Modern mountain bikes are faster and more powerful than ever. But this enhanced downhill performance increases the likelihood of crashing – that’s why a good pair of knee pads should be an integral part of any rider’s equipment arsenal. With the best knee pads on the market offering peerless protection, ventilation and comfort, we tested some of the most exciting models in the lab and on the trails.
Gone are the days of knee pads looking like prosthetic limbs: they are now a true fashion statement for modern mountain bikers. The market has been dominated recently by viscoelastic foam protectors, not only because they’re lighter and more comfortable than conventional hard shell versions but predominantly because they offer better protection and absorb impact forces more efficiently. With a variety of gel-based materials now mixing things up and a growing number of manufacturers experimenting with different material combinations, we decided it was time for a fact check!
This is what knee pads are all about
The best knee pad is useless if it doesn’t fit properly. And that’s why you should always try it on before buying. If a knee pad doesn’t fit the shape of your leg it can quickly turn uncomfortable and make pedalling feel like torture. But it’s not just about finding the right balance between length and circumference; seams, zips and Velcro fasteners can cause annoying and painful friction burns on your skin. In our individual knee pad reviews we reveal which problems occurred during testing–and where they were encountered.
Fit and comfort may seem inextricably linked but they’re not necessarily the same thing: a good fit will prevent the protector from slipping and provide effective protection in the event of a crash. Many brands use silicone strips and/or fastening straps to keep the knee pads in place, but not all concepts work in reality. Strapless knee pads demand a particularly snug fit in order to stay in place; this has even more relevance when it comes to the lightweighter models on test.
Internal protection is at the heart of every knee pad and guarantees its protective function. Depending on the type and model, it’s either sewn directly into the knee pad or slotted in so that it can be removed when needed. In order to carefully calculate each protector’s capacity for shock absorption we employed the expertise of a high-end lab to analyse each protector individually. Many of the protectors demonstrated the same values, and many came from the same manufacturers. Certain brands are experimenting with more exotic materials, but not all of these delivered the requisite performance in the lab. Some feature a plastic skid plate in addition to the standard foam padding; these hard shells showed a nominal advantage in the lab but their sliding characteristics proved game-changing on the trails by preventing the knee pad from catching on the ground.
Nothing really beats riding on a hot summer’s day, right? But it could turn into a real sweat-fest if you’re garbed up in stuffy, non-breathable protectors. More robust fabrics and additional layers may admittedly offer more protection against abrasions, but there’s also a time and place for ventilation so it’s important that you find a good compromise. Our intuitive star scoring method for each individual knee pad will give you an easy overview.
Like any technical baselayer, a knee pad will soak up huge amounts of sweat–but it’s also exposed to the elements so it is likely to get covered in dirt. This means you’ll have to wash it from time to time: naturally hand washing is recommended, but if you’ve got a model with removable protectors then it should comfortably survive some cycles in the washing machine.
Knee pads move and flex with every turn of the cranks, so durability should be a key concern. Visible wear-and-time is one easy marker but there’s also the chance that the foam protector could rip if you don’t take care of it properly. The protector may get damaged when bent, which means take extra care should be taken when removing it from the knee pad. The iXS CARVE EVO+ suffered this fate during testing, but we’ve encountered this issue with other pads previously.
Obviously aesthetics play an important role but we urge you not to base your decision exclusively on colour or decals. Fortunately, the bike industry knows us riders well so all the models on test would pass a style check without any problems – provided there isn’t a visible gap between your shorts and the pads!
The test field
We divided the candidates into two categories: the lightweight ones and the heavyweight hitters. The lightweight category included everything up to 400 g; these are primarily aimed at riders who keep their knee pads on when climbing and those who wear them on longer rides. After our last test in 2016 we decided to raise the weight limit of the category and exclude any ultralight models that can’t guarantee a significant level of protection. The models in our heavyweight category offer the maximum protection for shuttle-assisted rides and bike park session but may not be wholly suitable for long rides.
|Knee Pad||Removable protector||Weight||Price|
|661 EVO KNEE II||yes||525 g||€ 119,99|
|Amplifi Cortex Polymer||no||551 g||€ 110,00|
|FOX Launch Pro D3O||yes||628 g||€ 135,00|
|ION K-Pact Zip||yes||517 g||€ 99,95|
|iXS CARVE EVO+||yes||442 g||€ 99,99|
|LEATT 3DF 6.0||no||495 g||€ 99,99|
|O’Neal SINNER Kevlar Knee RACE Guard||yes||676 g||€ 109,99|
|Scott Grenade Evo||yes||553 g||€ 99,95|
|Sweet Protection Bearsuit Pro||yes||577 g||€ 149,95|
|Knee Pads||Removable protector||Weight||Price|
|661 Recon Knee||no||153 g||€ 74,99|
|Dainese Trailskins 2||no||324 g||€ 72,95|
|G-Form Elite Knee Guards||no||367 g||€ 99,90|
|iXS FLOW EVO||yes||296 g||€ 79,90|
|Leatt AirFlex Pro||no||255 g||€ 89,99|
|POC Joint VPD System Knee||no||348 g||€ 159,95|
|SCOTT Soldier 2||no||330 g||€ 79,95|
|Sweet Protection Bearsuit Light Knee Pads||yes||368 g||€ 99,95|
How we tested
Objectivity was a key concern when it came to testing the protective function of each protector, which is why we teamed up with the German protection specialists at SAS-TEC and used their high-tech facilities to ensure that all the protectors met the “EN 1621-1:2012 Standard” for motorcycle limb joint impact protection. Each model was subjected to an impact with a 5 kg weight, dropped from a height of one metre on three different measuring points (corresponding to 50 joules). A hemispherical anvil replicates the knee joint while a number of sensors measure the residual force and draw a force curve. The norm defines two protection levels: with Level 1 the average residual force must not exceed 35 kN and no single impact should exceed 50 kN. With Level 2 the average residual force must remain below 20 kN, and no single impact should exceed 30 kN. Sounds complex, but it makes sense on a graph.
Our lab test results
The lab tests unveiled the protective function of various knee pad materials and protector types, and we were really surprised to see that all of the kneepads conformed to the standard – with most of them passing the stricter Level 2 requirements, even if they are not all strictly certified as Level 2 protectors. The uncertified 661 Recon Knee only just missed the standard but is still worlds apart from the best knee pads in our test. The SCOTT Grenade Evo testified that additional layers of simple PU foam may add comfort but don’t add anything to the protective qualities of the knee pad. Interestingly, any additional padding on the sides won’t improve the level of shock absorption but should prevent abrasions.
Top marks in our heavy-duty department go to the AMPLIFI, O’Neal, ION, iXS and Sweet Protection pads – closely followed by the SCOTT and Fox models. The 661 and Leatt trail in with a much lower performance, and although all of the models satisfied the standard the Leatt recorded a whopping 82% more residual force in the knee joint than our top-scoring models and ended right at the bottom of the test field.
Sweet Protection bags the victory in the lightweight class closely followed by the iXS.
POC, SCOTT and Dainese scored high in the lab, putting them in the same league as the heavy-duty models. Leatt and G-Form failed to compete with the top models but still offer great protection. The 661 Recon Knee takes last place but with 153 g it is also the lightest kneepad in our test.
We’ve transposed the lab results into a handy star rating, so that you can compare the lightweight models with the heavy-duty ones. Additional protection systems are not included in our rating but they’re mentioned in the respective individual tests.
Hard shells vs. foam protectors
The graph shows the typical force distribution of hard shell protectors and foam protectors. The slower the curve rises and the lower it stays, the better the impact absorption. Another important value is the time span up to peak force measurement–this should be as long as possible. It’s pretty clear that not only are viscoelastic foam protectors more comfortable than classic plastic shells but they also offer a much higher level of protection. Additional plastic shells applied on top of the foam protector do little to improve the protective effect but will increase the sliding properties of the kneepad.
Out on the trails we collected the impressions of seven experienced riders and journalists from ENDURO, which stringently tested the knee pads both on our local trails and in a multiple-day testing session on the trails of Sospel in Southern France. Comfort, fit, ventilation and finish were the main focus.
Choose your Type of Knee Pads
Words: Moritz Dittmar Photos: Valentin Rühl