How to adapt motorcycle gear to protect you in a riot


Categories: Dailies, How To

This picture comes from Athens, where continued economic protests erupted into violent rioting this week. News outlets peg the numbers of people involved between 50,000 and 100,000 and there’s reports of deaths, injuries and many arrests. 2011 has been a year marked by protests and rioting from Egypt to Syria to the revolution in Libya and now even the so-far-peaceful Occupy protests in US cities. As demonstrated in this picture, mass protests can turn violent unexpectedly, but you might already have the gear to protect yourself in them waiting in your closet. Your motorcycle closet.

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Modern motorcycle safety gear is pretty amazing stuff. While it won’t protect you from a bullet, it will protect you from some serious, serious impacts. This video comes from the MotoGP race at Mugello in 2004 where Kawasaki rider Shinya Nakano’s rear tire delaminated at 205mph, causing a huge crash. Nakano walked away with only a concussion.

Ever gotten into a fight while wearing motorcycle armor? It’s a pretty empowering feeling. Someone hits you and it doesn’t hurt. Ever punched someone while wearing hard-knuckle motorcycle gloves? It hurts, not you. Sorry, Sam. The same equipment that’s made to protect GP racers from 200mph+ impacts can be adapted to protect you from any other sort of impact. Like this baton to the head for example. Bet this guy wishes he’d worn a visor.

Non-peaceful protests in the first world don’t often tend to result in actual shooting. More often the violence is physical and impact in nature. Motorcycle gear can’t help you with tear gas or fire hoses, but it can provide some protection against batons, bricks, baseball bats, fists, hooves, shields and low-velocity projectiles like beanbags and rubber bullets.

Head, Face, Ears and Eyes

The most vulnerable area of your body is also one of the easiest to protect. Modern helmets are incredibly safe, very well ventilated and offer excellent vision. Look for one with ECE 22.05 rather than Snell certification. Not only will it be lighter and therefore reduce fatigue and make it easier perform physical activity in, but the impact-absorption material is softer, making it better suited to ameliorating the impact of a riot baton or baseball bat.

We’d suggest going for a full-face or 3/4 helmet. Novelty lids of the kind worn by cruiser riders may not cover your ears and often have weak chin straps. It only requires 12lbs of force to tear off a human ear, so you definitely want those covered and a poorly-retained helmet can cause neck injury if it shifts and pull during an impact or fall.

The Fulmer V2 is an excellent, DOT-approved, affordable 3/4 helmet.

A 3/4 helmet may initially give you a better feeling of sensory perception through eyes and ears, but this is a bit of an illusion. Goggles are more restrictive of peripheral vision than most full-face helmets are, the minimum standard for visor appertures exceeds a human’s useful field of side-to-side vision. Getting whacked in the face with a baton or bat, without the protection of a chin bar is going to suck, too.

To pass minimum Snell standards, for instance, a visor must withstand being shot with a lead pellet travelling at 311mph in three separate places without being penetrated or shattering.

The problem with full-faces is that the visors can fog up at low speeds and if you’re breathing heavy. If you’re on foot, that’s low speed. If you plan to use a full-face with visor, we suggest fitting it with a popular, low-cost anti-fog insert such as FogCity or Pinlock, which, in our experience, are completely effective at preventing fogging.

Another biker trick can be adapted to boost your senses in a crowded, noisy situation. Contrary to popular belief, ear plugs don’t so much as turn down the volume as turn down the noise, leaving room for signal. It’s actually easier to hear what’s going on around you in a noisy environment if the overall level of that noise is reduced to something manageable.

It’s also worth noting that helmets act like the crumple zones in cars, destroying themselves to absorb the energy of impacts before it reaches your head. If you get whacked on your helmet with a baseball bat, it’s probably a good idea to get a new one before your next track day.

Another, oft overlooked, application for a helmet is as a melee weapon. Fasten the chin strap and hold the helmet by it and you’ll have a heavy, blunt object with which to bludgeon enemies of the people.


A variety of protection exists for motorcyclist’s necks, but most of it is designed to prevent extreme hyperflexion, hyperextension or crushing forces while providing very little impact protection for the neck itself. In a riot, you’re much less likely to experience forces as high as those that come into play during a motorcycle crash, so you’re really looking for coverage, not something to prevent your head from getting shoved down between your shoulders.

Fortunately, the cheapest form of neck protection is the most applicable here. The humble neck roll, commonly available for less than $40, will fill up the area between shoulder and helmet, protecting against baton and bat impacts there while also providing some cushioning of extreme head movements.

Shoulders and Arms

Photo: David Rinella for GQ

The pointy bits of your body are most prone to impacts and injury in a fall. Not only are they at the extreme edges of your body, but they’re not typically cushioned by fat or muscle. You also need them to work if you want to defend yourself or run away.

Luckily, protection for these areas and more is incorporated into virtually every motorcycle jacket. That protection is designed to be used by athletes performing professional sports, so it’s flexible, light and very effective. Elbow someone in the face while wearing armor and you’ll agree.

You want it to fit snugly without preventing the full range of movement and you want the armor to fall in the right places so it fully covers your elbows and shoulders.

As a bonus, many common leather and textile bike jackets are low key enough to wear on the street without drawing unwanted attention. That means you can take advantage of the protection they offer without standing out as someone ready to charge a sheild wall.

Back and Chest

This Dainese Wave Pro MX harness provides all the torso and neck protection an actor in a bad SciFi movie could ever want.

Real back and chest protection is less common than elbow and shoulder armor, with chest protection being a fairly recent innovation. The benefits of both are obvious: Your spine is a vulnerable thing and it sucks if you damage it. The vital organs in your chest — stuff like your heart — keeps you alive. Protecting both is a good idea.

Back and chest protectors come in a variety of forms and, depending on their design, can be worn independently, incorporated into a jacket or included in an MX-style torso rig.

Look for a “CE” certification. Unlike elbow and shoulder protectors, gear makers tend to incorporate as standard only cheesy foam protectors that don’t do much. You want a hard plastic shell with some sort of impact absorbing substance behind it. The hard shell spread outs impact force and protects against penetration, the cushioning material, well, cushions. Choose protectors that work with the rest of the protection you’re wearing and if you have to choose just one, go for the back protector first.

Coccyx and Hip

Ever heard of someone falling down and injuring their tailbone? It happens, even to people just going about day-to-day, humdrum activities. It’s also apparently a bitch to heal and very painful. Many compression shorts designed for dirt bike riding provide impact protection for the coccyx, pelvis and hip, as well as the front of the thighs.

Those areas of protection are also shared by gear designed for football players, baseball catchers and riot cops, they’re just common impact areas, especially as a leg thrust forward provides a convenient “catch” for a down-sweeping weapon.

Designed for action sports, these compression shorts don’t restrict movement and ventilate very well. Just don’t try to wear them under skinny jeans.

Knee and Shins

Like neck, this is an area where some of the fancier motorcycle protection likely isn’t applicable. We ride dirt bikes in fancy knee braces that restrict front-to-rear, twisting and side-to-side movement in order to prevent our knees from getting blown out in a high speed crash. These braces restrict movement, making walking or running difficult. You really want to retain the ability to run away if you’re preparing for a riot.

Cheap impact protection designed for off-road and on-road applications is available. Icon’s Field Armor range is a great example and is designed to strap over jeans. Other, slimmer, protectors come incorporated in motorcycle-specific trousers or can be sewn into regular jeans. As a bonus, knee protection makes kneeling on pavement pretty comfortable. If you get arrested at a protest or riot, you’ll likely end up kneeling for a while.

Feet and Ankles

Another area where fancy bike stuff isn’t totally applicable, but where lessons can still be learned from bikes. If you need a secure footing and plan strenuous activities, then you want a solid boot with an 8-inch height. Look for oil-resistant, highly textured soles to prevent slipping; that heigh supports your ankle, protection it from sprains and twists. Safety toes and instep protection also help reduce impact energy and crushing forces, as do steel shanks in the sole and inserts created specifically for that purpose.

Shop at a surplus store and you can often find all of these features at very affordable prices. Don’t order online unless you’re already familiar with the product, fit is crucial.


This is one of the best examples of motorcycle safety being applicable to personal protection in a riot. Hands are incredibly vulnerable in motorcycle accidents, yet gloves need to retain the subtle feel we need to operate a fast motorcycle at its limits, so gloves have evolved to the point where they offer massive protection, but are easy and comfortable to wear.

With motorcycle-specific gloves, not only are you getting materials, quality and construction that can resist heavy abrasion, but there’s typically massive impact protection on the knuckles too, while the backs of the fingers and hand are often lined in a tight Kevlar weave designed to resist abrasion and cutting.

We like the Icon Pursuit gloves for stealthy urban activities. They’re really tough, the perforated leather breathes well and it doesn’t look like you’re wearing brass knuckles.


Those helmets aren't much protection against Molotov cocktails.

Rolling into Wall Street wearing a helmet, MX torso rig, neck roll and combat boots will probably get you arrested. Hell, in most parts of America, wearing the above while walking down the street will get you arrested. But, you could get way with a leather jacket, tough jeans, gloves and some boots, right? There's also the fact that bike gear, no matter how good, doesn't make you invulnerable. If it's used correctly, it can reduce the force of impacts and abrasion, that's all. The idea here is more to learn about the ways in which motorcyclists protect themselves, then adopt some of those lessons to potential violence on the street. If the sheer amount of large, frequently violent protests that have taken place this year and their geographical scope is anything to go by, then this is something that more and more people may want to learn.

Thanks for the idea, Nick.

Athens rioting images via ZeroHedge.

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