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The death of the traditional motorcycle suit

Published on: 29 September 2023

Let me make it clear that I am not talking about one-piece leathers here. They’ve been on their way out for a while now. As the world has moved on from sportsbikes, far fewer people are buying leather outfits these days. Leathers are still obviously the only option for the track, and some of the ‘old-timers’ still don’t feel protected in anything that isn’t leather, but most accept that there’s nothing more uncomfortable than strapping a cow to your back when it comes to road riding; especially in really hot, really cold, or really wet, conditions.

Guy riding motorcycle wearing leathers in rain

The leather racing suit is on its way out for road riding.

Rather, what I am talking about today is an increasing propensity for motorcyclists to discard the trousers that form the lower half of their waterproof, textile suit; and to wear their technical jacket over, or above, a pair of protective jeans or chinos instead.

It may be that this has been going on for years, but recently we have been struck by the number of visitors to the shop who turn up wearing something from Rukka or Klim jacket, but without the matching lower half. And so we checked our sales over the last year or two, and it does indeed seem to be a growing trend that people are buying a textile jacket without its designated pant.

At first, we thought it was a bit strange, and somewhat illogical, to go ‘waterproof’ for the top half, and ‘non-waterproof’ for the lower half. But having discussed it with some customers, and having given it some further thought ourselves, we can see that, for some people, this form of attire makes perfect sense.

Guy wearing Stadler motorcycle suit

The traditional, textile, motorcycle suit

A tale of two halves

A technical bike jacket offers protection in the event of an accident. It will also keep you dry and keep you warm. It’s particularly important to protect your core when you’re riding, and a good textile jacket will make sure this happens. But when you get to your destination, be it a restaurant, a bike meet, a shop or an event, it can be a welcome relief to remove your jacket. You may have a T-shirt, a shirt, a fleece or some other layer beneath the jacket, but when you take your outer jacket off you are able to go about your business far more freely. A motorcycle jacket can obviously be a bit of a beast; what with its heavy, protective fabrics, its armour, membranes, liners and so on. And so it can be nice to just unburden yourself.

Guy removing Klim jacket

You can easily remove your jacket, but those pants are going nowhere!

The problem, of course, is that it’s not so easy to do the same with what might be an equally cumbersome pair of textile, motorcycle trousers. That is unless you’re happy to walk around in your underpants or leggings! The fact is that if you leave the house on a Sunday morning with your textile pants on, in order to go for a ride with some friends, you’re pretty much stuck with them until you get home later in the day. You’ll have to have your breakfast in them, visit the bike shop in them, have lunch in them, wear them at a bike meeting, or indeed anywhere you venture. Textile, motorcycle pants were designed solely for riding the bike in. With their knee and hip armour, and all the other stuff, nobody ever produced a pair of technical pants with mobility in mind.

Guy wearing rokker Rokkertech jeans in blue

Of course, the increased wearability of jeans has also played its part.

Now clearly the increasing wearability of motorcycle jeans has also played its part in this move away from traditional, textile pants. Modern, single-layer jeans are so nice to wear. They can be so much more protective than a technical trouser; yet off the bike they wear just like a pair of normal Levi’s. And so if you’re wearing jeans, when you get somewhere, you can take your textile jacket off, and you are totally unencumbered. In principle, you’ll be just as comfortable wondering around the place as will be the guy who turned up in his car.

CAT boots and jeans

The problem with jeans

There are two problems with jeans.

The first, obviously, is that jeans are not usually waterproof. A few are, but that’s a subject for another day. And so one of the problems with jeans is that they are pretty useless when it rains. Now being British, we are clearly obsessed with the weather, which is why so many bikers have convinced themselves that they cannot leave the house unless they are fully prepared for the hurricane that, in their minds, lurks just over the horizon.

But it simply doesn’t rain every day. In fact, in the UK, on average, it only rains about 150 days a year. In the summer, when most of us do most of our riding, it rains only about one day in three. And the fact is that most of us don’t even take the bike out if rain is forecast, so the reality is that, for most weekend riders, rain is a factor on probably no more than one in 10 rides. So always wearing waterproof trousers is just unnecessary. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to dress for what probably won’t happen. Better surely to wear something far more comfortable on the basis that it probably won’t rain?

But the good news is that there’s a simple solution to the terrifying prospect that you might encounter some of the wet stuff. You simply carry with you a pair of waterproofs, like the Scott Ergo Pros. They are light, come in a squashable package the size of an M&S swiss roll, they take a matter of seconds to put on. And when you wear them you have waterproofing that is superior to even the best laminated suit from Rukka or Klim.

Guy wearing Scott waterproof trousers crop

If it rains, put waterproofs over your jeans. It’s not such a big deal.

The second problem with single-layer jeans - and these really are the only jeans you want - is that whist they are lovely to wear in warm weather, they flow so much air that they can be a bit too cool when the temperature drops.

Now not everybody realises that a waterproof membrane in a jacket does two things in terms of protecting us from the elements. It keeps the rain off, obviously, but it also protects us from the pernicious effects of wind chill.

Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed, jeans don’t have waterproof liners. But the truth is that it’s simply not as important to keep our legs warm as it is to keep our core warm. Our legs are sometimes shielded by a fairing or a petrol tank. And sometimes the heat of the engine can help take the edge off. But, as with the rain, there are some simple workarounds when it’s cold. Some thin Merino leggings will help. And if it’s really cold, just put your waterproofs on as a windproof barrier.

So whilst jeans are not perfect in all conditions, it should perhaps not surprise us that so many people these days prefer jeans both on, and off, the bike.

Guy wearing motorcycle jeans riding bike

In conclusion

Clearly, there are people for whom the textile suit, with its matching top and bottom half, is going to be the way to go. If you ride big miles all winter, you’re not going to want to wear jeans. Ditto if you do a long commute every day, because nobody is going to want to pull over if it starts to rain to put their waterproofs on.

But jeans are so much nicer to ride in, and walk around in, than a traditional motorcycle pant.

Now the truth is that a waterproof, textile jacket is rarely going to be a comfortable garment. But we accept this because of the the protection such a jacket affords us, both in terms of physical impacts and from the elements. The saving grace of a motorcycle jacket, though, is that it can be taken off whenever you get to wherever it is you’re going. This takes but a few seconds. Put the jacket in a pannier or a top box, and you are good to go.

Charley Boorman wearing motorcycle jeans

Even Charley realised that jeans beneath his textile jacket was the way to go.

You simply cannot, however, do the same with your textile pants. Put a pair on in the morning, and you’re stuck with them all day. They’re not coming off until you get home. But they are not nice to walk around in when you’re off the bike, and frankly, that can ruin any day out.

And so it perhaps should not surprise us that so many motorcyclists seem keen to discard their technical pants, and wear jeans instead.

In fact, on many levels, this trend seems to make so much sense we should perhaps have spotted it sooner!

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