There is probably no safer riding attire than a one-piece leather racing suit. But if wearing one on public roads pushes you to ride at speeds that are dangerous for you and others, then you’re undercutting the effectiveness of wearing leathers to begin with.
When I slip into a race suit, I can feel a change in myself. A proper fitting suit transforms my posture, my confidence and attitude. Zipped up, a set of leathers prevents me from standing completely upright, my shoulders are pushed forward and my arms hang in front of me – giving me the aggressive stance of a motorcycle racer. The internal pads of the suit bulk up my otherwise skinny frame and the hardened sliders on my shoulders, elbows and knees make me feel impervious to the blur of asphalt whizzing beneath my motorcycle as it approaches and exceeds 100 mph.
For me, the protection that a race suit offers also provides equal parts confidence. By numbing the effects of fear, leathers allow me to push a little further toward my personal limits. Which is wonderful on the racetrack, but no so much on the open road. It’s because of this change in my riding that I do not wear race leathers on the road, and maybe you shouldn't either.
Now, before you skip right down to the comments and tell me what an idiot I am, read on. Then decide for yourself if you should squeeze into your race suit the next time you head out onto public roads.
Getting Comfortable with Danger
A byproduct of gaining experience on a motorcycle is becoming more comfortable with speed. Whether you’re wringing out your machine in top gear or carrying more velocity through a corner, the skills gained through experience that make us better riders also allow us to do so at speeds that we were previously uncomfortable with.
For example, try to imagine the first time you rode your bike on the freeway. How comfortable were you with your proximity to other cars? How did you feel at speed on the grooved pavement of a four-lane interstate? Now think about how you feel today in the same situation. Chances are that after years of experience you no longer suffer that same uneasiness on the freeway.
The upside of this is that when you’re more relaxed you can better handle your bike without white-knuckling the grips. The down side is that repeated exposure to dangerous and potentially life-threatening activities (if that exposure comes without incident) can make us complacent to the danger.
On the race track, overcoming our natural fear of speed is one of the main objectives during training and practice. But simply being comfortable with going fast isn’t as important as knowing what to do with that speed.
California Superbike School founder Keith Code describes the way we react to situations as being driven by “Survival Instincts.” The instincts cause us to react to going fast in perfectly intuitive ways that boil down to: “sh*t, I’m going too fast! I need to slow down.”
Which in turn, can lead to closing the throttle and grabbing and stomping on the brakes. Normal right? Except that if you’re mid corner at high speed, doing that is about the worst thing you can do.
While the techniques for negotiating our way out of dicey situations are for the most part the same on the track as the open road, pushing our ability and practicing these skills on a closed racing circuit, which has plenty of open runoff in the turns and softened barriers, is an order of magnitude safer than public roadways.
While this seems obvious, it doesn’t always come to mind when we’re chasing our moto buddies through the canyons during a weekend group ride.
Photo: Andre Paul Pinces 2016
The Known Unknowns
I'll be the first one to admit that I'm guilty of this very behavior. Call it testosterone, pack mentality or just stupidity, it's easy to get pulled into dangerous territory by other fast guys. But even still I have my own personal limits on the road. I know myself well enough to know that if I were in a set of racing leathers, I would be riding with the extra, misplaced confidence that they give me, and would be tempted to push myself and machine deeper into the unknown.
Photo: Andre Paul Pinces 2016
Because, unlike the track, the road does not have corner workers to warn you of a hazard ahead. On the road, every corner is filled with mystery. Will there be rockfall that has strewn gravel onto the apex of a corner since we last passed this turn? Will there be a kid in a Subaru WRX drifting sideways into my lane? Will there be some nut on a litre bike dragging a knee through my lane from the other direction? Each of these are very real possibilities that we need to be ready and able to deal with.
So, Ask Yourself:
What is your real motivation in wearing your racing leathers on the open road? I believe that if we ask ourselves a couple of questions – and honestly answer them – we can decide for ourselves if wearing race leathers on the road is of benefit or motivating us to get into hot water.
Do you ride differently when you're wearing a set of race leathers? If you're honest answer is no, then keep wearing that race suit on the open road. If your answer is yes, then consider the net benefits of donning a track suit on public roads.
If that race suit makes you ride faster than you would if you weren't wearing it, you may be stacking the odds against yourself by riding in a way that exposes you to things you cannot control. At a reasonable sporty pace we should be able to avoid and deal with every possible danger while in a corner, be it gravel, an animal or oncoming vehicle. If a race suit is making you ride faster than your ability to deal with the unknowns of public roads, then leave it on the hanger.
Do you have knee pucks on your race suit while riding on public roads? Ask yourself why. Do you think they complete your outfit? Are they for show? Fine, more power to you for completing "the look." However, if you're wearing pucks and using them to put a knee down on open roads you're simply asking for it. No matter how good you think you are, the open road is not a place to put a knee down. If a knee puck is encouraging you to ride that way then I suggest you go without it.
There's no denying that racing leathers offer some of the best protection you can wrap your body with. But if they are encouraging you to take risks that you wouldn't without them, then you may want to think long and hard about what you're really getting out of wearing them on your local group ride.
Jim Downs has been riding motorcycles for nearly 3 decades and races vintage motorcycles in the American Historic Motorcycle Racing Association (AHRMA) where he is currently 4th place in the US national rankings in the B.E.A.R.S racing class.