Jeff Hughes

The shaded porch of the Mountainside Market is populated mostly by the locals of the little village during the week, just relaxing and catching up on things. But on weekends they cede it to the riders from near and far who’ve come to run the mountain.

As I pull into the parking lot and switch off the key to the Gixxer, my eyes scan the dozen-odd bikes already there, a mix of Harleys, race-replica sportbikes, and naked standards. I don’t recognize any.

Shrugging out of my jacket, I hang that on the downside mirror, placing my helmet and gloves on the seat. The ear plugs go in my pocket.

The handful of cruiser riders, obvious by their attire, are sitting at the far-end table. I nod, bending to scratch the ears of the old dog who is always there, ever hopeful for a handout.

The air-conditioning inside feels good, a marked contrast to the warm, humid air outside. I take my time, wandering over to the cooler for a bottle of water and then down the aisle, where I finally select a small bag of peanuts. It’s hardly been two hours since I stopped for lunch. I don’t need much.

Back out on the porch, I settle myself on the bench against the wall, near the table in the middle where the four sportbike riders are engaged in animated conversation. Like the cruiser riders, there’s no question which bikes they belong to.

After a long pull on the bottle of water, I open the bag of peanuts and begin to eat them one at a time. I’m in no hurry. As I slowly unwind, I catch snippets of conversation. One is a joke about the sparse gear the Harley riders are wearing. That brings a laugh and nods of approval. It’s true, of course – the contrast between the race leathers the sportbike guys are wearing and the jeans, thin leather vests, half-helmets, and fingerless gloves of the cruiser fellows. But the condescension seems a bit much.

Twenty minutes later I’m ready to roll. The sportbike boys are planning on running the mountain again and I have something in mind. I need a little bit of a head start and that gives me something of an excuse to push the pace a little. The pavement is clean and dry and my ascent is the tiny slice of heaven that it always is.

On the western side, just past the summit, I steer the Gixxer into the pullout. Removing my jacket and helmet, I turn to the tailpack and withdraw my Nikon DSLR. Turning away from the bike, I switch the camera into focus-tracking mode, double-checking the frames remaining on the compact flash card. Walking over to the berm where I’ve done this before, I hunker down to wait.

It takes longer than I expect. A couple of single riders pass by, and I get shots of them. But the sportbike boys who I left at the store a little while ago – and whom I had hoped to get some decent shots of as they carved through the corner – are nowhere to be seen.

Finally, I hear the low, unmistakable rumble of big-engine Harleys. A few minutes later they roll slowly through the corner. They’re the same group that was down at the store and a couple of them, seeing me, wave.

Figuring the sportbike boys must have changed their mind, I put my camera away and head back myself. Halfway down, the reason for their delay becomes all too obvious – one of them is down. A sheriff’s deputy is already there, blue lights flashing, so I don’t stop.

But the irony doesn’t escape me.


Riders who ascribe to the notion that wearing proper gear on every ride have an acronym that they use these days – ATGATT. As in “all the gear, all the time”. It’s an important concept, one of the wisest that has ever gained traction in the motorcycling community. But while it represents a distilled bit of wisdom, one borne from decades of rider experience, it’s unfortunately often presented as the perfect catch-all for rider safety. Hang out with riders for awhile and you’ll undoubtedly hear it proselytized in all sorts of contexts. Most of those make sense. But a few don’t. There’s nothing like hearing it espoused, for example, in response to a horrific, fatal accident to make you realize that not everyone quite gets it.

What I am about to say may very easily be misconstrued, so I would ask that readers be discriminating in how they interpret it. I am most emphatically not suggesting that wearing a full complement of riding gear – helmet, leathers or riding suit, boots, and gloves – on every single ride is not the right and proper thing to do. It is, without question. But it is important to understand that wearing the right gear all the time – ATGATT – is not the rider safety panacea that it is often purported to be. It’s one of the bigger parts of the puzzle, to be sure, but by no means is it the entire picture. Riders who focus undue emphasis on it risk being lulled into a false sense of security. And those who somehow feel that wearing the gear gives them a bye to take greater risks - are asking for trouble.

First, an aside: helmets are so crucial to any meaningful dialogue about rider safety that I’m going to take them entirely off the table for purposes of this discussion. I know that the topic of helmet use is a very emotional one for many riders, but the medical evidence seems overwhelming - sufficiently incontrovertible to me - as to beggar any further discussion. Others can debate that subject, if they like. I won’t. I’m going to assume that everyone is wearing a fresh, high-quality, full-face helmet every time they thumb the starter.

With that assumption as the baseline, here’s the deal: the grievous injuries that most of us truly worry about – death, dismemberment, or paralysis – are overwhelmingly caused by severe, blunt, impact trauma. Impact trauma which riding gear – save that helmet – has limited ability to attenuate.

Riders get hurt badly, in other words, when they hit hard, immovable objects. They get hurt when they miscalculate lean angle or traction and low-side into an oak tree; or when they blow a corner and end up caroming into an Armco barrier. They get hurt when they panic and lock up their brakes and go flying off a cliff. And they get hurt when that SUV makes the unexpected left-turn right in front of them.

In fact, it is the susceptibility to severe impact injury which makes car/motorcycle accidents so overrepresented in motorcycle fatalities. Other vehicles are the most ubiquitous hard objects on the road, of course. So it’s no surprise that they represent the greatest threat to us.

The flip side is that most everyone knows that racetracks are the safest environments in which to ride aggressively. What many may not realize is that the singular reason that they are safer than the street is precisely because they minimize impact risks, they decrease the opportunities to come afoul of hard, immovable objects. And to the degree that one racetrack may be perceived by riders to be safer than another – it’s invariably because the one has been more successful at eliminating impact risks than the other.

Future clothing technologies may change the equation, but for now the bottom line is this: to avoid that most serious class of injuries, riders must avoid severe impacts. And doing that falls far more to the twin umbrellas of rider judgment and rider skill than it does to the area of gear selection.

A cynic might conclude from all this that I don’t believe in ATGATT. Some might misappropriate what I’m saying to suggest that riding in shorts and sandals is, if not ok, at least not as bad as those in the serious motorcycling community have long asserted it to be.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I think riding without a full complement of proper riding gear is unarguably stupid. Those who choose not to wear it are saying more about their experience, competency, and attitude then perhaps they realize. The serious riders amongst us, the cognoscenti who make up the backbone of this sport, know those riders for what they typically are - rookies, with an early exit already wired in.

But it does beg a reasonable question: if ATGATT can’t mitigate the very worst kinds of accident scenarios, why is it important? Why do we continue to emphasize it?

It’s a good question. And the answer is simply that good gear is remarkably effective at mitigating the whole range of less-than-grievous get-offs that are far and away the most common sort of crash. Good gear can prove supremely beneficial in keeping a minor crash… minor.

Want an example?

Go back and find your copy of the October 2006 issue of Sport Rider. If you don’t have a copy, then order a back issue, or go find one in a library, or borrow a copy from one of your buddies. Whatever you have to do, find a copy.

Now turn to page 114. (That’s the famous Parting Shot, for those of you who might remember).

There you’ll find two of the most remarkable photos you’ll ever see. There are stories inside of stories written inside of them. I won’t belabor them here. Suffice it to say, what should have been a relatively modest low-side, with a few scratched and bent bits on the bike and the need for a couple of ibuprofen tablets by the rider and passenger, turned into something far worse. Something that neither will likely ever forget, both because of the emotional trauma they endured and because they’ll probably carry the physical scars from that moment for the rest of their lives.

And all it would have taken was some decent gear.

So, no, I’m not at all suggesting that ATGATT is not the right and proper thing to do. I’m simply encouraging riders to understand that it’s not the whole story. That it’s only one part of the repertoire that a good rider must bring to bear in dealing with the risks that are inherent to our sport. And that – most importantly – wearing it shouldn’t provide an excuse to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t do.

So wear the gear, all of it, all the time. But also be sure and bring your skill and your judgment; your experience and your belief in yourself. Bring those, and the remembrance that there’s not a situation out there that a good rider can’t solve.

All those wielded together become your talisman, proof against the unexpected.

© 2007 Jeff Hughes