It doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, or how long it takes to scrape together all of your riding gear. That phrase, “wear what you want to crash in,” summarizes perfectly the attitude motorcyclists of any level should take towards their riding apparel.
But beginner motorcyclists, being easily influenced rubes, tend to take a budget or, perhaps worse, fashion approach to everything from helmets to footwear.
My column two months ago discussed the value of taking the MSF Basic RiderCourse for any motorcyclist. What I didn’t mention was that I showed up on the first day of class wearing sneakers, a lightweight jacket, and mountain biking gloves. Riding a motorcycle is just about the closest a person can get to exposure to the elements—the sun, heat, humidity, wind, rain, cold, and occasionally snow—and thousands of pounds of metal, rubber, and burning dinosaur juice inches away from you. Hell yes, it’s fun.
But it can also be dangerous, which is why you want to add as thick a layer as possible between all that violence and your bare-ass skin.
My primary concern when shopping for riding gear (before I even purchased my bike, by the way)—aside from finding something that fit right—was the material: classic leather or high-tech textile? There are camps on both sides of the debate.
My more-experienced brother pushed textile, as did a co-worker who owned both a leather and textile jacket. They said textile is much cooler in the summer, and that I would regret a leather purchase when sitting in traffic, sweat pouring down my back.
I haven’t experienced riding in summer yet, so my decision to buy a moderately priced Frank Thomas leather jacket, riding pants, and gloves in addition to a Shoei helmet was based more on another comment from that same co-worker: What do motorcycle racers wear when they compete? What holds up sliding down the racetrack at 90 mph? The answer is, of course, leather.
Leather has other benefits, including wind resistance and durability. It also looks pretty badass. (That’s my beginner’s sensibility.)
I later picked up a pair of Alpinestars riding boots that offer better protection than my hiking boots.
Unfortunately for the cash-strapped motorcyclist, all this riding gear doesn’t come cheap. Expect to spend a couple hundred dollars to outfit yourself with a jacket, gloves and a helmet—items that should be the minimum for riding.
I still shake my head every time I see a fellow motorcyclist riding in a short-sleeved shirt, gloveless, or in flip-flops. I can’t imagine the amount of skin you’d lose in even a slow speed, low-side fall. Hospital bills cost far more than any jacket I know of, fancy Italian leather included.
What to look for in your riding gear
Helmet: Every beginner should get a full-face helmet approved by both DOT and the Snell Foundation. Leave the skull caps to the Harley-riding surgeons who should know better anyway. Spend a little more dough to get both a clear and dark-tint face shield. Your eyes will thank you on sunny days.
Footwear: Any boots that are somewhat rigid and cover your ankles are usually fine for riding. But if your bike has its exhaust pipes positioned in a way that could hit your lower legs, consider boots with a higher cuff. Also, look for good traction for putting your feet down at traffic stops.
Gloves: Full-fingered gloves with knuckle protection are a must for riding. Should you fall, you will put your hands down instinctively—make sure there is a layer there to take the hit. Bonus points for Kevlar stitching and a gauntlet to cover your wrists.
Jacket and pants: There are many, many options for either of these items. I prefer leather, but there are great textile options to chose from that offer the same level of protection in a lighter weight, and cooler, package. If you get a matching set of jacket and pants, make sure they can be zipped together for maximum protection in a crash. Also, look for extra padding in the shoulders, elbows, back and knees. It’s okay to look like a football player.
Hearing protection: Though not absolutely necessary on every ride, a simple set of foam ear plugs will give you comfort on highway rides where wind noise can be intense. It will also ensure you’re able to hear for years to come, and you can actually hear traffic quite well.
Patrick Beeson is a rookie rider who attempts to cover issues important to newbies each month while splicing in anecdotes about his journey from citizen to motorcyclist. If you’re new to riding, or simply want to share a story from your early days in the saddle, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.