It's tough to find one thing that's good for everything - this holds true for bikes and knee pads. When it comes to bikes, a nice slack 5 or 6-inch travel trail bike is the choice of most savvy folks who can only have one bike in their garage. It may not be the best downhill machine, but it'll do, and it's not the best climber, but it sure is fun on the way back down. When it comes to knee pads, the same concept applies - protection, comfort, durability, breathability, and more variables are all at play. At first glance, the new T.H.E. Maxi Guards, first introduced at Sea Otter 2012, look to be equivalent to that do-it-all trail bike. They are low-profile, soft-shelled knee pads that rely on special SAS-TEC viscoelastic inserts for protection.
Starting from the outside and working our way in, the Maxi Guards are secured by a combination of two fixed straps and two adjustable velcro strap at the top and bottom. This means you'll have to take your shoes off to put them on. It also means that sizing isn't super crucial thanks to the adjustable straps. Strap placement is good. They don't hinder movement and don't cut off circulation, and you'll likely only have to readjust them once or twice during a long day of riding.
The exterior cap material is made from a low-friction Kevlar, which is actually quite smooth to the touch. This is a huge bonus when wearing the pads under pants or jeans because they hang up less than rougher alternatives. After a few good spills, durability in this area seems on par with the best of their competitors.
Here's where it gets interesting. Internally, the Maxi Guards use a pre-curved, SAS-TEC viscoelastic insert that reacts instantly to impacts by hardening, much like the orange D3O material many of you are likely familiar with. T.H.E. says that SAS-TEC is not only more impact absorbent than any other viscoelastic materials currently in use, but it's also lighter, more stable across a wider range of temperatures and lasts longer. Lab tests have even shown that it absorbs impacts better than hard-shelled pads because it deadens the blow and spreads the force out over a larger area and longer amount of time.
Does the SAS-TEC material work? Yes it does, and very well. We'll go ahead and verify the above statements based on some less-than-scientific tests of our own using a hammer. The inserts are soft and malleable (except for when it's super cold out), return to their original shape after impact, and can take repeat hits in rapid succession.
Looking at the photos above, you'll notice that the inserts are tapered on the edges. This makes for a more comfortable fit. You'll also notice that the top edge is curled over a bit. Inside the knee pad there are pockets that hold the inserts. Well, it appears that the inserts are just a smidge too large for the pocket they rest in, which results in them curling over. Unfortunately, the curling lifts the pads off the knee cap, which lessens the secure feeling you get from the pads. It does provide more airflow, though, which helps keep your knees dry.
The sides of the knee pads use EVA foam in select areas. There isn't much protection on the sides, but they rarely get banged up during a crash anyway.
That's all well and dandy, but how comfortable are they? Very. It's obvious that T.H.E. took good care when determining how to stitch them up. All the inner and outer seams are smooth to prevent chafing. As seen in the image above, they do bunch a little when your knee is at a full 90-degree angle, but the material cut-out behind the knee prevents it from bunching up where it matters.
Do they slide? Unfortunately, yes they do. The smooth inner material and overall size of the pads makes them more prone to moving during a crash than some of the alternatives. This could be aided by the addition of some silicone strips, but that might detract from comfort. Also, the lower elastic strap could really use an added guide loop or two, just like the top strap has. Once in a while the strap will migrate off the neoprene material during rides.
Are they breathable? You bet. Even though the SAS-TEC inserts have relatively few holes in them, the pads do quite well due to their vented sides, back, and overall size.
What's The Bottom Line?
Just like a do-it-all bike, the T.H.E. Maxi Guards will get you through just about every situation. They aren't always the best tool for the job, but in some instances they're great. We'd recommend these for riders confident in their abilities that want something super lightweight and super comfortable, "just in case." Riders that are more prone to crashes or those tackling aggressive terrain at speed will likely want to look for something with a little more protection. From the Kevlar tops to the SAS-TEC inserts, the Maxi Guards have a lot of good things going for them, we just wish they were a little longer to help with movement in the event of a crash.
Quick Update: After discussing our impressions with T.H.E., it seems sizing is crucial to the performance of these pads. We used a size large in this test. The sizing chart is based on two measurements - one above the knee and one below. In our case, the upper measurement aligned with size large, but the lower measurement was closer to a medium. In T.H.E.'s experience, it's best to err on the small side for the most secure fit, so be sure to take that into consideration when making a purchase.
About The Reviewer
Brandon Turman likes to pop off the little bonus lines on the sides of the trail, get aggressive when he's in tune with a bike, and to really mash on the pedals and open it up when pointed downhill. His perfect trail has a good mix of flow, tech, and balls-to-the-wall speed. He loves little transfers, rollers, and the occasional gap that gives him that momentary stomach in your throat kind of feeling. Toss in some rocky bits with the option to double over them or risk pinch flatting and you've got a winner in his book. In 13 years of riding he worked his way through the Collegiate downhill ranks to the Pro level. After finishing up his mechanical engineering degree, his riding focus turned to dirt sculpting and jumping with the occasional slopestyle contest thrown in for fun. Nowadays he's Vital MTB's resident product guy.