MOTORCYCLE BOOTS ARE DIFFERENT FROM OTHER BOOTS
I learned to love motorcycle boots a few years back one summer evening. Glorious sunshine, a perfect Friday evening that could only be topped by the first sip of cold beer. All that anticipation came to an abrupt end when I and the 1/4-ton of metal under me (the motorcycle!) were taken out by a small, white van on the London Embankment. I learned three things that day:
- Trainers are not protective at all,
- Quarter of a ton of metal crushes whatever it falls on,
- Feet & ankles are fragile – a lot of damage is done quickly!
According to NHS statistics, 19% of hospital admissions for motorcycle-related injuries involve the lower leg. In other words, my experience was exactly what the doctor would expect.
MOTORCYCLE BOOTS ARE ENGINEERED TO PROTECT YOUR FEET LIKE NO OTHER SHOE
Motorcycle boots are far more than humble pieces of footwear. They are engineering feats designed like no other boot to protect your feet. Read on and you will never go back to riding on your ‘bike in trainers or casual boots!
WHAT MAKES MOTORCYCLE BOOTS UNIQUE?
I’ll take you through some of the most important features that make motorcycle boots super-special. There is undoubtedly more to say but these are the things that matter when you choose your boots:
- Protection: There is primary protection, the stuff that deflects impact, and there is secondary protection, the bits that stop your foot from being crushed or over-flexed.
- Comfort and control: There are comfort features, such as breathability and waterproofing, and there is ‘bike control’, the dexterity you have to control the bike. You need to make decisions to get the right balance for you between greater protection and greater movement.
- Choice: the types of motorcycle boots you can choose between means you do not have to compromise on style – there is really no excuse!
PROTECTION: THE GENIUS THAT MAKES MOTORCYCLE BOOTS SUPER SPECIAL
PRIMARY PROTECTION: THE STUFF YOU SEE
Primary protection is the stuff you can see or, at minimum, you can feel if you pad down the inside and shell of your boots. The primary protection deals with the knocks and abrasion that occurs during an accident.
Proper shin protection may well have first been introduced to motorcycle boots by the founder of Alpinestars, Sante Mazzarolo, in the mid-1960s when developing MX boots. Shin protectors at their most protective are a plastic hard shell to provide impact protection, backed by a layer of soft viscoelastic material to absorb the impact forces. It is positioned so it covers most or all of your shin.
On touring motorcycle boots the shin protectors are integrated beneath the outer shell layer so it is invisible to the eye; alternatively, it is highly visible and a design feature, as it would be on a track motorcycle boot.
Ankle & sole protection
This is the part of my anatomy that suffered the most during the boat shoe incident on the London embankment Victoria embankment. Ankle protectors are often similarly constructed to shin protectors with a disc shaped hard shell backed by viscoelastic impact absorbing padding. These ankle pads should be located on both sides of the foot, protecting both exposed sides of the ankle.
A quarter of a ton of metal resting on your ankle isn’t an uncommon situation to find yourself in after a spill: getting your leg trapped under the machine is easily done and, because of that, CE regulations now require that the boot sole cannot be crushed side-to-side as well as having sole stiffeners to prevent hyper-extension.
Heel & toe cups
Motorcycle boots feature toe boxes and extended heel cups. A gentle squeeze of the toe section and the heel will tell you if the boot has got them: There will be a flex resistance and you are likely to be able to feel the edges of the shell.
The purpose of integrating flexible nylon shells into the boot chassis is to provide impact protection for those very sensitive parts. It was once explained to me that nylon shells are much more effective as a protection compared to, say, the steel toe caps of a work boot: being semi-flexible, the nylon cups absorb a certain amount of energy as they deform under impact but also flick back after the initial impact to their original shape, which is something a steel shell would not do (instead steel would act like a clamp). Usually, the toe box extends to behind the shifter pad to protect further.
At the most advanced end, the Alpinestars Tech 10 boots incorporate toe and heel protection into a complete chassis made of thermo-plastics with varying levels of flex.
SECONDARY PROTECTION: THE STUFF YOU DON’T SEE
The real genius of how motorcycle boots keep your feet from injury comes from secondary protection: You cannot really see it from the outside, but these protection features that have been invented and engineered over decades by working with the top athletes in motorsports. Secondary protection reduces the risks of the really serious and difficult to repair injuries such as:
- Torsion: The leg easily twists over its vertical centre when you come off the bike – that twisting motion will find the weakest point of the leg and break it: Ankle, knees or hips, whichever is the weakest point for your leg; You can’t fight torsion other than to slow it down: Semi-flexible ‘braces’ around the ankle are the optimal way to do so.
- Hyper-extension: This happens when your joint is stretched beyond the limit it was designed for; an example would be the foot section getting pushed ever further down and away from the shin of the leg. Clearly, there is a natural limit and uncontrolled hyper-extension pushes your foot’s anatomy beyond that limit. Not good for ligaments or bones! You have to slow down the force and halt the movement to prevent injury.
- Hyper-flexion: This is the opposite movement, where the natural angle of the joint becomes ever smaller and the limb sections move closer together than they were designed to do; an example for that would be the front section of the foot closing right up to the shin of your leg. Same problem. You have to slow down the force and halt the movement to prevent injury.
- Lateral extension: Most joints have an amount of natural ‘play’ to deal with the twists and turns of life; lateral extension occurs when the movement, for instance the twisting of the ankle, extends further than life allows. You have to allow for that movement but prevent over-extension.
Ankle brace systems
Ankle brace systems are common place on high-end competition motorcycle boots; in some cases a reduced version is incorporated into leisure riding oriented boots.
The goal is to provide protection from the 4 injury types listed above. It is a real feat to achieve that. Your foot is a sophisticated piece of kit, able to deliver a huge variety of movements to deal with what you are doing and the surface you are standing on.A protective ankle brace has to mimic all those possible movements in order to be comfortable under normal use!
To engineer a brace that functions under normal use conditions, following all of the different possible movements of the foot, AND then changing to being protective within a split of a second when required is an engineering feat unlike what you see in other boots (not even skiing boots are this sophisticated). And this is how they work:
The footwear brand TCX apparently was the first motorcycle boots manufacturer to develop an ankle bracing system to reduce injuries derived from the foot twisting during an accident (TCX in fact stands for the Torsion Control system applied to MX boots!). These days the ankle bracing systems have become sophisticated chassis engineered around the ankle and up the sides and back of the boots.
OTHER SAFETY FEATURES: WORTH KNOWING ABOUT
We take the sole of a motorcycle boot for granted, nothing to get excited about. But, if you ever had the experience of a new boot not quite gripping the tarmac as you put your foot down, that’s when you realise that ‘grip’ it is essential to your safety. A surprising amount of research goes into soles (and they are surprisingly expensive to develop). Attention to detail reaches from the grooving, designed as complex as a car tyre to disperse rain, down to defining the depth and angle of the tread to provide different kinds of grip for a road rider and an Enduro competitor.
Toe sliders & metatarsal protection
I throw these two features together. The toe slider is what it is, albeit watch out how they are attached (clip-ons and the nose-end bolt developed by Alpinestars are the safest options, attachment bolts that point at the foot for obvious reasons are not as great in case of a freak accident pushing the bolt towards your foot). TCX has since developed the basic toe slider further so it incorporates a feature that limits the hyper-extension of the toes and helps prevent damage to the metatarsal bones.
In a recent technical briefing the Alpinestars development team introduced me to a better definition of the role of comfort in motorcycle performance clothing.
Protection + Control = Performance
Control was new to me as a term in this context: Control defines the connection between the rider and the bike. Comfort is the science that makes Control possible through the key ingredients such as freedom of movement, fit with the natural shape of the body, and comfort features such as breathability or weight, while minimising how these comfort features detract from Protection. I know it is only a clever play with words and your reaction may well be ‘Whatever’. But:
Traditionally, Comfort and Protection are trade-offs against one another and require a choice to be made by you before you buy: how much comfort do you want and how much protection are you prepared to give up?
The extreme is riding your bike with your favourite trainers (or boat shoes!): superb comfort, no protection. In response to this enigma, Alpinestars started to pursue Control as defined above as their measure on how to deliver the maximum comfort. It is the top motorsports athletes that require the maximum of freedom of movement AND the protection to keep them safe – that is where Alpinestars takes its lead from.
A few words of warning: Comfort that is designed so to minimise its impact on protection equals innovation; That means technically innovative materials; Technically innovative materials are never the cheapest materials. If you want performance from the gear you buy, you have to expect to pay for it. Alternatively, you will continue to operate on the sliding scale between increased comfort on one end and increased protection on the other.
Comfort feature 1: Weight
A critical feature of comfort is the weight of your motorcycling gear. Received wisdom sometimes suggests that the heavier an item is the higher the quality (spoiler alert: not true). Make it heavier, it becomes more tiring to wear over periods of time; Make it lighter, it becomes more expensive to produce. In fact: the motorsports top athletes pursue gear that adds a minimum of weight and look for products that fit like a second skin – a protective layer over the body that doesn’t detract from sensing how the bike behaves every single second.
For motorcycle boots, this distinguishes touring boots from competition-level footwear: Typically, microfibre is lighter than leather; consequently, track boots and motocross boots use specialist microfibre fabrics as the upper layer (lighter), whereas touring boots mostly use leather (longevity and breathability).
Comfort feature 2: Breathability
Most of the time better breathability goes hand in hand with a boot that features a leather upper. In fact, for a long time Gore-Tex refused for its waterproof and breathable membrane to be used alongside microfibre shells, because microfibre was so much less breathable and the key distinguishing feature of Gore-Tex would have been lost: Its class leading breathability!
For the most part this is all still true, with only a handful of exceptions: Leather motorcycle boots will keep your feet cooler and drier in summer; There are very few exceptional microfibre fabrics now that will breathe almost as easily as leather, and you find them only on top end competition boots like the Alpinestars Tech 10 MX boots.
Comfort feature 3: Waterproofing
In Britain we are quite keen on waterproof motorcycle boots! In principle there are two ways to construct a waterproof boot:
- Add an inner boot ’sock’ made from a waterproof membrane with taped seams: This waterproof membrane sock sits between the inner lining (you) and the outer shell (the outside world) and keeps your foot dry.
- Bond a waterproof membrane to the outer fabric and seal it into a rubber sole: This manufacturing process is patented by OutDry and that is the ingredient label to look out for.
The key to Waterproofing
The key to waterproofing, however, is quality and breathability. The amount of movement a motorycle boot endures across its multitude of flex zones means that only high-end waterproof membranes tend to survive prolonged usage (Gore-Tex, Sympatex, OutDry, possibly Reissa). Durability is based on the membrane offering complete four-way stretch and the fact that under duress it will stretch rather than break. On top of that, quality manufacturers will ensure that their boots are tested prior to despatch from the place of manufacture, every single one of them!
Above is the example of a typical testing rig. Testing is required because fitting the waterproof membrane sock is a mechanical process and can damage the sock. By testing every boot, you know your boots will be reliably waterproof out of the box (OutDry boots are manufactured differently and tend to be more reliable from the point of manufacture as a result).
Post-purchase damage to the waterproof membrane tends to come from usage. Ride often in heavy rain and rain water will pass through the outer shell of your boots and settle between the outer shell and the waterproof membrane sock. That will not only make your boots heavier, residual moisture will over time dissolve the seam taping that makes the waterproof membrane sock waterproof. Be sure to let your boots dry out thoroughly!
Comfort feature 4: Shaft height & opening
When the Alpinestars founder invented the first MX boots he added a metal shin protector to what is now still known as the Alpinestars Super Victory boot. It follows that shaft height is important to protect the full height of the shin.
For many riders, and certainly for non-competition riders, a high shaft height can be less comfortable. It rubs and chaffs both on the bike and while walking about off the motorcycle. And, while the shaft opening on high-end MX boots is designed to be super-comfortable, touring boots towards the lower price points do not offer that same attention to detail and are far less comfortable around the shaft opening.
The key to your comfort is understanding what shaft height is right for the motorcycling you do and your leg shape, in particular your calves.
CHOICE: NOT ALL MOTORCYCLE BOOTS ARE THE SAME
Just like your foot is nothing like the next person’s foot in shape and size, different manufacturers use different lasts around which their boots are crafted. Even within one manufacturer, different ranges use different lasts to create different riding experiences: track boots from the Italian specialists tend to have narrower footbeds in order to create a tighter bond between the outer shell of the motorcycle boot and the foot of the rider to deliver the best possible feedback from bike to rider during competition. Touring motorcycle boots, on the other hand, more often are defined by comfort and therefore offer wider footbeds.