Leather or Synthetic?

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: RoadRUNNER Staff

"Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," Henry David Thoreau advised in Walden. It's unlikely Thoreau had motorcycling in mind, but as you're reading RoadRUNNER, you've probably decided to ignore his counsel anyway.

So why do we need special clothing? If you have to ask, perhaps you wouldn't understand. Motorcycling is dangerous. When riding, you can - at literally any moment - find yourself in contact with the ground. This contact is likely to involve both impact and speed. These factors immediately define two necessary characteristics of motorcycle gear: impact protection and abrasion resistance.

Rider down
Both leather and synthetic motorcycle clothing can be bought with armor and padding already in place. You should make sure the armor/padding works. If in doubt, look for the CE mark, which means the armor meets European Community Council Directive 89/686/EEC for personal protective equipment.

Ever since man and woman started wearing animal skins, they've appreciated the superior abrasion resistance of leather; so before the advent of synthetics, leather was always the motorcyclist's first choice. In a spill, leather will slide across tarmac rather than picking up on the surface and sending the rider into a potentially injurious tumble. Leather absorbs the heat generated by friction better than synthetics, too.

Leather has two main drawbacks: it's expensive and it's not waterproof. Waxed cotton and wool gabardine were the only alternatives until the arrival of synthetics, principally nylon. Nylon can easily be woven into waterproof fabric, but early materials had poor abrasion resistance and breathe-ability. The development of ballistic fibers by DuPont made nylon viable for motorcycle wear.

Ballistic nylon has a very high molecular weight, necessary for its first intended use in bulletproof vests (hence ballistic). DuPont's Cordura brand is probably the best known. It's extremely strong and melts at a much higher temperature than regular nylon, and thus is less affected by the heat of friction. And it can be backed with technical fabrics like Gore-Tex or Entrant to create breathable, waterproof, abrasion resistant clothing.

The only downside with synthetics is they still can't match leather's abrasion resistance, and they may "pick up" in a slide, tumbling the rider. That's why racers still wear leather.

How about newer hi-tech fabrics like Kevlar, often used to line "biker" jeans? Though Kevlar may be as tough or tougher than HMW nylon, its characteristics are similar; and few biker jeans include impact armor. You decide.

"For your comfort and safety"
We've covered safety, but what about comfort? I wear both leather and synthetic gear, and I find little difference in terms of comfort. But if you choose leather, you'll need to consider how well vented it is for summer riding, whether or not you can "layer up" underneath (or if an electric vest will fit) for winter, and what to do when it rains. I have a one-piece nylon rain suit I always carry along when wearing leathers. Perforated leathers are also available for pure summer riding.

On the other hand, if I'm traveling over a number of days in variable climate conditions, I'll wear a synthetic jacket and pants. The jacket has a waterproof/windproof liner and zip-in quilted vest. It will handle all conditions except high summer, and it's durable, washable and waterproof. For hot weather riding, I wear a nylon mesh jacket with armor and padding, and Kevlar-lined jeans, although I'd feel safer with armored pants too.

If you're buying leathers, the thickness and quality are important. Most serious leather gear starts at 1.2 - 1.5mm and, within reason, the thicker the better. Check the fit carefully: leather gear is expensive to alter.

Synthetics come in a confusing variety of styles and materials, some waterproof, some not, and in varying levels of integrity, utility and effectiveness.

  • For waterproof quality, look for taped seams, sealed liners or shells, and how well zippers and Velcro openings are protected. Riding a motorcycle in a storm will certainly test any waterproof garment: it's like standing in front of a fire hose.
  • Within reason, you get the quality you pay for. Never buy cheap gear unless you know and accept its limitations. Buy cheap, buy often...
  • A jacket that feels warm in the store might not work on the road: at 40mph in a still air temperature of 60 degrees, the surface temperature of your jacket will be just above freezing!

One piece or two piece is down to personal preference. One-piece Cordura suits worn over street clothes are popular with the Iron Butt crowd, but a two piece is more versatile. If buying a two-piece outfit, try to find one that zips together. This cuts drafts around the kidneys!

My own gear? I own a two-piece set of Triumph leathers, a Spyke three-layer, armored ballistic nylon jacket (Fall through Spring), Rukka Air vented Cordura jacket with removable windproof liner (Spring through Fall), Joe Rocket Phoenix jacket (high summer only), Joe Rocket ballistic pants, a two-piece First Gear Kilimanjaro suit - and Draggin' Jeans.