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30th September 2003


What to wear?

After a steamy summer, Paul Friday muses about the correct riding kit for classic bike riders. It's not that he hasn't got a thing to wear, rather; what can he (and we) wear sensibly?

Rain is easy, as is cold: I wear protective clothing. There's the usual question of being visible, but I've already sorted that one -- I wear a reflective yellow waistcoat over my jacket when it is dark or the visibility is poor. I don't care if I look like a prat, because at least they've seen me.

Dry days are easy, as I wear leathers.

The real question is what to do when the weather turns hot. Some people get very excited when they see a motorcyclist wearing just a shirt, or even shorts. Some people get upset when they see someone not wearing gloves. Perhaps it's time to introduce the concept of personal responsibility.

She's worrying about getting oil on the dress, while he is starting to enjoy the strange new sensation of an italian suit against his upper thigh. Mmmm...

When I was young, I always rode around in a cheap nylon anorak, jeans and trainers. This is because it was all I had. I couldn't really afford to keep the bike on the road, so anything more than an open-face helmet and some cheapo gloves was beyond me. I did fall off occasionally, and I did get frozen and soaked. I rode in all weathers, as the bike was my personal transport. I would arrive home so cold I couldn't get off the bike, or so wet that I had to get undressed to go indoors. It didn't matter. I'm sure that more experienced riders just thought of me as an ignorant kid, but I thought they were boring old farts so it was evens.

Strangely, neither me nor any of my friends who fell off their bikes would ever have been saved by wearing better clothing. Those of us who fell off at low speed didn't need it, while everyone else hit cars or bits of scenery where a layer of leather or Cordura made no difference to the outcome. We learned that gloves were useful, as it was hard not to put your hand out when you fell off. Helmets were good too, as they were generally more comfortable than riding without one. Life was simple.

Too hot to wear leathers?Then I got old and fat and was born again. The first thing I did was buy some leathers, boots, gloves and decent helmet. The boots are warm and waterproof, the gloves are the same, and the helmet is far better than the one I remember. But what do I do when it's too hot to wear the leathers?

One school of thought is that I put up with it in the interests of safety. No matter how sweaty I get, no matter how impractical it is coping with a hundredweight of cow skin at my destination, I must make the sacrifice. The view seems to be that an accident in anything less than a full suit of armour will turn me into a long red streak on the road with a crash helmet at the end. I used to subscribe to the same view. There's even a word for the blind fools who thought otherwise: squid -- stupidly quick, under-dressed, imminently dead.

Then one day last summer, I had to make a trip of a couple of hours, stopping off several times on the way and ending back at home. It was very hot, and it would get hotter while I was riding. So I wore walking boots, jeans, an old loose bike jacket and loose gloves. The jacket was in the old Lewis Leathers style, with fold-back lapels that let you ride around with the front half-zipped. The ride was bearable, even comfortable. I'm not sure if I rode slower or not; I just know that I got all my jobs done in the time I'd allowed.

Then the little gray cells kicked in. There is a theory for why Volvo drivers are dangerous and why airbags and ABS have not eliminated road casualties: compensatory risk. The theory says that people have a normal level of risk they feel comfortable with. Decrease their perceived risk and they compensate by increasing it back to normal. Put them in a car with crumple zones and airbags and they will take more risks in their driving. Put a spike in the middle of the steering wheel and they will drive more carefully.

Smoking while riding a bike? Risk compensation means nothing to this man...Perhaps a motorcyclist in jeans and a light jacket will take more care to avoid falling off? That still doesn't explain the people on sports bikes wearing flip-flops and tee shirts, though. I could see people on mopeds and scooters dressed like this, as they are usually making short journeys at low-ish speeds. Why would anyone want to go fast wearing not much clothing, though? But then another idea popped up -- the concept of a responsible adult.

To me, being an adult means taking responsibility for myself. This should mean that I accept the consequences of my actions. I can accept that the government sets some basic rules, like safety glass and seat belts in cars, just to save the Health Service from being overwhelmed. I think the rest is then up to us.

If someone knocks me off the bike, I can accept the argument that any injury claim I make is reduced according to what I was wearing and the type of injury. If I slide up the road in shorts, the gravel rash is my problem, but if I bounce off a car bonnet my tee shirt made no difference. (Applying
the same rules to cyclists will be interesting).

My hunch is that it won't make that much difference to the Health Service, as there will be no difference in the numbers of people wearing the full monty or pretending they are in the Full Monty. Each person chooses the level of risk they feel comfortable with. I also have a feeling that the majority of road-going serious motorcycle injuries are from impact rather than abrasion. This would make it more important that your clothing protected you from the weather than the road, as only a jacket full of air bags will save you from a close encounter with a risk-compensating Volvo (and even then you would bounce for miles).

Racing is different, as they deliberately lay out the tracks to allow riders to slide without hitting anything (usually). This is why racers wear abrasion-resistant clothing rather than weather-proof items. And since many of us want to look like racers, it explains why we ride uncomfortable bikes wearing hunchbacked one-piece leathers.

So if it makes most sense to dress for the weather, perhaps we shouldn't criticise people who do? That youth on the FireBlade wearing a thong and a cheeky grin is as sensible in his own mind as the armour-plated spaceman on the scooter. And it's their choice what they wear, since being an adult ought to mean that they take full responsibility for their choices.

All we need now is that the government recognises and accepts that we have both personal responsibility and personal freedom, and that we all accept that freedom is risky and carries a price.

Yeah, right.

TP warned me that the Nipple Police would come after me if I ran this picture...

Nipples. Yes or no?


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