Suits, Boots, & Gloves

By David L. Hough

Serious Riders spend a lot of time on tactics for managing the risks of motorcycling. Riding a twisty road without taking a soil sample requires good cornering skills, not just dumb luck. Today’s roads also have lots of booby traps that snag unwary riders, and we need to know what they look like and how to avoid them. And even if the road, the surface, or the traffic situation don’t create problems, we also need to know how to maintain our bikes, ride with a group, carry passengers, negotiate muddy detours, and survive hazardous weather conditions. The point is, a serious rider gathers knowledge and skill to avoid accidents.

What we can’t avoid is the chance that sooner or later we all get our turn to crash. It just isn’t possible to take all the risk out of riding. The statistics hint that a typical street rider will have one or two serious accidents in a lifetime of motorcycling. The point is, when you get your turn to crash, you’ll be sliding down the road in whatever gear you decided to wear before you punched the starter button.

Comfort vs. Protection

The end purpose of riding gear is to protect skin and cushion the brain against sudden impacts. If you want to see what good protective gear looks like, study what the roadracers wear. Racers don’t intend to crash, but they understand that crashing goes with the territory of flirting with the traction envelope. Of course, roadracing leathers aren’t very practical for day-to-day commuting or touring. For the road rider who spends days and sometimes weeks in the saddle at more civilized speeds, comfort rather than abrasion resistance may be the most important factor in choosing riding gear. Protection against heat, cold, precipitation, wind, noise, and debris, or even the style of your gear, may be just as important to you as abrasion and impact resistance.

Gear Oh Gear

The primary pieces of riding gear are: jacket, pants, boots, gloves, helmet, and eye protection. There are also some exotic articles of protective gear such as back and neck protectors. Let’s start by thinking about basic body protection.

Do you really need exotic motorcycling gear, or couldn’t you just wear your hiking jacket and blue jeans, or maybe your ski pants? Novice riders may assume that any durable outdoor garments should work for motorcycling, but veterans have learned why motorcycling gear is special. For example, a hiking jacket that is warm and comfortable at walking speeds may flap, gap, or balloon at highway speed on a motorcycle. Motorcycling garments need to be relatively stiff to prevent annoying flapping in the wind, have zippers or flaps that can be adjusted to control air flow, provide both insulation and weather resistance, and also provide abrasion and impact protection.

And remember that motorcycling garments must be “cut” for the riding position to be comfortable. Just sitting on the bike will pull your pants legs up a couple of inches, bunch the fabric behind your knees, and stretch the arms out. The “cut of the garments may need customizing to match the ergonomics of your bike and body shape. That is, if you ride leaning forward onto the handlebars, you’ll appreciate jacket arms sewn with a forward angle, and expandable darts in the back. A “cruiser” jacket shaped for a sit up position would stretch taught in the armpits, sag in the chest, and ride up in the back if worn on a sports bike.

The hot tip when buying a riding jacket or suit, is to try the fit while sitting on your machine, not just standing up straight in front of the bike show mirror. If your motorcycle isn’t handy, commandeer a similar model at the dealer, or at least simulate your riding position by tucking in on a chair. Jacket sleeves and pants legs must be long enough to cover all exposed skin, which means somewhat lengthier than you’d want for walking. It’s also smart to check the fit while wearing your normal riding boots, gloves, and helmet.

One additional tip for fitting is to wear a heavy sweater or jacket liner, to ensure that the riding jacket is large enough to fit over insulation. If your sales person doesn’t suggest checking the fit as you’d be riding on your machine, that’s a clue you’re in the wrong store. You’ll be spending a lot of hours wearing your gear—don’t let yourself be rushed into a decision by an overeager salesman or a seductive sale price.

Style and Function

Riding suits are available in both one-piece and two-piece styles. In general, separate jacket and pants are easier to put on or take off, and allow more versatility. For instance, if you just want to walk around the rally site on a cool evening, or stroll over to the restaurant after you’ve checked into the motel, wouldn’t it be handy to wear your riding jacket? One-piece suits provide better weather and crash protection, but are more cumbersome to get into, and less adaptable to off-motorcycle situations. Both leather and fabric pants are available in “jeans” style with a belt or suspenders, and “bib” style with integral suspenders.

Fabric riding pants or suits are typically worn over your street clothing. This has the advantage of being able to step out of your riding gear at a lunch stop or rally site. Generally, leather pants are worn separately, rather than over “street” pants such as jeans, because the combination of jeans and leather would be too bulky. If you’re wearing leather pants, it’s more involved to change into “street” pants.

While we’re on the subject of style, let’s acknowledge that many riders are more concerned about appearance than protection. You’ll see lots of riders wearing a leather jacket and cotton jeans. Sure, blue jeans are the great American cruiser uniform, but cotton has almost no abrasion resistance. If you go down wearing jeans with no additional leg protection, the cotton will grind away to skin within about five feet of sliding. One alternative to leather or synthetic pants is to wear leather chaps over jeans. Chaps are easier to step out of at the end of the ride, but chaps don’t cover two major impact points: the buttocks.

There are jeans made of special fabric which will withstand considerable abrasion. Typically, the fabric is woven of cotton, spandex, and Kevlar ™ fibers. Such jeans are less expensive than leather pants, but are bulky, impractical to tailor if you need a custom fit, and may not provide adequate abrasion resistance in all situations.

Of course you don’t have to wear the same gear on every ride. I select my level of protection based on what I think the risks will be. For example, if I’m just riding around the valley on my sidecar rig, I’ll probably wear my fabric suit, or maybe just the jacket, because the potential for taking a tumble is much less. But if I’m making a fast transit over the mountain pass on the two-wheeler, I’ll usually opt for full leathers. If you do select your gear based on the relative risks, remember that the majority of all motorcycle accidents happen on city streets close to home, in good weather.

Armor

Part of the expense of quality motorcycling gear is the comfort, style, fit, detailing durability, and weather protection, but the bottom line is impact and abrasion resistance. “Impact resistance” means the ability of the material to cushion the blows of slamming into hard objects, whether the road surface, another vehicle, the fuel tank, or the handlebars. “Abrasion resistance” means the material being able to resist grinding away as the rider slides along the pavement. We generally refer to the added impact and abrasion protection as “armor”.

Serious riding gear manufacturers are very concerned about armor. They are concerned not just about finding materials with the best performance, but also where to place the armor, and the shape and retention of the armor pads. The reputable manufacturers spend considerable time and effort engineering their armoring systems to take advantage of both latest technology, and accident reports. They conduct both laboratory and “real world” tests of their systems. And they also study reports from motorcyclists who have experienced accidents, using that “seat-of-the-pants” feedback to further refine their gear.

Both Andy Goldfine (Aerostich) and Wayne Boyer (Motoport U.S.A.) agree that impact padding is just as important as abrasion resistance for preventing serious injury. “Road rash” may be painful and bloody, but impacts can cause serious and potentially fatal internal injuries. About four out of five accidents produce leg injuries, and more than half of victims sustain arm injuries. Other body regions that commonly receive severe injuries are the shoulders, chest, and clavicle (“collar bone”).

Shoulders, elbows, buttocks, and knees are major impact points when a rider hits the pavement. The forearms and upper thighs are secondary impact areas. Most riders understand the importance of armor on shoulders, buttocks, knees and elbows. Typically, those areas of a riding suit are reinforced with additional external layers of material. But for added protection, special pads can be positioned inside at the critical locations. These armor pads are usually trick composites of plastic and foam. Riders also should realize that the tops of the upper legs are a primary impact area as the rider departs the bike during a collision.

As an example of carefully engineered riding gear, Aerostich’s “Roadcrafter” suit has external reinforcement patches over the shoulders, forearms, seat, and lower legs, plus your choice of different armor pads inside. Aerostich pioneered the motorcycling suit application of a viscoelastic foam which is soft and pliable for comfort, but instantly becomes firmer during a sudden impact. Motoport’s Triarmor system uses a laminated 3-layer sandwich of stiff outer foam, soft plastic shield, and soft “memory” foam inside.

Leather garments are typically reinforced by stitching on additional external layers of heavy leather or leather/plastic sandwiches at critical impact areas. Bates leathers can be supplied with formed pads which slip into mesh pouches inside the critical areas. Bates’ Bob Rudolph suggests the importance of getting a reasonably snug fit, and avoiding any hard plastic edges inside the suit. A baggy riding suit tends to fold into creases upon impact, and the folds are much more likely to wear through, allowing the garment to tear open and expose the rider to injury. Unpadded hard plastic armor acts as a sharp knife to slice through leather on impact. The Bates armor pads are flexible hard plastic completely wrapped in soft foam, to prevent the hard plastic from slicing through the leather upon impact.

Some garments have a built-in spine protector, and there are also other special devices such as neck protectors, designed primarily for dirt riding. The Neck-Pro-Tech is a foam cushion that wraps around the neck to help reduce collarbone and neck injuries, available from PowerSports Safety Company. Motoport has a lightweight Lycra mesh jacket liner with Triarmor pads they call the “Body Guard Jacket” which you can wear under any unarmored riding jacket.

Leather or Fabric?

Which is better for a riding suit, leather or man-made fabric? Leather is an excellent choice for riding gear. Leather is comfortable, stylish, doesn’t flap, has excellent heat and abrasion resistance, and wears well over the years. Thick leather is very abrasion resistant. For example, competition-weight cowhide will slide for something like 80 to 100 feet before grinding through. It isn’t uncommon for a leather-clad road racer to fall and slide at racing speeds, yet walk away with no injury other than bruises.

The down side of leather riding gear is that it is bulky, difficult to clean, and virtually impossible to make waterproof. Good leather is expensive, and you’ll need to frequently treat your leathers with a conditioner to keep the garments supple and control mildew. If you intend to ride in the rain, you’ll want to cover your expensive leathers with waterproof raingear. And if you get your leathers sweaty from a humid ride, expect them to take on an eye-watering odor. You can’t just throw your leathers in the washing machine, and few commercial cleaners can be trusted to clean leather without ruining it.

However, leather is comfortable, stylish, and durable. Leather garments will last a lifetime if cared for properly, and leather garments can be rebuilt indefinitely, which makes leather a popular choice for many riders.

Buyer Beware

Be aware that there are vast differences in leather, including different types of leather, the finishing process, the thickness (“weight”), and the strength of the individual hide. Cowhide is the most common leather. Goatskin is tougher and more flexible than cowhide. Deerskin is very supple and abrasion resistant, but doesn’t hold its shape as it gets wet. Horsehide is an extremely durable leather, but difficult to obtain, and hard to work with.

Whatever the leather, the tanning and dying processes are critical to the quality. Reputable leatherwear manufacturers are very choosy about the hides they buy, because their reputations ride on the quality of their products. A leather jacket with a cheap price tag may seem attractive, but can turn out to be a waste of money if the leather quickly disintegrates, or the zippers fall apart.

How About Synthetics?

Riding gear made of synthetic fabrics can be as comfortable as leather, with all the same “motorcycling” features, but about half the weight and bulk, plus the advantage of both waterproofing and washability. Andy Goldfine, the brains behind Aerostich, developed his Cordura Roadcrafter as a “step into” commuting suit for daily use in Minnesota. Cordura is an extremely tear-proof polyamide fiber that is flexible, yet abrasion-resistant. Motoport leans heavily upon European gear design and materials, including Kevlar and Cordura, but is moving towards Ultra Cordura, a more rugged weave with considerably greater tear and abrasion resistance and better breathability.

There are two different theories about waterproofing fabric gear, bonding a breathable layer such as Gore-Tex ® to the inside, or providing a separate waterproof, insulated jacket liner. In theory, a jacket will breathe better with a separate liner, but that means a jacket in the rain will become soaked. And if the waterproof layer includes the insulation, that means you can’t remove the insulation for a wet, warm ride. In practice, it is more useful to have the waterproof layer bonded to the outer fabric, and have a removable liner for insulation, the technique used by Aerostich. To provide almost complete waterproofing, the sewn seams must be taped during manufacture. It isn’t possible to make zipper closures waterproof, so riding garments need flaps to cover such areas and reduce water penetration.

Kevlar vs. Cordura

Kevlar, an extremely strong synthetic fiber, might seem to be an ideal fabric for riding gear, but abrasion resistance is not simply a matter of stronger fibers. Apparently, Cordura nylon fibers will stretch over the bumps and snap back to shape, while non-stretching Kevlar fibers will grab the surface bumps and pull apart. That’s why “Kevlar” riding suits are not pure Kevlar fabric, but a blend of special flexible Kevlar fibers, Cordura Nylon, and stretch Lycra. Only one company in the world produces Kevlar fabric suitable for motorcycle garments: Schoeller Textile Company, in Switzerland.

Motoport will custom build a Kevlar suit for you at their Carlsbad, California factory, using Schoeller fabric. Marsee advertises an Ultra Ballistics Kevlar Jacket. Aerostich continues to use only Cordura nylon in their highly respected Roadcrafter and Darien suits.

Off-the-rack vs. Custom Made

There’s more to fit than S, M, L, and XL . It would be a lot easier on manufacturers if we motorcyclists were all the same size and shape, but we come in a wide variety of torso, arm, and leg diameters and lengths. If you can’t find gear off the rack that fits your shape or preferences, consider custom made garments. Leatherwear manufacturers such as Langlitz, Bates, Z Custom Leathers, and Vanson specialize in custom fitting. Fabric gear manufacturers such as Aerostich and Motoport will custom design and tailor. With custom designing, you not only get an exact fit, but you can select features such as material, color, lining, collar, belt, pockets, abrasion pads, and knee pucks.

Get In Line

If you’re asking for custom design or tailoring, expect to wait a while in line. For example, Langlitz hand-builds a maximum of 1,600 garments per year, so you get measured and then wait for your turn to come up. Manufacturers such as Bates and Vanson have somewhat larger production capacity, but you should order custom leathers long before you intend to ride in them. The first step in getting custom gear should be to obtain some catalogs, and preferably some fabric samples. You can then make decisions about the design, and take appropriate measurements to get the right fit for you and your bike.

There’s no question that top-of-the-line custom-tailored riding gear is expensive. But if you intend to keep on motorcycling for a number of years, consider your gear as an important part of the deal. High quality gear will not only be more comfortable every time you ride, but will last for years and years. And when a zipper does finally give out, reputable manufacturers will be glad to fix it. It isn’t unusual to see a 30-year-old Langlitz or Bates leather jacket still going strong.

Cost

A top-of-the-line custom-fitted leather jacket with 10 pockets, epaulets, belt, and abrasion pads will set you back about $750. Really good “jeans” style leather pants to match will run about $450. A serious fabric jacket with gusseted wrist zippers, waist adjustment tabs, cargo pockets, underarm vents, and insulated liner will tap your plastic about $600 including custom sleeves and shoulders. Matching fabric pants with armor and knee sliders will run about $450, including custom leg length.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can get a “buffalo leather” Highway Jacket and chaps off the rack for under $300. Or if you prefer an economy fabric suit with no crash padding, you can get a traditional British waxed cotton jacket and pants for about the same price. You’ll find lots of stylish leather on the racks and in the mail order catalogs, sometimes at very reasonable prices, and some of it will actually function as riding gear. But even if you find a cheap jacket that fits you well and makes you look like a member of the Wild Ones, you won’t be thrilled by a jamming zipper, the leather dye wicking through to your skin in the first shower, or the seams ripping out as you reach for the grips next summer. And you’ll also be less than enthused when you need repairs down the road, only to discover that the company has skipped town. Riding gear is an excellent example of the old adage, “you get what you pay for”.

Drover Coat Caution

Some cruiser riders are wearing split-tailed “Australian Outback” style Drover Coats. These long waxed-cotton coats are durable, windproof, waterproof, and reasonably priced. And the rugged style commands immediate attention. As attractive as a Drover Coat might be for riding a horse through the outback or strolling along the Chicago waterfront, it’s less than ideal for motorcycling. One serious hazard is that the long coat can get tangled in the running gear. You can use your imagination about what happens when heavy fabric gets jammed between the drive chain and rear wheel sprocket. Best advice is to avoid the Drover Coat for motorcycling.

Boots

Leather boots provide much greater protection than fabric sports shoes. Leather uppers help deflect debris, and prevent burns. In an accident, leather boots will protect your feet from impact and abrasion. Imagine what might happen to your toes during a quick slide down the asphalt, for example. A stepped boot heel helps keep your feet on the pegs. Slip-on or zippered boots without laces are preferable, to avoid the hazards of a snagging your foot on a motorcycle part while reaching for the ground. Tall (11 inch or higher) boots help protect the ankles against flying stones, stinging insects, and hot exhaust pipes. Don’t forget the soles. Composition soles provide much more traction than smooth leather.

There are lots of special motorcycling boots available, the popular brands being Alpinestars, AGV, Fieldsheer, Gaerne, SIDI (Acerbis USA), Bates Fastlane, and Motoline. RiderWearhouse has an interesting SIDI boot they call the “Combat Touring Boot” (“whenever regular motocross boots are too clumsy and conventional street boots are too wimpy...”). Motorcycle boots have special features such as zipper flaps, close-fitting buckles, protection pads, and oil-resistant soles. Some boots are lined with waterproof breathable membranes to keep your feet dry.

If The Shoe Fits

Unfortunately, most motorcycle-specific boots are available only in medium (“D”) width, which is a major drawback for riders whose feet aren’t within average dimensions. If your foot shape requires something wider, narrower, or with a different shape, you may have to search to find a boot that fits. Motoport has one waterproof leather boot they say will stretch to fit wider feet. Bates can provide narrower widths. Justin is now making motorcycle boots in different widths.

One practical option is “Wellington” style leather boots from a boot manufacturer such as Red Wing or Frey. “Wellies” aren’t as colorful and race-styled as Italian or German motorcycle boots, but are quite acceptable for conservative riding, and come in a variety of widths and styles.

If you want a really serious boot, consider a WESCO boot with your choice of shape, width, height, lining, toe, shank, and sole. Their 16-inch Boss is about $300. Langlitz Leathers can help you special order a WESCO boot, or you can contact the West Coast Shoe Company directly. The Dayton Shoe Company, up in western Canada, also makes custom boots for motorcycling.

Gloves

Whether you stumble over a curb while walking or go flying off your bike during an accident, the normal human survival reaction is to extend your hands. It’s probably a “save-your-face” reaction. The point is, if today happens to be your turn to take a tumble, you’ll be a lot happier with some heavy leather under your hand-skids.

The flip side is that since we control the bike to a great extent through our hands, it is essential that our gloves be comfortable and flexible as well as abrasion resistant. Leather is a first choice for gloves, but there are many different styles and shapes, with features such as gauntlets, zippers, curved fingers, flex panels, abrasion pads, insulation, waterproof covers, and breathable waterproof linings. Gloves with curved fingers may look funny hanging on the rack, but they allow for tougher leather to be more comfortable when your hand is wrapped around the grip.

As with jackets, the standard leather for gloves is cowhide, but deerskin, elkskin, and goatskin are more flexible. I prefer an insulated goatskin gauntlet glove for chilly weather, and a plain elkskin “roper” for most summer riding. Elkskin has the advantage of retaining shape, strength, and insulation qualities when wet, and is very abrasion-resistant. Gauntlets help keep insects or cold air from flying up an open jacket sleeve, and also protect the wrists against sun and wind burn.  SR!

David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series “Proficient Motorcycling” in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into a book “Proficient Motorcycling” published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of “Driving A Sidecar Outfit”. A pocket handbook, “Street Strategiesis also on the market now.

 

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