Cold, wet and shivering no longer

Publish Date: 
Sep 29, 2012
By Mike Vaughan

AS AMAZING AS the development in motorcycles has been, perhaps the changes in riding gear have been even more so.

When I began my riding career in earnest back in 1963, I had a borrowed jet pilot-type helmet and goggles, and other than that my “gear” consisted of whatever I would normally wear when not riding. During the winter, I just added more layers of stuff, most of which had little effect on the wind that whistled through the seams and the garments themselves.

The worst parts, though, were my hands and feet. I wore leather mittens with some kind of fur or synthetic fur on the inside. On my feet were “chukka” boots with as many pairs of socks as I could wear and still get my shoes over. Rain, forget it, I got wet. I had no other form of transportation.

While short trips were not a problem, anything longer than an hour or so required a stop or two to warm up. Like everyone else I became adept at warming my hands on the cylinders, and eventually was able to throttle and steer with my left hand and keep the bike in the proper lane while I warmed my right hand. This is something the MSF course probably does not cover.

I eventually started working for Kawasaki, and you’d think the old gear thing would not be a problem, but at the time the majority of gear available from Kawasaki was limited to off-road. The only thing remotely resembling a street jacket was a “Members Only” leather knockoff. No pants, no boots, no gloves.

Everything had to come from the aftermarket. I bought the jacket, some Held gloves and Bates boots. In the winter I used my snowmobile gear, of which I had a closet-full, and it worked pretty well; it was warm, easy to get in and out of, and sort of water-resistant. All this stuff made riding more comfortable, but if you were to encounter the pavement, it would just return to its original components of thread and material as you skittered along the pavement, using skin as your primary braking matrix.

In the early 1980s I decided to take up road racing with Stewart Thomas, another Kawasaki employee, and this thereby justified a set of racing leathers. At the time, you didn’t see full leathers being worn by street riders (at least I hadn’t) so they spent most of their time in the closet. Shortly after that I bought a Hein Gericke leather jacket, and at last I had a full complement of real road-riding gear except for something between my waist and ankles. In 1986 I was given a Rukka Rainsuit as a gift from a friend, and my riding ensemble was complete.

I wore that gear until 1998 when I started working for Triumph. By then there had been a quantum leap in motorcycle gear. Fabrics, which had been pretty much dismissed during the ‘70s and ‘80s, had taken a dominant position in the realm of fashionable, practical gear. Here were garments that offered impact and abrasion protection, and were waterproof and warm. On the negative side, they were hot in the humid summers of Georgia, so in addition to adding a couple of fabric garments to my inventory I also added some perforated leather gear for summer riding — mesh wasn’t quite yet on the horizon. (And no, it wasn’t free; I paid dealer net for all of it.)

The apparel manufacturers have made incredible advances when you look back. Even a few years ago, if you wanted to ride your motorcycle year-round, it required a closet full of gear. Stuff for winter, stuff for summer, stuff for rain. If you wanted to take a cross-country trip, you had to load almost as much riding gear as camping gear.

Today you can buy either a one- or two-piece garment that, with the addition of the appropriate undergarments and maybe a set of electrically heated pants and jacket, will allow you to go anywhere and be able to cope with virtually any weather conditions you may encounter. On top of that, it’s likely that you can find something that will fit your unique body shape and offer you a significant amount of protection in the (unlikely) event that some mishap involving pavement occurs.

In my mind, the biggest problem facing consumers with regard to gear is what to buy. The number, type, color, style, prices and features of the various garments are endless. Enthusiast magazines do some testing, but not enough, in my mind.

Have you tested the gear you buy for your store? Do you know how well it works, and what its strong and weak points are? How confident are you that when the consumer walks out of your store with his new riding gear, he’s going to be happy with it?

Your customers have the most effective, innovative and flexible gear ever available to them. The problem is what to buy. Maybe it’s time for gear test rides. Maybe it’s time for someone to select a Garment of the Year along with the Bike of the Year; it might make some things simpler.

For most of us, there are a lot of nostalgic motorcycling experiences: that special sunset when you were alone on that high mountain road, the weekend you tackled that impossible trail through the mountains with your buddies and made it through, that once in a lifetime ride through the Brenner Pass.

When I sort through my fondest motorcycle memories, not one of them involves being cold, wet and shivering.