When you want to buy a new helmet, motorcycle jacket, trousers, gloves or boots, what are the requirements?
What are the different materials and what are the differences?
How do you protect yourself against cold, heat and rain?
This page tries to sort some things out.
Er is een Nederlandse versie:
Different ways to enhance your safety
When talking about ways to enhance your safety on a motorcycle, most people think of helmets, knee- or elbow protectors or leather suits.
True, all these things are meant to make you safer. But don't forget that there is a more direct way to enhance your own safety.
You can enhance your safety by doing everything possible to avoid an accident (primary safety), or by making sure that the damage, in case of an accident, is as minimal as possible (secondary safety).
Car versus motorcycle
In fact, the big difference between driving a car and riding a motorcycle, with respect to safety, is that in cars the secondary safety is enormous (the car is a sort of safety cocoon around you), while on a motorcycle, the safety is almost entirely in your own hands (which means primary safety).
Fortunately, motorcycles are very good at primary safety: you need much less space to escape a dangerous situation.
We will discuss secondary safety on this page: helmets, protection and leather suits and such. But take a look at the page about primary safety as well!
One of the functions of clothing for motorcyclists is safety; another function is to ensure that your body doesn't get too cold or too hot. In fact, that function adds to your primary safety, because a well-functioning body is needed in order to be able to anticipate in traffic.
Secondary safety: helmets and clothing
Objective and subjective safety
Only at the moment that you blew it, secondary safety comes into the game.
There is a danger in the many labels with "protection" and "safety" that are attached to motorcycler's clothing: it becomes easy to forget that safety is for the most part primary safety, that you yourself have to actively prevent accidents.
There is a second danger:
many people are inclined to take more risk when they feel protected. Most people will ride more cautiously when they ride in shorts than in a full leather racing-suit.
Don't feel safer than you are
These are not arguments against clothing with protection, but is is good to be aware of these tendencies, and to keep in mind not to be trapped by them.
So, when your (secondary) safety is concerned, it is good to get as much objective information as you can: the wish of people to be "safe" inspires sellers to sell with "safe" sounding words and labels and materials. A lot of those words have no meaning at all!
By far the most important aspect of a helmet is whether it fits well. The best advice therefore is to go to a shop where people know about helmets and can help you to check whether a helmet fits well.
The helmet should fit rather tightly when you try it for the first time: when you shake your head, the helmet shouldn't move around.
Each helmet that is sold in Europe should be approved according to the ECE 22.05 norm.
If a helmet doesn't show that it's approved, don't buy it.
Concerning the materials: a helmet has an outer scale that shouldn't break, and an inner scale that is there to absorb energy of the impact.
Very cheap helmets have an outer scale of ABS or polycarbonate. Don't buy them:they get damaged by UV-light, and you should throw them away after less than two years, and during those years their strength lessens.
More expensive helmets have an outer scale with a basis of glass fibre. Often, this is used in a composite together with fibres such as Dyneema, a special sort of polyethylene fibre, Aramide, a special sort of polyamide fibre (there are many kinds of aramide fibres, Kevlar is most widely known), and Carbon fibres (a sort of nylon that consist mostly of carbon). Those fibres have in common that they are light and strong at the same time.
The inner scale is in general of styropor.
The weight of a helmet is not only a matter of comfort; it is important with respect to safety as well.
A heavy helmet enhances, as you may imagine, the chance of a broken neck in case of an accident.
So, when you don't know which of two helmets to choose, choose the lightest one.
These more expensive helmets stay good for 5 years. Buy a new one after those 5 years!
Full-face, cross or jet
At last, you have to choose between a full-face helmet, a jet helmet (see photo), or a cross helmet.
Don't buy a "police helmet" that doesn't cover your temples: they don't offer enough protection.
There are hot arguments between fans of full-face helmets and fans of jet helmets. In short: the full-facers point at (theoretically) lesser safety for the face in a jet helmet; The jet helmeteers on the other hand never have fogged visors (and point to the theoretical extra chance of braking your neck with a full-face helmet).
I think: buy the helmet with which you feel most comfortable.
Always wear a visor or goggles or safety glasses (or a combination) to protect your eyes againts stones or insects.
A Brittish government institution, Helmet Safety Scheme, tests helmets on safety aspects surpassing ECE requirements.
On their site, you can search within the helmets they tested.
Hands are important
Second in importance to keep well protected are you hands: the risk that they are damaged in case of a fall is fairly big, and you don't want to have to live with non-working hands.
So always wear at least a helmet and gloves.
Your gloves should allow you to feel the handlebars very well, to feel what you are doing, and at the same time, they should protect against sliding.
In warm weather, nothing beats leather gloves.
Kangarooleather is used more and more for the palm-side of gloves. It is strong and light at the same time, and slightly elastic, so you feel very well what you are doing.
In colder circumstances, you are better equipped with gloves with a Goretex lining to keep dry hands.
If you want really warm hands: a glove with a separate inner glove made from for instance Windstopper keeps you hands much warmer than a glove with a stitched in bulky liner, and at the same time, allows you the feel of the handlebars.
Around your wrist
An often overlooked aspect of gloves is how they fit around your wrist. It is very important that they will not just slide off your hands in case of a fall: otherwise, you could just as well ride without gloves.
So, test them by trying to get them off your hands without opening the adjustment around your wrist. If they just go off, don't buy them.'
The third place, considering risk on damage and amount of damage, is taken by your feet and ankles.
Shoes or boots that you wear on your motorcycle should cover your ankles. Further on, they should be sturdy enough to prevent your feet and ankles from getting broken in case of an accident.
Whether boots with metal plates inside, covering your toes, are a good form of protection is questionable: these metal plates could protect your toes, but they are able to cut them in two as well.
You don't have to buy boots that are manufactored especially for motorcycling: general safety boots or shoes work well (but mind metal plates), as do sturdy walking boots.
When buying shoes or boots that are not made with motorcycling in mind, check the material of the top of the left shoe: it should be tolerant of changing gears.
Protection against sliding: clothing
The surface of the road
Motorcycle clothing should protect you when sliding over the surface of the road, and against the impact of collisions with the same surface and with other objects. Those are two different stories.
The problem of sliding is that the surface of the road works as an enormous grater, and on top of that, much heat will be generated.
So you need something that can withstand a grater, that takes long to get hot, and that doesn't melt at relatively low temperatures, or does something else nasty.
Nothing still comes close to leather, concerning those properties.
Only keep in mind that it should be good leather: minimal 1.2 mm thick, and of good quality.
The stitches are also worth attention: they have to be double-stitched (always covered by a piece of leather): if leather trousers torn at the stitches it doesn't help you.
After leather comes, concerning the anti-slide-properties, at a great distance, Kevlar.
Kevlar sounds like magic, so manufacturers have the tendency to add a few patches of Kevlar here and there because it sells well. But Kevlar doesn't save you when it's used in that way!
Kevlar breaks easily, and only works to protect you in case of sliding when it is woven into other material. Only then does it serve to your protection. An example is Keprotec.
Most synthetic suits are made of Cordura, which comes at a distance after leather and again after Kevlar concerning the properties that we are looking for. There is always a number, 700 or 500 for instance. That's a measure for the thicknes of the fibre that is used.
Dynatec is a comparable material.
In short: nothing beats a good leather suit. When you want a synthetic suit, choose one of Cordura or Dynatec, preferrably strengthened with leather or (woven-in) Kevlar on the right places.
Remember that a fancy label doesn't tell you anything: try to find out what they mean (sometimes they don't mean anything at all).
Protection against impact: clothing
Impact of a collision
Beside protection when sliding, it would also be good if you had any protection against the impact of a collision. A collision with the road, with a car, or with whatever you encounter.
Protection against impact works in two ways: the impact can be distributed over a bigger area, or the impact can be absorbed.
Hard protection, like you see in protection for crossers, distribute the impact. Soft protection absorbs as much as possible of the impact.
The word "soft" protection is misleading: a piece of soft foam doesnt' do a thing. It should cost energy to squeeze such a piece of protection: only then it is able to absorb energy in case of a collision.
Those pieces of protection only work when they are at the right place at the right time, that is, when you get involved in an accident. Often, they are not in the right place, because people are built differently, and many suits are wide so you can wear them over your clothing.
You might think about buying a "protection vest": an elastic vest with protection for shoulders and elbows. The only problem with such protection is that you will often let it stay at home probably...
Active safety means that you protect yourself by avoiding accidents, by anticipating.
In order to be able to do that, you should be comfortable. As such, protecting yourself against the cold, helps to enhance your safety.
Everybody knows, I suppose, that many different layers of clothing work better in the cold than one thick layer. An outer layer that protects you and keeps the wind outside, a layer to keep you dry, and then layers to keep you warm, such as fleece.
Head and neck
The area of your body that dissipates most of your body heat is your head, and your neck. So your first concern should be to keep your head and neck warm: always wear something of Windstopper Fleece around your neck, when it is cold, and make sure there are no openings between such a shawl and your helmet.
Hands and feet
Your extremities (hands and feet) stand, unfortunately, at the lowest point of the priority list that your "control center" keeps about your body. That means that the blood vessels towards your hands and feet are closed when your body temperature threatens to get lower than your body wants it to be.
So, the solution for cold hand and feet is not always to keep them warm: in the first place, you should keep the rest of your body warm!
After your body has been cared for, your hands and feet should be protected against the cold. Again, different layers are the key, and especially in the case of your hands, protection against the wind is very important.
Hand protectors can make a difference. For gloves, it is important that they don't get too bulky because in that case they will hinder your ability to handle the controls.
Gloves with an inner layer of windstopper fleeece are better than gloves with a thick bulky lining.
Your boots or shoes should be wide enough to wear at least one pair of warm socks. You can also think about Canadian boots, lined with wool.
At last: don't be afraid to buy eletrical vests, inner gloves or liners for your boots! As said before, your body should come first, so your first option would be an electrically heated vest. Because that really add warmth, they make it much more easy for your body to keep the right temperature.
When the weather is not really hot, you will get very cold when it's raining, and you get soaked. So don't get soaked!
Goretex is "guaranteed to keep you dry", and because that guarantee is imposed on everyone using Goretex in clothing, by Gore, you can be certain of that guarantee. I don't know of any other waterproof liner with the same guarantee.
Gloves and cuffs
You should experiment with your gloves: in some cases, you keep your hands dry by wearing your gloves over the cuffs of your sleeves; in other cases you should tuck your gloves inside your sleeves.
More and more jackets are sold with double cuffs: with a waterresistant outer and inner cuff. You tuck your gloves inbetween.
Concerning you feet: when you wear shoes (instead of high boots), it's important that your trousers are long enough to cover your ankles. Otherwise your feet will get wet from above, no matter how waterproof your shoes are.
When the weather really gets hot, there comes a time when you will have to choose between primary and secondary safety: shoulder and knee protectors or Kevlar woven into the fabric of your jacket or trousers will result in an overheated body, eventually.
Manufacturers of motorcycle clothing use different ways for ventilation in clothing.
One such a way is an extensive use of zippers. In general, that is a bad idea:
When sliding over tarmac, you don't want zippers between your skin and the tarmac. Also, the weakest point of clothing, most of the time, is formed by the stitches, and zippers require many stitches.
The use of mesh fabrics are another way to increase ventilation, although these materials of course never provide the same amount of protection as "solid" fabrics.
In general, leather will be cooler than synthetic suits, when there is wind. There are even jackets made out of perforated leather (though the same applies as for mesh fabric: don't expect the same amount of protection of them as from ordinary leather). But in some circumstances, leather is too hot, even when riding (as opposed to standing still).
When you would decide to ride with bare arms or legs, keep in mind that in the first place, you get very easily burnt without an adequate sunblock.
In the second place, you will loose water in huge quantities that way, without noticing. Drinking enough water (and supply salt) becomes very urgent. In general, covering up your skin is better when the weather is really hot (remember the bedouins).
An open-face helmet, or one that can be ventilated, really helps keeping your head cool.
At last, soaking a bandana in water, and wearing that around your neck, really helps as well.
How do I choose gear?
A leather suit should fit perfectly, especially when you are sitting on the bike.
In a suit for all circumstances (watertight, winter lining, fitting over your daily clothes), practical matters are more important.
When trying on a suit, you can pay extra attention to:
The collar should fit snugly around your neck, without space where the wind will go through.
The front should be as watertight as the rest. That means that there should be a watertight layer beneath the zippers: water will leak through the zippers, and you don't want that water to reach your clothes underneath.
A coat has never enough pockets. I would like at least four pockets in the front, a long pocket in the back along the lower seam, at least one inner pocket, and preferrably one pocket that you can reach without opening the zipper, and is watertight (to put your wallet).
The more pockets are watertight, the better.
In the same way as the collar, the sleeves should fit around your wrists without openings.
It should be possible to wear the sleeves both over or under your gloves.
About the trousers: they should be longer than you expect, because your knees will be bent on your motorcycle.