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