Friday, April 27, 2018

Review: Lightweight ADV riding suit

The wide range of conditions faced by an adventure rider poses some contradictory challenges when choosing appropriate jacket, pants, armour, and other gear. Further complicating matters is the wide choice of options available today. From leather to high-performance textiles, carbon fibre, and exotic materials like non-Newtonian fluid armour (think D3O), it's easy to fall into "analysis paralysis" when making a selection.

One set of challenges is driven by those unavoidable long sections of pavement to endure on the way to the good stuff. Here we face higher speeds, traffic, greater forces from wind and rain, and higher energies to absorb and deflect in the event of a collision or abrasion with the road. To withstand these assaults, riding gear must be constructed from highly durable materials which are often heavy and stiff. As a result, this gear can become uncomfortably hot at low speeds, and they tend to restrict mobility.

Another set of challenges is driven by the low-speed trail-riding aspects of the sport. Here, maximum flexibility and light weight, to allow high mobility and cooling, are paramount. MX gear is designed to meet these demands, but often at the expense of weather protection.

The ideal ADV suit combines the protection of street gear with the light weight and mobility of MX gear. However, it's a mythical beast, because none of the gear I've researched myself or heard described by others truly covers all bases. Compromises are unavoidable, so the question is really about what tradeoffs work for you. I'm going to cover what I've come up with to suit my own needs.

First, some context. All of my riding in the last few years has been on a WR250R with a high seat and soft luggage (Wolfman bags) attached when taking extended trips. A typical day for me consists of 50/50 pavement/dirt, with the dirt often being very rough and technical fire roads with water crossings, mud, and slow speeds through humid Eastern Ontario forests. Afternoon storms are common in the summer, with temperatures ranging from the high 20's to low 30's (Celcius), but feeling like high 30's to low 40's with the humidex. It's sticky, sweaty riding. On the other hand, spring and fall riding brings icy puddles and deeper water crossings, frequent rain showers and occasional snow, and gusty north winds that can make an otherwise sunny day feel bitterly cold. While there's really no one suit that can realistically cover all these conditions, it's important to have versatile gear because it's not uncommon to encounter the full range of these conditions over a span of a few days (or even one day). Such is life in Eastern Ontario, where the motorcycling season is a pathetic 6 months long--if you're lucky. Furthermore, riding a small bike leaves little horsepower and storage space for back-up gear. So you tend to dress once for the day.

This year I decided to make a significant investment in gear upgrades, as my older gear (based on an Olympia MotoQuest suit) proved ill-suited to my needs, and some other bits needed replacing anyway.

The foundation pieces of my new system are the Klim Carlsbad jacket and pants, and a TekVest RallyMax vest for upper body armour. The Carlsbad is a full Goretex suit aimed at ADV use, as reflected in the slightly looser cut and lighter materials than touring gear. The next suit up from the Carlsbad would be the Badlands, which is noticeably heavier and stiffer, but offers more durable materials in key wear areas like the elbows. Although the Carlsbad feels like a hiking jacket by comparison, it is well constructed and optimized for weight and mobility. Having ridden in it now for a few weeks in temperatures ranging from -3C to +10C, I can vouch that it does a remarkable job of cutting the wind, resisting rain and snow, and maintaining core warmth. I love it. However, it remains to be seen how it performs in the true heat. The vents are small, and I doubt they'll help much in extreme heat.

As for the Carlsbad jacket, it's optimized for light weight and areas like the back panel are unlikely to provide much mechanical wear protection in the event of a spill, even though it incorporates D3O level 1 elbow and shoulder pads, and a level 2 back protector. My solution has been to rely on the TekVest worn under the jacket for protection, removing the shoulder and back protectors from the Carlsbad to avoid redundant bulk. This way, the jacket only needs to serve as weather protection and can be removed easily if it gets too hot. I've left the elbow pads in the jacket, as the TekVest provides no protection in this area.

The TekVest is a marvel of textile engineering and really quite something to behold (and wear). I ordered mine on February 2 and only received it on April 23: this was an extraordinary delay in our modern era of instant gratification, more so considering the manufacturer is located only a couple hours drive from me. However, the wait was worth it. Pictures hardly do the vest justice: it is a beefy bit of kit, made from high quality materials and offering an enveloping sense of security when worn. This is not some flimsy item. No surprise that TekVest makes products for Klim, although I think the TekVest versions are better appointed for the price.

The TekVest will serve as an important under-layer to the jacket and, with jacket removed, as hot-weather outer protection layer. For hot weather, I will wear the Klim Tactical jersey underneath (also a robust bit of textile gear) and separate Fox Titan elbow pads on an Under Armour compression layer. This combo should provide high breathability, sun protection, and abrasion/impact resistance when trail riding on hot desert days. Note that the TekVest can be loosened significantly to maximize airflow without compromising protection, which should improve cooling compared to the pressure suit I previously used. The vest also fits under the Carlsbad jacket perfectly well, without binding or creating any odd pressure points.

Back to the pants. As a hedge against the Carlsbad pants for the hottest weather, I also bought a pair of the Klim Mojave pants, which are similar to the Carlsbad and Dakar pants except constructed with large mesh panels. While I don't like the idea of carrying two sets of riding pants, if I'm going to be wearing my riding gear for a month straight as planned this summer, I might as well be comfortable. Now, if only Klim can sort out their inventory, as last year it was a fiasco trying to order certain Klim pants in popular sizes. (Rumor was that a major shipment was delayed when a shipping company in the east went bankrupt.)

For knee protection I opted to get a set of the Alpinestars Fluid braces in carbon. While initially skeptical of going to a full brace for ADV riding, an experience this past winter with a minor MCL injury convinced me that it's time to nurture my 50-year old joints. Having worn the braces on each ride so far this year, I'm delighted to say that they fit me very well right out of the box and completely disappear when riding. I simply forget I have them on--except when mounting or dismounting my bike. Then the braces do exactly what they're supposed to do, and make it hard for me to swing my leg over the high seat. I should also point out that the L/XL braces fit nicely under the Carlsbad pants (size 34), and seem to move freely without creating pressure or potential wear points. It's easy to get the pants on, but removing them requires a wiggling exercise that I just know is going to make taking a crap in a narrow public stall challenging. See, you really need to consider these practical matters before you suit up, or you can get caught by surprise!

Rounding out my gear are two sets of gloves (gauntlet and trail gloves), Shoei Hornet helmet, Fox Titan elbow armour, Thor kidney belt (an oh-so-comfy accessory on long rides), and Forma Adventure boots. The boots proved very comfortable (and waterproof!) last season, and are much lighter than a full MX boot, although I've heard some complaints they may not provide as much support on long technical rides. That may be a matter of preference, as I found my previous MX boots to be tiring in different ways because they were so heavy and clumsy to walk in. I've also got a Leatt GPX neck brace which integrates with the TekVest. Not shown is a Dainese amoured shirt which I discussed in an earlier post. That may form a base layer option if the elbow pads prove too uncomfortable.

Overall the combination of gear is noticeably lighter and more comfortable than my previous set-up, and is more versatile while offering greater weather protection and mobility. It's too bad it's all grey, but the colour options were bleak and I wanted light colours to reflect the sun. However, I now have no qualms about heading out in any weather, whereas before I would maybe think twice if conditions were poor. The real test will be this summer, on a planned ride from Calgary down the Rockies to Utah, through the desert, then back up through Idaho to Calgary. That will cover a full gamut of conditions from snow to sand and sweltering heat, and should provide some good insights on what to improve.

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