Jill Ruth displays a selection of motorcycle gear.
Jill Ruth displays a selection of motorcycle gear. Click image to enlarge

Part One: Gearing up – how not to be an uneasy rider

Hello, my name is Michael Clark. I’m pushing forty, and I want to learn how to ride a motorcycle.

That statement by many of the same vintage usually involves a dump truck of cliches to go with it. Hanging onto youth as tightly as a 40-storey window ledge in search of the coolness that evaded the high school years. Or perhaps feeling your heart pound in a healthy way once more, before the bypass rolls in around 60. For the record, my misty water-coloured memory was a broken BSA at a 1983 garage sale. I’ve never taken that mental picture down.

I always knew that when the day came to grab life by the handlebars, I wanted to do it right. In Manitoba, they want to make sure. Upon completion of the Class 6 written test, an accredited motorcycle training course must be taken before the first 9 months of the graduated licensing program can begin.

Passing the written test only allows the operation of a motorcycle while involved in training sessions. I've opted to take the 21-hour Gearing Up course offered by the Manitoba Safety Council. An 8-hour basic program is also available, which is the minimum requirement to obtain a Class 6 license. These courses are also offered by the Canada Safety Council across the country.

Contrary to what may be seen on city streets, t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops have no place in the category of proper motorcycle attire. "You're going to be a statistic," said Jill Ruth, General Manager of Headingley Sport Shop in Headingley, Manitoba. When choosing clothing and safety equipment, one has to consider the worst-case scenario. "It has to stand up to the rigours that you would put it through if you have to leave the bike," said Ruth.

The most obvious, and legally-required piece of safety equipment is the helmet. There are a multitude of ratings jockeying for first place in the safe race, with the minimum being the U.S. Department of Transportation standard. (Look for the DOT label at the rear of the helmet.) Other standards include the Snell Memorial Foundation, and the American National Standards Institute. (ANSI). Full-face helmets offer the most protection, while some riders prefer the fashionable look of an open-face or half helmet. "It's very hard to talk some people out of this look," said Ruth. There is a wide price range in helmet country, with factors such as build processes, venting systems, even graphics affecting the cost.

As for fit, tight is right. "You want that helmet to be as snug as you can stand it, without giving you a headache," said Ruth. It's important to try on helmets from a variety of manufacturers to get the right fit. As for helmet treatment, think Faberge egg. A simple drop from motorcycle height can seriously compromise the performance of the helmet in a crash. "You don't know what has happened to the interior of the shell when you drop a helmet," said Ruth. Ultimately, a helmet is designed to protect your noggin' once. Some of Ruth's customers have brought back crash-damaged helmets, complaining about how the helmet cracked upon impact. "It did what it was supposed to do," said Ruth. "They're walking and talking."

There are a variety of jackets and pants to choose from. "Textiles are very popular," said Ruth. Heavy-weave nylon fabrics join up with dual-density foam padding in areas of high abrasion during an un-scheduled slide down the pavement. The jacket should fit snugly, which helps reduce annoying flapping from the wind. Textile products usually incorporate a waterproof liner, which eliminates the need for a rainsuit with products such as leather. Front and rear vents keep the temperature manageable on hot days. Many of the textile jackets can be attached to the pants via a zipper, mimicking the protection of a one-piece suit. Ruth isn't the biggest fan of leather chaps. "Chaps give you some protection but not a lot." The key concern is that the hips are exposed, which will definitely come into contact with the road in a spill. And don't rely on your seemingly-sturdy 501s to bridge the gap. "Jeans are better than a pair of shorts, but not much better," said Ruth. Some jackets and pants have the ability to add quilted liners for cold weather riding.

Gloves should fit in such a way that the material doesn't bunch up, which can lead to blisters. Some products use gel pads in the palms to minimize vibration and impact shock from rough road surfaces. Kevlar stitching is commonly used to add durability. Additional pads and armouring tend to be found on the knuckles and tops of the fingers. There are shorter style gloves, as well as "gauntlet", which extends over the sleeve of the jacket to keep out wind or, as Ruth puts it, "unwanted guests" such as moths or hornets. "It's a good idea to try on the gloves with your jacket, to make sure no parts poke out," said Ruth.

Motorcycle boots require a good-sized heel, in order to "lock" the boots securely on the foot pegs. It is not uncommon to find additional leather on the boot tops, to combat wear from regular gear changes. "It doesn't take long to put a hole on the top of your regular shoe," said Ruth. The only true waterproofing method involves a waterproof liner sewn into the boot. Some boots use Velcro flaps to cover zippers, which helps keep out the wind. Others use clamps to secure the boot to your foot even further. "If the boot slips on, it can slip off that easily," said Ruth.

As for your stuff, Ruth recommends proper luggage as opposed to backbacks. "Things in the backpack are going to hurt in a crash." There is a multitude of bag systems, both hard and soft, for proper luggage transport. There are even tank bags, which attach with heavy magnets to the gas tank for such incidentals as your wallet and cell phone. (Which you had better not try to answer!)

Next week: Michael Clark finds second gear!

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