Only when I moved to California was I introduced to road cycling. Growing up in Idaho, I spent most of my youth mountain biking. Why no road you ask? Nearly 64 percent of the state of Idaho is publically owned. This includes 20.2 million acres of national forests with 8.4 million acres inaccessible by roads. This leaves Idahoans with a lot of opportunity to explore. I’m not saying there isn’t an abundance of pristine mountain roads that any roadie would enjoy; I’m just saying mountain biking takes you places in Idaho, some really breathtaking places.
I started riding with my parents, mostly fire roads and casual single tracks; destination rides. Living the XC life (cross country) I had the essentials to protect myself—gloves, helmet, glasses—but as I grew up, weekend family rides got boring, my friends and I wanted to start pushing the limits, hitting bigger drops, more technical rock gardens, logs and planks. Unfortunately with this came concussions, stitches, and some broken bones. So let me save you some time and medical expenses with a bit of advice; If you are going to venture into the all-mountain and downhill arena—gear up before you regret it. You get one body; you should definitely push it to its limits, but be safe about it and protect yourself.
This is a no-brainer. Pick up some quality mountain gloves. Yes I specified mountain because your road gloves will not work. You can get by, but there are a couple issues. First, your road gloves are most likely fingerless, meaning when you crash, you could tear apart your fingers. That extra protection is nice to have. Secondly, the padding in mountain gloves is going to be in different places than their road counterpart. This will just give you some added comfort as you pile-drive your front wheel into the next landing. Going the extra mile, Troy Lee Designs offers the GP Glove, which features extra guards on top of the fingers to protect against rocks.
Helmets are getting better every year and the newest crop of high-end XC and Enduro helmets offer protection that wasn’t available just a few years ago. This includes improved coverage, systems like MIPS to mitigate rotational impacts, and reengineered foams and construction methods to absorb more energy when your head hits the trail. Besides the advantages in newer helmet design, if your helmet is a few years old, you might consider replacing it. Helmets are designed to protect your head for one crash only and should be immediately replaced afterwards. Small impacts over the years can also degrade the integrity of a helmet. If you have any doubt about your helmet then just get a new one. The investment is well worth your safety.
If you think you might need a full-face helmet, then you probably do. You may be able to get away with an XC Helmet, and you won’t regret it until you really regret it. Smacking your face on a nice rock feature is not fun. You will have to be the judge of how aggressive your riding is and whether or not this is a necessity. Full-face helmets are getting lighter and more breathable these days so don’t be so quick to dismiss them. Plus… you’ll look badass.
Knee and Shin
Experience is the way I learn most of my lessons. I rode without shin guards right up until the day I buried a pedal in my shin. After a few dozen stitches and some recovery time, I picked up a pair of knee and shin guards. They will help a lot if you go down on some rocky sections, but definitely help the most with bike-to-leg contact.
When you’re hard into a corner at high speeds, there’s no bailing out and chances are, your elbow is going to be one of the first things to hit. After your tire decides not to hold the corner, your elbows will thank you for proper elbow guards. Elbow injuries are so high maintenance too, it’s hard to pump the trail with a throbbing elbow; at the very least it’s hard to enjoy yourself.
If you are starting to get more into pinning downhill sections, hitting some bigger drops, weaving in and out of trees at high speed, you should definitely consider adding some spine protection to your body armor wardrobe. Spine protection can be accomplished with neck braces and full torso protectors.
Body armor can be easily overlooked when deciding where to spend your money. I’d much rather put my money into a sweet new dropper post or some new tires. But that stuff can come later, protecting your body is really important. Having the proper body armor is also going to give you a lot more confidence on the trail. You will be willing to hit the jump just a little faster this time with a good helmet and some quality pads. At least it sure gave me some confidence, although maybe I’m mistaking confidence for stupidity. Regardless, I’ll be out there, getting more airtime than any of you reading this. Yes that is a challenge, see you on the trail.
Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.