I've never owned a sticky rubber knee pad before. I made it through two long trips to Rifle, Colorado before I finally caved and bought one prior to my third trip. You can get away without using one, but the routes in Rifle are graded assuming you are wearing one, or two. I've even seen someone wear three, but won't get into the details of that. Rifle is the knee bar capitol of the world and to climb the blocky, knee bar-intensive, routes you pretty much have to wear one. A few years ago, my first bout with Apocalypse (5.13b) ended with me lowering off, having not completed all the moves. I borrowed some kneepads and the cruxes turned into rests. Seriously.
Joe Kinder with double knee pads, milking the knee bar rest on his Rifle route, Bad Girls Club (5.14d) Photo: DPM
So when I saw that Five Ten was distributing the first mass-produced, widely available knee bar pad, I jumped at the opportunity and bought one. Traditionally, climbers would either make their own or buy knee bar pads from certain shoe resolers that hand-crafted them. They were made by gluing a patch of sticky rubber to a standard neoprene knee brace that you could pick up at Rite-Aid. They worked, and they worked fairly well. My problem with this set up was the pre-game required to put them on. I've watched climbers in Rifle spend 20 minutes getting prepped for a route, only to fall off 30 seconds into their redpoint burn and then spend slightly less time dismantling their battle gear. It's pretty funny.
Let's walk through the steps of battle prep with a traditional knee bar pad. First, you have to shave your leg. This can be done in the privacy of your own home, which is preferred. Then you spray your thigh with a sticky pre-tape substance. I'm not sure what it's called but it makes the pad stick to your leg and leaves a nasty black residue that isn't very pleasant when showers are three days apart. Then the knee pad gets pulled on. Almost done... The final step is wrapping the pad at the upper edge with duct tape. If you didn't shave your leg, you're in for some serious pain upon removal.
Rock warriors ready to do battle with the stone of Rifle Mountain Park, the kneebar capital of the world. Prepping for this photo took over an hour and required a full roll of duct tape.
I'm not down for shaving my leg, spraying glue on my thigh, or carrying around a roll of duct tape so I bought the Five Ten Neon. The obvious benefit to the Neon are the double-Velcro straps that immediately strap the pad to your thigh as tight as you want it. No glue, no duct tape. Instant tight fit.
Another improvement over the traditional homemade job is the construction. The stealth rubber is stitched on to a canvas backed layer of synthetic leather. The Neon is going to be bombproof for a lifetime. Around the back of the thigh is a wide swath of elastic that only stretches laterally. How do they do it? Science is amazing. This allows a one-size fits all model. There are four pull-tabs around the upper end of the pad so pulling it on is a breeze.
Five Ten Neon top view: Note the pull tabs, full coverage sewed on sticky rubber, and chalk dust from putting knees where hands are supposed to go.
It took me a couple days in Rifle before I forced myself to get on a route that requires "crawling." "Crawling" is a Rifle term for upward progress via multiple knee bars. It's interesting to watch as the climber appears to be suspended in the steep overhang literally "crawling" out it on their hands and knees.
I tied in and quickly pulled on my Neon Knee Bar Pad. I cinched it down super tight and started crawling. The first thing I noticed was that no matter how tight you cinch the straps, the pad is still going to slide down your leg. The human thigh is not parallel sided; it narrows towards the knee. Since the knee bar is pulling the pad toward the narrower part of the leg, it's bound to slide. This is the same reason your 1970's tube socks don't stay up when you're shooting hoops with Larry Bird.
The next thing I noticed was that, as it slid down, it bunched up behind my knee and restricted movement. Well, it's not perfect. Two things would make this pad perfect. I'd like to see a little bit more taper from behind the knee to the sticky rubber top. When the pad is situated comfortably on your thigh, allowing full freedom of movement, the sticky rubber leaves a good inch or two of your knee exposed. For shallow 'tip-of-the-knee' knee bars this could be problematic. Secondly, if Five Ten could get their brilliant scientists to create a material for the inside of the pad that would really stick to human skin, it would be absolutely perfect.
Five Ten Neon back view: Note the velcro straps, one way stretch elastic, pull tabs, and slight tapering toward the back of the knee for freedom of movement.
That said, I am 100% pleased with my purchase. The Neon is a huge improvement over the traditional homemade pad. It's super burly and will last forever. The Stealth rubber is ultra sticky. It's a breeze to pull on and for all but the most technical knee bars, it did stay put. For those full-battle-mode knee bar routes, a wrap of duct tape around the top coupled with the Velcro straps had me ready to crawl my way to victory. Just eliminating the pre-spray glue from the equation has me jumping for joy. I might even be able to go a few more days without a shower...
The Five Ten Neon Knee Bar Pad retails for US $65 and can be purchased on Five Ten's website.
(Full disclosure: I paid retail for this rig just like the rest of you schmoes and it's totally worth it. I'm probably going to have to buy another if I want to send anything...)