There was a time, often called the golden ages of the sports, when the best action sports athletes in the world were wearing safety protection almost as bulky and heavy as they were.
Look at early pictures of Tony Hawk or Mat Hoffman plying their respective trades, wearing a plethora of pads as they went where no mere mortal had gone before on a skateboard or a BMX, in the hopes that their basic, heavyweight armour could prevent the inevitable trip to the hospital from being too serious should things not pan out quite as they had hoped for.
"We had Philipp Perakis with the Downhill Suit and Anne Caroline Chausson, then Nicolas Vouilloz, so we were the best"
Watch Nico Vouilloz racing to his first elite level World Championship win in Kirchzarten in 1995, iconic yellow full face helmet and Dainese logos on both knees, standing up on the saddle of a GT bike boasting state-of-the-art slack head angle and 120mm of travel which would guide “the protégé” to the finish line 2.02 seconds ahead of countryman Francois Gachet.
Or take Fabien Barel nine years later, taking his first World Champs in Les Gets in 2004, and raising two arms in the air to celebrate while the upper torso body armour on his shoulders and elbows distorted the rainbow jersey to make him look like some kind of superhuman.
The sport has transformed since then, of course. And not just the bikes. Compare Nico’s 1995 GT or the 2004 ride of Fabien Barel, now racing director at Canyon, to the Canyon Senders or Strives that Barel’s enduro and downhill teams are using this season and you’ll see a lot more has changed than just the length of the travel.
Boris Beyer/Canyon Bicycles
The disciplines have opened up and expanded - from downhill and all-mountain to slopestyle and enduro - and although it may not be as immediately recognisable as the changes in the bikes, the body armour the athletes wear has transformed along the way too. Though for many, the brand they trust to provide that protection has not.
“Dainese were really famous in early mountain biking. We were the first to make this kind of protection and during the first years of the 90s and the 00s we were the best ones. We had Philipp Perakis with the Downhill Suit and Anne Caroline Chausson, then Nicolas Vouilloz, so we were the best.
"The big difference between the way we work and the way competitors work is that we research the materials internally"
We’re speaking to Davide Brugnoli. David has been a skier since he was three years old, and a mountain biker since he was 12. He is now a Junior Multi-Sport Product Manager at protection experts Dainese, where he has worked for the past two years.
Davide is giving us a history lesson in mountain biking armour and protection - a journey which Dainese started long ago, and one which they are back at the forefront of now.
“For most of the world, mountain biking protection used to also be called ‘the Dainese’,” Davide laughs. “If you went to a bike park or a race in the 90s or 00s you would see protection and call it a Dainese. Not a back protector or armour - you’re wearing a Dainese.
“We were really famous. Then we had some problems because the market was really changing and going to all-mountain and enduro, and we were stuck with the connotations of a brand who just make hard shells and hard protective gear.
“But there have been big changes since then. In 2014 we introduced one of the most famous products of the Dainese collection - the Trail Skin. The first Trail Skin was a benchmark product because it was one of the only knee pads for trail riding which was lightweight and breathable and featured protection on the side of the knee. Most only had protection on the front.”
Dainese are a company still probably best known for their work in motorcycle protection, where they supply extensive gear to Valentino Rossi, but with the invention of the D-Air ski system - the first airbag safety system for downhill skiers - they have come to be trusted by the fastest skiers in the world, and their return to the mountain biking elite saw Dainese announce a two year partnership with Canyon at the start of 2018 as well.
We ask Davide what it is that sets them apart in what may once have been a domain they dominated, but is now a crowded and competitive marketplace.
“The big difference between the way we work and the way competitors work is that we research the materials internally,” he tell us.
“Our competitors just have to make a pocket into which they insert their protector. The way we work is completely different. We research materials that are really protective and that are certified with the highest European standards and then we seal these directly onto the sock.
“Our protector is really firm, so even when you fall down, the protector stays in position. If you have a pocket where you insert the protector, it can move. This is the big difference.”
It’s clear from talking to Davide just how fascinated and passionate he is about his work at Dainese. He talks me through the D-Air ski system in detail, through Dainese’s pioneering use of seamless technology in mountain biking protection and jerseys and through their innovative flexagon technology, where a protector is "made of several layers of foam to crush and absorb, and cut into hexagons. [The hexagons] move around independently of one another, so the protector can flip around 150 degrees for comfort and flexibility.”
By the end of our chat, I’m quite confident I’d trust whatever product this man handed to me with my life.
As Dainese look to cement their place in the modern day mountain biking market, they have of course turned their eye to the latest craze in the scene - the world of enduro. One of Dainese’s most exciting new products is the Enduro Knee Guard, which the company and Davide hope will create an innovative solution to knee guard discomfort.
Basically, Dainese have taken some of the most sophisticated technological studies in the world - lest we forget this is the company that designed a literal spacesuit to prevent the lengthening of the spine in zero gravity on the International Space Station - and put it to work solving the minor niggles and annoyances you have with your mountain biking protection.
“The Enduro knee guard is pretty complex,” Davide tells us. “We decided to mix together two technologies from two different worlds, Pro-Armor and ABS technology. One is coming from the trail world and one is coming from the gravity discipline.
“The Pro-Armor covers a much bigger area of the knee than normal. You cover all the kneecap, all the shin bone on the upper part, and all the cover is also on the external side of the knee, so the most delicate bones are completely covered by the Pro-Armor. It’s also really stretchable and extremely breathable though. Then we decided to apply the ABS technology directly onto the Pro-Armor, so the most exposed bones features an ABS construction as well.
"When the ABS gets knocked into something it transforms that impact into heat. Then the heat is spread all over the side of the knee so you don’t feel the impact directly"
“Pro-Armor absorbs the impact, but the ABS is really good against rocks or really hard obstacles, because the way ABS works is completely different. When the ABS gets knocked into something it transforms that impact into heat. Then the heat is spread all over the side of the knee. So you don’t feel the impact directly on the bone but you feel an impact which is then spread all over the kneepad. It’s really brilliant.”
All of this work has been done in conversation and work with Fabien Barel and the team at Canyon.
Davide continues: “We started to work with Canyon last year in Finale Ligure after the EWS final. We met Fabien and the guys on the enduro team, and we brought the protector.
“We had several discussions about the product and decided to work in a completely different way to normal to avoid possible defects coming from other knee pads from the past. The big work was on the sock of the kneepad. It’s really breathable on the back of the knee, where you need it most, and then we decided to redesign completely the velcro construction.
Boris Beyer/Canyon Bicycles
“We get really good tips on riding positions and on the riding shape from the athletes, so we can study, directly, the shape of the knee during the race, or we can study the position of a rider during a fall with videos or data, we can study a bad fall or different types of falls, a side fall, or a fall over the bars. The athletes can tell us what their needs are.”
When you hear the inner workings of how the protection is put together at Dainese, it’s hard not to get an immediate trust in the strength of the product.
Now with the help of Fabien Barel and the Canyon crew on their current product line, and with Dainese building on both their lessons from the Vouillaz era of mountain biking and from the rest of their esteemed multi-sport heritage, it looks very much like they’re here to stay.
Having now talked to Davide, one thing is for sure - we’ll certainly feel a little safer next time we take a holiday over the handlebars.