When getting ready for a mountain bike ride, you can never be too careful, especially when it comes to choosing the right clothing. Every biker’s starting kit is decided not only by studying the weather conditions, but also by the kind of routes tackled (a light trail is different from an enduro one). So unambiguously pinpointing the characteristics of the ideal MTB clothing is no mean feat. Nonetheless, there are some basic rules – which apply to everyone – that we can follow, as being well prepared, both in terms of safety and comfort, is always important.
Though helmets are key elements for your protection, there’s not really a right answer to this question. It really depends on what kind of biker you are and how you want to ride. If you like light and undemanding trails, your first choice should be an open-face helmet. The most obvious advantages of open-face helmets are their lightness and ventilation, traits that are especially noticeable during the hot season.
If, on the other hand, you’re an enduro enthusiast, you can’t do without a full-face helmet. The level of safety is higher, owing to the inclusion of a chinguard and a more enveloping shell in the nape area and on the sides of the head. Moreover, due to the lightweight materials employed today, even a full-face helmet will feel comfortable for long periods of time and is well ventilated.
Which jersey to wear is always a matter of opinion, because temperature isn’t always the decisive factor you might wish. In winter, riders tend to prefer a long-sleeved jersey paired with a base layer or a protective short-sleeved T-shirt, as a matter of fact. Inevitably, you will end up wearing another garment over the jersey – the type will depend on the conditions.
In spring, fall, and summer, anything goes. It’s mostly down to personal taste. Those who love short sleeves appreciate the increased freedom of movement and feeling less overheated when under strain, and particularly when riding uphill. On the other hand, those who prefer long sleeves really value the additional feeling of protection, both from the weather (including the summer sun, especially high up in the mountains) and from any insects or branches that, at high speed, can really hurt.
T-shirts aside, what’s important first and foremost is to keep the upper part of the body protected from any traumatic falls. And this is why the ideal outfit for any trail ride, and especially enduro ones, must include chest, back and shoulder protectors. The market offers jerseys with integrated protectors – as a reminder, they can be Level 1 or Level 2, depending on their impact absorption ability.
As well as jerseys with protectors, you can also find tank tops of the same type, though the protective inserts will only be on the chest and back. This is a great solution for trail rides in the warmest season, as leaving your underarms exposed will allow for a considerable amount of ventilation and extra coolness.
Knowing your riding style is also useful when choosing protectors for the upper body area – you will be able to pick the most suitable protective jersey for you.
Are jerseys and protectors enough? It depends on the season and the climate. When cycling in variable conditions, like high up in the mountains, you shouldn’t leave without a waterproof shell in tow, even in summer. Made of waterproof and breathable material, the shell is a garment that can make the difference between a fantastic ride and a nightmarish one due to an unexpected downpour or a sudden drop in temperature. The shell is a versatile, always useful garment, especially if your ride starts early in the morning or involves significant differences in altitude. If you choose to buy one, pay attention to the taping of the seams: If this small detail is missing, water might otherwise seep through the holes in the seams, despite the fabric’s waterproofing.
If a shell is not enough, you might need an intermediate layer to keep you warm even on winter days. The main difference between technical mountain bike sweaters and more casual garments lies in the materials they are made of and how they fit. Their construction involves fabrics with different characteristics for different areas of the body: They usually feature air-resistant material at the front, while they are lighter and more breathable at the back. The fit is generally slim, so as to avoid excess fabric bothering you while riding. When choosing the size, you will inevitably need to take into account the type of protectors you wear.
For those who can’t do without their mountain bike even when it’s freezing cold, there are waterproof jackets with another thin but important insulating layer. This is definitely the warmest type of garment, perfect for keeping you totally comfortable even in the most difficult situations – during rides in the snow, for example.
On those days when the temperature is uncertain, such as in spring and fall or even on sunny winter days, having an additional garment you can put on or take off when needed but doesn’t have to be carried in a backpack is extremely useful. There are incredibly lightweight, foldable and packable jackets that can easily be carried in your pocket when you’re not wearing them. They’re made of windproof and water-repellent material, and might turn out to be of invaluable help in many cases.
When you’re going for a ride, the choice of pants is mainly determined by the temperature outside. Three seasons out of four, short pants are preferable for sure, but during winter or those days when the weather is particularly unforgiving, long pants will be considerably more comfortable. Long pants can also be a solution for summer days spent at the bike park, when there’s no real altitude difference and you might want some additional protection.
In terms of ergonomics, long and short pants are comparable, as they’re always made with lightweight, breathable and stretch fabrics that follow all body movements when riding, never getting in your way.
Protecting your knees is essential, both in the most demanding descents and the slopes that are apparently more harmless. This is why there are many types of protectors on the market, which can be worn for long periods of time and don’t interfere with or become annoying when pedaling, and also offer different levels of protection depending on the type of trail. The difference mainly lies in the front protective panel, which can even include steel reinforcements or use the latest technologies related to shock dispersal during an impact, such as auxetics.
Aside from safety, when you wear a knee guard all day long, its features need to include good ergonomics (it must be designed to hug the joint and perfectly follow all its movements), overall lightness, and breathability, even at low speed, when you’re going uphill.
Gloves can save our hands, protecting them if we fall or when rubbing against branches and natural protrusions. And they perform a fundamental function while riding: Gloves that offer optimal grip on the handlebars make all the difference in terms of riding sensitivity. They are also useful when going uphill, which is something that should not be overlooked: Gloves significantly increase your level of comfort in all stages of your ride and, especially in summer, help to absorb and expel sweat, which can otherwise become quite annoying while holding the handlebar.
When riding downhill, handlebar and pedals are the only two touchpoints we have, so gloves generally need to be light and flexible, so as not to become a ‘barrier’ between us and our bike. Accordingly, it’s important that the palm has reduced thickness while the gloves themselves remain resistant and protect against rubbing. On the back of the hand a good feature is rubber inserts, providing some safety in case of impact, and they must also be very flexible, in order to follow all hands’ movements.
From helmet to pants, each element of your kit entails different decisions, and beginners might find some help in understanding how to best prepare themselves according to riding style and weather conditions very valuable. And while temperature is, of course, subjective, protection is always an objective necessity. Feeling generally safe is precisely what enables the ideal conditions for our very best performance and honing our skills every time we get on the bike.