Choosing and Purchasing a One-Piece Leather Motorcycle Suit
by David M. Young for webBikeWorld.com
I finally got to the point in my track riding where my two-piece Dainese Rock leather suit just wasn't cutting it any more.
Not that I am all that fast on the track, but when I originally purchased the suit I had no idea whether I would be using it more for track days or for street riding.
That led to the decision to find a leather suit that would work for me either on the street or on the track.
The Dainese two-piece suit had all the protection I needed for the track but with the added versatility of wearing either the jacket or the jacket and pants combo for street riding.
While a one-piece suit is arguably safer overall, it sure isn't very convenient to wear into a restaurant or a mall, while running errands or even just traveling to visit friends.
The Dainese suit I purchased had the full GP hard armor treatment, just like their track-specific suits, but it also had a full circumference, heavy-duty zipper at the waist.
This was acceptable to all of the track day organizers I was familiar with and I figured that the cost would not be wasted if I decided to stick to the street.
This worked out very well at first, but as it turned out I ended up spending more and more time and effort on track events than on street riding.
At the beginning of this season, I finally realized I was unnecessarily suffering in the sweltering heat and I decided it was time for some A/C. No, I'm not going to start doing track days in my car -- I definitely needed a ventilated suit.
The first thing I realized was that two-piece leather suits rarely have good ventilation. Vanson makes numerous ventilated jackets and pants that zip together, but they are really designed more for street riding than for serious track days. I already have a fully perforated Vanson CSRV jacket that I love, but I really wanted to go with a full, one-piece leather suit since I would be using it only at the track. So the search began….
I shopped around at the local retailers and did some research on the Internet (see the wBW Leather Motorcycle Clothing page for more information). There were many brands that met my criteria for ventilation plus protection, with manufacturers such as Dainese, Spidi, Spyke, Alpinestars, and others who make many different models and variations in off-the-rack sizes.
Price seemed to track with style more than features but there were plenty of choices. Leather suits are also available with no perforations at all right up to fully perforated designs. There are also custom suits made by companies such as Vanson, Syed, Bates and Barnacle Bill.
While a custom-fitted leather suit would be ideal, the prices can quickly escalate to 50 to 100% more than an off-the-rack version. Try explaining that to your significant other! So it was back to the standard off-the-rack styles for me.
I also needed to figure out the correct sizing. My two-piece is a size 56 in European sizing. Most of the European leather clothing manufacturers use European sizing, which is fairly easy to convert to U.S. sizing.
Here's a simple formula: take the European sizing and subtract 10, and you should get approximately the correct U.S. suit sizes. For example, a European size 56 is roughly a size 46 in the US. But check with the clothing manufacturer for sure, as some dimensions may differ.
The next issue I had to deal with is that two-piece leather suits are cut slightly larger than the one-piece. The reasoning behind this is that they are generally geared more towards the street rider who would not put up with the skintight leather suits recommended to racers. But tighter is better when it comes to motorcycle leathers and protection!
Have you ever watched the motorcycle racers on TV? I have never actually seen Valentino Rossi take his Dainese leathers off but it would not surprise me if it took his entire race crew to squeeze him out like a tube of toothpaste! I normally wear a U.S. size 46 jacket, but I can fit into the occasional size 44, depending on the cut. My 56 Dainese was on the slightly large side, but after installing a separate back protector, the suit felt pretty good.
Then I started trying on one-piece suits. The first one I tried was made by Spidi. The salesman took some measurements and recommended a European size 54. I explained that while I was a 44-46 from the waist up, from the waist down I was a 48 because I have very large thighs and calves. “Try it anyway” he says…so I did.
Good thing I was in an air-conditioned show room because by the time I got it on, I was soaked with sweat. No wonder professional racers are in such good shape and so uptight, I would be to if I had to do this a couple times a day!
While I got everything zipped, tucked, folded and inserted, I realized that I was definitely not comfortable. One of the key safety features of motorcycle leathers is the armor and padding attached to the inside of the suit. The armor must stay in place during a crash so that it can work correctly to protect the rider. If the suit is too big, the armor could rotate during the slide or impact, negating the protective effect the designers planned.
But the other side of the coin is that riding a motorcycle on the track, especially a sport bike with it’s compact body positioning, requires that the rider be free to move around with no binding or discomfort that can interrupt his or her concentration. The size 54 suit I tried felt like it was squeezing all my internal organs into my hands, feet and head!
I tried the size 56 next and I was surprised to find that it felt only moderately larger. I was still having the same binding in the legs and arms. So I then tried on a size 58. While the legs were finally comfortable, the upper body was just too big even though the arms were not. Hmmm...
I tried on several other brands of leathers and found the same issue. I then tried a couple of off-the-rack Vanson sizes. The Vanson leathers are designed and made in the U.S.A. and tend to reflect our, uh, “larger stature”, (read: plumper bodies).
Unfortunately for me though, while the Vanson suits had a slightly larger cut, I still had the issue of the different sizes of my upper and lower body. A size 46 fit me well, except I could not even zip the calves closed!!! A size 48 fit my legs fine, but it was far too big in the upper body to be safe in a spill.
It appeared that I was stymied. Despite my attempts to save a few bucks, it appeared I was going to have to go with a custom suit. So the next step was figuring out what I could afford...which turned out to be very little, apparently.
Vanson’s full customs were the brand I was most familiar with, and Vanson trains their dealers to take all of the necessary custom measurements. Vanson can also manufacture custom suits via their website with downloadable sizing charts and instructions, but if you have a dealer nearby, it pays to use them, as a mistake is less likely and the cost of the suit is no different.
However, by the time I designed a custom suit with just the bare minimum in options and choices, I was looking at over $2,000 compared to $600 to $1,200 for an average off-the-rack suit. $2,000.00 was much more than I wanted to spend.
Then the salesman offered me another option. I could get the suit I wanted in a stock size but have Vanson customize it to my size requirements.
This would mean that I could get the Vanson Volante suit (their one-piece racing design) with full perforations for about $1,450 plus about $150 to expand the width of the legs. While this was still at the high end of what I wanted to spend, it seemed reasonable since I was running out of options.
As a side note, a company like Barnacle Bill can build a full custom suit for about the same price. While it may not have quite the same features and options, this is a viable solution and while I only know a few people who own them, they seem to be of high quality.
This is also worth checking out if you can find a suitable (pun inserted by the Editor!) pattern you don't mind waiting for the suit to be manufactured.
One of the reasons I decided to go with Vanson is because the Volante is one of only two suits I am aware of (the other being a high-end Dainese model) that offers a 2 zipper chest entry.
Instead of having a single zipper in the middle from the neck to the crotch, this suit offers two separate zippers starting about 4” apart at the neck expanding to about 8” at mid-chest then closing slightly before stopping at the crotch (see photo, left).
This allows for easier entry and exit from the suit without having to hop around with flapping arms like a crippled penguin to get out of sweaty leathers. Many other riders agreed that the dual zipper design is the only way to go.
Another option I had considering during this process was the purchase of a used suit. I purchased my two-piece Dainese suit from New Enough Leathers for about 60% of what it would have cost new, and I honestly could not tell that it had been used when I received it.
However, after several months of checking eBay, the NESBA member site and various other locations on the 'net, I had pretty much given up on finding a suit that would fit and that was not crashed into uselessness.
So I made the decision that instead of keeping the two-piece suit and using it as a back-up track suit or for cold weather conditions, I would sell it to make up the difference in price for the customized suit. (It should be noted that New Enough no longer deals in used motorcycle gear.
The only dealer I am aware of that sells used items is Motorcycle Leather Exchange. They also sell some discontinued new items along with being a dealer for Vanson and I recommend you check their website as their stock is constantly changing. I am sure there are other sites out there as well.)
Then like a ray of sunshine thru a cloudy sky, a pre-owned Vanson Volante showed up on the NESBA site in uncrashed condition and in a size 46.
While it was not the color I would have picked, it was a fairly neutral white with gray and black, as you can see in the photos.
To sweeten the deal, it was even in a semi-custom Troy Lee design that added several hundred to the price of the standard Volante.
After making a call to Vanson, they advised it would be a simple matter to send them the suit and they would customize the legs with larger stretch Kevlar panels for the same price as would be charged for altering a newly purchased suit.
After numerous e-mails and photos back and forth with the seller, the deal was struck for less than half the price of the off-the-rack, stock Troy Lee Design Volante suit including shipping!
Within a couple days the suit arrived and I made sure to save the box for shipping to Vanson. The moment of truth arrived and I tried it on. With an air of disbelief, it fit perfectly. Apparently the stretch panels and leather give slightly after being worn for a while and it was quite comfortable for the entire length of my legs.
While there were some scuff marks, bug guts and track debris still on it, some elbow grease with Zymol leather cleaner removed most of the bug and track debris. All I need now is some type of shoe polish-like product to fix the cosmetic scuffs.
I recently used the suit for the first time on the track. The temperatures reached the high 80’s but the perforations made an unbelievable difference in comfort level. I did not get as tired or distracted from the heat, but I did found that I still had to keep up my fluid intake because the extra airflow makes the body feel cooler at the expense of quicker evaporation of the sweat.
This story had the ending I desired, but the journey was much different than I expected. I ended up getting the suit I wanted for a very good price but only because I set clear priorities, did my homework and research and I was very patient.
Most searches will not require this much effort, but my unique fit requirements caused me some extra grief. The vast majority of those shopping for leather suits have a body size that will fall somewhere near the middle of the bell curve, and should have no problem fitting into an an off-the-rack suit. For those of us who don’t, a little patience and digging can lead to a successful outcome as well.
It should also be noted that fall and winter are the best time to purchase either new or used leathers as it is the end of the riding season and the retailers or owners will often make better deals in order to clear out the stock before winter. This is true with motorcycles as well.
Know what you want, search as many shops and sites as you can and be patient. You will be rewarded. Good luck!