Leather Riding Gear | Cow, Hide!

Go & Seek Bovine-Made Protection

By Jerry Smith, Photography by Joe Neric

If you want only the toughest, simplest, and most stylish material for protective riding gear, don’t look for it in a chemist’s lab or a textile mill––just gaze out over a meadow full of cows. Although some high-tech, high-dollar synthetic materials come close, none surpasses the abrasion resistance, sensuous comfort, and timeless style of leather. And while textile riding gear might appeal to the moto-nerd in some riders, leather still brings out almost everyone’s inner Fonzie—or Rossi—like no nylon or polyester gear can. But leather’s goodness usually comes at a price––though not as big a price as the cow paid––and since its main function is to protect you in a crash, you need to know how to pick the right kind of hide to keep your own intact.

Since the term “leather” is commonly applied to the processed hide of any number of animals, it’s important to make sure you’re buying from the right link of the food chain. “The vast majority of street gear and racing suits are made of cowhide,” says Nic Sims of Alpinestars. “Many racing suits use kangaroo skin, and there are some kangaroo consumer suits, too. But it’s pretty expensive because they’re harder to catch than cows.”

Bill Berroth of Motonation has another caveat about leather. “You can’t always assume it’s cowhide. When you get into black leather jackets, buffalo is used a fair amount. If a jacket is very soft and supple, it’s probably buffalo. Cowhide has a stiffer, slightly stouter feel.” There are also different grades of cowhide, depending on the kind of life the cow led. “How good the skin is depends on how the animal was cared for. If it’s from range cattle it’ll have scars and scratches. If it’s farm raised it’s going to be better.”

Leather hides vary in thickness. “In a racing suit you can have anywhere from 0.9mm to 1.3mm leather,” Sims says. “Some of our suits designed for commuting use a thinner leather. You don’t have the same high speeds on the street that you do on the track so you can get away with thinner leather.”

Where you buy leather gear is as important as what you buy. “Don’t go to Macy’s or someplace that sells ‘motorcycle jackets’,” Sims adds. “It might be the style of a motorcycle jacket but it’s often very thin leather. If you want a motorcycle jacket go to a motorcycle store.”

Since most riders rack up more miles in summer, and because leather doesn’t breathe like some synthetics, leather gear often uses perforated panels to let in cooling air. Take a good look at the edges of those panels, says Andrea Onida of Dainese. “To make perforated leather, we start with a panel of leather then stitch it together. Then we do what’s called localized perforation. This is so the area closest to the stitching isn’t perforated. If it is, there’s less resistance to tearing in that area.”

CE-spec armor in the impact areas is a must; don’t take the retro look so far it lands you in the ER. “Look for elbow, shoulder, and back protection,” says Berroth. As for fit, “The pattern of the garment should be such that it’s comfortable in the riding position. Put on the jacket and sit on a bike in the showroom. Check the sleeve length, and how it feels around your shoulders. A casual jacket might feel tight on your shoulders when you try to turn the bike at low speed. Cruiser jackets are more likely to have this issue. Sport jackets are almost always designed to feel best in the riding position.”

Lastly, if you’re attached to a particular jacket but the fit isn’t perfect, consider having it altered by a professional leather shop. It can make your garment more comfortable, and will help keep integrated armor in place in the event of a crash.

Quick Facts
MotoGP riders’ racing suits are often made of kangaroo leather, which is lighter and stronger than even the best cowhide. But compared to cowhide, ‘rooskin degrades quickly. It’s not a problem, though, because even if the riders couldn’t afford new leathers every year—and most can—every season brings new sponsors, new racing numbers, and new colors, so the old suits are retired before they become unsafe.

By Jerry Smith
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