Review by Johan Hjord // Photos by Tal Rozow and Johan Hjord
Kneepads are an essential piece of protective equipment, worn by almost every rider who likes to get a bit rowdy from time to time. Elbow pads are perhaps a slightly less common sight on the trail, but many riders will still reach for them when things get a bit hectic, or just for a little extra peace of mind. Race Face has been producing a line of pads (or guards) for a number of years already, offering a full range of protection for different applications. The Ambush line sits on the heavy duty side of the catalog, ready for pretty much anything you can throw at it – we put the 2013 edition to the test to see how it measures up in this highly competitive equipment category.
Ambush Knee and Elbow Highlights
- D30 high performance shock absorbing foam
- Perforated Neoprene enhances venting and moisture control
- Terry lined for wicking and comfort
- Open-back construction on the kneepads; no shoe removal necessary
- Foam padded side walls on the kneepads offer additional coverage
- Heavy-duty 600 denier nylon front panel casing
- Soft mesh panel at inner elbow to keep cool
- Woven upper elastic strap and lower Neoprene comfort strap on elbow pads
- Branded rubber grab tabs
- MSRP: $99.99 (Knee), $79.99 (Elbow)
Race Face makes quality gear, so we were not surprised to find a pair of pads that seem to have been very well put together right out of the bag. The attention to detail is obvious, and the materials chosen inspire confidence. All the seams appear well executed, and we found no loose threads nor any other apparent quality problems. That meant we were instantly ready to hit the trails to find out how these pads perform where it really matters.
On The Trail
The stand-out feature on the Ambush kneepad is the open back construction. The kneepad opens up completely thanks to three hook-and-loop straps, allowing you to put it on and take it off without removing your shoes. This is a boon, as having to remove your shoes is perhaps the single most annoying aspect of this type of pad from many other manufacturers. How many times have you arrived a big climb wanting to remove your kneepads, but not feeling up to taking your shoes off? Removing the Ambush pad takes all of five seconds – then you’re free to strap it to your pack or even the bike before the climb. This is a brilliant idea and Race Face has executed it perfectly.
The most important function of a knee or elbow pad is of course to protect you during the rougher episodes of your dirt love affair. On the Ambush range, Race Face has chosen to use D3O as the main protective material both for the knee and elbow pads. For those not familiar with D3O, it is a soft and malleable material featuring molecules that lock together to dissipate impact energy during hard hits (go ahead and put a hammer to it to test this – you know you want to).
Race Face has included a generous helping of this magical material in both the knee and elbow pads, complemented by smaller sections of more traditional foam on both sides of each kneepad. The pads are preformed to provide a comfortable fit, but without feeling the least bit flimsy as D3O pads sometimes do. The heavy-duty nylon used on the front panels appears extremely strong, and looks better than the previous generation of these pads – we’ve certainly not been able to put more than superficial scuffs on it.
The inside of the pads is made out of soft Terry liner, which is very comfortable and stays that way after washing. The pads get a little warm, but definitely nothing more than we would expect, given the amount of protection on offer. We found the sizing to be spot on, although the straps are strong so you might want to make sure you try on a pair before buying - they can feel a bit tight when done up. The pads are easy to put on and remove, and easy to adjust. Of course, the pads would be useless if they moved around during riding, and we’re happy to report that these stay put no matter what you get up to. Pedaling, rock gardens, jumps, drops... these pads stay where they’re meant to, ready for your next failure to keep the rubber side down.
On the topic of crashing, we’ve ridden these pads for more than three months and inevitably, there have been some dirt sampling exercises during that time. These pads do a great job of protecting you, at least as good as comparable offerings from other manufacturers, and we were only able to twist one of the kneepads to the side of the knee once (during a particularly acrobatic and not very graceful tumble). As a side note, if you are worried about your shins, Race Face makes a version of these with included shin protector, called the Flank.
Long Term Durability
In terms of wear and tear, besides now looking a bit older, the pads have held up really well. All the seams are still tight, and there are no holes or tears in the fabric to report. Specifically, the lined neoprene used is clearly of the stronger variety here. We’ve used pads from other brands where the neoprene literally fell apart after a few months.
Things That Could Be Improved
The one issue we have found is Race Face's choice to put the “hook side” of the Velcro (hook and loop) material on the pad itself, which is the longer portion – thus leaving this side of the Velcro exposed unless you do the strap up completely which makes it very tight. The net result of this is that part of the “hook” material can be left exposed, ready to snag your short liner or indeed rub away at the lower part of the front panel of the kneecap in the case of the lower strap. This is a minor gripe which could have been resolved by inverting the design, using the rougher “hook” side on the strap end, leaving only the soft “loop” side exposed on the pad. Speaking with Race Face about this issue, it turns out that by inverting the design, there would be a risk of exposing the rough hook side of the strap to the skin for riders between sizes - so the choice was made to run the risk of snagging shorts as opposed to scraping away at bare skin. On balance, this seems like a smart choice. See below for an illustration of the rough side of the Velcro exposed unless the strap is tightened all the way:
We should also point out that as with most D3O-equipped pads, these are not cheap, at least not at list price (although they can be found online at significant discount at this time). We feel that D3O offers enough advantages to justify the price tag, especially in a well-executed design like this one.
What’s The Bottom Line?
Race Face has brought an innovative approach to a well-established design, and this has worked out really well. These are among the most solid pads we’ve ever tried in this category, and they’ve stood up to abuse quite nicely. They are all-day comfortable to wear and provide effective protection, and the open back design on the kneepads is a game changer for those who like to remove their pads for climbing (*cough* Enduro *cough*). Apart from the minor issue of exposed Velcro potentially snagging your shorts, the design is a homerun.
For more details, visit www.raceface.com.
About The Reviewer
Johan Hjord loves bikes, which strangely doesn’t make him any better at riding them. After many years spent practicing falling off cliffs with his snowboard, he took up mountain biking in 2005. Ever since, he’s mostly been riding bikes with too much suspension travel to cover up his many flaws as a rider. His 200-pound body weight coupled with unique skill for poor line choice and clumsy landings make him an expert on durability - if parts survive Johan, they’re pretty much okay for anybody. Johan rides flat pedals with a riding style that he describes as "none" (when in actuality he rips!). Having found most trail features to be not to his liking, Johan spends much of his spare time building his own. Johan’s other accomplishments include surviving this far and helping keep the Vital Media Machine’s stoke dial firmly on 11.