by Gary Charpentier
I was riding down Grand Ave. in St. Paul the other day, on one of the hottest days of the year. Dressed in my usual riding outfit of jeans, boots, gloves, helmet, and that same leather jacket I wore while roosting around town this past Winter, I was really beginning to feel the heat. It was rush hour, after all, so the normal 30 mph breeze was absent, replaced by the exhaust fumes and thermal radiation coming from the gridlocked cars all around me.
I was beginning to daydream of giving up all this armor for the free and easy garb of shorts and a t-shirt, sandals and sunglasses that I see all the squids wearing nowadays. Why not? I am an experienced rider, and can avoid accidents better than most. As long as I behave myself and remain vigilant against brain dead motorists, what do I have to worry about? Maybe I’ll install open headers so they can all hear me coming and stay out of my way. “Loud pipes save lives!” right?
About that time the light turned green. There was a van in front of me, nobody behind, and as we crossed the intersection a guy in a brand new Jeep Grand Secondmortgage, waiting to turn left, was talking animatedly with his female passenger looking at her and not the road, gesturing with one hand while cranking the steering wheel with the other. As soon as he passed, he accelerated, not seeing me or my bike right in his path. I was watching the whole scene unfold, so I was ready for it, and I meeped my pathetic little horn; but if I had not accelerated at the same time, I would have been hit and sent tumbling to the scorched pavement.
Dressed as I was, it would have been simply another mishap, with me walking away pissed off and bruised, but otherwise intact. Things would have been much different had I been sporting squid fashion garb, with a trip to the emergency room the very least of the possible consequences.
I didn’t even look back. These kinds of close calls happen almost every day when you commute on a motorcycle through the city. But I stopped fantasizing about riding in beach wear right then and there. Motorcycling is a dangerous pastime. When we engage in other dangerous activities, we usually wear the appropriate safety equipment. Why is riding a bike any different? Because it just isn’t “cool” to arrive at your destination with your helmet-molded hair plastered to your sweaty head? Because you want the babes to dig your handsome mug, wrap around shades and chiseled calves? So it would logically follow that this is worth the risk of losing yards of skin and permanently disfiguring yourself just so you can look “cool” going down the road, right? Maybe if you are 18 years old and invincible.
It’s funny though, the better I get at riding motorcycles, the more I am compelled to wear the gear that will save my ass in a crash. Let’s do the math: more experience = smarter rider = better skills = more safety gear. I believe this is Moto-Darwinism at work; survival of the fittest, let the traffic and the cruel pavement weed out the stupid. I don’t want to ride with them anyway…
Do you know what I hate about tirades like this? The only people still reading by this point are the ones who don’t need to. I neglected to mention horsepower, quarter-mile times, wheelies, burnouts, or breaking the law in the first two paragraphs, and as a result I have exceeded the notoriously short squid attention span. The windblown hair boys have already left the building, and I am stuck preaching to the helmeted choir.
Motorcyclists are funny that way. We often don’t listen to other people’s wisdom unless they have impressed us first with unwise behavior. Even then, some of us don’t listen, period. We prefer to learn all our lessons the hard way. How else can we accumulate “war stories” to tell other riders who won’t listen?
It’s a vicious cycle, pun intended, which leads some of us to ruin. Many older, luckier, and by default experienced riders have tried in vain to educate their novice peers. It just doesn’t work, because the attitude is: “You’re just trying to keep me from having as much fun as you did!”. Yeah Junior, that’s right, if you classify road-rash, broken bones, brain damage and financial ruin as fun. Am I wasting my editorial breath here? Probably. But for those of you still with me, let’s talk about this compromise between comfort and safety.
As I mentioned earlier, I ride year-round in the same jacket, jeans, and boots. The only things that change are what I wear underneath. Long-johns and sweatshirts in Winter, nothing and a t-shirt in Summer. There are better, more high-tech approaches to this, but my budget doesn’t support them. You can buy a well-vented jacket for the warmer weather, and some of these come with zip-in liners to keep out the cold. With few exceptions, you get what you pay for.
Things to look for in a jacket are: double or triple stitching in stress-prone areas, padding at shoulders and elbows, overlapping material at the zipper, and a good fit so that it will not flap and billow at speed. The most important things to determine are that the jacket will be comfortable to wear, and will stay together in case of a spontaneous impact and extreme friction exposure event, (CRASH!).
Gloves are another item that can be tailored to suit the weather. In the winter, I go with a good pair of snowmobile gloves, sacrificing some of the heavy leather road-rash protection for insulation from the cold.
For summer, you can choose any of several types of padded, studded, and kevlar armored gloves specifically designed to save your hands from direct exposure to the pavement. Most of the better ones will be a bit warm in the heat of July and August, but with gloves especially, there is an inverse relationship between safety and comfort. If you choose the lightweight leather with holes intentionally punched in them, or if you want to be real silly and buy gloves without any fingers at all, you may be comfortable, but don’t put your hands out to try and save yourself.
Next, let’s talk about pants versus chaps. I have to laugh when I see people wearing chaps on a motorcycle. Like the fingerless gloves, I view these as silly, because they leave exposed a part of your anatomy that a properly designed pair of riding pants would strive to protect. I’m talkin’ about your ass here.
Leather riding pants, when properly designed, will protect you a lot better than chaps. They will have padding in all the right places, be flexible where they need to be, and best of all, they will cover your ass when it is on the line. I don’t know for certain, but I have to assume they are also more comfortable than chaps, which usually go over a pair of jeans anyway.
I don’t have space here to get into the whole footwear thing, except to say that boots specifically designed for motorcycling are worlds ahead of anything else, in both safety and comfort.
The point is, we each have to assess the risks involved in our style of riding, versus the “rewards” derived from our style of riding gear, and dress accordingly. I will always err on the side of safety, because I never know when the sudden urge to twist the grip and drag the pegs will overwhelm me.
You may not have these aggressive tendencies, preferring instead to hoon about the countryside on a full dress touring barge, so your requirements may be weighted more towards comfort. That’s fine. Just remember that the unexpected hazard is out there, waiting for that moment of inattention, while you are gazing at the sunset instead of the road ahead. You will really miss that extra layer of cowhide you stuffed into your saddlebag, or decided not to buy in the first place, when you are sliding down the road at 70 miles per hour. The laughter you hear at that moment is the bovine donor’s ghost watching your skin burn away on the asphalt. Is anybody listening?