Who are the “Taste Makers” in the sport of Mountain Biking? This is a serious and honest question, because in the miniscule twenty-something years that this sport has really been grinding along, there have been some wild fluctuations in equipment [hardgoods] trends and what’s “cool” [soft goods]. Granted, the equipment trends have more to do with progression in technology and riding styles, but when it comes to the “cool” factor i.e. what we wear while we ride, well the jury is out and I have no idea what why we have/had such odd trends. You see, initially we had the offshoot look of being road riding’s step-sibling thanks to lycra – a period of growth that we thankfully overcame on a general scale as participants, but a stigma we still fight in mainstream culture. Like awkward teenagers, the tight clothing only showed the world our glaring faults as a sport, so it was a welcome relief when the ultimate badass arrived to save the day with rebellion and aggression. Shawn Palmer was (and is) the posterboy for “NFG” and being the man/best at everything. His personal imperfections and attitude made him an immediate hit with the fans, so it is no surprise that his use of moto gear created a shift in the industry for what standard-issue riding gear should and would become. Fast forward a bit, and here we are with our own “Mountain Bike Look”: tailored fit, “athletic” materials, things that “wick” and more “durable” types of stitching than you can shake a grimy glove at. This is great all around: I have selection of color, brands, and various segmented lines of riding wear. Everyone looks factory on their Weekend Warrior rides granny-gearing it at 10am with their hungover friends.
What will be most notable on these weekend rides is that a very strong portion of riders will have knee pads on – lightweight, hardening foam styled slip-ons. Add in gloves, helmet, and a hydration pack, and one could say that these groups are well-armored for a light 10 mile Saturday morning ride. Now, pretend this is google maps, zoom out, find the nearest local downhill race, and zoom in. What do you see? I’ll tell you what I see: riders with nearly the same kits, minus the packs, and add on a chin bar to the helmets. During the time of Palmer, armor was abound (unless your last name was “Kovarik”), and riders looked more ready to joust than ride. I find this odd, because if anything, the average speed of riders is higher now, and the equipment technology inspires riders to push even harder. I’ve heard the argument, “pads are heavy”, “pads give me arm pump”, etc. I get that, it happens to me too. I can understand shedding the exoskeleton for a race run, sure, but to not pad up in practice seems stupid to me. Many friends of mine prefer to run less than ideal amounts of padding, and that’s their prerogative. But, I have heard the argument of looking dumb, or “like hockey players” as excuses for just running a wafer thin jersey and some light knee pads. After all, Sam Hill did that for Worlds one time and was fine when he fell…but guess what? Even Napalm wore more protection than that, and he was aggression embodied when he rode.
What I am getting at here is this: just because a pro decides to shed the protection, and looks cool/badass/not “hockey”, does not mean you should too. They average a speed of 25mph at all times when riding, you are a Cat 2 rider who takes a go-around in your race run. The truth is that pads are cool. When you fall, it hurts less (mostly), you don’t end up with scrapes on 40% of your body, and y’know what? From what I gather, hockey players look pretty rugged. So, yes, looking cool is important. But what’s more important is not looking like a Johnston and Johnston commercial covered in gauze because you “totally over-cooked that sick left hander into the fade-away”. I’m not your mom, I get that, but I cringe every time I see a rider wash out on gravel or a root section and go ass-over-teakettle without any buffer between them and the ground.
An unfortunate example is Taylor Vernon, the Factory GT Junior who did a serious number to his back on a what looked like a simple bit of track. A very strong example of when armor could have helped. Kyle Strait once remarked (in regards to riding Rampage in just knee pads and a helmet) that, he felt more comfortable without hulking pads, while Wade Simmons countered the statement by saying he wears it because he knows better. In fairness to both Kyle and Wade, (both Rampage winners) they are both right…I’d also point out that Kyle is The Hulk, minus the green appearance, so wearing armor might be superfluous.
If you really are more confident without pads on, all the power to you. However, if your complaints are, “It’s too heavy” or “It gives me arm-pump”, I would suggest hitting the gym and lifting some weights and/or get proper fitting armor. Having been racing nearly ten years at this point, my Dainese suit (not a plug, just a reference point) has helped me out countless times. I don’t bounce any more, so I appreciate the buffer, even after cultivating a physique a teammate of mine described as a “linebacker build”. I’m only writing about this because 2013 was a big year for this sport. The competitions got fast, bigger, and gnarlier on both racing and freeride side of things. Mitchell Scott wrote a piece about how dangerous Rampage is and even Team Robot got in on the action. Both writers were just saying what we were all thinking, and thusly made me think about how we have some great options for protection, but no one seems to bother with it. This isn’t intended to be a “scare-you-straight” piece, nor is it s plug for a brand, it is just a frank reminder that style versus safety may sometimes be a compromise, but at the end of the day there is a clear winner.