozen pairs, these came out on top for my more aggressive downhill pursuits.
G-Form PRO Knee-Shin Guard pads ($150): G-Form is unique among the ever-expanding selection of mountain bike pads, which are growing to keep pace with demand. The padding is soft and pliable for comfort and maneuverability, but it dynamically stiffens on impact to dissipate the energy and protect your precious limbs. I can wear the knee-shin guard combination for a full day of downhilling in hot conditions without issue. They breathe well and feel more like a heavy pair of leg warmers as opposed to pads. It's essential to choose the right size, though. If too big, you'll have to pull them up after each run.
POC Joint VPD Air Knee pads ($80): If you have to choose one joint to protect, it's the knees. So much can go wrong down there, from trees and rocks to bashing the bike itself. These minimalist pads from POC are so light and comfortable they can be worn on the hottest days and biggest climbs without issue. I slide them down as shin pads for long climbs to minimize pedaling resistance and pull them into place for the downhills.
Assos Rally bib shorts ($419): Assos entered the mountain bike market recently and immediately grabbed the top spot among dirt-specific bib shorts. Borrowing from its high-end road prowess, the Rally offers superb comfort, support, and performance for long days in the saddle. Plus, they come with removable hip pads, since one of the most common injuries in mountain biking is landing on your hip after sliding out of a turn. This will leave the classic trail raspberry or worse if you're over 40 -- a broken hip. If I had to pigeonhole these bibs, though, I'd say they're for premier endurance events like the annual Park City Point 2 Point race or Leadville 100.
Assos Rally Trekking jersey ($389): The first mountain bike jersey from Assos features a sheer and highly breathable back panel to better accommodate hydration packs and reduce sweating. As such, this part of the jersey provides zero UV protection. To compensate, the jersey comes with a base layer to shield your back from the sun. In terms of range, it's ideally suited to XC racing and endurance events on its own. But I'd also wear it as a compression layer under a long-sleeve jersey for downhill riding.
Sombrio Highline shorts ($115): The mountain biking over-short is critical to your look, but it's also a protective layer. This is why board shorts just won't do. The purpose-designed Highline from Sombrio offers four-way stretch material that is quick to dry and weather resistant. Most importantly, it's a durable buffer between your skin and the inevitable slide across terra firma. I like the external Velcro waistbands to keep them in place as well as the zippered pockets for energy food or even an iPhone if you so dare.
Specialized SWAT bib liner short ($90): Rather than repurpose road bibs for mountain biking, these liners are designed for baggy mountain bike shorts like the Sombrio Highline above. You'll find they're more breathable and forgiving than bibs that have to stand on their own. And if you like the convenience of road jersey pockets but prefer a more casual style, the lumbar pockets on these shorts have plenty of room for a spare tube, extra layer, and some nutrition. Between these and the pockets on the thighs, you could go with water bottles and ditch the hydration pack altogether.
Maxxis High Roller II 2.3 tires ($78): You may not associate tires with protective gear, but a good friend broke his femur in Fruita, Colorado, when he lost traction and landed thigh-first on slickrock. The cause? Light, cross-country tires with very little tread. The moral? Don't sacrifice traction to save a few grams. The High Roller II from Maxxis is my go-anywhere, ride-everything trail tire. Climbing, cornering, and braking on a range of surfaces -- especially loose/rocky -- feels supremely confident. I have a set with more than 500 miles on them and zero flats. At about 850 grams, they're also pretty light.
Continental Trail King ProTection APEX 2.4 tires ($70): The trend in mountain bike tires it toward wider and fatter. This is driven by a number of factors, including wider rims that spread the tire's profile and stiffen the sidewall, thus providing more traction. More traction means more confidence and less likelihood of crashing, all else being equal. I rode the 2.4 Trail Kings at Deer Valley Bike Park on an enduro-style bike. I normally go with a downhill bike if chairlifts are involved, but these beefy tires can bridge the gap and give enduro bikes more of a DH feel. At 990 grams, they're also light enough to pedal uphill.
ICEdot Crash Sensor ($119): File this one under "worst case scenarios." You crash. You're alone. And you're unconscious and/or in immediate need of medical attention. Thanks to this yellow, Bluetooth transmitter, which attaches to any bike helmet, emergency contacts will receive an automated S.O.S. with your precise location, and EMS folks can access key medical data. The sensor works in conjunction with the ICEdot mobile app. When it detects a crash, an alarm is triggered. If not disabled, it will alert emergency contacts by SMS with a link to your GPS coordinates. The unit is charged via USB, which provides 30 days in standby mode.