Most of us have a plan when we climb on our cruisers. Maybe it’s a refreshing ride to work. Maybe there is an exciting event or smiling face waiting at the end of several days of riding. It might just be a relaxing evening putt through the country. The plan usually involves pleasure, or at least a timely arrival at our destination. There is nothing in the plan that involves crashing.
An unvented jacket can move considerable air through it if you lower the zipper and open the cuffs to let air up your sleeve. You will be cooler and less dehydrated in a jacket that flows air than with no jacket at all on a hot day.
I never planned to bounce off the hood of a car that morning back in high school when the car came down the wrong side of the street. A crash was the furthest thing from my mind just before I hit the sand on a local mountain road. Nothing in my plans called for a tumble down the interstate that rainy day on the New York State Throughway just nanoseconds after the bike inexplicably started tank-slapping. My schedule did not include a crash the morning I discovered that the freeway connecting ramp was covered with coolant. Sitting there with my engine off, waiting for the Ohio flagman to clear us through at the well-marked road construction site, I had not an inkling of flying through the air and into the guard rail until I heard the howling tires of the car barreling down behind us.
If you woke up one morning and flipped on the TV, and the guy reading the morning news announced that you would crash today, you’d be prepared, wouldn’t you? You’d get the best helmet and the most protective riding gear you could find, I’ll wager. I never once planned on crashing. But that didn’t mean that I hadn’t prepared for it. Not one of those crashes—or any of the others I didn’t plan on during my more than 30 years of riding—found me without a jacket, long pants, solid footwear, gloves, and a helmet. In most cases, my protective apparel was even better than that.
Have you ever met anyone who did plan to crash today? I haven’t yet. I have met a lot who didn’t plan to crash, but found themselves doing it anyway. Many had their surprise compounded by nasty abrasions, horrific bruises, ground-off fingers, even head injuries. All because they didn’t “plan” to crash that day. Said one, “If I knew I was going down on that ride, there is no way I’d have worn shorts.” He was apparently planning to crash a different day.
We think one of the most important parts of a boot is its sole. Traction can become very important when you try to support your bike on an oily or sandy surface.
No one expects it or sees it coming in time to change their minds about what they’ll wear. The excuses sound awfully hollow afterwards: “It was too much trouble to get my jacket out.” “I didn’t know where I’d left my gloves.” “I didn’t think I’d crash while just running around the corner.” (Remember actor Gary Busey? He hit the corner.) “Who expected this?” Or, “The last thing he said was, ‘I don’t want to wear a helmet on such a nice day.’”
The excuses sound even worse when you know how much good riding gear can do to make you comfortable. Sure, as soon as I have stopped I want out of my gear on a hot day, but the right stuff actually makes you more comfortable while moving. On hot days a jacket with venting that keeps a bit of perspiration near your skin where it can cool you, makes you cooler than riding in just a T-shirt or, worse, no shirt at all. Yeah, you’ll smell worse at the end of the day, but you’ll be cooler in the meantime if you wear long pants and a jacket.
At a BMW R1200C introduction in Tucson, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees almost the entire time we were riding. When I opened my faceshield, the direct blast of hot air made me feel even hotter because my face dried off, keeping me from being cooled by sweat. Taking my jacket off would have done the same thing on a larger scale. Riding without a layer to slow down the wind also dehydrates you faster. Sure, the humid weather of the midwest and east make your personal swamp cooler seem less effective, but you will still stay cooler with a jacket than without one while cruising down the highway. You may not notice it when you run down to the corner store, but riding in a T-shirt and shorts actually fatigues you more than riding with the right gear, thanks to sunburn, wind burn and dehydration.
Part of the trick is owning the right apparel. The most important point here is to buy gear made for motorcycling. A neighbor recently showed me the “motorcycle” jacket he’d just bought. It was leather, but the leather was so light that it would be of little use in a fall. The cuffs on the sleeves were a knit design that didn’t fit snugly, so the sleeves could slide up, leaving his arms bare in a slide. The knit cuffs also blocked wind flow on warm days. The jacket wasn’t cut for motorcycling, so when he reached for the handlebar, there were gaps at his wrist and the bottom of back.
If the guy up ahead in the Buick wanders to his left suddenly,
a helmet and leather jacket might suddenly seem pretty comfortable after all.
Consider the protective qualities and the flexibility of a piece of motorcycling apparel when shopping. A motorcycling jacket should be constructed from thicker leather than fashion clothing. Or choose a material like the sturdy Cordura nylons used by firms like Aerostich. It should be cut so that it’s comfortable and covers well when you are sitting on your bike. The seams should be sewn tightly with tough thread, and the zippers should be rugged enough to stay together if you crash. The cuffs should fit snugly, so the sleeves won’t leave your arms uncovered. A fold-down collar should be secured against flapping. To make it usable in a wide variety of temperatures, the jacket should, at the minimum, have some method of letting air pass through. A liner is also nice, but you can create your own with layers underneath the jacket—providing it isn’t so snug that they won’t fit. Useful features in a jacket are armor, adjustable cuffs, pockets that suit your habits, and collars that adjust or remove to alter wind flow and protection. The vented Firstgear jacket I took to Tucson probably looked oppressive to the uninitiated, but its vents (which include scoops on the sleeves to send air up there) not only admitted enough air to keep me comfy at 110 degrees, after closing the vents, it works down into the 40s. That flexibility means that its substantial leather will be available when I need it most.
Probably the single most important aspect of selecting riding gear is finding a comfortable helmet. A cheap helmet that fits poorly will discourage you from wearing it, which can lead to a different kind of sore spot on your head. A helmet that fits well and reduces wind noise, will add to the pleasures of riding. Finding the right helmet in your size can be time-consuming, since few dealers carry a wide assortment of lids in stock. Having been involved in many helmet tests over the years, I know that virtually every rider can find a helmet he enjoys wearing.
Within a helmet type—that is full-face, open-face, etc.—shop for comfort first. The degree of protection offered does not vary nearly as much between brands as comfort does, so try on a lot of helmets and find the one that fits you best. Leave a helmet on for a while and make sure there are no tight points. Look at how well the neck roll and ear roll seals out wind noise. When comparing features, those which seem most useful are anti-scratch faceshields and easy faceshield changes.
Second only to a helmet in terms of vital protection, gloves protect another delicate, essential part of your anatomy. My prime concerns when selecting gloves are effective retention, solid construction, and comfort. A wrist strap which cinches the glove down securely will assure that it doesn’t fly off when you need it most. I like deerskin for its tough yet supple nature. Again, the seams should be solid. Deerskin also stretches to fit your hand, so it gets better as you wear it. To provide comfort through changing seasons, I have a selection of gloves: vented without gauntlets (which block wind flow up the sleeves) for hot days, warm waterproof gloves for cold weather, and a set of unlined gauntlet gloves for the rest of the time.
Wetting down the clothes beneath your leathers or other outer garments is the most effective way to stay cool on scorching days.
Boots should have a rubber sole that provides traction if you put your foot down in sand or slimy stuff. They should be solidly constructed and cover the ankle (which, because it protrudes, can be abraded or impact in a fall), preferably with padding. They shouldn’t have long laces that can catch in a chain or bulk which interferes with shifting. Though most motorcycle boots meet these requirements, so do many good hiking boots, which may provide more comfort for walking. Currently, several firms offer boots with Gore-Tex liners, which make them completely waterproof. These are the essential pieces of riding gear that any self-respecting motorcyclist should own. Beyond the basics, there are other items that can make riding more comfortable. Most riders probably have a rain suit. It’s tempting to buy a cheap rain suit, but few of those will stand up to motorcycling use. I have seen several that ripped apart on the first ride. I’d expect to spend at least $40 and perhaps twice that for a rain suit that will serve motorcycling duty for many seasons. A Gore-Tex rain suit can keep you dry without making you too hot, but this will also add to the cost. A lined rain suit can do double duty as a cold-weather suit. Another important consideration after durable construction and proper fit is a bright color. A heavy rain can severely limit the visibility from a car, and a rider in a black or olive-drab rain suit can simply disappear.
Leather, or other built-to-crash pants, are perhaps the least-used item of protective gear. Aerostich’s one-piece suits, which offer substantial abrasion protection, easy entry, and recently, solid armor, have achieved some popularity. The Cordura suits offer a similar attraction with more air flow, but without the Aerostich’s water-resistance. Many cruisers favor chaps, but these too often leave your glutes—among the likeliest points of need—exposed in a crash. Full overpants are a better idea. I use a pair of Firstgear overpants, which are easy to don and doff, and provide full coverage.
Wetting down the clothes beneath your leathers or other outer garments is the most effective way to stay cool on scorching days. Though taking your jacket off may seem tempting, you will actually be cooler if you leave it on, at least if you are moving at any speed. If you lack vents, partially unzipping will probably help move air through the jacket, but not enough to evaporate the moisture in there before it has time to cool you.