In any contemporary car, there are airbags. They aren't something you think about—until you crash. And when they're called into action, if they work as intended, you’ll have your airbags to thank for your well-being.
Good knee pads aren't so different. They shouldn't be something you think about—until rubber side is no longer down. When that happens, if they work as intended, you’ll have your knee pads to thank for your well-being—or at least your legs' well-being.
Break that down and there are two factors at work: comfort and protection. More of one usually results in less of the other, but maybe it doesn't have to. Leatt's Knee Guard 3DF 6.0 does a pretty damn good job of both.
The 3DF 6.0s aren't the ankle-to-thigh plastic behemoths you see rippers from the '90s wearing as they huck their teeter-totter drops, but they also aren't the glorified leg-warmer variety either. Up front the pad has two co-molded hard plastic shells that protect from mid-shin to the top of the knee, with a split between the shells for better articulation. Look to either side of those plastic shells and there’s an abundance of 3DF soft-impact foam. Combine the two and all the nooks, crannies and corners of your knee are protected—except the back, of course. Who falls on the back of their knee? It isn't just the knee though. From bottom to top the guard covers and protects over twelve inches of skin, wrapping functional padding around the sides for the entire length.
This mixture of plastic and foam is way more protection than I’m used to, and I have to say, it is quite nice. The plastic shells are much more confidence-inspiring than other, lighter weight, foam pads. Not only could I safely assume the shells would better absorb impacts, but they’d slide and deflect instead of grab and stick if limb should meet land. Even on tight trails where clipping bars is an occupational hazard, I was channeling my inner racer and steering with my knees, pointing them around rocky corners where I usually keep everything tucked closer to the bike. I was less worried about the result of a wash out, I was going faster and sending harder. All of this was psychological and not actually anything the pads were necessary for, but the psychological advantage translated into real-world confidence. I was regularly riding faster and more aggressive because of it.
In reality, I only slammed once with the 3DF 6.0s on. I was moving at a pretty good clip and lost my front wheel through a sandy corner. Down I went. Hand out, shoulder to dust—stand up, shake it off. A second look made me realize the outside of my leg and knee took the brunt of the force. The plastic had a fresh gouge and the dusty tell-tale sign of a fall caked my knee guard. I hadn't even felt it. That is a good enough indicator for me that I had these pads to thank for my legs’ well-being.
The extent of coverage on the 6.0s isn't extraordinary. The way that coverage is managed is. The guards are of the slip-on variety, with a single Velcro strap at the top to fine-tune fit. The top is also circumnavigated by a rubber anti-slip band. I wear the small/medium size and it is impressive how solid the guard fits.
The anti-slip silicone band did yank out some leg-hair when I first pulled the guards on, but once in position, the same band held things secure. A quick pull of the Velcro strap had me ready to go.
The articulation point between its plastic shells and the pre-curved design of the 6.0 made it easy to position into the right place right off the bat. I did occasionally set off with the pad slightly too low, and the softer neoprene top would bunch up beneath the stiffer front-facing pad, but a quick trailside adjustment remedied the problem. With the guard in position, I never experienced any slipping or unwanted movement on the up or down, and other than the occasional adjustment at the beginning of a ride, no more adjustments were needed. These aren't a pad you’ll want to pull down for riding up, and pull up for riding down. These are pads you set and forget, at least on descents.
My freedom of movement aboard the bike wasn't impeded in the slightest, and surprisingly, my legs didn't overheat in the California sun, though that sun has been rather mild of late. Everyone has different tolerances for heat buildup that comes with any sort of protection. I’m not saying the 6.0s are air conditioners, but they’re far from being sweat saunas. The numerous pads are held together with a perforated neoprene. The material offers extra protection against trail-rash, but also breathes. It doesn’t breathe quite enough that you can feel a breeze, but enough that they don’t trap warmth in an infinite feedback loop. The back is constructed from top to bottom of lightweight, extremely breathable mesh.
At the end of the day, this is a burly pad. It isn't comfortable to walk in with it pulled down to the ankles, and it does still heat up. You won't completely forget about them, but for how much protection is afforded, the comfort trade-off is surprisingly minimal. Leatt has done an incredible job of mapping the pads to allow for freedom of movement without handicapping security. You wouldn't drive a car without an airbag, so why ride a bike without knee pads?
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