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DRIVERS' ED. | Two-Wheel Ride / Motorcycles in Southern
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OK, so These Riding Jackets Aren't Made of Leather, but They're Still Pretty Cool

July 30, 1998|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leather and motorcycles are a hot combination.

Maybe too hot, particularly at the height of summer when a ride through stop-and-go traffic in the San Fernando Valley can have a wilting effect that quickly compromises even the most stoic rider's elan.

Thus many motorcyclists shed their leathers at this time of year in favor of T-shirts and shorts.

But leather is far more than a fashion statement for motorcyclists--it's protection that can be lifesaving.

Look at motorcycle racing. Riders take hard spills at high speeds but often walk away unhurt, thanks to full-length, heavyweight leather suits that block out scrapes and have padding at crucial points to absorb impact. For street riders, a leather jacket alone, if designed for riding, can mean the difference between a sore hip and a stretcher ride to the hospital. A Lilith Fair T-shirt practically guarantees the latter.

Motorcycle jackets might create your own private sauna in summer, but as Daffy Duck once explained to Bugs Bunny: "I'm different from most people. Pain hurts me."

Apparel makers have long sought synthetic alternatives to leather for jackets that offer adequate protection but are light and vented enough for comfortable summer riding. At the moment, the material of choice seems to be Cordura, a DuPont product that feels like stiff cotton duck and is resistant to abrasions and punctures.

But unlike heavy leather, Cordura will not stand up to multiple skids.

"If you fall down at middle speeds, say around 40, you might have to have the [Cordura] jacket repaired," says Andy Goldfine, owner of Aerostich Riderwear of Duluth, Minn., one of the best-known companies selling synthetic jackets.

"At 60 or 70, the damage will be enough that you'll probably have to replace it. But if it saves you, who cares? It's like an air bag--you don't mind that you have to replace it if it protects you from a terrible injury."

Cordura jackets are also far easier to care for and can be made waterproof.

We set out to test a couple of Cordura jackets during Southern California's recent triple-digit heat wave. Lucky us.

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Darien (Aerostich): Dressed in a Darien jacket, you would never be mistaken for James Dean. This shapeless, loose-fitting garment looks less like a traditional motorcycle jacket than a slicker.

"On your way to check your lobster pots?" asked a colleague who spotted me in a Darien.

But if you can get used to its somewhat dorky looks, the Darien is incredibly comfortable for summer riding. Air rushes in through the open sleeves and vents in the front of the jacket, and rushes out through a large vent in the back. (The vents can be closed for riding in cooler weather.)

Because the material is fairly light, the circulating air is enough to keep you reasonably comfortable even at slow speeds, and the jacket isn't so heavy it becomes oppressive at stoplights.

The Darien comes standard with elbow and shoulder pads and lots of cool doodads, including a variety of external and internal pockets (I'm not sure I located them all), reflective strips on front and back and a Velcro belt to cinch the waist. It has a Gore-Tex liner that makes it almost rainproof (you can even put ice cubes in the outer pockets to help stay cool). And it can be machine-washed.

The comfort and convenience, however, compromise the potential for abrasion protection.

"A tight jacket is going to offer more protection, because it's more likely the impact pads will stay in place," Goldfine said. "But then the jacket would be hotter for the rider. There are trade-offs.

"This is not a jacket for a racer, the daredevil. This is for the commuter," he said.

Aerostich also makes the Darien Light, although it's meant to be used by riders tooling around town at only 30 or 40 mph.

The basic Darien sells for $367--a good $100 less than a comparably equipped leather jacket. Numerous options are available, including a zip-in fleece vest and a back-protection pad.

The Darien is available only through mail order and at the factory in Duluth. You can request a free catalog at (800) 222-1994; the Web site is http://www.aerostich.com.

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Falcon (Vanson): Vanson Leathers is one of the most respected makers of high-performance, serious-looking leather wear for motorcyclists. Its new Cordura jacket fits in with that tradition seamlessly. Cordura or not, it looks like the real thing.

"I think it's bulletproof," said a colleague when we pulled the black, somewhat menacing Falcon from its box.

The Cordura weave used in the Falcon is twice as dense as that of the Darien, so even though it's a shorter jacket, it's heavier. In addition, the Falcon is form-fitting, which probably increases its abrasion protection, and its crash pads are reinforced with leather.

"Nothing comes close to leather for protection," said Alan Slavin, a sales executive for the company in Stoughton, Mass. "When we made a cloth jacket, we wanted to make sure it would protect the rider as much as possible."

For venting, the Falcon has pull-down panels in front that reveal perforated leather designed to let air through. It also has zippered vents in the sleeves and the back for airflow.

It's an undeniably substantial jacket. The inevitable trade-off is that it is noticeably warmer to wear in hot weather, especially in slow traffic.

But while you're sweating, you can be sure that to passersby, you at least look cool.

Vanson jackets are available at selected motorcycle shops. The basic Falcon is $499; options include a snap-in vest. A catalog costs $10 (rebated with an order) and can be obtained by calling (781) 344-5444. The Web site is http://www.vansonleathers.com.

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Times staff writer David Colker rides a 1982 Yamaha 550 Maxim. He can be reached via e-mail at david.colker@latimes.com.

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