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.

leatt-braceMy new Leatt brace arrived today. Ordered it from BTO Sports. I also ordered an EVS Revolution 5 body armor which is designed to fit around the Leatt.

Last Friday I got my new Organic air-cushion body armor from RXR Protect North America. RXR got me setup with one to test with the Leatt. The plan is to try the Leatt with both pieces of body armor and see which works best and what I think about each, and then do a little report for the VMX community. We old guys have to watch our bones. Once you get past 40 your bones start to get brittle, even if you have good bone density. Get-offs that you would have walked away from at 35 will put you in a hospital at 45. And that’s no fun. So safety and protection are the name of the game for the happy VMX racer.

red-cross-flagToday I ordered some modern protective equipment – a neck brace and a couple of different chest/body armour units to try with it. The neck brace I bought is the Leatt, the new and somewhat controversial HANS-style device invented and patented by South African Dr. Jeff Leatt. For core protection I ordered an EVS Revolution 5 that is designed for the Leatt, and an RXR Protect Organic.

First released about a year ago, the Leatt has gotten a lot of publicity and raised a lot of arguments both for and against its use. Former riders such as David Bailey and Danny Chandler have spoken out strongly in favor of the brace. As far as I know there haven’t been any riders speak out strongly against it, but it certainly hasn’t been adopted by riders everywhere, for a variety of reasons.

The most common argument against the device is the absence of substantial field-level proof that it actually works as claimed. Such arguments are inherent in any new equipment of this type and will be resolved over time – either favoring or discrediting the Leatt. In the meantime there are a number of riders who feel the unknowns about the device make it not worth the cost, inconvenience, or restriction in range of motion.

But for me it seems to be the right choice to try one. From what I read of the riders who use the Leatt it takes a little getting used to but soon fades from your perception as a rider, blending into the background such that you hardly notice it. This has certainly been the case with the Asterisk Cell knee braces I use. Once laced up and seated on the bike they all but disappear from my consciousness. If the Leatt provides even a modicum of protection against Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), and I suspect it provides more than that based on my reading of the design and research papers, while tasking me no more than my knee braces I will be a very happy camper.

But before making this decision I had to resolve a couple of vintage issues in my mind. Vintage racing is fun, and one of the enjoyable aspects of the hobby is reliving the atmosphere and environment from “back in the day.” For me that meant wearing vintage leather Hi-Point boots, an open-face helmet, old hockey-style shoulder pads, and other early-‘70s era gear. That was part of the fun. But the reality is we’re still racing motorcycles, and we still fall off. While I’m a pretty conservative and thoughtful rider – taking care to stay within my limits and keep my head on straight – there are still times in each race where things can go wrong. And I had to ask myself, “What’s more important – having the look and feel of the ‘70s in my outfit, or taking advantage of the vastly improved technology we have today to minimize my chance of serious injury?”

Giving up the vintage look is not a small matter. It’s not the same to be out on the starting gate with a bunch of ‘74 MX bikes and guys in rugby shirts when you’re decked out in the latest techno-garb. But then again, my goal is to keep riding as long and as healthily as possible, not pose for the best pictures. And then there is the “macho” factor – is all that protective gear really necessary? Anyone who’s ever suffered an SCI will tell you yes. Hell yes. Wear the gear. Get the brace, Whatever. Just take as many steps as you reasonably can to prevent SCIs. We all know riding and racing motorcycles is riskier than babysitting, washing the car, or playing basketball. We all know it’s more dangerous than watching football on TV. But that doesn’t mean we blithely accept the idea of debilitating injury. Bumps, bruises, and even the occasional fracture are part of the game – especially as we get older. But we’ve still got to go to work and make a living. Wheelchairs are not part of the long-term plan.

I’m guessing there’s not a single motorcycle-related cervical SCI victim today who wouldn’t go back in time and wear a device like the Leatt – proven or not – if they could do so before their accident. Life with an SCI is miserable. Life with a cervical SCI can be worse than death. So I will try to accommodate the vintage fashion police by keeping my helmet white, my pants and jersey plain and unadorned by modern graphics. I’ll keep most of my specialized protective gear under my clothes. But my boots will be modern and among the best our modern technology can provide. My helmet will be a new full-face model with modern features. And my neck will be surrounded by the best device that modern medical research and development has yet devised.

I can still get hurt. I can still suffer an SCI. Hell, I came really close 10 years ago when I broke three vertebrae in my lower back by rolling a pickup truck at 50 MPH – a far worse injury than I ever suffered on a motorcycle. Nothing is perfect. But I’ll feel better knowing I’ve stacked the odds a little bit in my favor. And I suspect my subconscious will let me ride a little freer, a little looser, have a bit more fun. And that’s what this is all about anyway.