How to safeguard your riding health

By MCN Technical Staff -

Riding Skills

 29 November 2006 15:00

How much protection do I need?

Riding bikes isn’t dangerous. Falling off them, or crashing them into things, is. The only legal requirement for personal protection is to wear a helmet, the rest is down to you. We all know about the protective qualities of decent helmets, leathers, boots and gloves, but there are many other measures you can take to make your riding as safe and comfortable as possible

What is body armour?

Many suits, jackets and trousers, both leather and textile, have armour fitted as standard. These are usually fixed in key areas such as knees, elbows, shins etc. Armour that has been tested to do its job will be CE-marked as recognition of its protective qualities. Armour described as ‘comfort padding’, is about as protective as cotton wool, and is not guaranteed to save your skin if you have an ‘off’. Pukka CE-marked protection will have passed stringent laboratory tests to prove it can withstand the associated pressures and shocks that go hand in hand with crashing. The CE mark is proof that the equipment will offer sufficient levels of abrasion and impact protection.

What else can I do?

Crashing isn’t the only harmful by-product of biking. Long distances and rough surfaces can strain backs, wind noise damages ears and cold can harm delicate nerve endings. The answer is to mitigate any possible harm by taking some smart precautions other than just the usual leathers and lid route.

What’s the minimum level of protection?

That’sa bit like asking what’s the least amount of water you can drink in the desert. You can never have enough protection, but if you protect most of the sticky-out bits like feet, knees, elbows and hands it’s a start. Something else to think about is this: a tomato is fairly resilient to being dropped on the floor, but throw one hard down a road and the end result isn’t so good. Which is a gentle way of saying riding in just shorts and T-shirt may be cool, but fall off at even 20mph and you too will end up like a squished tomato...

1. Gum shields – not just for racers, but also to stop you grinding your teeth away from the tension and stress of riding fast or through city traffic. A lot of people don’t realise it’s happening until toothache forces a trip to the dentist. A basic £4 gum shield from sports shops will suffice, but a bespoke shield from your dentist will be more comfortable.

2. Earplugs. Put simply, ride without earplugs and you will damage your hearing. Many people fear they won’t be able to hear signs of danger, but earplugs are designed to let through enough noise to let you know what’s going on while cutting out frequencies that could damage your hearing. Less than £1 a pair, they come in many shapes and sizes.

3. If you like riding in jeans in summer, many bike shops sell specially-designed riding denim (with Kevlar-backed knees and hips). Additional armour can be worn under or over your trousers for added protection, but make sure you choose gear designed to absorb impact energy (some MX knee protectors are just to protect the rider from flying debris).

4. Contrary to popular belief, a back protector is unlikely to stop you breaking your back. Most serious back injuries are caused by a shearing motion, not an impact. But a back protector will help absorb energy in an impact and prevent soft tissue damage. There are many styles, but make sure your choice is CE-marked.

5. Elbows, like most of the major joints, are vulnerable to even low-speed spills. Another off-road item, elbow and forearm guards are useful protection when worn under, or over, textile clothing. They are similar in price to knee protectors – about £25 – but again remember to choose ones that are CE-marked as having energy-absorbing properties.

6. An ever-growing number of manufacturers are offering full upper body armour, most with elbow/forearm/chest/back protection contained within a mesh jersey. The beauty of these is the all-over level of protection and that they can be worn under any textile and leather clothing. The downside is they can restrict movement and can make you hot.

7. Riding in built-up areas where traffic is slow moving and producing harmful gases means your lungs are constantly filling with smog. There are numerous face masks available (flexible neoprene-type or bandana-style) that are designed to sieve out as much airborne crap as possible.

8. Even at the height of summer, evening temperatures can drop rapidly and showers not only soak the digits, but also chill the air. The result can be very cold hands a long way from home – and this can mean numb hands and loss of feel. Light undergloves take no more pocket-space than a handkerchief and are worth their weight in gold.

9. Thermal leggings keep your legs toasty when worn under Cordura trousers. Not only this, but they also protect you from cramps and nerve damage in severe cold. If you can’t get them under your suit, try Nylon ladies tights. No, seriously. The man-made material allows movement, yet provides warmth.

10. A thermal top – such as GoreTex’s Windstopper range – is superb and will keep your torso warm and prevent wind chill from getting through your leathers. A cheap alternative is bubble-wrap packing material as the bubbles act like doubleglazing. Easy to hide in a tailpiece, simply unfold and tuck it inside your riding top.

11. Protect yourself from cold kidneys while supporting your lower back. A kidney belt will make a huge difference to your warmth on the bike by reducing draughts between jacket and trousers. It will also support your lower back during long rides, preventing strain while supporting stomach muscles and allowing them to take more of the strain.

12. If you’re going for a ride wearing an openfaced lid, it’s essential to protect your eyes (sunglasses won’t have passed safety tests). Goggles prevent eyes from streaming under the pressure of windblast and also protect you against stones, flies and debris being chucked up from the road. Remember to make sure they fit securely and are anti-fog.