A few weeks ago, in the article about Alpinestars' 2013 Spring Collection, "karlInSanDiego" left a comment about how difficult it was to determine the appropriate model and size for gear he was interested in purchasing. This little "how-to" will hopefully address those questions and open a dialogue for any hints or tips you may have to share also.
Motorcycle gear is expensive and specialized. Brick and mortar stores cannot afford to keep $200-$1000 jackets from every brand in every size and colorway to have just the one appropriate for you, especially when you only buy a jacket once every few years. Even in California, where so many people ride, there simply aren't enough bikers in a concentrated area to make keeping all that stuff in stock worth it for a Cyclegear or whoever. They would end up with too much stock left on their shelves and they wouldn't make enough money to keep the lights on.
Without being able to try it on, how do you know what gear will fit you?
Motorcycle gear also comes in a wide variety of shapes and cuts and ranges from the extremely technical to extremely budget. Each company has their own fit, so you might be a large in one brand, but a medium in another, you may have an Alpinestars body or an ICON body, an AGV-shaped head or a Bell-shaped head. The only way to find out is to try the stuff on but, as mentioned above, most brick and mortar stores don't carry most of the stuff you really want.
Step 1: Find your sizes
Get a cloth measuring tape and start taking some measurements and record them on your phone or in an email to yourself that you will have with you should you have the chance to try on some gear. Revzilla has some great size charts for various pieces of clothing and it is a good place to start. Know your body and what is important to you when getting gear. For me, it's always length and I end up going a little large so that the sleeves are (close to) long enough, for you it may be something different. Once you have your measurements, find a store that carries some of the more well known brands and start trying things on. Try and find a leather jacket, a single layer textile jacket, and a winter textile jacket and record your size in each of them. Do so for as many brands as you can, but try and at least get your sizes in one of the major brands like Dainese, Alpinestars, Rev'it, ICON, or Klim. If you are trying on helmets, try and find an Arai, Shoei, Icon, Bell, Schuberth or AGV to try on. If you can't find a brick and mortar, ask to try on a friend's gear or go to a motorcycle tradeshow. You'll find that you fit some brands better than others and that will help guide the purchases you want to make.
If you absolutely can't find anything, look at your sizes and make your best guess and then buy from Revzilla. They offer free returns and no restock fee (you will have to pay for the shipping back to them) and they will send you another size if you get it wrong. If you were able to find your size in one of the main brands, don't hesitate to email them and tell them you fit a certain size in one company and wondered how it would translate to a different piece you were looking at. It isn't ideal, but it's your best bet for getting the appropriate size in the gear you want. If you plan on wearing the gear a lot and for years to come, I think it's worth the time to find the right items for you even if it is a hassle. What's a month invested for a piece of gear that is going to improve your riding experience for 3-5 years? What's a little labor to ensure your several hundred dollar investment is worth it?
Step 2: Find the right product
The other problem mentioned was how difficult it was to discern the differences between various pieces of gear. Two items may be identical, but one uses typically-superior Gore-Tex while the other uses that brand's own waterproof membrane and it may take reading the fine print to find that variation. When I have narrowed my search two 2 or 3 different pieces, I try and compare the features or spec lists from the different products, look at the reviews or comments section from sites like Revzilla, and do a search in any bike related forums. Often times a search like "D-Dry vs Drystar" will lead you to someone else who had the same question and posted it somewhere and you can often find an answer that way.
Consider different materials, the weather where you ride, and how this new piece of gear fits in to the gear you already have. Are you trying for to buy one jacket to wear year round? Do you already have a summer or winter jacket? How will those gloves breathe in summer? Will these winter gloves be warm enough or do I need to look at heated gear? Does that helmet have approrpiate ventilation? Will it fog up during my morning commute?
Buying motorcycle gear is a flawed process. It's annoying and a pain in the ass, but worth it to find the right fit and features to keep you on the road and riding as safely and comfortably as possible. They key is to try and record your sizes in as many things as possible or be willing to make some educated guesses and possibly exchange some things when you don't get it quite right.