My knees look like a Jackson Pollock painting, full of crisscrossing cuts, bruises, and scars. After plenty of crashes, I’ve learned that riding a mountain bike is infinitely better with some good knee armor. In fact, I’d say knee pads are the first piece of protection riders should purchase after a helmet (though some may argue for gloves).
So what should you look for in a knee pad? The best kind of pad is one that you’ll wear every ride. Fortunately, modern knee pads are so good there’s never a reason not to wear them. Here are some of the best mountain bike knee pads available today.
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Lightweight knee pads
Unlike the bulky knee pads of yesteryear, newer lightweight pads use soft and flexible armor that’s designed to harden on impact. This type of pad generally uses a “sleeve” design, where the pad is sewn into a stretchy tube, similar to a leg warmer. They conform to your knee and move with you as you pedal, practically disappearing while riding. They’re perfect for everything from everyday trail riding to all-day cross-country epics to enduro racing. Best of all, if you wear a liner or bib shorts under your baggies, you can tuck the sleeve into your liner and avoid the dreaded knee pad gap.
Ideal use: Cross-country, trail, and enduro racing
G-Form pads are the original lightweight sleeve pad. The thin, segmented armor makes them extremely flexible but the looks can be divisive. The 7iDP Transition and Race Face Indy are popular choices for enduro racers who need a good compromise between pedaling comfort and protection. If you’re looking for something that straddles the line between lightweight comfort and heavy-duty protection, the POC VPD System lite uses harder 3D molded VPD protection to beef up the armor.
Heavy-duty knee pads
If you’re going to send it big, you need to wear knee pads that match your ambition. Heavy-duty knee pads are much bulkier and often have a hard outer shell. They can absorb big hits but might not be as comfortable or breathable for extensive pedaling. These are the pads I turn to for shuttling downhill trails or shredding the local bike park. Though if you want more confidence descending, there’s nothing wrong with using these pads for everyday trail riding.
Ideal use: Enduro racing, downhill, and bike park riding
Heavy-duty pads rely on velcro straps to keep them from sliding down your legs. Thighs naturally taper toward the knee so I tend to like pads like the 7iDP Flex and iXS Carve that use a lower "gastroc" strap on the upper calf to keep it in place. This is useful for riders with skinnier legs who struggle with pads falling down. If you want a pad that’s easy to get on and off, the Race Face Ambush opens up in the back so you don’t need to take off your shoes. For maximum protection, the Fox Launch Pro D3O adds a hard plastic slider that will deflect off rocks and roots.
What about elbow pads?
There are matching elbow pads for many of the knee pad models listed above. I personally don't trail ride in elbow pads because I like having my arms free. But plenty of daring and skilled riders swear by them. It all depends on your preferences and risk tolerance. When I do slip on elbows, it’s usually during downhill and bike park riding. I like lightweight sleeve-style pads because they’re the least intrusive.
No matter what you choose to wear, once you get used to riding in good pads, you'll feel pretty naked and vulnerable without them, which is good because you'll be more likely to wear them and, therefore, stay better protected!
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