It is a well known truth that riding a motorcycle is an inherently dangerous activity. The body of the rider is astride the bike and is exposed to all of the elements of nature and man. Riders need protection - This is the reason that so many motorcycle apparel companies exist.
If you are a conscientious rider, you know the phrase "All the Gear All the Time," or ATGATT. This gear includes:
- A protective riding jacket
- Long (often reinforced)pants
- Over-the-ankle boots
- Motorcycle helmet
Broadly speaking, your motorcycle costume is a smart idea and is far more effective than mere street clothes at keeping a downed rider from severe injury. However, even with all of that gear in place, more can be done to prevent extensive and debilitating injury in the event of a very hard fall.
In fact, the options are extensive, varied and widely available, mostly thanks to the sport of motorcycle racing.
To help you get up to speed on the variety of protective gear available and what may be right for you, this guide covers the following:
- Certification Standards
- Base Layers
- Back Protectors
- Chest Protectors
- Core Support
- Shoulder, elbow, knee and shin protection
- Combined Protection
Remember, any protection a rider wears should work much like an integrated system as one piece reinforces and supplements the other in order to keep impact and abrasion at bay.
Any discussion of motorcycle protective gear cannot be complete without addressing certifications. At present, there is only one testing group. It was created and is maintained by the European Union.
Passing specific technical tests conducted by that body nets an item the well-known CE Certified (or CE Approved) label. However, this can be misleading as any product can achieve such a designation if it proves itself through any of the many forms of testing. What really matters are the standards implemented during the examination which define exactly what and how each item should be tested.
EN 1621-1:1997 Standard
There are two measures used for motorcycle protective products. The first is EN 1621-1:1997. This standard evaluates items made for protecting the shoulders, elbows and forearms, hips, knees and lower leg areas. Garments designed to protect those body parts that withstand the testing procedures earn the CE Certified label.
EN 1621-2:2003 Standard
The second measure is designated EN 1621-2:2003 and it is only for back protection. There are two levels of CE certification within this standard, each based on the amount of force transferred through to the spine when the protector is impacted.
Level 1 is given to back protectors which allow between 18 and 24 kN (Kilonewtons is a measure of force energy; 1kN = 1000 newtons) to pass through the protector to the rider. Level 2 is stricter and only allows for an average peak force of between 9 and 12 kN to pass through.
Thus, when you see "CE Certified" or "CE Approved" for any protection item, look for which standard was used to achieve that certification. Ensure that whichever protection item you choose to acquire has been verified as safe using the CE certification procedures.
Protection worn close to the body, under the standard compliment of gear, or even right next to the skin is growing in popularity. Compression garments emerged thanks to bicycle racing and Motocross and even moisture-management and cooling/heating gear took its cue from the extreme sports world. This protection is often referred to as "base" gear, and is worn as an undergarment between skin and your shirt or pants.
Base layers supplement the protective gear worn over it. With padding, reinforcement in key areas and high-tech materials all working to keep the rider safe and comfortable, this equipment alone does not offer significant abrasion resistance or severe impact protection. Base layers supplement the apparel you wear on top of it and helps maintain a comfortable more consistent "feel" for whatever protection you add.
Motorcycle road racer Barry Sheene invented the first back protector by lacing together old helmet visors. Its first use was within that sport, but it quickly grew to the point where virtually every modern motorcycle riding jacket now has - at minimum - padding placed along the spinal area, and many have a built-in slot in which to insert a more complete piece.
A back protector minimizes injury to a rider's spine in the event of a crash or fall.
Most protectors incorporate a tough and strong outer shell designed to handle a hard strike and sliding across the pavement while keeping the spine safe through the use of energy absorbing padding. The science behind it is actually very complex, but the mission couldn't be simpler.
Styles range from inserts into existing pockets on a riding jacket to those with straps allowing them to be worn under an outer layer. There are branded versions designed to be worn with a specific manufacturer's apparel, after-market gear, and universal types which should work with almost any kind of apparel. Deciding the style and type you need is up to the riding apparel you will use and the type of riding you do.
In general, any CE Certified Level 1 back protector is perfectly acceptable for use on the streets. It offers safety, protection and will not interfere with operating the motorcycle. If you race live in a particularly dangerous area for riding motorcycles, a CE Certified Level 2 protector is your best option as it is the ultimate in spinal defense. Buy a certified back protector that integrates with your current riding jacket or one that can be worn without interfering with your riding.
Wear it all the time.
Chest protection also found mainstream popularity thanks to the world of off-road motorcycle racing. Every professional motocross racer wears a protector which covers the front and back of the torso to ensure a rider survives a crash free of severe injuries in order to compete later that same day. For the street, this gear is often separated into a chest and back protector for ease of use.
The chest protector is simply a back protector for the front of your body, so the way it performs is essentially identical - hard outer surface with soft, impact-absorbing padding on the inside.
Chest protectors are a bit less common, but many good models exist. There are many variations and they run along the same range as back protectors with some made for inserting into pre-existing pockets to more universal types.
Only one level of CE Certification is possible for chest protectors, so be certain that the one you plan to purchase has passed the necessary tests to achieve the designation.
Supporting the core of the body is fairly familiar to riders who like the laid-back style of a cruiser. So called kidney belts - sometimes referred to as "weightlifter belts" - provide support for the lower back and are popular with cruiser riders. Kidney belts do not offer advanced protection rather they provide additional comfort and padding with a specific focus on the kidneys at the sides of the back. Kidney belts do not receive CE Certification, so the choice rests with how well the kidney belt fits and whether it interferes with your riding.
Shoulder, Elbow, Knee and Shin Protection
However, many riders who do not have CE Certified armor often upgrade for better safety and performance. Supplementing existing armor is a great idea provided the additional armor does not interfere with operation of the bike.
Similar to other forms of motorcycle protective gear, shoulder, elbow, knee and shin protectors come in a variety of types and styles. A significant amount of the street-based versions of this armor is specific to one manufacturer's gear. Finding an appropriate model is far easier if you include some of the better made motocross versions which can often be worn irrespective of the apparel thanks to generous use of elastic and hook-and-loop straps. The choice comes down to what will protect the most without causing control problems.
Only one CE standard covers shoulder, elbow, knee and shin protectors, so it will either have it or won't - there are no levels. It's always best to select shoulder, elbow, knee and shin guards based on whether they carry the CE Certified label.
In the late 1990s, various motorcycle apparel companies began offering "suits" consisting of the necessary armor targeting a specific body region (torso or legs) using a solid or mesh stretch material holding it together and on the rider. There are versions for both the torso and legs, and many are quite close fitting - often using compression technology - to allow riding apparel to be worn over them. The included armor is of the standard layout with a hard exterior and a soft, impact-absorbing padding used internally.
Often, a rider purchasing a "suit" like one of these can save time, money and the hassle of locating and buying the pieces separately. However, you must be careful to ensure that wearing the suit under your normal gear will not cause issues when actually riding your motorcycle.
Like all other motorcycle protective armor, these single-piece solutions are subject to CE certification. The suit tops should have more than one standard which applies to the back protector and the remaining armor.
Finding the Best Motorcycle Gear
It is easy to get a higher level of safety with the proper riding gear. The ATGATT strategy is a very good start, but upgrading and adding gear supplements this strategy.
Research and look into which of these many varied types of protection accommodate the motorcycle you ride, the type of riding you do, and the apparel you wear. Then, ensure that each part of this system you buy has been tested and certified to do the job for which you are purchasing it. That CE certification is important and should never be overlooked.
Once you have your new armor, take several short rides to be certain that your new protection will not interfere with riding. The pieces should not bind or restrict and must work without hanging up on other gear and, perhaps most importantly, it should be easy and comfortable to wear. If it doesn't fit right and is difficult to wear you will not use it as often as you should. Get it right and you will have elevated your safety margin considerably.
And that brings us to the last and most significant part to this - wear your armor wherever and whenever you ride!