Photographer, Videographer, Writer, Motorcycle Racer, Dakar Rally Finisher and BRAKE Magazine's big dog, Llewelyn really likes to do things involving motorcycles. He also likes bicycles, coffee, pop punk and making horrendous puns.
When it comes to choosing the right protection from motorcycling or adventure riding, the answer seems obvious. Most adventure riding gear comes with CE certified protection, so that’s good enough. However, the answer is not so straight forward, especially when you point your bike away from the street.
In this how to guide, we’re going to look at the pros and cons of various types of protection equipment, who they might be suited for and how much you realistically need to spend. Beyond the armour that comes in your riding gear, you’ll a plethora of protection that can turn you into a real life RoboCop manifestation, with the same movement and dexterity.
Note – In this feature we are not addressing the subject of neck braces. They’re worthy of a whole article and not being mashed into this How-To.
Road riding and off-road riding meet in the middle at adventure riding and both disciplines have varying ideas on protection. On the street armour is the standard, coupled with heavy duty textile or leather, CE certification and big back protectors. Flip the coin to the dirt bike world and well, the only common ground is some form of knee protection, with most riders sitting in the grey area of just wearing a polyester shirt all the way up to wearing pressures suits, armoured gloves and carbon fibre knee braces. So as an adventure rider, how do you decide?
CE Certification is the EU’s process for certifying how good types of armour are at dissipating incoming force. The certification is split into categories for all body parts (except back and spine) and back/spine protection. These two categories are then split into Level One and Level Two, the later of which is the better standard with more energy dissipation.
“However, as your riding becomes more extreme in nature, be it climate or technicality, you’ll find this type of armour wanting”
Does Armour Work?
One of the most interesting differences between off-road world and road world is the use of body armour as a whole. While not exclusive, a large portion of experienced off-road motorcyclists forgo the use of upper body protection or use it in a limited way. Anecdotally this is a) to do with heat management (armour is insulating and reduces airflow), b) because it doesn’t help much in crashes as it moves out of position and finally, c) because armour has the potential to restrict injury through limiting movement in the event of a large crash. While recent years have seen a gentle move toward more armour being worn by experienced and professional riders, it’s very much still the norm to forgo it.
So do off-road riders have a point and is there any research on the subject? Well, kind of. The most conclusive study we’ve found so fair is an Australian study with a moderate sample size. Interpreting this properly is the game of more intelligent Data Sciencey folk than myself, however the loose conclusion is that bike clothing reduces injury risk and armour reduces it slightly more. The only caveat being that in the test, the largest samples of accidents were wearing clothing with protection.
The data roughly looks like this:
Motorcycle jackets with armour resulted in 8.6% less injuries.
Motorcycle gloves with armour resulted in 14.2% less injuries.
Motorcycle trousers with armour resulted in 13.5% less injuries.
Motorcycle jackets with a back protector resulted in 14.1% less injuries.
Seems the answer is yes, it helps in the event of a road based crash however some of the data points appear as though a larger sample size is required for a comprehensive result.
So what is built in armour good for and bad for? In general the biggest plus of the armour that fits inside your clothing, is ease of use. It’s one less thing to worry about and one less thing to buy. In general it’s effective, comfortable and almost always CE Approved in 2019.
If you’re a casual street rider, or casual adventure rider it’ll most likely serve your needs and you’re using the correct product. As long as it’s comfortable then everything’s fine and you can stop reading. However, as your riding becomes more extreme in nature, be it climate or technicality, you’ll find this type of armour wanting.
Firstly, it’s for the most part (bar REV’IT’s SEEFLEX armour, very warm. Viscoelastic materials aren’t the most breathable and they pocket hot air. Second on the list is mobility, there is a bulk to that type of armour that can restrictive, through making the jacket a touch tight, to not sitting quite right on your body. Restriction makes riding harder and that’s not ideal.
Lastly is the coverage and effectiveness of armour that isn’t strapped to your limbs. Clothing mounted armour has a fantastic tendency to shift in a crash, resulting in a less than optimal job achieved.
Easy to use
Can be uncomfortable/restrictive
Can move in an accident.
Best For – Casual adventure and street riders that aren’t too bothered. We use this armour for most of our casual riding.
A pressure suit is an early 2000s name for a body armour jacket. Originally they were hot, cumbersome, made with plastic and generally a bit crap but they offered more protection than traditional dirt bike clothing. A few years back brands realised they could stop using plastic pads and make them more comfortable and effective.
Being much closer fitting means they move way less when you crash. They also, unlike most armoured clothing, come with options for chest and back protection whilst also being breathable and providing the opportunity to remove sleeves or wear lighter weight clothing in hot climates.
Because they fit better they can offer better protection and mobility, depending on the model and brand. It’s not exclusively true however and in a crash, this type of armour has been know to twist out of place and in technical or extreme environments a pressure suit can be warm. This type of equipment is now generally standard for Rally racers, but not dual sport/off-road riders.
Closer fitting offering better protection.
Options to have chest and back protection.
More flexible in extreme weather.
Often more comfortable.
Can still be warm.
Best For – Adventure riders in more extreme climates or who are looking for good protection in a flexible, modular format. Great for providing a feeling of confidence. We use these for rally racing and travel riding in hotter places.
MX Style armour
MX Style armour comes in a few options from foam body vests to plastic chest and back protectors. The last few years has seen more being CE Certified and generally better designed. So what’s the point? Why would you opt for such a simple protector?
Simply, it boils down to comfort. MX style protection is generally very breathable, very light and allows for a very natural range of motion. The Alpinestars unit we’ve got to shoot with lacks shoulder protection, to aid in this department. It’s designed on the premise of less body heat and more mobility results in less crashes.
Closer fitting offering better protection.
The coolest type of armour
Good sharp object/roost protection
Not whole body coverage
Best for – Technical dirt bike riding, or those riding in hot places that aren’t worried about loosing elbow skin. We use this for dual sport/enduro riding and racing.
MX Style Knee Gaurds
Knee protection that sits in your trousers is covered by the very same points as upper body armour in your clothing. It’s fine, until you stand up on a bike and then it’s just about okay. It’s rare that it’s in the correct position and rarer still that it’s found when you whack your knee.
If you’re heading off-road on an adventure bike, MX style knee protection is a great start. Firstly it’s generally quite cheap and secondly, it’s really effective. It typically comes in two styles; a basic, unhinged shin/knee protector and the fancier style in the images below. Fancier, hinged guards offer more coverage and protection of the thigh at a slightly increased cost. That choice is up to you, but this is probably the best armour upgrade you’ll ever make. Your knee caps will thank you.
Easy to use
Much more reliable than in trouser protection
Best for – Anyone riding stood up or off-road in any capacity. Trust us, you’ll be glad you bought some. We use these for every type of riding and racing.
The pinnacle of knee protection is the knee brace. The general design ethos is the eliminate, twisting and extension based injuries, protecting from ligament damage and on the whole, they’re very effective. They come in vastly different levels from this effective entry level Alpinestars units to the custom designed Ossur CTI2 braces that are hundreds per leg.
Different braces offer different rigidities too, with varying schools of thought on how stiff you want a brace to be. Ultimately, a brace reduces knee injury more so than MX style knee guards at the cost of money and bulk. Braces are quite bulky and on an adventure bike that can be problematic as they’re often wide through the middle. The only counter argument to a brace is that it can transfer rotational energy to another joint or bone but generally knee braces are considered a good thing. Snapped ligaments in knees aren’t ideal.
Best for – Serious dual sport riding, people on skinny bikes or those worried about or with previous knee issues. Those of us with bad knees use these, the rest of us think bad knees won’t happen to us.
That covers pretty much everything you need to know about body armour. If you’ve got any questions, please feel free to place them down below. If your question is about neck braces, then yes, you probably should wear one, but please make sure it fits over all your other armour properly.
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