Learner FAQ - Choosing Bike Gear

Zebee Johnstone

Date: 17 Mar 1998

A while back I said I'd take a stab at some learner FAQ stuff. Here's a try on "buying bike gear". Comments welcome... what have I left out? I'm especially interested in hearing from learners and ex-learners - what did you need to know?

Bike clothing has two jobs

To do these things it needs to have the right features and fit well. "Right features" can be subjective at times, so be warned you are getting a lot of opinion here! Starting at the top...

The Helmet

At some point you are going to hear the old saw.. "If you have a ten dollar head, buy a ten dollar helmet". Ignore it. All helmets legally sold in Oz have to pass the same test. Some do pass more stringent tests, but if the only difference between a $500 helmet and a $250 helmet is one has Snell certification and the other doesn't.... I personally wouldn't bother with the extra because the $250 one has passed a similar test if not quite as stringent - and it may well pass it, it's just that the certification costs a lot. Buy the helmet not on price but on fit and feel.

A helmet should fit quite snugly but not so tightly you develop pressure points.

Go to a shop with a good range and try on every helmet you can, the hideously expensive ones, the dirt cheap ones, the motocross lids, the lot. You are looking for the ones that feel snug without pressure points which usually show up as tight spots on temples or ears. Different manufacturers make different shaped helmets, you will soon discover if you have a "Shoei shaped head" or an "Arai shaped head".

Expect to have a bit of difficulty getting helmets on till you get the knack, lots of people find ears dificult to manage for example. Try grasping the sides of the lid and pulling them apart as you put it on.

Do up the strap and wiggle your head vigorously. Wiggle it side to side and nod it up and down. Does the helmet shift? It will shift a bit with your skin, but if it's at all loose or inclined to move it is too loose. Very slightly (*very* slightly) too tight helmets will wear in, loose will just get looser. You will get used to moderate pressure on your cheeks, but if it pushes your mouth open, that's too much.

Now grab the helmet at the back of your neck, and try and pull it up and forward, off over your head. If you can that's no good - people have been killed because their lid came off in a crash.

When you have narrowed it down to a few helmets, check other comfort things. How much peripheral vision do you get in each? How easy is the strap to do up? Does the strap have a retainer so it doesn't flap about? (less necessary with short strap ends)

There is also the polycarb vs fibreglass debate. Many of the cheap helmets are polycarbonate, a cast plastic. Problem with these is that they tend to have one shell size, and the difference in head size is made with more or less padding and foam inner. Padding packs down - it's been my experience that polycarb helmets get loose more quickly on my small sized head.

The more expensive helmets tend to have plusher linings, fancier venting, trickier visors etc. Fancy paint jobs cost a lot too. Be sure you know what you are paying for.

Some features are useful. The quieter the better for example, although it's hard to say which helmet will be quietest for you as it depends on the fit and the air turbulence from your fairing.

A helmet that has pods holding the visor on will likely be slightly noisier than one that has less air disturbance. Good brow ventilation actually works and can make a difference in really hot weather. A system that cracks the visor open a teeny bit makes those cold foggy mornings better as the visor doesn't mist up as much.

Some helmets have breath guards to help stop fogging. Never worked for me, but some folk like them.

Jackets

Bike jackets are mostly used for keeping you warm and dry. You hope they never have to keep you whole as well, but it does happen. Problem is that unless you start paying big bikkies, the ones that are good at the warm and dry bit don't do as well at the crash bit, and vice versa.

I suggest that for learners in warmer states and in summer, go for a leather jacket and a one piece unlined waterproof oversuit to fit over it. If you plan to ride in Southern winters (especially on an unfaired or minimally faired bike) then you will need something warmer as well.

Don't underestimate the dangers of being too cold or too hot. Both can affect your concentration, and that can get you killed.

A jacket should be comfortable when you are on the bike. This means that when you are sitting in your normal riding position you shouldn't feel it dragging at your arms or choking you or interfering with your helmet or allowing your kidneys to get cold.

So lean forward in riding position. The jacket should be low enough on your back so that it doesn't leave skin/shirt showing between it and your jeans. The arms should be cut forward so that you don't feel a pull on arms or back. It should reach down to your wrists, not ride up. You should be able to move your head - the collar shouldn't be throttling you, and your helmet shouldn't get snagged on it.

The wrists should have a closure so that when it's all zipped and snapped up you can't push the sleeve up your arm.

The neck and hip closures should fit snugly so you don't get nasty cold air down your chest. Some jackets deliberately don't have a close collar (Brando jackets for example) so if you get one of these be sure you can fit a scarf.

All zips should be easily managed with gloved hands.

Take a look at the stitching. Bits that hit the road such as sleeve seams, shoulders, and front should not have thread showing where it can get ground off.

The leather should be heavy. Thin supple leather feels nice, fits well and tears if it so much as looks at bitumen. A good jacket should be noticeably heavy and take a while to wear in.

Armour is not essential, but it's nice if it fits well. It should be either high density foam or hard plastic. Soft sponge is just cosmetic, don't pay extra for it. The armour should fit the bit it is supposed to protect and not move around.

Make sure you can get into the pockets! Some jackets have pockets set too high. Inside pockets are good, make sure you can get to it without having to take the jacket off, and that it fits your wallet.

Watch out that belt buckles or press studs don't scratch your tank.

Consider a colour other than black if you live in a warm part of the country. General aus.moto consensus is that coloured leather like red or yellow or light brown is noticeably cooler than all black. Even something with big light coloured panels where the sun hits is good.

If you do get a jacket with panels or stripes, make sure that they are overlaid on the jacket, or else the seams are very strong and sewn together well with good overlap and hidden stitching. The more panels a jacket has, the more points of failure.

Check the local manufacturers like Walden Miller (SA), Tanako(SA), Tiger Angel(Vic), DBT(NSW) and Quinns(NSW). They all do mail order as well as fittings, and you may find that a custom made jacket is not a lot more expensive than off the shelf and will fit much better. This is especially so for women.

If you go for a non-leather jacket, all the above applies, but it's hard to tell about the shell's crashworthiness or its waterproofness. I've seen the results of crashing in the cheap DriRider Alpine, and in all 3 cases the person was fine although the jacket was a write off.

Given that, most non-leather biking jackets should be OK for commuting and touring, but if you are going to push hard get the cordura/kevlar/armour ones.

Boots

Bike boots are seldom waterproof. Get a set of "foot frangers", rubber pull on overboots, if you are planning to be out in the rain for more than an hour or so. For shorter times, leather boots can be waterproofed by a a good coat of polish, or by waterproofing compound like Snoseal or dubbin.

Boots that lace up like Doc Martens have more holes for water.

Boots need to protect your whole foot from abrasion, and from crushing. To do this they need to stay on your foot, so try and get one that buckles or zips up (zips need a protective waterproof flap) rather than pulls on. If it pulls on, make sure it's a good tight fit.

It should cover your ankle, ankle bones and bitumen don't mix. The sole should be very solid, and extend past the foot on all sides. This is to help protect the foot from being crushed and to help stop the thinner leather round the toes from being worn through in a slide.

Extra leather or armour over ankles and toes is nice. You may hear scare stories about steelcaps cutting toes off but as far as I know, no one has ever known someone who it has happened to, it's all "this guy I heard about".

Motocross boots are excellent protection. If you go this way, make sure you can change gears OK, and that you don't have to do much walking in them!

There are expensive "racing" boots which are very soft and floppy. Ignore them - one of the things road riders are faced with that racers aren't is solid objects like cars and kerbs. A racer gets to slide into runoff areas, often with his feet in the air. Road riders get cars running into (or over) their tootsies, and kerbs getting intimate with them too.

If you have hard to fit feet and can't find decent boots, Medal Shoes and Boots in Melbourne makes bike boots to measure for under $300 for personal and mail order clients. Their boots are well known for being very tough and long lasting.

Gloves

Gloves come in summer and winter weights.

Gloves should fit snugly. They should fit well at the wrist so they don't come off in a crash, preferably with velcro or zip rather than just elastic, as elastic stretches. Check summer gloves with your summer jacket and winter ones with the heavier togs to make sure the gloves fit OK with the jacket sleeves.

Gloves also come in different hand shapes, so get one that fits you. Some are for those with narrow long-fingered hands and some for the short wide stubby type. Bits of glove finger sticking out past your own fingers are annoying and can interfere with working switchgear and make it hard to pull on the second glove.

Summer gloves

Unlined summer gloves can colour your hands when your sweat leeches the dye.

The palms should have a double layer of leather, and possibly some extra padding or protection as well. Some have studded palms which look cool but I don't think are all that wonderful - I have crashed in a pair and the studs caught the asphalt and the palm tore out... They also can scratch helmets and tanks.

It's hard to say what patterns of leather and stitching work best, but the fewer panels and bits sewn together the better, and the more layers of leather (bits sewn on top of other bits) the better.

For warm but wet places, use overgloves. Those with small sized hands can try rubber washing up gloves, a size 9 will fit over my size 7 hand and gloves.

Otherwise a pair of latex medical gloves will keep the water out surprisingly well but tend to be single use only - they tear and stick. But at a couple of bucks for a box of 24 you can keep a couple of pairs in your jacket for emergencies.

Winter Gloves

Same applies, but winter gloves also have to keep water and cold out.

The waterproof membranes like Hippora and Goretex do work. The outside of the glove gets sopping, but your hands stay warm and dry.

Main drawback is that the gloves can be very thick and loose with the various layers - outside, mambrane, thinsulate, inner shell - and that can make them a right pain to hold a throttle with as you fight the thickness and your hand slides around.

Try on several pairs and use a throttle to see how they feel.

I've used both all leather winter gloves and the ones with fabric on the outside. Have crashed in a pair with leather palms and fabric shell, no problem.

Where to buy?

Bike shops are the obvious places. Try several.... If you are buying a bike from a dealer they may throw in a jacket or helmet as part of the deal, so be ready to demand the *right* jacket or helmet - do your homework.

Jackets can often be found cheaply at pawn shops. Make sure you are getting the bargain you think you are of course, check prices of new ones. Gloves ditto, but make sure you get bike gloves and not ski gloves.

Don't buy a helmet at a pawn shop - you can't know if it's been in a bingle. It's hard to tell by looking - the lid I was wearing when I crashed hard enough to put me in hospital for a week with a head injury is not much marked....

The Trading Post is another possible place for bike gear. Again, don't buy a 2nd hand helmet... it really isn't worth it!

Zebee


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