Alpinestars Bionic 2 Protector BNS Jacket frontRecently I had a brief email exchange with Ken Smith, editor of Australia-based VMX Magazine regarding the problems neck brace wearers have integrating other forms of protective gear. As Ken pointed out, everything from the bottom profile of your helmet to the shape of your chest protector/body armor can affect the way the neck brace works. Or doesn’t work.

Alpinestars Bionic 2 Jacket rear viewMany of us who have opted to wear a neck device have had to hack up our body armor or settle for a skimpy chest protector. That’s a choice I don’t want to have to make. This morning I was browsing the magazine rack at the local Barnes & Noble store and just happened to pickup the 10APR2010 issue of UK-based MotoX magazine. While thumbing through the pages I saw a blurb about some new AlpineStars body armor designed specifically to integrate with the AlpineStars Bionic Neck Support (BNS) and other neck devices. Continue reading

trailerkeeperWe all know someone who’s had their bikes and/or gear stolen, if we haven’t been the victim of theft ourselves. Lately it seems that thieves are simply hitching up to the trailer and towing the whole thing off. I guess that’s the price we pay for increased popularity of our sport, and the rising value of vintage bikes in particular. So I thought I’d share the steps I’ve taken to try and keep my own stuff secure.

First we need to acknowledge that if a real thief wants your stuff, there’s little you can do about it. But most thefts are crimes of opportunity — someone sees your stuff, sees an opportunity, and takes it. That’s the kind of thing I want to prevent. So here are five things I’ve done to reduce my chances of losing my stuff. Continue reading

arai-xd3motardsilI’ve just returned from my pilgrimage to Indianapolis and the annual Powersports Dealer Expo. There was a lot going on there this year, despite the economy. The biggest news was the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, a law that went into effect last week and summarily killed about 20% of the motorcycle industry in one fell swoop. But I’ll talk about that later.

This post is about helmets and what I learned at the show. The older I get the more interested I am in survival and safety technology. With the recent death of FMX star Jeremy Lusk from a head injury, helmets were high on my list this year. So I made it a point to spend time at the booths of as many major helmet manufacturers as I could — Bell, Shoei, Arai, HJC, and AGV.

These were just a few of the helmets on display. Every major vendor of apparel had at least one rack of helmets, and there were even a few new brands I never heard of before. Mike Metzger, the “godfather” of FMX, was at the show pushing his new line of Kali helmets and apparel.

Here’s a basic rule of thumb — style, color, and trendy design are not the most important consideration when looking for a helmet. Neither is ventilation or how many visor/shield configurations you offer. In my mind, neither is the margin offered to the dealer. But those seemed to be the only things anyone wanted to talk about. Except for Arai.

When I stepped into the Arai booth I was greeted with a wall covered in raw shell castings, cut-away shells, cut-away helmets showing various EPS liner configurations, and a bevy of crash-damaged helmets. I asked the first person I saw to tell me about Arai helmets and what made them different. (This was the first question I asked in every booth.) Immediately the salesman walked me over to the wall and began pointing out the raw fiberglass shell and talking about how helmet technology has evolved.

The salesman was an older gentleman, and in the course of his conversation he mentioned that his son had worked for Arai for 23 years. He took the older, single-layer fiberglass helmet casting (typical of 1980s-era helmets,) placed it on its side on the floor, and stood on it bouncing up and down. Then he explained, using photos and graphics on the wall, the 27–step process Arai uses to hand mold every modern, multi-layer Arai shell and explained the function of the various materials

He showed me the unique, dual-density, one-piece EPS liner that all Arai helmets use. He showed me the emergency cheek pad removal system. Then he began showing me the crash-tested helmets on display.

He noted that every rider had walked away without significant head injury. Some of the helmets were not just damaged, but destroyed. That the rider had survived was astonishing. But the helmet did its job.

After his demonstration I walked over to the shelf of new helmets and found a new XD3 Supermoto/Adventure helmet. I love this helmet — the look, the feel, the fit, the balance. Even though it is noticeably heavier in your hand than a Bell Moto8 or the more-comparable Shoei Hornet-DS, it doesn’t feel heavier on your head. There’s no top-heaviness at all.

As soon as I put the helmet down another salesman walked over and began asking me questions. He also started explaining the differences in Arai construction and pointing out features and considerations that the first gentleman had not gotten to.

In fact, everyone in the Arai booth appeared to be extremely knowledgeable about their product. Moreso than any other helmet vendor I visited. I had a similar, but not quite as thorough, experience last year when I talked with the marketing director at Bell. But everyone else, not so much. They pretty much wanted to show me the new graphics, the new vents, or talk about the margins I make as a dealer. I know that’s important, but it’s not what I asked about.

The AGV rep did talk briefly about the industry-wide discussion over whether Snell is the right standard, and whether Arai helmets are, in fact, too stiff. He mentioned that there was actually a Snell meeting at the show to discuss some of these issues. The AGV helmets are noticeably less stiff than an Arai.

There is a legitimate argument about how to rate and construct helmets, and there is real concern that Snell may not be the right standard. There is significant industry debate over this issue, with competing standards in the US, Europe, and the UK. I wrote about this last year.

In that article I noted that, in an informal survey of several riders, there was general agreement that a $250 helmet was probably 2x better than a $100 helmet, but there was doubt that a $500 helmet was actually 2x better still.

I still don’t know the answer, but I do know this — the Arai folks are fanatical about helmets, and it’s very hard to argue against a company that is so committed to protecting your head. They are not making a fashion statement. They are not bowing to trends and fads if it compromises what they believe a helmet should be. They are 100% dedicated to making the very best helmet they know how to make. And this passion shows in everyone in the company.

I might still say the Bell Moto8 is my favorite off-road helmet, but I’m not sure. I know I love the Arai XD3 and will replace my current street helmet as soon as I can.

I found my favorite alpinestars street gloves today. I’ve been looking for them since the weather turned nice in the spring and I started riding with vented gloves again. I knew they weren’t “lost” inasmuch as they were just misplaced. I knew they were in the house somewhere, but I couldn’t find them.

So I went out shopping for replacement gloves in the spring. Alpinestars doesn’t make the Alloy model anymore (naturally) and none of their current gloves fit like I wanted. Neither did anything else, so I bought a pair of Frank Thomas gloves from Cycle Gear. They fit ok, but not great, and are not nearly as nice as the alpinestars Alloy model I had.

I’m really particular about the way gloves (all my gear, actually) fit, and I always have a hard time finding a pair that I like. It doesn’t matter how much they cost — I find the $150/pr gloves just as uncomfortable as the $50/pr, so when I find a pair that I like I try to hang onto them until they are worn completely out. I’ve been wearing the same pair of ragged Fox Dirt Paws off-road gloves since 1997. They’re shabby, but they fit.

Today I was looking for something else and I found the gloves stuffed in a drawer in a nightstand. I have no idea why they were there — there wasn’t anything else motorcycle related in that drawer. Maybe I put them there. Maybe someone else did. I don’t know. But we’re reunited and it feels so good…

This is not really about motorcycling, except that I got the idea to do this from a post on the Wild Goose Moto Guzzi discussion board. I’ve been thinking about some way to have communications on my street bike for a while. Emergency communications mainly but, ultimately, I want to be able to do bike-to-bike with other riders.

I looked into a lot of different walkie-talkie radio systems. The cheaper units (under $150) all got bad user reviews. I concluded that they are basically junk. The more expensive ones cost as much as handheld Ham sets and you still have the issue of having to have matched units to talk to anyone else.

In my research of available options I saw a post by a Guzzi rider showing the water-resistant, mil-spec Ham unit he uses. The idea of having a licensed radio that could reach repeaters and such seemed like a good idea, especially since the best riding roads are often off the cell phone grid — at least if you have a Sprint cell phone.

I like the idea of having a license to operate it. The test is not hard. Anyone who puts in even a little effort can pass it. But that’s the deal, you have to put in at least some effort and it’s clear that operating a Ham radio is a privilege, not a right. The privilege comes with an obligation to know the rules, abide by them, and act responsibly. I like that. And there is a lot more to Ham radio than just walkie-talkie function.

I’ll get to explore that over the coming years, and I look forward to it. I don’t have anyone to talk with yet — at least not on the bike. But that’s ok. I don’t have a radio yet. I don’t have a call sign either. But the FCC will assign that in a few days. I’ll post it here when I know it. In the mean time, let me know if you’re an operator interested in motorcycles. Maybe we can have a rag chew.

As noted the other day, I spent last weekend at the Diamond Don’s Riverport AHRMA national. What a mudfest! I’d like to say that I had a great race and finished in the top three in my class, but that was not to be. I was running well in the first moto of Sportsman 250 Novice when I stalled the bike in a corner. Getting restarted cost me several positions and I ended the moto in 6th. When I went to the line for the 2nd moto the bike died in staging, re-fired after 20-30 kicks, and died on me about 2/3 of the way into the first lap leaving me to push it home. So that didn’t go all that well.

But even with that I still put in about 10 good laps wearing the Leatt brace for the first time. I mean it was the very first time, I had not even fitted it onto my neck prior to doing my first lap of practice at DD’s.

So, how did it feel? It felt like nothing, really. I didn’t even notice it was there. Previously I wore a rather bulky set of hockey-style shoulder pads. These pads offer great protection if you’re a hockey player, and they offer good body protection. But the giant shoulder cups always interfered with my head movement, really limiting my ability for left-right rotation. It was always really annoying.

With the Leatt I had absolutely no interference with normal head movement. It was actually a great improvement over the hockey pads. In fact, the Leatt was less restrictive in head movement than even the CE-approved shoulder armor in my street riding jackets. My big complaint about those jackets is just that – I can’t rotate my head enough to safely see over my shoulder when I need to.

Given that the Leatt was way less restrictive than any of my previous riding gear I guess it’s small wonder that I didn’t notice it at all. I felt more comfortable on the bike than I have in a long time. The downside, of course, is that I have less protection for the shoulders. I did wear a smaller, modern chest protector from EVS, and I have an RXR Protect flak jacket-style protector to try. But neither does much for the shoulder area.

Still, that’s a trade-off I will make for better neck protection, less restriction, and raising my survivability ratio in the event of a major header.

cone-head_linerFrom Don Morgan, inventor of the cone-head motorcycle helmet liner technology, comes an e-mail update on this interesting approach to helmet safety. According to Don, the response to his appearance on “The New Inventors” (which named the cone-head 2007 Invention of the Year) has been huge, with interest from around the globe. A helmet using the technology will be released later this year into the Australian and NZ markets. He has signed a license agreement with an overseas helmet manufacturer which allows them to determine when and where helmets become available.

I hope Don’s licensing agreement is not exclusive, or at least provides for limited exclusivity. It would be a shame to see this development get only limited testing and exposure due to a tie-up in licensing. For a bit more background on the technology see this transcript from an ABC-TV interview and Cone-head helmet not a bonehead idea in the Brisbane Times.

inside-helmetLooking at the new Bell Moto-8 got me to thinking again about the controversial issue of helmets. Mainly because the Moto-8 is at the higher end of the price range for motorcycle helmets, and there is really no objective way of determining if your money is truly buying you more protection. In a non-scientific survey of my friends in the riding community there’s more or less general agreement that a helmet which retails for $250 is at least 2x better than a $100 helmet, maybe as much as 5x better due to materials, workmanship, etc. But there is considerable disagreement on whether a $500 helmet is even 2x better than the $250 unit.

A Look at the Economics.

If you think about how helmets get sold it’s easy to see why a $100 helmet isn’t a very good deal. The retailer who sells the helmet to you probably gets a 40% to 50% margin, meaning he paid about $55 to the distributor. The distributor probably gets a 30% to 40% margin, meaning he paid roughly $35 to the manufacturer. The manufacturer, who in all likelihood outsourced the actual manufacture of the helmet to a factory in Taiwan or PRC, also tries to maintain a 50% gross margin. That means the actual manufacturing cost of the helmet is between $15 and $20 USD. The outsource factory takes overhead, labor, materials, and their profit out of that money, which means that your $100 helmet probably has about $5 of material and $5 of labor in it. I don’t care where in the world you are, you aren’t going to get much for $5. You might as well go to the hardware store and buy a pail filled with florist’s foam. But even at this level most helmets have a DOT sticker (more on that later.)

If you use the same math on a $250 helmet you come out just shy of $40 for raw manufacturing cost. For that money you can buy good grade materials and pay very good wages in the Asian factories where these things are made. You can also invest in a much higher grade of tooling and equipment. You can even invest in advanced robotics and techniques. I wouldn’t be surprised if some factories at this level are even ISO 9001 certified (although there’s a lot of debate about the value of this.) And you can afford to pay for more than 15 minutes of manufacturing and inspection time. I don’t have any doubt this $250 helmet is way better than the $100 bucket we looked at above. There’s also $40 here for the helmet company who can now afford to start doing some real R&D. At this price point most helmets are submitted for approval to one of the major helmet standards such as Snell M2000/M2005, ECE 22–05 (Europe), or the BSI 6658 (Britain.)

But above this point the math stops working so well. If you take a $450 helmet and apply the same factors you get $250 wholesale, $161 to the helmet company, and $80 for raw manufacturing. I question whether the top-end companies are spending $30-$40 on materials for a helmet, but they might. The more important question is does that extra money actually buy you more protection?

At the top-end most of the companies are using a mix of Kevlar, carbon fiber, and fiberglass, where at the lower price point you generally have fiberglass with various resins. These advanced composites save a lot of weight while still retaining the strength needed to pass the various standards. But do they protect your head better? Probably not. Why? Because the Snell (and other) standards are very specific about how, when, and where a helmet absorbs and disperses shock. They are also very specific about how long it takes, how many times it happens, etc. Designing a helmet to meet these standards pretty much locks you into the arbitrary definition of safe that the standard assumes. The top-end helmets also vary the way they use the crushable foam inner liners. But, again, the standards prevent them from being very innovative in any given direction.

Most of what you get, in my opinion, for the increased money is better styling, better fit, lighter weight, more consistency, and better design (aerodynamics, ventilation, adjustable linings, etc.) In some cases you are also paying for a lot of hand labor to paint the helmet and, in some cases, to do the whole assembly by hand. It’s not that the helmet isn’t better – it arguably is in those ways discussed above. But is it safer? Today there is no way of knowing, but it’s unlikely that you are getting 2x the protection when you spend $400 vs $200 for a helmet if both pass the same arbitrary safety standard.

A Word About Standards.

There is a lot of controversy about helmet standards, and very little agreement on just what is meant by safe. The DOT standard seems to be pretty safe, but the sticker on a helmet isn’t really worth much because it is self-regulated. That is, a company just submits the right forms to the NHTSA and gets the right to put a DOT sticker on the helmet. Every year the NHTSA buys some helmets and tests them in an independent lab. If the helmet fails they do some sort of follow up with the manufacturer, but that’s not exactly a rigorous standard. If you’re buying a DOT-only helmet you sure want to get it from a top-tier manufacturer.

The other standards, primarily Snell in the US, are much better in that regard. They require that a manufacturer submit helmets for approval before granting the license. And they also follow up during the year with tests of off-the-shelf helmets. For one of the most thorough discussions of standards see this Motorcyclist Magazine article Motorcycle Helmet Performance: Blowing the Lid Off.

I would like to see a lot more transparency and research in the helmet industry and lot more information made public about the standards. Today a helmet either passes or it fails. There is no in between. And if it passes there is no way to objectively state that it is more or less safe than any other helmet that passes the same test. But the argument over standards makes clear that we are nowhere near having a satisfactory definition of what safe means. The AMA is pushing to fund a motorcycle crash study as a follow-up to the original Hurt Report (pdf). Hopefully some helmet data can be gleaned from that if it happens. I have compiled a list of links about helmet safety and fit that you can visit to find more detailed information. I’ll continue to add links there as I find them.