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The Rally Virgin

February 03, 1999
Good Riding Gear
(With Update 12/14/99, 6/17/00, 04-15-04)

Ted, I just spent all my money on a bike and understand I should get some riding gear - any suggestions for gear that I can get for under $200?

Well, you asked ;) The tone of this reply may seem a bit foreboding - like seat-belts, you may well never need good riding gear. When and if you do however, being properly outfitted with high-quality and well fitted gear will make all the difference.

First off, go put a Kryptonic lock on the front wheel of your motorcycle. Give the key to your wife, and tell her hide it until you have a decent set of riding gear. Why would you do such a thing? There are basically three types of riders: riders that have had a spill*, riders that have had a spill and lie when they tell you they haven't, and riders that will have a spill. Hey, it happens. If you are wearing good protective gear there is an excellent chance you will walk away unscathed, smarter for the experience. If you are not wearing good riding gear, the exact opposite is generally true.

When you hit the road from a spill, you are generally faced with two unfriendly forces: gravity and velocity. Gravity brings you down, and velocity keeps you moving forward. This duo has their accompanying unfriendly reactions, mainly impact and friction/abrasion. In other words, first you hit, then you slide.

So what are we looking for in protective gear? The ability to cushion from an impact, and the ability to withstand ripping and abrasion. Any good riding gear will be designed with both of these in mind.

HELMET

TOP HELMETS
Shoei
Arai
AGV
Nolan
BMW

Styles. Helmets basically come in four styles, the full-face, the flip-up fullface, the 3/4, and the half-helmet (a.k.a. the beanie.) The full face offers the most protection to your face and head (nothing like looking through the faceshield to see the road zipping by a mere inch away...) The flip-up full-face also offers the protection of a full-face, but the flip-up chin piece is often flimsy and can easily be broken off in a more serious accident. The 3/4 has no chinpiece protecting the face, but offers excellent protection for the side and top of the head. The 1/2 helmet really offers little protection other than to the top of the head, and in my opinion is more for show than anything else.
Fit. There are basically two types of heads: the "Shoei" head tends to be rounder and broader, and the "Arai" head tends to be narrower and longer. Really the only way to find out which fits you best is to drop into your FLD (friendly local dealer) and try a few on. Make sure to keep them on for a good 10 minutes or so, walk around with them on (hey you'll look a little odd but no-one will see your face anyway, right?) Make sure there is adequate room for your forehead, ears and cheeks, and that when you have the helmet on and strapped in that it is snug enough on your head that it doesn't move around, but not so snug that there is any uncomfortable pressure anywhere. Remember, helmets "break in" to some extent and will get more comfortable the more you wear it (this is a good reason why you should never buy used helmets.)
Selection. There is a popular saying, "have a $20 head, buy a $20 helmet..." Figure on spending $200 to $300 for a good entry level helmet. Shoei makes an excellent helmet in the lower end of that spectrum, the RF-800, that is extremely popular and used by many. If you wear glasses or like to smoke or eat when riding, check out the new Nolan flip-up helmet (while the fit and finish is not quite up to others in the flield, it can be had for under $200, a full $200 less than Shoei's Duo-Tec or BMW's System 4.)
Used Helmets. Helmets usually break in to suit the rider, they also age and the protective foam breaks down over time. If you bought a used helmet or a used one was included with the bike, do yourself a favor and buy a new helmet. If your helmet is more than 4 or 5 years old, buy a new helmet.
Last Word. Broken bones mend and road rash can be scrubbed out but brain damage lasts forever. Do yourself a favor and buy a good helmet (and wear it!)

RIDING SUIT

TOP SUITS
Aerostich
Vanson
Dianese
BMW
Motoport
Belstaff
Tour Master
Gerbing
Joe Rocket

OK, your head is protected, now what about the body? You will be amazed to hear how people with full protective riding suits that have gone down at high speeds and walked away unhurt will tell you they simply "bounced" when they hit the road. A good riding suit will protect you from impact and be able to withstand sliding across the road and through gravel.
Impact Pads. Pads are critical to impact protection, particularly in the shoulders, elbows & forearms, knees, back and hips. Most riding suits will come with some form of padding or another, but beware - not all pads are created equally. Both the Aerostich and BMW have pads specifically designed for use in motorcycle applications. Location is as important as quality, make sure when your suit is on that the pads are protecting the areas they should be protecting ... A TF2 kneepad may be better than sliced bread but it won't do a bit of good hanging halfway down your shin instead of resting comfortably over your knee (measured while sitting on the bike of course :)
Suit Material. OK, right off there has been a great deal of debate over which is better, leather or synthetic riding suits. There are Pro's and con's for each...
Leather. PRO's - the best abrasion resistance made, also exceptional tear resistance. Comfortable, breaks in to fit the rider. CON's - has no weather protection (BMW tried "waterproof" leathers, didn't go over too well...) Pads are often skimpy or non-existant providing insufficient impact protection.
Synthetic. PRO's - most come with Gore-Tex making them extremely weather resistant yet breathable and comfortable for hot days. Often have "pad pockets" so pading can be removed for cleaning and/or upgraded. Many have oodles of pockets and good venting. Can often be worn over street clothes. CON's - not as good abrasion/friction protection as leather, nor as tight or snug fitting.
Summary. Most that ride with leather either have a synthetic riding suit they use for touring or carry along a plastic or taffeta nylon riding suit that they then must pull over and put on should rain threaten. While synthetic riding suits don't offer the abrasion resistance leather does, they often exceed the impact protection and are usually far more comfortable and convenient for the regular rider (and especially for the touring rider.) As with either leather or synthetic suits, cheap and inferior products are readily available and will not offer the level of protection needed. Figure on spending about $500 to $1,000 for a good set of leathers or a good synthetic riding suit. Highly rated products include Vanson, Aerostich, BMW, and Bell. As with helmets, don't skimp here - if you cannot afford new, look for a good used Aerostich or Vanson suit.

BOOTS

TOP BOOTS
BMW Gore-Tex
Aerostich CTB
Sidi
Gaerne

Wear motorcycle boots! Sneakers, hiking boots, flip-flops, etc. are a disaster waiting to happen. Motorcycle boots (worth owning) are padded on both sides of the ankle and on the front of the shin, and will have soft soles usually with treads designed for the needs of the motorcycle rider. Often in a spill a leg will get caught under a sliding motorcycle - having a well-designed leather boot with superior padding will make the difference between walking away and riding away in an ambulance. Boots range in style and fit from the very soft, low cut leather cruiser boots (which are of dubious protective value) to the heavily protective, built like a rock Sidi/Aerostich Combat Touring Boots.
Comfort. First, boots need to be comfortable. Well designed boots may take a little while to be comfortable, but they will break in. Boots that are soft and comfortable right out of the box are probably too "supple" to provide adequate protection. Look for a good tread design, a soft but sturdy sole, reinforced leather in the shift spot and heel, and tight fit between the boot and the sole.
Waterproof. Second, boots need to be waterproof (or at least very water resistant...) Some boots have Gore-Tex lining, others just require a heavy and regular dose of a waterproofing treatment like Sno-Seal. In any event, there are few things more miserable than cold, soggy feet. Several manufacturers make "booties" to cover boots in the rain, and while they apparently work exceptionally well it is still quite inconvenient to pull of to put them on should rain threaten.
Protection. Third, a boot must be well padded. Look for padding on both sides of the ankle, up the front of the shin and around the heel. Some, like the BMW Gore-Tex boot, use a combination of both hard plastic and ballistic foam, while others forgoe the superior combination and use the foam or hard plastic alone.
Some high quality boots are the venerable BMW Gore-Tex boot, the Aerostich Combat Touring Boot, and boots by Sidi, Gaerne & Alpine.

GLOVES

Gloves are often the most overlooked riding gear, but can often have the greatest impact on your riding comfort and crash protection. The hand is often the first thing to make contact with the street in a spill, from your natural inclination to break a fall by throwing out your arms and trying to break your fall with your hand. Further, your hands are usually the leading edge of your body when riding a motorcycle, and are the first to know if it is cold or raining (or both...) Gloves basically come in three styles and two constructions. There are "shorty" gloves where the gauntlet ends at the end of the hand, the sport/summer glove where the glove has about a 1" to 2" gauntlet, and the touring/winter glove where there is often a 2" to 5" gauntlet. Gloves typically come in either full leather (cow or deerskin) or synthetic/leather combination where there is leather in the control and contact surfaces and synthetic in areas unlikely to suffer impact or abrasion, such as between the fingers. Much like riding suits, full leather is superior for protection, but the leather/synthetic gloves offer an excellent combination of protection and comfort.
Comfort. Leather/leather-synthetic gloves will break in the more you wear them. They should be snug when you buy them, not tight but not able to be pulled right off either.
Waterproof. Wet hands suck, period. Giving leather gloves a good waterproofing treatment will help, but in an extended downpour you'll still end up with purple hands and pink fingernails from the leather die. BMW makes an excellent Gore-Tex glove, and Olympia and others make waterproof variations as well. One trick is to tuck the gauntlet of the glove into the sleeve of the riding jacket - with waterproof gloves, water intrusion is usually through the gauntlet and short of tucking them in no velcro or snap will close that opening enough to keep out water. Another is to wear waterproof glove covers in the rain - there is the convenience issue though of having to pull over to put them on when rain threatens.
Protection. Padding is important across the back of the hand, at the knuckles, and the palm should have at minimum two layers of heavy leather. Some of the better leather racing gloves have polished metal studs in the palm to keep the hand sliding on the road surface, to keep it from "catching" and being yanked or broken.
Summary. Buy well constructed, comfortable gloves (and wear them!)

HELPFUL STUFF

There are various things you can add to your gear that will help better protect you or make you more comfortable. While some make a great difference, with others the value is dubious.
Helmet Halo. This piece of wesuit material fits around the bottom of your helmet and is impregnated with a material that lights up like a camera flash - only about $12 and extremely highly rated.
Spare Ear Plugs. I personally buy my earplugs by the box of 200 (Howard Leight Lazer-Lite) from Conney Safety Products. Cost is about $25 and not am I never out I get to use a new pair every time. Call Conney and order the $10 variety pack and see which plugs work best for you, then call and order a box. I keep spares in the leg and inside pockets of my Aerostich, as well as in the rear cowl of the bike. Do NOT ride without earplugs, tinnitus sucks.
Conspicuity Vest. Seen those vests that highway workers wear? They are certainly conspicuous and many like them.
more to come :)

SUMMARY

That is it, good riding gear in single sentence ... helmet, suit, gloves and boots. Be ready to spend some money, unlike a lot of products made for motorcycling the more you spend on protective gear generally the better protection and comfort you will have.

What do I wear?

  • Aerostich Roadcrafter 2-Piece
  • Shoei RF-700 Helmet with a Helmet Halo & Earplugs
  • BMW Gore-Tex Gloves (bad weather)
  • Olympia Kevlar Gloves (good weather)
  • BMW Gore-Tex Boots
  • Gerbing's Electric Jacket Liner - being cold is just as miserable as being wet!

And remember, even the most expensive riding gear is completely useless if not worn.

*NOTE: I prefer to use the term "spill" as many of the "accidents" I hear about are simply low to medium speed slide-outs due to loss of traction from sand,oil & diesel fuel.
(Thanks to B.D. for this one :))

UPDATE

It is a good thing I've taken my own advice. On July 15, on the way to the MOA National Rally, I was involved in a pretty severe motorcycle accident. Luckily I guess I don't remember much and can relay only what the witnesses reported. Apparently I was crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge (the steepest bridge I know of) when I hit the back of an 18-wheeler that had broken down in the slow lane just over the crest of the bridge. I am not sure why, whether I was blocked in my lane or lost control on the metal grating, but after hitting the truck I bounced out to the middle lane and was struck and run over by a Toyota Rav4 that then fled the scene. My injury list was long and I am still recovering, but proper equipment ensured my survival - the reporting officer commented that had I been in a car I'd have been a fatality. Bob Malehorn has set up a great site discussing accidents and how to prevent them. See it at: http://www.malehorn.com/lugelessness.htm

ANOTHER UPDATE

Well the riding exile is finally over :)

And nope, not even a speck of roadrash :)

1995-2016, Ted Verrill

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"Red Light Insight" is copyright Ted Verrill, 1999