Modern motorcycle kit is pretty good and technology is advancing rapidly, partly driven by aggressive European standards, and partly by high rider interest in the protectiveness of their kit. Extensive media coverage of top-flight disciplines like MotoGP mean we are bombarded with footage of gladatorial heroes having huge crashes and walking away unscathed. Here Bradley Smith escapes with a few bruises.
I’m not going to discuss helmets here. A good one that fits well is essential.
Boots have long been covered by EU PPE Directives, which which involve a manufacturer demonstrating how an item protects adequately whilst preserving adequate mobility. Historically such approvial has been limited to expensive specialist boots, such as Altberg’s range which are designed for emergency services use, with a price tag to reflect this. Such designs, including my much loved Altberg Clubman Classics, were typically big bulky leather monsters that were hard to find on the shelves or only available made to order. Now there are are number of boots in modern sports or sports touring styles proudly bearing their CE PPE approval as a badge of quality, budget manufacturer Tuzo offering a CE boot for £60.
Almost every rider has at least one decent jacket. Leather jackets differ from fashion jackets in thickness of leather and quality and type of stitching. One can typically expect seven seconds of sliding down the road before failure whereas stitching on a fashion jacket may split on impact offering nothing more that a false sense of security. Often the surface may be treated to provide some degree of drizzle resistance. Textile jackets are made of thick abrasion resistant nylon, and usually have a waterproof membrane inside. Quality varies from lasting half as long as leather to similar performances. Commonly elbows and shoulders will have heavy reinforcement layers, expensive jackets using leather, stingray or synthetic equivalents in these locations. CE PPE kit is getting more common, but still a rarity and expensive. Some kind of CE approved shoulder and elbow armour is expected, and there is usually a pocket for a back protector, but often this is an optional extra, or worse a foam packing pad is included. I’m not sure the inclusion of packing pads or comfort pads is a responsible approach. Perhaps it’s better than nothing but I suspect it may be a deterrent to adding proper armour. The counterargument is it makes the rider aware that something is supposed to go in that pocket. I’d been told my first leather jacket had a back protector but it did not carry approval markings. It appears virtually identical to a level one approved insert I have, but appearances can be deceiving.
There is a rumour that regular denim jeans are adequate leg protection. They aren’t. Come off at 30mph and you’re looking at severe skin loss. 20mph is enough to put a hole in a layer of 1600 denier nylon reinforcing the knee some budget waterproof textiles. There were several layers and armour inserts, so plenty of abrasion resistance left. My more upmarket Frank Thomas trousers have titanium sliders over the kneecap as that point is so likely to suffer point abrasion. Such sliders are also seen on high end race suits and jackets at the elbows and shoulders, but should not be confused with the replaceable hockey puck sliders on the outside of the knees on race suits which offer abrasion resistance for knee-down track riding. Marc Marquez et al may have similar upon the elbow. Both kinds of slider can be seen in this video, note the silvery titainium triangles and white plastic blobs with the Alpinestars logo at the shoulders and kneecaps sit almost flush with the suit whereas the hockey pucks sit proud and have a single flat surface to present to the track.
Leather trousers are again the thing to beat. Some high quality textiles manage this although almost as good is usually the case. Draggin produce kevlar lined jeans that meet CE standards, although to reach the abraision resistance of leather the trousers are thicker, hotter and heavier than leathers and require a mesh lining, defeating the comfort appeal of denim, so all that remains in their favour is the look. Admittedly they’re less obviously bikewear than leathers making it easier to blend in when off the bike.
Trousers and jackets that zip together are awesome, as this prevents trousers slipping down, jackets riding up and hopefully keeps both parts in place during an accident. It also keeps the wind out. Zup make adapters that allow you to velcro together a two-piece for convenience or fit a mismatched set. I have some Zup velcro parts and they work to keep the wind out, but I wouldn’t say they were as safe as zipping everything together. They also make adapters to zip mismatched sets together or extend matching sets. I will try their zip-together adapters shortly. One-piece suits are great for the track and dedicated recreational sport riding, but are uncomfortable of the bike, and are only really suited to sport-bike riding positions. Furthermore they look ridiculous if one is in the least bit tubby.
Decent gloves are essential. Leather fashion gloves are likely to split at the sight of tarmac, textile ski gloves or similar might keep you warm but are not significantly abrasion resistant. Leather is the dominant material, with waterproof membranes and thermal linings for wet and cold days through to unlined vented leather with the seams on the outside for the height of summer. All kinds of fancy knuckle guards are popular, but beware cheap rigid armour, what you need on the knuckles is impact absorption, which nitrex or other deformable armour may be better at. Hard knuckle armour is more important on faired bikes as the edge of the fairing is a painful thing to punch. Often neglected are the scaphoid and palm of the hand, which are most likely to hit the ground first. More modern glove designs are more likely to have some extra protection here, my summer gloves have a thick nitrex foam pad covered in a low friction abrasion resistant stingray replacement material called Superfabric. Most important of all is that the gloves fasten securely so they will not come off in an accident. I had some traditional gauntlet style gloves that were warm and comfortable but had an annoying press stud strap that did not work well, and I have modified my winter gloves the hook section of the Velcro did not extend far enough.
Armoured inserts are discussed in a companion article.