The Troy Lee Designs EG 5550 elbow guards and KG 5450 knee guards go together like Dr. Evil and Mini Me.
Finding a bike isn’t the problem…every time you turn around another amazing all-mountain/enduro/trail ride bike is rolling into your LBS. But scour those same shops for purpose-built accessories to go with it and you’ll likely end up making compromises–particularly when it comes to body armor. While the kind of riding one does on such a bike could certainly benefit from the added protection and confidence padding brings, most of what you’ll find is excessive downhill-level gear, which while protective, is hard to carry, heavy, and a bitch to pedal in–overkill to say the least.
So-called “soft shell” pads made with strain-rate reactive materials–Poron or d30, for example–that go from soft to hard on impact have helped with portability, but their coverage lacks, and their density makes them as heavy as their hard-shelled counterparts. They perform very well in certain impacts and not so good in others and are susceptible to tearing. They’re also usually wrapped in sweat-inducing neoprene, inspiring the well-earned nickname “knee diapers.”
A couple years ago, Troy Lee Designs quietly released a hybrid series of guards cutting weight and bulk substantially while providing acceptable protection and pedalability. The accounting department apparently handled the naming, dubbing the elbow guards the EG 5500/5550, while the knee guards got the snappy KG 5400/5450 moniker. They each come in two lengths–”00″ indicating short, joint-only coverage, and “50″ indicating an additional extension covering the forearm or shin. For this test, we only examined the fuller-coverage EG 5550 and KG 5450 models.
Enter the matrix: the right materials in the right place
Eschewing neoprene in favor of a Spandex/nylon mix, the base sleeve of the guards feel more like arm and leg warmers than a suffocating wetsuit. Rather than using a simple fabric tube, however, TLD have sewn several pieces of fabric into their tapered X-Fit configuration–an ergonomic matrix designed to compliment the way the elbows and knees naturally flex. Tighter fitting rubber/elastic grip zones at the top and bottom of each piece keeps the guards secure and in place without the need for adjustable straps or buckles.
The snug-fitting X-Fit Spandex/nylon blend comfortably allows both the elbow and knee guards to flex naturally.
For the protective function, TLD takes a layered approach using what they call Strata-Foam–variable density plies of specially molded and cut foam, sandwiched to provide high-impact protection in some areas and flexibility in others. Tough, abrasion-resistant Aramid fabric encloses the layers and are punctuated by some tasteful, rubber molded brand logos.
Hitting the trail
As armor goes, the EG and KG guards are the most comfortable we’ve ever pedaled in. The well-executed articulation zones conform to the body as-advertised and the lack of bulk is noticeable both when worn or stowed in a pack. At 490 grams for the set, the combined weight of the elbow and knee guards are less than half the weight of my former go-to armor set, the Fox Launch elbow and leg guards. That’s a weight savings of more than a pound–a fact that more often persuades me to bring them along on those “could go either way” rides.
On cool days you can leave the pads on for both up and down hill segments, making them a good choice on technical rolling terrain as well as for enduro racing. In hotter weather they perform as you’d expect–a little too warm on the flats and uphills, but nowhere near the sweat lodge-factor of either neoprene or full-coverage hard shells.
I’ve done techy XC rides in 50- and 60-degree weather with them on the whole time, and alternately employed the “on for down, off for up” protocol like I did with the Fox gear for warmer rides.
Yeah, but can they take a hit?
Despite my earnest attempts to give you real-world impressions on which to base your gear decisions, I draw the line at intentionally crashing to impact-test safety gear like helmets and body armor.
Thankfully, TLD provides an impact rating to give some scale to the issue. If you look at their website, a set of hard shell guards like the Lopes Knee Guards have a protection rating of 7, while the KG 5450s sport a rating of 5. Though there’s no explanation of what these numbers quantitatively mean, coming from a reputable manufacturer like Troy Lee, I’m inclined to believe the KG’s “5″ rates well above that of a sock and a step or two below the hard shell.