CHEST PROTECTORS, PRESSURE SUITS, AND IMPACT VESTS
What I learned after the crash:
I spent my whole vacation in the Moab hospital with broken ribs and a tube in my chest. My question is: “Would different armor have made any difference?” The answer is yes, for this particular crash. The different types of upper body armor all have their obvious advantages, you don’t have to look very hard to see which one has coverage here and nothing there. So “which type is best?” is a really tough question and probably more depends on what you hit, or what hits you. There are too many different manufacturers of these products to mention them all, but I will name brands that I have used or my riding buddies have. This was first written in May, 2011, and updated April, 2014.
Additional Note: If you've found a new piece of gear that you use, please add a comment at the end of this thread so we can keep it current and include more opinions than just my experience. And if you really understand the whole CE rating system it would help to get a clarification from an expert.
CHEST PROTECTOR / ROOST GUARD
The classic Roost Guard is like slipping on a turtle shell, with layers of good hard protection on your front and back. If you’re racing and getting rocks thrown at you, you want a shield to deflect them. If you crash splat like a pancake, or get run over while laying on the track wondering what the hell just happened, you’ll be glad you bought one. They also have some form of pad for the top of your shoulders, but are open on the sides so your ribs aren't protected. The big pieces of plastic armor are shaped to loosely curve around your torso and spread out any sharp point of impact over a larger area. They don’t have a lot of padding between the shell and your body so cooling air flow is maximized. Try on several different ones and you’ll find one that fits you much better than the others. This will be the least expensive form of upper body armor you'll find.
There are several new designs of Chest Protector Vests that are much more high tech, somewhat similar to the Pressure Suits in how they fit and function. The TLD 5955, Alpinestars A-8, and Leatt 5.5 Pro HD are the best I've seen of this new way of thinking about armor. This new generation of vest puts together multiple pieces of plastic to closely form to your body, and finally give you some rib protection too. These range from light to heavy duty and all are really comfortable and nice fitting, possibly worn under your jersey. The A*-8 and especially the Leatt HD are more substantial, and for this kind of armor easily the best I've seen. These are nothing like the classic roost guards, and they cost a lot more too.
Advantages: Light weight, cool, easy on and off, great front protection from roost. The new Vest style armor protect your whole upper body about as good as it gets. And you get to choose which elbow armor you prefer, it's not included.
Disadvantages: Roost Guards have no protection around the sides of your body; so your ribs, liver and spleen are vulnerable. You’re wrapped in a fairly low tech shell with the cheaper ones. You'll have to buy your elbow armor separately. Personally I see no disadvantage to these Chest Protector Vests but some guys feel they're too hot.
Availability: Motorcycle parts stores usually stock a small selection of these and you want to take your time and find one that fits good, if you can find them at all. Unfortunately you can't try on the pieces when internet shopping, but that's where your best selection is. Check the sales policy of the online stores, you might need to return or exchange something.
The Pressure Suit is a lot more high tech than the classic turtle shell approach, and more expensive. They have a long articulated plastic spine guard that flexes with you for comfort, some padding on the chest, and most have a kidney belt. They are available is short sleeve so you can use your own elbow pads, or in long sleeve with pads attached that stay comfortably in place. There will be small pieces of padding in strategic places and usually something fancy on top of your shoulders. These are worn under your jersey but some guys simply wear them over a t-shirt when it’s really hot.
The fit is meant to be snug to your body. Many of them use an open mesh fabric for cooling. The amount and kind of padding for the chest varies greatly, some use just a thin pad and others will use a piece of plastic over a fat pad. More padding equals better protection, and hotter. I think the Rockgardn Flac Jacket is a good example of max protection, but it may be more than you’re looking for. This AXO Air Cage is lighter but still has all around armor. There are lots of other good ones, you need to decide for yourself how much padding / how much insulation (hot) you can tolerate. I was wearing a minimalist one when I crashed, my hospital bill was Ten Grand. I wish I was wearing thicker / better armor but Moab gets so damn hott. You have to find the compromise you're comfortable with.
There is a new design, the Leatt 3DF Airfit Body Protector that is like a Pressure Suit but all the pads are soft, no hard shell material. Reviews say it's soft, light weight, and cool: comfortable. I think it's worth looking at if you want lots of protection, but it doesn't look to me like it's made for you MX guys. If you are you an ATGATT rider (All The Gear, All The Time) this could be perfect under a jacket on your commute to work too. Here are some other good pics of it.
Advantages: These are designed to offer protection in a crash, they are high tech compared to a classic roost guard. Some are lighter weight and less padded than others, so you can buy the level of armor that you feel comfortable wearing. This armor is shared with the downhill mountain bike racers.
Disadvantages: More expensive, hotter, and harder to get on and off than a Chest Protector, especially when sweaty. Most have no padding around the sides; leaving your ribs, liver, and spleen vulnerable. You don’t have a big shell around you and it’s easy to see how sometimes that could be exactly what you need.
Availability: Search motorcycle shops and bicycle shops for these, you really need to try it on before buying. The ones favored by mtn bikers will be lighter weight, the moto ones will usually be more heavy duty. I constantly fought with the first one I bought; it stabbed me in the neck, the elbow pads slipped, and it was terribly hot. The one I crashed in was so comfortable I could take a nap in it, but it didn't protect me when I needed it to. Look around for a few different ones before you buy, you’ll see big differences between them in fit and padding. Search the internet.
This is a relatively new and smaller category of protection and I’m not sure the category has a title, but they are designed for impact so that’s what I’m calling them. Some fit like an insulated vest; thinner than a life jacket but thicker than you would wear under your jersey. There are different ways they offer protection and some come from other sports: a bull riders vest, snowmobile racers, road racers, etc. Even an inflatable coat. From state of the art high tech materials used in bullet proof vests to fancy pads in all the right places, these can offer you choices the other styles don’t.
I’m going to talk about a few manufacturers of these that I’m aware of, it’s unlikely that you’ll find them in stores because they aren’t the normal moto gear- yet. One is custom made to order, and the others sell at 2 to 3 times the price of a Roost Guard; it’s hard for a retailer to gamble on stocking this stuff. But I’m including them so you know more of your options.
Moto X Vest- Starting with bullet proof vest technology, adapted from Professional Bull Riders, this model is specifically tailored for motorcycle riders. All the PBR guys wear these vests, so if it’s the best technology we have against a couple thousand pounds of raging bull then it seems like it might work when your bike tosses you on your ass? It’s made to integrate with most of the new “Leatt style” neck braces and is vented more than the bull rider's model. The special padding and fabric spreads out a point of impact so you absorb it over a larger surface area, these really are rocket science materials. It can be worn either tight or loose, and you can clean it with a pressure washer. It doesn’t have fancy looking shoulder protection or elbow pads like a Pressure Suit but it wraps fully around your sides and gives great protection for your ribs and organs from an impact. I had a long phone call with Mick, the designer/manufacturer, he’s a great guy and I recommend you give him a call. This is what I'm currently wearing and I'm sure that I wouldn't have spent my vacation in the hospital if I'd been wearing one then. Some guys don't like the fit, it's definitely a different look. Like anything that wraps you up it can get hot, so they have a new more vented model that just came out. I haven't tried it but it has more vents.
TekVest- These guys make a full line of vests, offering something for everyone. Their original one has padding, pockets, protection, and a place to slip your hydration bladder: this thing is loaded with options. And expensive. They have a big following in the snowmobile market so that should give you an idea of how warm it might be. They've adapted their designs for motorcycles the last few years, offering different levels of protection and better venting. Look thru their website to see models from fully loaded designs with pockets to a very light weight design made to be worn with a hydration-backpack.
They're required equipment to snowmobile race, those guys are on 600 lb machines with steel spikes in the treads. Some guys think this is as good as it gets in armor, if you can wear that much. I’ve read good reviews and harsh criticisms; my buddy liked his a lot on his sled, but it was just too hot for him at race pace in the desert. It wraps fully around your torso so it will have better protection for your ribs and internal organs. There are many guys who swear by this armor, but it's not what you typically see worn at the motocross track. I recently bought a Freestyle Vest with the shoulder pads and like the fit and feel of it. Actually I bought it for downhill skiing, where I've broken ribs more often than falling off my moto. Here is a short review by Bryan Bosch.
Impact Armor This armor is popular with Pro road racers and sport bike guys. The high tech pads are held in place by their skin tight leather race suit. They have a SuperMoto chest protector designed specifically for that style of riding, maybe that's exactly what you're looking for?
Hit-Air Auto Bahn 2 There's an inflatable coat that blows up with a compressed gas bottle in the pocket, and is triggered by a leash attached to your bike. When you crash and separate from your bike (while flying thru the air) the coat will inflate around your body and neck. In the right crash this could work great, but I stayed with my bike into the ground and I would have had no protection at all. So it should work for a high side get off, but it won't be there for you on a low side. Maybe for a road rider? But I just can't see it as valid protection in too many kinds of crashes.
I’ve read many posts by guys who are unhappy with their armor because of “it's too hot!” or “it didn’t protect me when I crashed”. There are advantages and disadvantages for every kind of armor, and how it fits you and your riding style are really important. In addition to choosing what you might think fits you best, there is the discussion about the importance of the CE ratings. Some manufacturers get the certification, there are like 7 different CE safety standards you can look at to determine what might give you the best protection. Some smaller companies don't spend the money on certification so you don't know exactly how they might compare to the gear from the big guys. "Unrated" doesn't mean it isn't good protection, they just didn't get their stuff "certified".
The problem is no one piece of this gear can protect us from every possible crash scenario. How much armor, and which kind you should wear, ultimately is your decision. If you try to wear it all you’re going to look like an Armadillo. And move about as fast too.