Dainese's history in mountain biking started in the early 1990s. Philippe Perakis, a young athlete in the budding discipline, showed up at the Dainese booth at the Cologne Motorcycle Show.
He brought a motorcycle protector he’d modified himself – a Dainese safety jacket, to which Philippe, with the help of his mother, had applied additional carbon fiber plates.
It was a home-made experiment, yet it highlighted the need to protect oneself in the newly emerging sport. What were little more than cross-country bikes were the only vehicles available to riders, with limited suspension travel if any, and frames that, by today’s standards, were entirely inadequate for downhill riding. Nonetheless, the speeds they reached were already high, so that apparel had to be adjusted accordingly.
Perakis found Dainese a breeding ground for ideas and that meeting gave rise to a long and fruitful collaboration. They began, as always, by considering the needs of athletes – they analyzed them and then Dainese’s design and engineering department developed concrete solutions.
A short time later, one of the very first – if not the first ever – mountain bike protector was created. It was a one-piece suit designed specifically for downhill: The Overboost. The new suit was a little revolution in itself – it combined Lycra and composite protectors in the areas most vulnerable to impact, such as shoulders, elbows, knees, thighs, chest and neck area. It had a back protector, of course – after their motorcycle debut in 1979, they had immediately became the focus of nonstop development.
Perakis’s notoriety was also due to the extravagant look of his apparel, as only a very few people, if any, had ever worn specific protectors for downhill riding before he did. He looked almost like an astronaut on a mountain bike, and in fact some people called him just that. But it was his performance that mostly aroused interest, inconceivable for anyone until shortly before, without wearing adequate equipment.
Philippe was the first in the world to achieve a speed of over 100 km/h on a mountain bike, and he did so at the legendary Mammoth Kamikaze race, held at Mammoth Mountain, in California. The Kamikaze started in the late 1980s and is remembered as one of the most reckless downhill competitions. Riders would hurl themselves down from the mountain top – more than 3,000 meters high – and speed along the fastest access fire roads on bicycles equipped with only the most rudimentary suspension and braking systems.
Among other feats, Perakis made history by reaching 200 km/h on the record-breaking track in Vars, France – again, wearing a Dainese suit. And the effectiveness of his protectors soon persuaded many of his colleagues to do the same. Everyone realized that they could give their very best only when wearing specific mountain bike protectors, as feeling safe is the spark that ignites maximum performance.
In 1995, the World Mountain Bike Championship was held in Kirchzarten, Germany, on September 19. Nicolas Vouilloz, then aged 19, defeated the competition and won the first of his seven Elite rainbow titles in Downhill, as well as three Junior titles. Vouilloz was the first champion to wear Dainese and was the star who brought the brand to the forefront on the international downhill scene.
Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, all top riders were wearing Dainese mountain bike protectors – from Fabien Barel to Cedric Gracia, and from Shaun Palmer to Anne Caroline Chausson. This impetus inspired the creation of a complete line of products for mountain biking, and downhill in particular, a discipline that deserved its fame as one of the most sensational action sports. The discipline, in fact, underwent a rapid and relentless evolution, which made bicycles then only a few years old obsolete.
Apparel, and protective gear in particular, must keep up with the times, and that’s how we went from the early days’ simplest protectors to truly technology-packed devices – progressively engineered knee guards; increasingly comfortable, lightweight and effective safety jackets; new cutting-edge solutions and materials developed through scientific study and research.
In some cases, rigid protectors became soft, to provide athletes with the best possible riding conditions and meet top riders’ every demand, going as far as integrating elements from other sports, such as applying the metal plates from professional MotoGP™ riders' suits to mountain bike knee guards. Feedback from the champions has always been crucial to the development of series production, too, so as to share the benefits of a few people’s insight with everyone.
As is often the case, rudimentary prototypes inspire great ideas, and just as World Championship riders wore old visors instead of sliders back in the 1970s, Perakis had recycled a motorcycle protector, modifying it at home until he obtained what he needed.
After all, this is how it often happens: The most extreme test bench, such as the highest level competitions, inspires the most brilliant ideas in terms of mechanical devices and equipment, which often prove capable of changing the destiny of a sport – and the mindset of fans – forever.