Essential Gear For Downhill MTB, and What Not to Wear
So, there is this downhill bike park that got on your bucket list. But a capable mountain bike is only one part of the required equipment to ride those kinds of tracks. The rider also needs to come equipped properly in order to ride well and safely. And downhill riders don’t seem to look like any other cyclists, so it’s fair to wonder: What do you even wear for downhill mountain biking?
A full-face helmet, gloves, firm shoes, a back protector and knee pads are the essential gear for downhill MTB. Optional protective equipment includes shoulder pads, elbow pads, shin pads and a neckbrace. Adequate safety equipment is critical to injury prevention and rider comfort.
Most riders hide their protective equipment underneath their riding pants and a jersey so it’s not always obvious that protective equipment is a big part of the sport. That’s not only the most comfortable way to wear but also a stylish way to dress for MTB riding.
Dress for the crash, not for the ride.
Now let’s discuss WHY some items are critical, some optional and others are not recommended. For an objective, numbers-based approach, let’s look at the body parts with the highest risk of injury in DH:
Shoulders, hands, lower legs and the head are post prone to sustain damage riding downhill.
Read the full article on injury rate, risk factors and mitigation backed by studies here.
Some of the following equipment discussed will be multi-purpose and can be equally viable for other types of biking like regular All-Mountain or Enduro Mountain Biking, Pumptrack or even BMX and Cross Country.
A full-face helmet is standard
Proper headgear is the absolute minimum. Obviously, the head, the housing of your brain, is the most valuable body part. You only got one so take appropriate care. MTB helmets are vastly different from road bike helmets, and shouldn’t be confused.
If you’ve never worn a helmet with a chin bar and a big peak on top (here’s why they exist), it’s a little warmer and more air-restricted but with the airflow riding downhill, it’s not noticeable. Not to mention it’s a tiny price in sweat to pay for protecting the head and face.
I always wear my full-face downhill MTB helmet (review) but there are convertible DH-rated helmets like my Giro Switchblade MTB helmet (check current price), that can turn from a regular MTB helmet to a downhill-specific one. Ideal for beginners or riders not regularly visiting bike parks.
Back protectors are generally a good idea. Even though direct impacts on backs are not particularly common, it’s a body part worth protecting. Because when the upper or lower back take a hit, it’s usually a big crash with uncontrollable tumbling.
Most back protectors are part of a full protector vest (or “body armor”), which tends to sit better and move less. Also, most don’t extend all the way over the lower spine, which is a common area for injuries. So keep that in mind when looking for those kinds of safety gear.
The long, extended lower back protection is one of the main reasons I went with the POC Spine VPD 2.0 Jacket (check price here). It’s pricey, but I’m glad I invested in it a few years back as it’s taken some big hits for me and prevented an injury more than once.
Do you wear knee pads mountain biking?
Gloves and knee pads are necessary in MTB for the same reason: hands and knees are the body parts to pretty much always make contact with the ground when crashing. On top of that, even while riding knees will hit the bike frame.
With that in mind, and wearing appropriate knee protection, you can take advantage of that by using knees to lessen the impact and slide out, rather than stick more fragile body parts out. Similar to what I did before taking the picture below. Only the knee pad area hit the ground hard, allowing me to keep riding without any hiccups.
As I said above, hands and knees are the body parts to pretty much always make contact with the ground when crashing. They are used to mitigate impact force by rolling. So if nothing else, gloves prevent abrasions from hard ground or gravel. More expensive ones come with added hard plastic or foam protective inserts over the knuckles (like my POC Resistance DH gloves).
And some have those on certain areas on the palm, which is one way of many to prevent blisters.
Additionally, gloves will help grip the handlebar even when hands eventually start to get sweaty. I just use the same pair of POC gloves I have for all kinds of mountain biking. Whichever fit, materials and protection you choose, don’t go for fingerless ones in downhill!
Flat pedal bike shoes or MTB-specific clipless shoes are the standard footwear. They look identical, but clipless shoes got a cut-out in the sole for the cleats so they’re still good for walking around trackside and off-track.
Both work well and special MTB shoes have the added benefit of stiffer soles that offer more stability and grip on the flat pedals. That’s important because the majority of control and power come from the feet. Whatever shoes you use, just make sure they don’t slip and don’t clip into the pedals. More on clip-ins further down.
Regular sports shoes don’t cut it because of their flexible, less grippy soles and basically no toe protection. The slip on the pedals and don’t help in a crash – a bad overall combination. For a first-time visit to check out if DH is something for you to pursue, it’s best to bring shoes with a firm, flat and even sole for rental bikes with flat pedals. Some skater shoes fit into those requirements.
Yes, downhill mountain bikers use clipless pedals.
Downhill mountain bikers do use clipless pedals and shoes. They’re very common among professionals and racers, while flat pedals are the regular choice for beginners and hobbyists. Being clipped in helps to keep the feet on the pedals and allows to lift the bike up over obstacles more easily.
Are MTB goggles necessary?
Another piece of kit to consider is big MTB goggles, especially in combination with a full-face helmet. It’s a trade-off between protection from wind, rain and dust on one side, and limited breathability and fogged-up lenses on the other. For dry eyes, in dusty conditions, in sunny weather, cold temperatures, the benefits definitely overweight. So basically most of the time.
Neckbraces for MTB
Neckbraces have their place in gravity MTB like downhill. The speeds here are fast, the obstacles severe and the surfaces grabby to warrant the use of a neck brace. Whether you should wear one is entirely up to your own personal risk and reward calculations.
While neck injuries are very rare, they can have catastrophic results. Neckbraces can help in certain, rare crash scenarios involving the neck while impeding movement at all times.
Especially in tight turns, the head’s range of motion is limited by the brace to be able to look into the turns and at the track ahead. This is why a personally chose to not wear mine anymore after a couple of seasons.
Mobility, comfort and confidence is such a big part of downhill that more protection isn’t always better. But there is some extra protective gear, that makes sense, that you can add on top of the basics.
Are MTB elbow pads necessary?
Elbow pads are definitely not as trendy, it seems. But neither are hurting elbows, which are another regular body part to make ground contact. The only reason I wouldn’t consider stand-alone elbow pads must-haves is the fact that they will slip down the forearm with all the movement on the bike unless the fit is perfect or extra tight. The former is hard to find and the latter leads to arm-pump.
They do, however, come attached to full protector vests, eliminating the fitting and arm-pump problem.
Upper body armor
Looking at the body parts most prone to injury in MTB, shoulder pads do make a lot of sense but can only be worn as part of a full upper body protector vest. I wear such a vest for downhill, but not for trail riding or pumptrack as it’s just too heavy, not so breathable and frankly overkill.
In bike parks, it’s essential to me, providing all the protection I would want to have on the upper body without restricting too much. While body armor comes with chest plates too, mine has removable ones. As hits to the chest are rare (never had one), and even the foam plates are uncomfortable, they got removed.
MTB shorts or pants
MTB-specific shorts or pants are not really required but help with comfort and a little protection. They are durable, and crash-resistant while also being breathable for those long, hot days in the saddle. A combination not commonly found in regular sports shorts. Maybe most importantly: they have zip pockets to not lose any valuables and the lift card.
MTB pants look similar to motocross pants, but are more breathable, stretch better for pedaling, and are tighter at the knees since knee pads are slimmer than knee braces. MX pants have grippy, leathery patches on the insides of the knees to allow to grip the motorcycle frame better.
Why are mountain biking shorts so long?
MTB shorts are unusually long because most of the time is spent with bent knees while pedaling. Even then they should extend over any knee pads so the shorts don’t get hung up. They’re made out of durable materials, and protect the thighs from abrasions so more coverage is also better.
Hip insert shorts
The hips and tailbone may be tough, but are exposed and hurt really bad when hit. Luckily, there are ways in preventing that from happening with special protector shorts like those from protective gear manufacturer Leatt.
Different brands use different materials, from VPD foam to hard-plastic. Some feature tailbone inserts, and some double as bib shorts.
Some new higher-end pants like from FOX even come with unobtrusive foam inserts at the hip. They do lessen the impact, but are not a complete replacement for protector pants. They do however, not feel like wearing diapers.
Do Not Wear For Downhill
And then there are cycling gear options that are available, but make no sense whatsoever for downhill. Some are simply unnecessary, others cross the border into actually being harmful.
Not much time is spent sitting on the saddle in downhill. So padded bike shorts won’t do you any good. But apart from feeling like wearing diapers all day, they won’t harm your enjoyment either. Sometimes a chamois is just part of protector shorts and can’t be taken out. Either way, no harm no foul.
Regular sunglasses should not come on track with you. They usually don’t stay in place well with rapid movements, start to hurt under a full-face, and offer poor protection in case of a crash because of their size. Even worse, these lenses can break into shards, unlike bike-specific glasses or padded goggles.
Eye cover is very much recommended but make sure to bring the right one.
Road cycling shoes
While clip-in shoes are popular for mountain biking on difficult terrain, road cycling shoes don’t fall into that category. They’re not only awkward to walk around in on a mountain, but are also dangerous since they don’t make contact with the rest of the pedal and lack control – something dearly needed on technical trails.
Motocross knee braces
Full-on heavy knee braces like riders use in motocross are also a no-go as they limit the knees’ movement. Pedaling is still part of downhill, and so is balancing by moving the knees side to side. Also, I found thicker braces feel awkward and make me feel removed from the bike when they touch the bike frame. You just don’t feel as connected to the bike, similar to extra thick gloves.
Some riders choose to wear bulkier, more restrictive knee braces after a knee injury to benefit from exactly those limiting characteristics, but it’s unusual to do so pre-emptively. Similar to neck braces, the limitations are constant, while the potential benefits are tiny.