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Learning to Ride: Motorcycle Gear

Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Weve worn the Joe Rocket Steel Pants for almost a year now and the lightweight  convenient design keeps finding its way into our gearbag.
Proper motorcycle gear will help to mitigate injury in the case of an accident, protect you from the elements and help provide a distraction-free ride.
Proper motorcycle riding gear is a must, especially for the new rider. A fall, even at low speed in the parking lot, can cause serious damage without proper protection and at any speed it could mean the difference between life and death. Helmets, jackets, riding pants, gloves and boots come in various styles to suit all different types of riding and can be found at very reasonable prices, especially considering the purpose they serve. Of course there are high-end replica helmets, full leather racing suits and technologically advanced items that will keep you warm in the cold and cool in the warm, but these can run very high in cost and are largely unnecessary for the average commuter, weekend rider or soul-searching newbie. There are elements to consider in each category, but once you know what to look for the process of choosing the right gear will be a lot less daunting and will, hopefully, leave you enough cash to fill the tank.

Helmets

In America, the DOT (Department of Transportation) and Snell (Snell Memorial Foundation) safety standard ratings systems are the most common indicators of a helmet’s protective quality. Motorcycle helmets sold in the U.S. are required to meet DOT standards, which test impact, penetration and retention systems. Snell certification is a voluntary standard, with its minimum impact limits exceeding DOT requirements (controversy over which standard is safer has been a point of contention in the industry). In both cases, helmets that have met the requirements of DOT, Snell or both will display the certification prominently by way of sticker, typically found on the back of the helmet. Outside the U.S. other testing standards are used, such as BSI in the United Kingdom and ECE in the European Union – the latter ECE standard differs from the DOT primarily in penetration requirements, but is the equivalent of the DOT spec in that it is the minimum standard allowed. It’s important to research which safety requirements are in place for your particular region and then shop for a helmet that meets those standards.

Scorpion Helmet
AGV RP60 Cafe Racer Helmet.
Fly 9mm half helmet
(Above) The Scorpion EXO-R410 is an affordable, full-face DOT and Snell approved helmet. (Middle) The AGV RP60 Café Helmet is a DOT approved example of a three-quarter helmet. (Below) The Fly Racing 9mm Helmet is an example of a DOT approved half-helmet option.
After that bit of homework, the fun part begins. Get your hands on a few different brands and types of helmet to see which fit best, because all lids are not created equal. Manufacturers sell in S, M, L, XL and so on but often have slightly different interior shapes that can work well for one person but cause pressure and pain in another, depending on head shape. For example, I typically measure as an XL on most sizing charts but the interior shape of ICON’s Airframe in my size still caused a significant hot-spot on my forehead about 20 minutes into the ride. I later got my hands on a Scorpion EXO-R410, in Large, and rode an entire day without pain. The point is that you need to try a variety of brands and sizes to ensure a proper and comfortable fit.

A fully protective helmet will have an outer shell, an impact-absorbing liner, comfort padding and a chin strap retention system. Components used to make the outer shell are most often a fiberglass composite material – though higher-end lids can incorporate carbon fiber or other materials. The lifesaving interior foam liner is an expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) designed to absorb and distribute the force of an impact. Comfort lining is often removable, adjustable and washable.

Measure your head at its largest circumference, just above the eyebrows, or start with your hat size, if you know it. Take a look at the manufacturers sizing chart and start there. A helmet should be snug, but not uncomfortably so. There shouldn’t be any gaps between your temples and the interior padding, and you should feel the cheek pads on the sides of your face without too much pressure. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation suggests moving the helmet “from side to side and up and down with your hands. If it fits right, your skin should move as the helmet is moved. You should feel a slight, even pressure is being exerted all over your head.”

Wear each helmet for a minute or two to see if you notice any pressure points and after taking the helmet off, see if any red spots have developed on your forehead. These small inconveniences in the short term may not seem all that important, but over the course of a long ride can cause severe headaches and make for a really unpleasant ride. Uncomfortable gear is also a distraction, making a well-fitting helmet a safety concern as well.

Riders must also face the decision of whether to go with a full-face, three-quarter or half-helmet. Full face offers the most protection, has a face shield and additional protection around the chin. Take note of air ventilation systems in full face helmets too, making sure there adequate airflow, which helps keep the lid from fogging and your head cool on warm days or over the course of a long ride.

Many three-quarter helmets come with face shields too, but just as many don’t. There’s also no protection for your chin with a three-quarter helmet. Half helmets only go over the top of the head, leaving the back of the neck, ears and chin exposed. They’re more likely to come off in the event of impact and may not be the best choice for the rider still gaining confidence on the bike. This guide provided by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation goes into more detail regarding motorcycle helmets and is a great resource for new riders.

Finally, in addition to the full, three-quarter, half helmet designations, there are also lids specifically designed for different types of riding. The biggest difference comes between street and off-road helmets as the off-road lids generally have a visor and are worn with a pair of goggles. Often three-quarter and half helmets are seen on riders of cruiser-type bikes, but that’s only a matter of image. It’s Motorcycle USA’s recommendation that the new rider out on the street wear a full-faced helmet to maximize protection.

Former Motorcycle USA Off-road Editor JC Hilderbrand offers a detailed look at the different types of helmets available and explains the benefits, drawbacks and features of each in the video at the bottom of the page.

REVIT Horizon Jacket.
Joe Rocket Velocity.
(Above) All purpose jackets like the REV'IT Horizon often have lots of protective and comfort features. (Below) The Joe Rocket Velocity jacket is a lightweight, affordable option that would work well during the warm summer months.
Jackets

There are different types of motorcycle jackets for different riding styles though there are things to consider regardless of the type of riding you plan to do. First, you’ll want a jacket that fits well. Most are designed to fit comfortably and protect important areas like shoulders, elbows and the back while in riding position. In practical terms this means the sleeves and bottom of the jacket will be a bit longer than usual to accommodate a rider’s reach to the bars. Many will be roomy in the shoulders and elbows to allow for armor to be inserted if it hasn’t already been added and there needs to be closures at the wrist, neck and waist to ensure a snug fit while riding.

Other features that are available to some extent in nearly every riding jacket are pockets (number, size, quantity and method of closure all things to consider) as well as liners and vents (which make the jacket more versatile and comfortable in a variety of weather conditions). It’s recommended by almost any safety training course available to have some reflective material on your person while riding to increase rider visibility. There are many jackets available, from bright yellow high-viz options, to less dramatic options or no reflective patches at all, depending on your preference.

You’ll also need to decide between different materials, the most common being leather or textile. Leather requires some extra care and comes in different grades, which are explained in this MotoUSA Jacket Product Guide. Leather continues to provide optimal abrasion resistance – with road racers sourcing full-body leather racing suits, commonly referred to as ‘leathers’.

Textile jackets are generally made of nylon, often Dupont Cordura fabrics rated on the Denier scale. One of the major differences between leather and textile jackets has to do with breathability. Leather jackets tend to hold in heat and sometimes don’t breathe as well as textile, although good vents can help alleviate some of the heat retention.

Consider the weather in your region, or in the regions you plan to explore, and chose a jacket that suits those needs. There are lightweight, airy summer jackets available for riding in hot weather as well as heavily insulated, heated winter jackets for riding in the cold. For new riders, a solid all-purpose jacket with some level of additional armor is likely the best choice. See options like the REV’IT Levante Jacket or the Tour Master Intake Air 3 Jacket. Explore options in different riding categories as well, since a rider with cross-country tours in mind will likely need more pockets and weather protection than the urban commuter.

Pants

Riding pants, like jackets, are designed to fit while in riding position. They will sit a bit higher on the waist than a regular pair of jeans and the legs will extend longer to help keep your lower legs covered while bent in a riding tuck. Armored, reinforced and abrasion resistant options are available depending on rider preference. Most companies offer matching sets of jackets and pants and in many cases the two can be joined together by latches, buckles or Velcro to ensure full coverage.

Alpinestars Logic Kevlar Pants.
Though they don't offer the same level of protection as textile  or leather, reinforced denim pants are also available.
Like jackets, pants are manufactured from a variety of materials. Leather remains a standard in abrasion resistance, but may not be practical for everyday riding. Textile materials offer lighter weight, and can also be weather proof. Denim riding jeans are also available. Reinforced with abrasion resistant materials, riding jeans offer better protection than regular jeans, but won’t deliver the same protection as leather/textile models. Over pants allow riders to wear a base layer, in case they prove too bulky or awkward to wear off the bike. Like jackets, many pants come with venting options to ensure a cool ride in warm conditions. Remember though, pants designed for motocross and off-road riding are generally thin and don’t provide adequate abrasion resistance or protection for street use.

Boots

Riding boots can come in genuine leather, synthetic leathers like Lorica or blends of leather and synthetics which provide abrasion protection outside and often have impact absorbing materials and reinforced armor. There are boots for sportbike riding at the track, off-road motocross boots with heavy-duty plastics and buckles to ensure roost doesn’t turn your lower leg to mush and street boots that can pass as ordinary kicks. As with other items discussed, the choice of footwear depends on the style of riding and the conditions riders expect to encounter.

Icon Elsinore Boots
RSD Diesel Gloves.
Protection and comfort are key. You’ll want a pair of boots that fit snugly, that extend above the ankle and won’t make shifting through gears a pain. Lorica or Goretex-made boots offer more waterproofing than straight leather, so if you expect to see water at any point down the road you may want to explore options in this category.

Read more about the differences in boots in the MotoUSA boots product guide and be sure not to overlook this article for a pair of hiking boots or sneakers as they will provide vital protection from the random road or track debris that gets kicked-up during a ride and will help to minimize the seriousness of injury in the event of a crash.

Gloves

Motorcycle gloves are also available in leather, synthetic or a blend of the two materials and should be chosen with a mind to the type of riding you plan to do. Abrasion resistance and comfort are key components to a good pair of gloves and many options also include reinforced armor on the knuckles and fingers. Make sure to take note of ventilation and whether they are waterproof so you can be protected from the elements as well.

Gloves provide the sure grip needed to keep a steady hand on the throttle and to pull the clutch and brake so make sure they fit well, almost as a second skin, and that there’s no excess of material that can get hung up when using the controls. MotoUSA looks at gloves in-depth in the MotoUSA glove product guide, which is worth a close read before making that first purchase.

Other

There are a host of other accessories from sunglasses and goggles to backpacks and neck braces that are specially designed for motorcycle riders. Explore the options and make decisions based on your specific needs as a rider. Motorcycle-Superstore offers fantastic videos on their YouTube channel where they explain the merits of particular brands, items and accessories for riders and is an invaluable resource when looking for that perfect set of gear.

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Comments
akajayson   October 10, 2013 09:24 AM
Enjoyed this article. Thanks Byron.
SmokinTT   October 8, 2013 12:39 PM
Byron, nice primer for newbie riders. Safety is always paramount. Much of what you covered is provided for in the general MSF classes. To: WhatNextMoron....you are a punk and an ass. Or maybe just a punk ass Moron. Get a life!
WhatNextMoron   October 2, 2013 12:29 PM
You missed your true-calling as a MSF instructor, dude. Look, "proper" gear just like "proper" riding technique is entirely debatable. I'm sure that back in 1976 there was a ski-instructor at some mountain in California who used to approach skiing with the same attitude. And then some guy barrelled by him on a snowboard and he was left standing there with his lips flapping. Go home and lecture to your doggie.