Body armour generally combines a breathable fabric garment with tough, lightweight hard polycarbonate (hard shell) or foam (soft shell) padding in areas likely to be at risk of impact – e.g. shoulders, chest, spine, elbow and knee joints.
Mountain biking is a high-speed sport over rough, unforgiving terrain and certain disciplines – Downhill racing (DH), Freeride (FR), All-Mountain (AM), Enduro racing and Dirt Jumping (DH) – carry an increased level of risk.
Wearing body armour can help to decrease the injury risk level and can also increase rider confidence on the bike, but it must be remembered that no level of protection offers a 100% guarantee against injury. Armour can also be restrictive and prone to overheating in hot conditions or following intense exertion.
The wearing of body armour is therefore a personal choice, with the decision on how much or how little protection to use down to the individual rider, taking into account the type of riding they enjoy doing, their skill level, their own riding style and mental approach.
Different riders engaged in different disciplines will have different demands – professional or serious amateur DH racers taking on the challenges presented by the world’s toughest courses may opt for hard-shell armour offering the highest level of protection possible, bearing in mind the potential for disaster if it all goes wrong at high speed.
Riders enjoying moderately technical trails however are unlikely to kit themselves with hot and restrictive full body suits, especially if their biking involves any sort of pedaling uphill. These riders may opt for the added protection of a good quality set of soft-shell knee or arm pads, designed to shield fragile joints from impact while at the same time allowing free movement for pedalling and bike handling.
There is no single ‘best’ suit of armour and different riders will pick and choose the protection they need, according to the demands of their riding
Whatever combination of body armour you opt for – if any – look for quality garments that balance their protective elements with a comfortable and non-restrictive fit, and without misplaced straps or seams that may chafe and cause discomfort. Sizing can vary between different manufacturers so it may be a case of trying out a few types until you find armour that suits your anatomy.
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Combination sets of hard-shell knee and shin pads are worn by most DH racers as well as a huge range of trail, enduro and other riders, as they offer protection not only from impacts and spills, but also from the damage that can be caused by spiked platform pedals in the event of a foot slipping (the old ‘cheesegrater shin’ phenomenon).
They also have the advantage of being easily removable, so riders can take them off and strap them to a backpack while pedalling uphill, and put them on for the descent.
Lightweight and flexible knee-only pads originally aimed at the dirt jumping and street riding fraternity have become popular with many cross-country and trail riders who appreciate the protection and confidence they provide, without unduly affecting pedalling ability.
Knee pads may feature hard plastic or softer foam padding, with the added protection offered by the former a trade-off for extra weight and less breathability.
Ankle and wrist supports wrap the joint in protective (foam or hard plastic) padding, normally secured with multiple straps or laces, in order to restrict the range of moment as well as provide some measure of impact protection for the ankle and wrist bones.
These are used by riders recovering from an injury to a particular joint who wish to have some extra insurance against damage, or for any rider will to trade some restriction in movement for an increased level of joint protection.
Arm pads are aimed at protecting the elbow from impact while still allowing free range of movement.
Hard-shell arm pads with hard plastic exterior elements offer the greatest level of impact protection at the expense of weight and breathability, while soft-shell pads with foam padding may be more suitable for trail and cross-country riding.
Be careful when choosing the size of your arm pads – as with all body armour, too big will struggle to stay in place while too small may result in restricted circulation.
Also known as ‘pressure suits’, body armour suits protect the torso, shoulder and arms and are regarded as the ‘full monty’ of body armour.
These suits are designed to be worn under baggy motocross-style jerseys and provide full protection to the upper body with built-in chest shields, spine protectors, shoulder pads, arm pads and more.
While they offer a high level of protection for gravity riders tackling challenging terrain, their main disadvantages are weight, heat and restricted movement, so are generally only used when riders can be shuttled to the top of the course.
Some suit systems allow removal of certain pads to enable riders fine-tune the fit and protection level as the situation demands, while other manufacturers also offer ‘pared-down’ versions of the full pressure suit in the form of sleeveless or short-sleeved ‘core protectors’ or protection vests. These do not provide the same level of defence as full pressure suits but offer lighter weight and a freer range of movement, as well as the possibility of riders mixing and matching different pieces of armour as the situation calls for it.
Another form of torso protection is the spine shield. Spine shields are aimed at riders who want to protect their back and spine from impact without the additional weight and restriction of a full pressure suit or vest. They typically feature an articulated spine guard made of hard plastic that extends from the neck to the lower back, along with a combination of impact pads and a strap system to secure to the body. Spine shields are sometimes regarded as restrictive but appeal to riders who want to clock their best possible race times without fear of long-term damage.
Knee braces combine joint protection with hinged mechanism that permits only a restricted range of movement, aimed at preventing the knee twisting in the event of a crash.
They are heavier and more restrictive than ‘normal’ knee pads so unsuitable for sustained pedalling, but may be an option for riders with a history of knee trouble or past injuries to this joint, or riders in rehabilitation from a recent injury.
An import from motocross (as many other body armour elements are), roost guards are hard plastic chest shields designed to protect the ribcage area from airborne rocks and other debris (‘roost’). They can be worn over or under jerseys.
In many instances the lines are blurred between ‘roost guard’ and ‘pressure suit’ with full-coverage roost guards offering similar levels of protection to torso armour and extending to protect areas including the back and upper arms. Choice may come down to personal preference or factors such as possible integration with other protective elements such as neck braces. Some top-end roost guards are designed with the assumption that the wearer will also be using a neck brace, while some torso armour designs may be incompatible with braces.