In Issue #112 of Singletrack Magazine, we tested 14 different knee pads as part of our Pads For Pedalling group test
Let’s clear up something right away. Knee protection probably isn’t the sexiest thing in the world. Next to electronic shifting, pretty anodised stems and buzzy freehub mechanisms, it’s unlikely that you’ll find knee pads sitting on display inside the bling cabinet at your local bike shop.
You know what’s less sexy than knee pads though? Splitting your knee open on a rock because you weren’t wearing knee pads. Or cracking your patella into several pieces. Or causing serious damage to a cruciate ligament that forces you off the bike for six months.
Without doubt, smashing your knees up in a preventable situation is seriously lame. Because when it boils down to it, we only have two knees and they’re kinda important to the whole cycling thing.
Fortunately, knee pads have become a lot more popular over the last few years. Thanks to advancements in materials and construction techniques, knee pads are becoming more flexible, more shock absorbent and much lighter in weight. Most importantly, they’re becoming more comfortable too.
There are a lot of good knee pads on the market, so we went to 14 different brands to see what they had to offer in their latest range of mountain bike protection.
The premise was simple: pads for pedalling. Not necessarily the most protective knee pads, but pads that would be comfortable for an all-day epic in the hills. Pads that would be flexible enough that you’d forget you were wearing them. And pads that would be breathable enough so as to not cause pain-inducing chafing.
But at the same time, pads that would provide an effective shield between your precious knees and the harsh environment around them. Because no matter how hard you try, at some point you’re going to take a tumble where your knee will be sliding over a rock or thumping into a tree trunk. Or it might just be a casual jab of a shifter paddle, or a wayward whack on the top tube. Whatever the source, it really doesn’t take that much to leave you holding back the tears while stinging pain sears through your thinly skinned kneecap. And wearing a knee pad might allow you to totally avoid that lame scenario in the first place.
Of the 14 knee pads we tested, we created four categories to assess each knee pad under. Those categories were comfort, breathability, protection, and value. With the exception of one pad, all were ordered in a Medium size and tested on a range of riders to evaluate comparative fit and adjustability. We’ve spent the last six months putting all of the pads (and our knees) to the test, to see which we’d recommend for all-day pedalling.
The Evolution Of Body Armour
First, we must go back in time. Back to a time when handlebars measured 500mm wide, suspension forks topped out at 63mm travel, and brakes were more of a decorative add-on for most riders.
In the early 90s, mountain biking was proper ’ardcore. The bikes were janky and flat-out dangerous, but that was kind of the point. There were no wanky slow-motion video edits with folk music backing tracks and dramatic voice-over commentary drawing long metaphoric bows. And there were no high-sheen Instagram filters bathing photographed riders in the golden sepia glow of their own highly curated smugness.
Instead, mountain biking was purely about going downhill as fast as possible while putting oneself in the path of grievous bodily harm as much as possible. All to a soundtrack of hectic punk rock and thrash metal. Effortless cool be damned.
While riding these poorly-suspended death traps, suitably hardcore body armour was, without doubt, a necessity.
“For sure, over the years, tastes and styles have changed,” explains Giovanni Fogal of Dainese – a brand that has been developing MTB protection since 1994. “Riders used to dress up like futuristic crusade knights back in the 90s.”
Many riders still think of Stormtrooper-style hardshell armour and hardcore downhill racing when the topic of body armour comes up. But times have changed, technology has improved, and riding styles have evolved. Nowadays, more riders are considering padding up for all-day riding.
Bigger wheels, stronger brakes, and slacker geometry have all improved the abilities of modern trail bikes to make them faster and more competent than ever. But with greater speed comes greater consequences when things don’t go as planned.
According to brands like Fox, lightweight knee pads are evolving into a non-negotiable for trail riding. “Knee armour itself has become a mandatory piece of riding kit for any rider from trail centre riding through to World Cup DH,” says Bob Robinson of Fox Head. Giulio Neri of Alpinestars agrees. “There is no point in riding with bare knees when you can wear a pair of knee pads that you hardly feel and that will save you a run to the hospital.” Advanced materials have improved ergonomics out of sight, so modern pads can be slimmer while still offering good protection. “Now you have all sorts of memory foams to go with very lightweight and breathable mesh,” explains Neri.
Of course, trail riding creates a different set of demands on body armour. Unless you’re using mechanical assistance (a chairlift, shuttle bus or an e-bike), you’re likely to spend a lot more time climbing than descending.
“Today there is a much bigger demand for flex and ventilation,” explains Erik Lidén of POC Sports. Lidén also states that creating a comfortable product is paramount to encouraging new users to consider knee pads – a sentiment shared with other protection wear brands. “We wanted to make a pad where you are so comfortable even on big climbs, that riders have no excuses for going out for a quick ride with no pads,” explains Josh Gibson of Scott Sports.
Certainly with the new generation of ultra-slim knee pads, the prospect of wearing them for a three-hour cross-country ride has become a whole lot more appealing. But just how much protection do they offer? And on a highly mobile joint such as the knee, what design is the most comfortable, the most breathable, and the best at staying put?
So, let’s take a look at some of the models that came out on top in our Pads For Pedalling group test.
661 Recon Knee Pads
- From: Hotlines,
- Price: £52
“US protection brand 661 has been in it for the long haul. Having designed and produced mountain biking body armour since the early days where we all used to look like Stormtroopers, 661 now has an enormous range of contemporary protective wear that covers everything from full face downhill helmets through to lightweight and high-tech pads for XC riding. In the 661 knee pad range, the Recon is the…” Read the full review here.
Alpinestars Paragon Knee Pads – Winner Best Value
- From: ZyroFisher, zyrofisher.co.uk
- Price: £39.99
“Italian motocross brand, Alpinestars, was found lurking around the mountain bike scene as early as 2004, when it collaborated with the G-Cross Honda DH World Cup team to create apparel and protection for the likes of Greg Minnaar and Brendan Fairclough. Officially launching its mountain bike line in 2010, Alpinestars has been steadily growing its range of moto-inspired riding apparel and protective wear ever since. The Paragon knee pads slot into the wider Paragon range, which is specifically targeted towards…” Read the full review here.
Bluegrass Eagle Crossbill Knee Pads
- From: Bluegrass Eagle,
- Price: £59
“Italian brand Bluegrass Eagle first began testing its line of protective wear back in 2010, before officially coming to market a year later in 2011. Owned and operated by MET, Bluegrass Eagle is the slightly more ‘rad’ brand in the building, emerging as a mountain bike protective wear label that offers helmets, gloves, knee pads and elbow pads, while also offering padded shorts, jerseys and vests. We’ve tested numerous Bluegrass Eagle helmets and pads before, but this was our first…” Read the full review here.
Dainese Trail Skins 2 Knee Pads – Winner Most Breathable
- From: Windwave,
- Price: £69.99
“After several years away from mountain biking, Dainese has returned to the spotlight with a new range of riding apparel and body armour. The Italian company is famous for its rich motorcycling heritage, having pioneered numerous technological advancements in rider safety, including its distinctive lobster-tail spine protectors. After reigniting its MTB division just a couple of years ago, Dainese is…” Read the full review here.
Dakine Slayer Knee Pads – Winner Best All-Round
- From: Dakine Europe,
- Price: £55
“While some pads stood out specifically for their breathability, protection or comfort, the Dakine Slayers were far more subtle, with a well-rounded performance that ticked pretty much every box there was. As a relatively new entrant into the body armour game, Dakine has jumped in with several high-quality soft shell knee and elbow pads. The Slayers are Dakine’s lightest weight knee pad, sitting alongside the heavier duty Anthem and Hellion pads. Available in three sizes (Small, Medium, Large), the Slayers…” Read the full review here.
Endura SingleTrack Knee Pads
- From: Endura,
- Price: £57.99
“Scottish apparel brand Endura is likely better known for its line of indestructible baggy shorts and filthy wet weather riding gear, but the company has been steadily expanding its range over the years to include other types of products including protective wear and helmets. One of those products is the SingleTrack Knee Protector (we’ll call it a knee pad like everyone else does). Also available in an elbow version, the SingleTrack knee pad is a soft-shell pad that features…” Read the full review here.
Fox Launch Enduro Knee Pads
- From: Fox Head MTB,
- Price: £50
“While Fox still offers a range of hardshell body armour, more and more these days, riders are electing to use softshell armour that offers improved ventilation and flexibility for all-day pedalling. The Launch Enduros are such a garment, and are designed to appeal towards XC and trail riders who appreciate a comfortable knee pad. In a range that totals seven different options, the Launch Enduros are Fox’ lightest knee pad option, and so slotted perfectly into our Pads For Pedalling group test. They come in…” Read the full review here.
G-Form Pro-X Knee Pads
- From: G-Form UK,
- Price: £60
“With its futuristic cyborg looks, the G-Form Pro-X knee pads were certainly some of the most distinct looking pads in our group test. While there have been some updates, the general design aesthetic has remained the same since G-Form first launched back in 2011. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, G-Form markets its range of knee, shin, ankle and elbow pads for cycling, skateboarding, football and snow sports. The idea being that its lightweight and flexible RPT material is...” Read the full review here.
ION K_Lite_R Knee Pads
- From: ION,
- Price: £89.99
“Surfwear brand ION has been around since 2004, but it wasn’t until 2012 before the brand launched into mountain biking. Drawing on its extensive experience of working with neoprene and other technical fabrics, ION has steadily grown its product line over the past five years to include a range of high quality riding apparel that includes jerseys, shorts, protective wear, and now footwear too. After a solid winter of use and abuse, I recently published a review of the brilliant ION Neo waterproof gloves, and Hannah also had great things to say about the ION Collision Softshell Pants that earned a Singletrack Editor’s Choice Award for 2016. Here however, we’re going to take a look at some of ION’s knee pads. Specifically the K_Lite R, which is ION’s most lightweight and pedal-friendly option. If you’re after…” Read the full review here.
iXS Hack EVO Knee Pads
- From: Hotlines,
- Price: £47.99
“Swiss brand iXS is one such protective wear brand with a strong range of lightweight body armour targeted towards a broad range of different rider types, having specialised in mountain biking apparel and protective wear since 2001. Over the past 16 years, the iXS protective wear range has grown to encompass products not just for Monster-drinking, flat cap-wearing park rats, but for everyday trail riders too. The Hack EVO knee pads slot into the trail riding category, using a soft-shell pad with a slip-on sleeve style construction. They’re…” Read the full review here.
POC VPD Air Knee Pads – Winner Best Protection
- From: 2pure, 2pure.
- Price: £59.99
“When it boils down to it, no matter how lightweight and breathable a knee pad is, its basic core function is to provide some kind of protection. Otherwise there’d be no point wearing them, right? Although the 14 test pads were all sourced under the same brief, there was still a wide range of armour on offer. From the uber-thin Race Face Charge leg guards, through to much tougher options like the ION K-Lite R pads, there are many ways that knee protection can be achieved for different riders and riding styles. Horses for courses and all that. As a generalisation, more protection typically equates to less comfort. It’s relatively simple; use harder padding and more of it, and there’s going to be less flexibility, and, therefore, less comfort for all-day pedalling. Which is why the VPD Air knee pads from POC Sports are so…” Read the full review here.
Race Face Charge Knee Pads
- From: Silverfish,
- Price: £26.95
“As we’re witnessing with the current crop of knee pads, everyone’s trying to design the most comfortable product possible. Ultimately, the more comfortable a knee pad is to wear, the more likely you are to wear the knee pads for the entire ride, every ride. Because as we know, Murphy’s Law dictates that as soon as we don’t, that’ll be the one ride with some bloody annoying crash that leaves our skin red-raw after sliding along the ground. Making a knee pad comfortable is tricky. The knee is a highly mobile joint that flexes and extends thousands of times every single ride. To make a knee pad flexible and comfortable, some brands use fancy materials, and other brands use a super-minimalist design. The Race Face Charge knee pads fit into the…” Read the full review here.
Scott Soldier 2 Knee Pads
- From: Scott Sports,
- Price: £54.99
“Given the success and media spotlight around the Swiss company’s bikes, it can be easy to forget just how extensive the range of apparel and accessories produced by Scott Sports is. A cursory glance at the Scott Sports website will show you just how deep that product range is though, with everything from helmets, to shoes, to apparel, to sunglasses, backpacks and body armour covered. And thanks to the size of the Scott brand and it’s extensive global dealership network, the company’s broad-base buying power means it’s able offer good value for money on those products too. As of right now, Scott offers four different knee pad options as part of its mountain bike protective wear range. The Soldier 2 knee pads are the lightest option from Scott, and thanks to a lightweight mesh construction and a flexible D3O protective pad, they’re…” Read the full review here.
Troy Lee Designs Speed Knee Sleeves – Winner Most Comfortable
- From: Saddleback,
- Price: £55
“In a Pads for Pedalling group test, quite possibly the most important factor of all is comfort. In speaking with representatives from each brand and with other riders out on the trail, it became abundantly clear that if a set of knee pads isn’t sufficiently comfortable, then riders are far less likely to wear them on every ride. And Murphy’s Law dictates that the one ride you decide to skip the knee pads, is the ride you’ll definitely do yourself a mischief. Signalling just how good the new generation of lightweight knee pads has become over the years, we had a very difficult time narrowing down a winner. Some of the comfiest options included…” Read the full review here.
If one thing is crystal clear at the end of our Pads For Pedalling grouptest, it’s that there really is no excuse anymore for not wearing knee pads. Alongside helmets, gloves and padded shorts, knee pads are becoming a must-have for all types of mountain biking, regardless of how hardcore you think you are (or aren’t). And because modern knee pads are so comfortable these days, you can genuinely wear them all day long without fear of discomfort. So why take the risk?
During my research into this piece, I asked the question to a pool of riding peers to see what their opinion was of knee pads. The response I got was a rather grotesque visual library of bloodied knees and healed scars accompanied by numerous tales of epic crashes, and more mundane accidents that left them with varying levels of injury. And we’re not talking high-profile racers, but rather everyday riders like you and me. Riders who now religiously wear knee pads on every ride, and encourage others around them to do the same.
Another important point that was established early on in the test process was just how much personal preference affects how comfortable a knee pad can be. One size most definitely does not fit all, and one style certainly does not suit every type of rider. As with any piece of apparel or protection, it’s absolutely crucial to try on before you buy. In the case of a knee pad, too tight will cause systemic irritation that will mean you’ll be less likely to pick them up for every ride. Too loose, however, and the pad can float around, meaning it may not stay put during a hard crash.
In general though, we can thoroughly recommend the new generation of lightweight knee pads that utilise a slip-on sleeve-style construction. With a fit that emulates a heavy-duty set of knee warmers, this new style of knee pad features articulated protection and breathable mesh fabric that don’t feel awkward and foreign.
Always bear in mind your local riding conditions too. Do you need something that ventilates well? Or does your local riding mean you can carry a set of knee pads in your backpack on the way up, before slipping them on for the descents? Or maybe you ride in a particularly rough and rocky area that requires more serious protection? Or if you ride all sorts of different trails at different times of the year, perhaps one set of knee pads won’t quite cut it? Just like a bike, there isn’t one that can do it all.
Regardless – for anyone reading this who hasn’t yet invested in a set of knee pads, hopefully we’ve convinced you that it’s a good idea. It might only save you a bruise, but it could save you a trip to A&E.