REVIEW | EDITORIAL
The Leatt Airflex Pro v. Your Best Non-Newtonian Knee Warmers
Better Than Nothing Knee Pads
I gave up on better-than-nothing knee pads ages ago. After trying a tonne of different options of non-newtonian knee warmers, I decided it was hard-shells or nothing. Usually nothing. It's not that I don't understand that the materials continued to develop as options beyond D3O-brand have permeated the market. The dynamic doughs now respond faster to impacts, are less susceptible to stiffening in cold weather, and companies have become much better at shaping the material compared when they first came on the scene. No doubts. But, knee pads are not a new product category by any means and I think there's a strong argument that good fits have been available for a long, long time. Even the most instant change in armour gel viscosity doesn't offer the same protection to sharp-pointed impacts as a hardshell pad.
Flipped, even the best hardshell pads are not dreamy to pedal in. I usually climb with mine around my ankles and then pull them up for descents. Actually, I usually leave them at home but for riding trails where there's a decent guarantee that I'm going to bail or the odd time I'm riding a chairlift or shuttling. In other words, it has been years and years since I regularly wore armour besides gloves and a helmet.
This brings me to the Leatt Airflex Pro knees. Just given our uncertain times I have been trying to ride in knee pads a lot more; trying - I can't always bring myself to do it - and my hard shell pads of choice have long been Leatt. So, when the green & orange armour arrived at NSMB, I figured I would at least put them on. Then I went for a short pedal. Then I went for a long pedal. And wouldn't you bloody know it, I can ride for hours with these pads in place and they are really, really comfortable. Annoyingly comfortable. No real excuse not to wear them, comfortable. I would prefer not to wear them but have barely done a ride without them since, comfortable. Argh.
Now to be clear, they are a whole bunch warmer than wearing nothing. I know that isn't a big shock to anyone. They do breathe better than many, most, even all other knees I've tried. But, I still make a grumpy face when I pull them up on a hot day and think about all the additional sweating I'll be doing.
And when I'm alone in the dark on a rainy night, find myself suddenly swimming through the air, and then land on some wet-weather-approved rock armouring, I am much more aware of the impact than wearing a hardshell. And that's hitting the deck on a relatively smooth surface. In fact, I have a certain thought ritual I go through each time I'm picking myself up off the forest floor. What would be different if I was wearing my Leatt Enduro knees? What would be different if I was wearing nothing?
In many ways, I wish I had never put them on. The damn things are even unnoticeably nice to pedal in, for hours, in the pissing rain, when I'm riding in pants. I've even started wearing them for Shore-XC loops on hot days because I really have no excuse not to. I actually feel a bit guilty, in a 'what if?' kind of way, if I leave them at home. Even as they have started to bag out a bit with use it's rare that I have to adjust them on the trail even after repeated climbs or hike-a-bike sections.
When Leatt says that 3D molded gel, which they call AirFlex, and the rest of the pad are pre-curved, I think it's worth noting that they are not over-shaped. I've spent plenty of hours spinning gears and standing and mashing my one-speed and climbing is comfortable - both seated and standing. Other pre-curved pads I've tried feel like they are resisting against some standing pedaling motions.
Then I went for a long pedal. And wouldn't you bloody know it, I can ride for hours with these pads in place and they are really, really comfortable. Annoyingly comfortable. No real excuse not to wear them, comfortable. I would prefer not to wear them but have barely done a ride without them since, comfortable.
Unicorns? Get your unicorns‽ Leatt has been making knee pads for quite a while now, and I do quite like my hardshell pads but I wouldn't put them above other hardshell pads I have used in the past that fit well. Including the distant past. Though I do love that they don't use Velcro.
The AirFlex Pro is a bizarrely different experience which I can't explain. Is it just straight up lucky that they happen to fit me really well or have impact-hardening materials, and shaping them, improved that much in the last couple of years? They're slim, light, and nicely contoured. I'm suddenly interested in checking out other D3O-style options like Cam's beloved polymer-dough pads, from Slytech.
If you're in the same boat as me in thinking knee pads are a good idea but not having found something that's comfortable to pedal in all day, I would absolutely check out 80 USD AirFlex Pro. Now that I've apparently committed to wearing armour every ride, if you have a favourite better-than-nothing non-Newtonian knee warmer that's great for all-day pedaling, I'd love to hear.