Review: Atlas Original Neck Brace
July 22nd, 2013
Neck protection in the form of a brace that prevents the head from moving in a potentially life threatening way, is no longer a new concept and one that has thankfully been widely accepted across the board as an almost essential item. While the market place is still dominated by a certain South African brand, viable alternatives are becoming increasingly available and none more so than Canadian newcomers, Atlas Brace…
Blasting onto the scene this year with star moto signing Ryan Villapoto, they haven’t wasted any time before looking at the mountain bike market and at which point, our ears perked up.
The MTB specific brace is out there, but with a moto variant in our hands, it would’ve been a shame not to see what this radical new brace design has to offer, “The Atlas Brace was born and fueled from the racers perspective. Designed by a racer and refined over a 3 year period by a team of engineers and bio-mechanical experts, then tested by some of the top professional riders in the world. The end result delivers innovative features, comfort, simplicity and adjustability. Simply put, the Atlas Brace has it all”
Sounds good, but then these pitches always do! We packed the brace into our kit bag and headed to the hills to see how it fared against that ‘other’ well known and highly regarded “helmet for your neck”.
To slip the Atlas Brace on, you simply lower it over your head like a helmet and unlike the Leatt design, without any disassembly. The only draw back to this approach is for those with large heads or long hair as the Atlas Brace does feel that bit harder and edgier than the Leatt and a tad tight for those with a big melon.
The Atlas Brace is pretty unique on several ways, but primarily because it is the first non-rigid brace on the market, allowing the rear of the brace to flex both upwards & downwards with you as you move around on the bike, increasing both comfort & mobility. Once on, strapped up and pointed down a hill, the rest is history…
Incorporating an open sternum area at the front of the brace to help transfer impacts on a larger surface area with a view to reduce risk of a fracture. This design ethos is carried throughout the Atlas brace.
The pivoting front chest supports double up as flexible, leaf springs designed to absorb impacts from the front of your helmet. This compression within the design of the Atlas Brace promotes further rotation of the helmet during a crash, helping to keep the body in motion rather than the head coming to an abrupt stop on impact – being able to roll naturally and stay loose is key in a fall and while some armour protects more than others, it can inadvertently prevent this ability your body has to roll and move freely – like looking for a soft spot as you go over the bars!
Like the front, the Atlas Brace incorporates dual supports for the back, which are designed to provide a greater surface across the back, while transferring loads on either side of the spine rather than directly into it like other braces. Increasing the surface area helps to disperse loads over a larger part of the body and away from critical areas. Another neat feature is that they not only adjust to the body, but they also fold down flat for easy storage!
The unique design of the Atlas Brace means it is only structurally fixed from the front and the only thing holding the rear together during disasembly is a thick rubber band that’s attached to the alloy hardware at either side of the two back supports – it doesn’t need anything else as the front fixing is that substantial. Another neat thing that’s worth mentioning is the graphics – the ‘Original’ brace tested here is available in 7 colours and with it comes the option to go custom. Where the Leatt design is far from easy to “graphic up”, the hard plastic design of the Atlas not only makes it waterproof and nothing more than a cloth and hose job after a muddy day, it also means easy sticker application and who doesn’t like stickers?
Removing the Atlas Brace in an Emergency
The ‘ERS system’ employed by Atlas provides a vibration free removal of the brace after a severe crash and achieved in 3 simple steps. First up, you remove the pin through the front axle nut and then remove the axle nut by spinning counter-clockwise…
Once that’s undone, you can simple pull the brace apart horizontally and remove, and because the rear of the brace effectively floats via the rubber link, you don’t have to be moved to gain access and hopefully reducing the risk of further injury.
Stripped down, you have the main front axle which keeps the brace together, the front chest supports and the bolt and the pin. It’s a pretty simple piece of kit once you get your head around how it all pops together and providing you don’t cover the emergency stickers, first responders should be able to figure it out and remove the brace.
The Atlas Brace is the only brace on the market to offer what they’ve coined as the “3-axis of adjustability” – The rear mount offsets for length (chest size) and there’s optional shoulder padding for height (neck length), and both are adjustable right out of the box. A wide body kit to adjust the width of the brace is sold separately for all you meat heads and will alleviate the tight fit when slipping it on…
The adjustable height padding on the shoulder pieces is made from a unique material, which like the rest of the brace, is designed disperse energy from an impact before it reaches the body. An interesting point to make and one that should reign home to those familiar with the Leatt design, is that all the padding and indeed the entire brace is water resistant. This means no wet padding during use, no staining and no need to strip and rebuild between rides or having anything soft and vulnerable to get destroyed in the crappy weather.
You’ll no doubt see a lot of moto riders and indeed DHers (Sam Hill) wearing braces without straps and while this might suit some, I’d certainly recommend using the straps with the Atlas… With the Leatt design being that little softer thanks to the padded sides and tables, you can run it without strap and let you helmet keep it in place – sounds wrong, but it works and because it’s padded, you don’t notice it that much, at least not as much as you perhaps would on an overly rough track anyway. The Atlas however likes to be strapped on…
After a day riding the Revolution Bike Park in the wet and having a few OTB’s, I quickly came to the conclusion that straps-on is a must for this brace. The hard plastic design is not the one to have loose and certainly not the ticket for steep terrain. Not a bad thing in all honesty as all braces perform better with the straps in place!
Installing the straps takes a little longer than on other braces, but once one it’s on, it shouldn’t have to be removed – simply undo the ERS components as described above and load the sternum strap in the gap with the axle keeping it inline and pointing in the right direction.
The straps then thread through the inlets on each back support and via a velcro inlay, which can be easily adjusted to suit – they then slip onto the front section via some nifty built in hooks and your good to go.
Out on the Trail
We had a Medium size brace in for testing and being available in 5 sizes (2 junior and 3 adult) really helps with getting the right brace for you – there are also aftermarket accessories that can further enhance the fit for those of us who sit slightly outside of the average percentile or have unique requirements from their brace, but at 5’10” and a medium build, I had no issues with the fit.
Once on, strapped up and on the bike, the Atlas Brace’s presence was quickly forgotten about by those who are used to wearing a neck brace – new users, well, you just need to take the plunge if your thinking about neck protection and it really doesn’t take long to get used to. On the bike and getting wild, the Atlas does exactly what any good insurance policy does, sit there waiting to do its job with a hope it never has to! The thick rubber sections on the chest and back supports really help keep the brace stable against your t-shirt or jersey and with the straps done up correctly, I never experienced any unwanted side to side or up and down movement.
Hunched forward over the bike, you can see how the Atlas Brace’s pivoted back supports move with the curvature of the spine and in doing so, help to unrestrict movement. Atlas states that the central section leaves the spine exposed and away from the brace contorting in a negative manor during a fall, which it does by pivoting around the neck and preventing either back support from touching the spine – I think it’s worth pointing out that the Leatt design, while a polar opposite to the Atlas, is however designed to break in the event of a serious fall. The spine section (Thorasic) breaks at less force than the spine itself and a point I feel should be mentioned in this review.
The pivoted chest and back supports, coupled with the open design of the Atlas brace really does make this brace unique – you only have to wear it in front of a mirror and move around like your riding (or having a fit) to see it move and contort with the body without sacrificing it’s position in relation to your head.
This is what it’s all about at the end of the day – preventing hyper extension of the neck. This is the extension where the neck brakes, but as a rider wearing a helmet, the brace provides a barrier to stop the head rolling past the point of no return. Providing the brace does this effectively and without damaging other sensitive areas of the body during a fall, the rest is fit, comfort, price and aesthetics…
Lets talk numbers. The Atlas Original at £250 is £50 less than the Leatt DBX Comp 4, Leatt’s middle of the range brace, which is also 100 grams lighter than the Atlas. The Atlas’s fit and function is on a par with the Leatt, with both designs offering the consumer a great product designed to prevent something pretty bad from happening. The Leatt is a touch on the comfier side when it comes to handling the brace, but once on, there’s not much between them and you can only notice that 100 grams in your hands. Where the Atlas truly has the Leatt licked, is the ability to hose it down after a muddy/ dusty day on the hill without the need to break it down, hand wash and hang dry another delicate item of kit. If your familiar with the Leatt or have one with white parts to the pad (which quickly turn brown – black every time folks, please…), you’ll know this frustration – at least if you look after you kit?
Neck braces need to restrict the kind of movement we may never experience yet unrestrict the movements we make every few seconds when riding bikes off-road – this equation must be a tough one to crack, but the Atlas never gave us any concerns and quickly settled into being an everyday item of kit…
All in all, the Atlas brace is the first neck brace that’s made me look away from the Leatt, a design I know like the back of my hand and one that works really well. The Atlas brace has performed flawlessly and hasn’t once caused any concern or discomfort. It’s priced really well considering the market place and the construction quality I right up there. Although designed to do a serious job, the Atlas is also a good looking piece of kit and with all the colours available, a carbon option for those with deep pockets and the option to go wild with after market graphics of even stealth it out, it really is a great product.
That said, I’d really like to try the Atlas Crank brace, specifically designed for a bicycle application offering the rider yet more adjustability to perfect the fit and feel. Whether the Crank would address any of the minor niggles found on the Original brace remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I’d recommend taking a closer look at the Atlas brace – it really is a unique piece of kit that I think we’ll start to see regularly in the world of Mountain Bikes.
Atlas Brace is exclusively distributed in the UK by Decade Europe and for everything Atlas and brace, hit the logo below. Happy trails, Olly.