Are You Safe on Your Mountain Bike?

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky discusses protective gear for mountain biking:

Summertime is in full swing and that means its downhilling season!  Even if you’re a not full DH racer, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve at least entertained the idea of going to a resort; renting, borrowing (or buying…he he), a DH bike, and having a day of chairlift accessed good times.  If not, I highly encourage you to do so.
However, there can be a little trepidation with the whole downhilling thing, and rightly so.  Downhilling can be dangerous (just like regular trail riding), but there are a few things we can do to minimize those dangers.  First and foremost: wear protective gear.
Lately, I’ve gotten a few questions from riders fairly new to the downhilling game about what gear to wear, how much, “do I really need a full-face helmet …”, etc.
So I’ll try to shed some light on the whole body armor thing, but let me first say that all this gear is made for a reason, and WHEN you crash, you’ll be glad you had it on (or wish you did!).
… And, yes, you do NEEEED a full-face helmet!
Here’s an email from a Betterride student after, I believe, his first day of DH:

…That said, managed to time some rollers perfectly wrongly and slammed into the front
face on one after a jump.  Ended up about 20ft from the impact point.  Could get up
and continue but pretty badly scratched on the shoulder, back, arm, with impact
bruises on ribs (front and back somehow).

Interestingly, from the state of the (previously very new looking) camelback it took
a lot of the sting out of the fall.

Very very glad I was wearing something on my back (the camelback), along with elbow
and knees(which were without a scratch)

Was wearing a full face helmet (thank god).

It was a lot of fun, and managed to walk away with some good stories and wounds for
my 5 year old to look at but wanted to say to this group that if you are thinking
about doing it wear as much protection as you can get.
Many of the people doing it were wearing full armor, as well as Leatt neck braces.
Sadly some people were doing it very poorly protected, with some idiot boyfriends
taking girls up with their walmart hardtails with no elbow or knee protection.  They
were going down very slowly but it was still dumb.

Given my sore neck last night and today I can tell I had some whip lash from the fall.

I have now bought a full face helmet, neck brace and full armor.  Even if I only do
it occasionally then I want to be much better protected than I was.

Pretty typical story:  had a great time AND took a pretty good fall that reminded him of the serious nature of riding bikes down mountains.  Sounded pretty happy that he had the camelback on, huh?
I don’t want to spoil anybody’s good time, but … you will crash!  Think about this: if you go downhilling, you are going to push it a bit!   So, sooner or later, you will fall!  It just makes sense to have the gear on when this happens.

I had a little tumble the other day on my XC bike.  I was descending, pushing pretty hard and caught my front brake lever on a large branch that was obscured by smaller branches that by themselves, wouldn’t have posed any problems.   The hidden big branch, however, locked up my front wheel at the perfectly wrong time, giving me an instant front-end washout, to catch, to high-side!  As I was flying through the air, I remember thinking (its amazing how much actually goes through your mind as you’re eating it), “at least this isn’t happening on a fast part of the trail…”  I also saw where I was going to land and thought, “well, I should be alright, but this is gonna suck!”

That last statement was accurate.

So … a fairly slow speed crash (nothing compared to downhilling speeds)
and a week later I still have a numb and swollen elbow, both knees
scratched up and sore, a pretty sore shoulder, and maybe re-broke my
broken toe that I keep re-braking.  Fortunately, I was able to keep my
face and head off of the ground.

If I had body armor on, I would have been fine.

Now, I’m not going to wear full body armor when I’m riding XC (which isn’t necessarily a good idea), but my point is that the mechanics of a crash 4 or 5 times the speed of my rather slow one – which is probable when DH’ing – would have almost certainly meant a real injury – not just scrapes and bruises – without the proper protection.

Here’s my gear list when I get on a DH bike

  1. Full-face helmet.  DO NOT go DH’ing without  one.  There are various arguments and theories about what type of construction/certifications are the most protective, but … use a good one.  A quality helmet will have a shell that has a quality chin-bar/mouth guard, not a cheap plastic one that, literally, can be broken with your hands.  I use a full motocross, D.O.T. certified helmet when I race and ride hard.  In the photo, I have my Bell Moto 9 (moto helmet) and a Troy Lee Designs D2 (bicycle specific).

    Andy's DH and Moto Helmet

 

  1. Knee pads.  Use something with a least a little bit of plastic to protect your knees and dissipate the impact of a sharp object.  I prefer quite a bit of plastic around my knees.  In the photo, there’s a 661, Kyle Strait kneepad that is great for pedaling efficiency and very comfortable.  I use these for super-d racing.  The other one is made by Fly Racing and is hinged so that your knee is never exposed to danger.  Notice all the plastic surrounding the knee with the Fly (and the deep gouges and scratches).  Which one would you rather have on in a crash?

    Andy's mtb knee pads

 

  1. Upper body armor.  Remember the “…very, very glad I was wearing something on my back …” part of the email?  Many downhillers don’t wear any type of upper body armor, which doesn’t make much sense.  If your trying to make a living at sport and every hundredth of a second counts … well, it still doesn’t make much sense.  My body armor is fairly minimal, but it does offer spine protection and chest protection via pretty burly plastic.  Once I’m riding, I can’t tell I have it on.  I can’t really understand why those pro-racer kids – out there battling for 20th place in a local race – can’t be bothered with a two pound piece of equipment that very possibly could save their life.

    Mountain Bike Body Armor

 

  1. Goggles, not sunglasses.  They stay in place, keep dust out of your eyes, and offer WAY MORE protection.

More of Andy's mountain bike gear

  1. Elbow pads.  Mine are, again, quite minimal, without any padding.  So a crash will hurt, but the idea is that the plastic will dissipate the force of a sharp object on impact.

 

  1. Gloves.  I use the thinnest, single layer palms I can find so I can really feel the bike, but I always use them.  One time I was on the chairlift with a buddy of mine while practicing at a race and we were talking about gloves.  He was saying how he couldn’t be bothered with them anymore and that they didn’t really help protect you anyway.  I begged to differ.  On that run, he crashed and ended up “de-gloving” the skin off the palm of his hand (like you’d peel the skin off of a hunk of chicken).  Didn’t cut himself or hit a sharp object, just broke his fall at a pretty good clip and viola, no hand-skin!  He didn’t get to race that day.

 

  1. Shoes.  My 5.10 Minnars are a DH specific shoe with some good padding and reinforcement in key areas.  I wish I had these on when I smacked my foot into the ground during my little crash last week.  They also have a lot of rubber on the sole (unlike a lot of MTB shoes).  This means more traction on pedals, and if necessary, the ground.  (See article on shoes and pedals on this site for more in-depth info)

    The best MTB Shoes!

So there you have it.  I’ve been DH’ing for a long time and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable riding with any less gear then the stuff I listed above.  Have fun, be safe!

Of course learning the in balance and in control mountain bike techniques we teach in our camps would also go a long way to keep you safe. Less falls equal less injuries!

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6 replies
  1. Dan says:

    I take this to extremes. I show up in full armor at the XC trails, cause even on that trail, I find places to push my limits.

    Reply
  2. darin says:

    3 years ago i had a xc crash, minor speed, long fall downward onto right shoulder. 5 broken bones and 6 month recovery later i now own body armor for chest, shoulders, elbow, back. it’s hot a bit embarrassing, but no matter to me. yes, you ARE gonna wreck.

    Reply
  3. Andy says:

    I’ve had some of my nastiest crashes on XC trails. I really do try to not push my limits and consciously stay at about 65-70% of my riding ability … but that doesn’t always happen!

    I’m seeing more and more people wearing armor at the trails and I think its great. a couple more “learn the hard way’s” and I bet I will to…

    Its too easy to carry at least a full face helmet and set of knee pads in a camel back (many companies make hydration packs that acomodate these, specifically) for the gnarly stuff. Especially if the places where you ride are broke up into a long climb or two followed by long descent(s) instead of rolling terrain.

    Reply
  4. Andy says:

    I agree, Jeff. The bikes that we ride for XC in 2011 are about 200 times better (we can ride them faster over nasty terrain with less effort) then the bikes we rode DH on in the mid-ninties (and we wore full armor back then).

    I would say that my average speeds while descending a super tech and steep XC trail (Apex or Dakota Ridge outside of Denver) are on par with the speeds I reach on an actual downhill track. A downhill track (a good one) will be much more technical then “an Apex” and, thus, force you to slow down more … but speed is speed (XC or DH), and crashing on rocks with zero protection enough times will catch up with you sooner or later…

    My only “excuse” for not wearing pads on XC trails is because (knock on wood) I really don’t fall very often on these rides because I do ride within my limits … for the most part. Because of on-coming traffic, hikers, dogs, horses, you-name-it, on these trails, I do stay under control.

    That being said, when I can see clear trail ahead of me and I know its safe, I will light it up a bit and have some fun. When I do go down on the XC bike, its never a good time, and, I do have a few more close calls then I care to think about.

    Neither I, nor any of my buddies that I ride with (or any one, for that matter) can give a decent argument against wearing pads on an XC ride. Its just plain smart. A lot of new gear is being made with XC riding in mind and a lot of companies design stuff to be carried up hill and then applied with minimal effort, for this purpose.

    I think that we will see more and more riders gearing up for XC in the future.

    Reply
  5. Marie says:

    After my husband’s very nasty tumble last summer, totally wrecking his shoulder and requiring emergency surgery to “tether” it back together, AND my totally unspectacular body-surfing experience across a wide and flat gravel trail, I have been reluctant to go back out on my new 29′er.

    I want to invest in protective gear so that I might be confident enough about not getting seriously hurt that I might be able to actually work on technique and skills improvements and build my confidence up enough to actually enjoy riding again.

    I totally lost my nerve after last summer’s events, and I’m pretty close to terrified now when I do go out – even on the easy trails. Certainly, any protective gear (in addition to the helmet and gloves that we always wear) would have prevented the injuries from being as bad as they were.

    Reply
  6. nancye hicks says:

    I’ve started wearing protective gear now since my back tire slid out from under me due to a diagonal root in trail goin around a switch back. My elbow got a gash on it & I now have a scar. My knee got scratched pretty bad too. Then the following wk I went over a jump & my chain ring caught on something, stopped my bike & I went sailing messing up the knee that was healing. This was on cc trails. I wish I would have had elbow & knew pads.. too late now.

    Reply

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