Leather, Textile, or Skin?

We try some locally available moto jackets on for size

Paper or plastic? Boxers or briefs? Leather or textile? What kind of motorcycle jacket works for you, if you choose to wear one at all? Some of the best riders I know ride in Solway motocross pants (Bermuda shorts), a T-shirt, and deck shoes. Of course that's their choice to make, and not having an accident is the absolute best course of action. But we can't always control the actions of others with whom we share the road, so a little artificial exoskeleton might come in handy for a visit with the 60 mph belt sander.

The bewildering selection of moto apparel available can be overwhelming. Materials, colors, features, cut, and price-point all complicate what used to be a simple selection: buy a black leather jacket or not. A search for "jacket" in Harley-Davidson's Motorclothes Web catalog returns 705 results, so shoppers have their work cut out for them. We hit a few shops in town and had the staffs give us the low-down on some jackets for us, and a few were kind enough to be our models for the day.

Even if you're not a strict devotee of ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time), a good jacket, combined with helmet, gloves, and boots can go a long way toward protecting you in case you and your bike part ways at speed. The best jacket in the world won't protect you a bit if you leave it in the closet and go riding in a T-shirt, so when shopping, be honest about what you'll really wear on a day-to-day basis. It has to fit you comfortably and correctly while you're on the bike, so if at all possible include a test-sit while you're trying on jackets, preferably on the style of bike you ride.

According to Megan Saint Laurent at Dual Sport Touring, jackets protect riders two major ways: impact and abrasion (bump and slide). The material (leather and/or fabric) provides the abrasion protection, and armor (when included) provides the impact protection. Armor should be CE certified. (The CE specification signifies that the armor meets the European Personal Protective Equipment Directive.) There are two other methods a jacket can protect a rider: conspicuousness and weather protection. You want to be seen, and not be too hot/cold/wet to safely operate your bike.

Old reliable, the classic basic black leather motorcycle jacket, is still kicking and offers decent protection at prices starting around a hundred bucks. We looked at a Street and Steel "Police" jacket at Cycle Gear for $119. No armor is included, but the Police model has sturdy leather for abrasion resistance and traditional large-lapel styling. This waist-length model is probably not the best option for hot weather, but fabulous for Sha Na Na impersonations. One other consideration: The large metal zippers might be tough on paintwork.

Also at Cycle Gear is a high-dollar, sportier alternative, still in the waist-length basic black leather genre, the Dainese Laguna Seca jacket. Cost is a cool $449. The leather on this Italian item is noticeably nicer (like buttah!) than on the Street and Steel jacket, and the Laguna Seca is equipped with CE-rated armor in the elbows and shoulders, and a back protector, along with perforated panels to pass cooling air. The liner is simply a light mesh to give a little space for air movement and to make the jacket easier to get on and off. Dainese makes leathers for the fastest motorcycle road racers in the world, so they know their stuff. The Laguna smelled fantastic, too, and is available in white as well as black.

Destination Motorcycles carries Triumph-brand gear, and we looked at a women's black leather jacket called the Melina. It's a little longer than waist-length, and has a simple mesh liner and CE armor in the elbows and shoulders. The retro-styled Melina looks straight off the set of the film Leather Boys, with quilted shoulder panels and a belted waist. Stitched black Triumph logos accent the back and lapel, and a pants-attachment zipper is included. Cost is $390.

For women riders who want to flaunt their femininity and be seen a county away, Cycle Gear carries the Icon Merc Hero jacket in bright pink, with various rubber sponsor patches already applied. The color nails the conspicuousness goal, and the heavy leather and CE armor in the shoulders and elbows give abrasion and impact protection. The Hero is equipped with a removable waterproof and insulated liner, and perforated leather panels for ventilation. The women's Hero also comes in blue and black, and Icon makes a men's version, but, alas, not in pink. The women's Merc Hero costs $249.

A relatively recent option for hot-weather riding is the mesh jacket, along with a myriad of hybrid/convertible permutations. These jackets are designed to flow a lot of cooling air but still provide abrasion and impact protection, with armor and sections of tougher material in the areas likely to be dragged down the pavement.

We looked at several mesh style jackets, starting with the Tourmaster Intake Air 2. Also waist-length, this jacket is made from 600-denier Carbolex, combined with 1680 denier ballistic polyester in the impact areas, and removable, CE-approved armor at the elbow and shoulders, and an articulated back protector. Two independently removable liners (one waterproof, one insulated) are included. Another consideration for summer jackets is color, and the two-tone silver with black color option we looked at would be cooler than basic black. The Intake Air 2 lists for $179 at Cycle Gear.

Most gearmakers offer women's mesh jackets, and we reviewed the Cortech LRX Air model in white and light grey. This jacket is also equipped with two liners and CE armor in the elbows and shoulders, as well as a back protector. In case buyers don't choose the pink color option, the LRX Air has cute little rose graphics on the Cortech logo shoulder patches to ID the jacket as a ladies model. The LRX Air lists for $189.

At the upper end of the price range for mesh jackets is the Rev'It Turbine, carried by Rev'It dealer Dual Sport Touring. This vented, waist-length jacket has no liner, and is made from a variety of fabrics: Dynax mesh, Cordura, SuperFabric and Lorica (a waterproof synthetic leather). Impact protection is provided by CE armor at shoulders and elbows and a perforated back pad. The Dymax mesh fabric looks very different from the mesh on the Cortech and Tourmaster jackets, and looks more like regular Cordura, but when held up to the light you can see how porous it is. The styling is a bit different too: The two-tone color options have a bit of a Long Way Round enduro look. The Turbine is really for warm weather only and comes in men's and women's cuts. List price is $359.

Speaking of Long Way Round, Ewan and Charlie's little home movie and an explosion in popularity of adventure touring and dual sporting have helped make 3/4 length enduro jackets popular with both dual sport and street riders alike. We sampled a few jackets in this style as well, and it's a good option for touring, and for tall riders who can't find what they want in tall sizes but still want to avoid "plumber's crack" while riding.

We looked at a Frank Thomas Senegal jacket at Cycle Gear in grey and orange. The sleeves zip off entirely for off-the-bike versatility, and zippered openings on the chest provide ventilation. The shell is made of Hypertec fabric, and CE-approved elbow and shoulder armor is included, as is a zipper to attach the jacket to available Senegal pants. The Senegal comes in cuts to fit men and women, and lists for $169.

If conspicuity is your goal, the Olympia Bushwacker jacket in screaming neon yellow delivers in spades. You will be seen from space. This ¾ length Cordura jacket with ballistic mesh panels has a removable waterproof, insulated liner that can also function as a stand-alone windbreaker, and CE-approver elbow, shoulder and back armor. The Bushwacker has eight pockets and a zipper for attaching to riding pants. Available at Destination Motorcycles, the Bushwacker lists for $259.

Finally, the cat-daddy of enduro style jackets is the Rev'It Cayenne, a four-season jacket made of Cordura, Schoeller-Dynatec and Superfabric textiles. The Cayenne features ventilation panels on the chest, arms and back, and a bunch of pockets, two of which are waterproof. CE-approved armor and a temperfoam back pad are included, and optional back protectors are available. The three-layer, breathable, waterproof liner and insulated thermal liner can be worn independently, and retro-reflective panels aid visibility. The Cayenne is available at Dual Sport Touting and lists for $579.

We're just scratching the surface with this sampling, and we were unable to review any BMW-branded jackets, which are normally carried by Destination but were sold out when we stopped by. All motorcycle protective gear represents some level of compromise, whether it be in cost, fit, or protection. But chances are there's a jacket that meets your needs at a price your skin can live with. So gear up and go kill some bugs.

We want to thank our models Luke and Carol at Cycle Gear, Jordan and Ivy at Destination Motorcycles, and Megan and Ted [customer] at Dual Sport Touring.