Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gearing up for motorcycle riding

What is it?

When deciding to hop on the saddle of a motorcycle, it doesn't take long to realize there isn't a lot between you and the asphalt flying by your feet. Deciding what to wear while you do so is a decision with life-saving potential.

Why do it?

Many of us who ride motorcycles put a lot of thought into our surroundings, our technique, and what is going on with our bike. Many folks undergo training, starting usually with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider Course. Bare none, this is the best bet for developing safe riding habits, which are your best protection. After all, better to avoid the accident than need to survive one!

But that's the problem with accidents, we can't completely eliminate them. As riders we know that we're surrounded by vehicles many times larger than us, often piloted by distracted drivers. We can't see everything. So why not wear something to give us an edge if things go sour?

How did I learn it?

I've been riding for just over 2 years, having come to it rather late in life. As a kid I did a few trips on a dirt bike, but my mother was adamant that we wouldn't get motorcycles under her roof. It was many years before I was in a position to feel I could afford a bike and that the urge really welled up. I knew about the MSF course and decided it was a great way to see if it was something I wanted to do. My (now) wife took the course with me.

Fortunately, I have friends who've ridden for much longer and pulled me into the right riding group. These were all folks who loved to ride (I mean, really ride. A lot!) and encouraged me to not only look around and pick the right bike for me, but to wear gear while riding. Any questions I had, they answered, and if I weren't so very tall I would likely have been able to borrow a lot of gear. I found there is a lot more to it than just wearing a helmet and gloves.

now having over 20,000 miles under my belt (I told you, we ride a lot :), I'm what is called an "ATGATT" guy. ATGATT stands for "All The Gear, All The Time" and means you gear up for each ride you go out on. I'll admit, if I go the 1/2 mile to Lowes, I don't wear my riding pants, but I still wear everything else. Further than that, it's ATGATT.

How do you learn it?

I'll give you a general run down here. The concept is easy, choosing what you personally wear is then up to you. Before I go any further, let me state that, while I encourage ATGATT, this is your choice and needs to be. I don't favor legal requirements for safety gear. I just personally find that the insurance and slight discomfort of gear is an insurance policy I'm glad to have!

Helmets- The obvious, and in many places required, piece of starting equipment. First, you must understand that not all helmets are created equal! The half-helmet seen on many cruiser riders, often to meet the minimum requirement, will not provide the protection of a full-face helmet. You can read a great article here that can give you a lot more detail, but in short a full-face helmet not only protects your face should you crash, it takes a lot of strain off your eyes, keeps bugs out of your teeth, and - when properly fitted - is quite comfortable for hours on end. When picking one out, I recommend going to a dealer and trying them on. Wear it around the store for a while. Notice any pinch points or discomfort. I bought my first helmet because I really liked the style, but I can't wear it for more than 30 minutes without a headache! I have an odd head shape and eventually spent a little over $500 on the right helmet. Yes, $500, but most people won't have that issue. Still, $500 is cheap insurance I hope never to need!

Gloves- You'll want these. The cheapest option is to go to the Home Depot and pick up some leather work gloves. While better than nothing, they may come off in an accident and provide less impact protection. I currently have 5 pairs of gloves. 1 in a rain pair I don't wear often, another is for summer and is vented to keep my hands cool (but also has armour!),1 pair is for cold weather riding, and 2 leather gauntlet-style pairs with additional armour in the knuckles. Of the bunch, these are my favorites. The added benefit of covering the wrist and lower forearm is worth the expense, though there are certainly fine, less expensive options.

Jacket- The days when a leather riding jacket was your only option are long past. While leather still gives some of the best(if not THE best) abrasion protection, textile jackets are quite tough. to boot, some of the fabrics are designed to actually slide along asphalt, which may sound strange until you read about the damage from rolling. either way, both materials are far, far better than bare arms. The old saying is that the road demands payment in skin. Better it be from a cow (or artificial, for the textiles) than your own! Additionally, modern jackets often have armour around your joints (shoulders, elbows, back) to reduce impact damage. While I've only been riding for 2 years, 20 years of armoured sword fighting has taught me how valuable the stuff is. Coming off a bike at 50 mph onto a shoulder sounds painful. Doing it while wearing armour sounds...well, still painful, but less likely to leave me in traction for the next year.

I should mention while discussing jackets and pants that comfort is the biggest reason people seem to give not to wear the stuff. Well, this, too, has been thought of. While not as protective as the regular gear, there are "mesh" options which breath very well and still provide a layer between you and the road. I wear mesh when it breaks 80 degrees as I sweat like a cold Coke otherwise. When I'm moving, I find it's not far off from maybe a long sleeve t-shirt. If you can find it in something other than black, all the better!

Pants- Everything I said about jackets applies here. I will say I'm not a fan of chaps as they leave one big gap, IE that part humans seem the most likely to slide on! However, adding a pair of armoured jeans underneath would help take care of that vulnerability. Pants are so often overlooked as we often feel jeans offer plenty of protection, but try slamming your knee into a door and you may reconsider. :)

Boots- This is an area most riders do right away, often right after burning their ankle on an exhaust pipe. Anything that comes over the ankle is a good call, especially in leather. A quick look will show you a number with additional armour and protection. I like to try boots on when I have the option, as I have odd feet, but I've found some places will let you return them if you have any trouble.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

I consider staying dry important. I ride as much of the time as I can, which means if the roads are dry and not salty, and the temp is over, say, 30, I'll hop on the bike. My new bike has better wind protection, so I expect that temp to go lower this year. Except for my mesh gear and many of my gloves, everything is "waterproof". I use the quotes because this stuff sees a lot of wear and will lose it's protection over time, so re-waterproofing is important.

There are one-piece suit options, as well, that make it easy to get in and out quickly. I would love one, but with my size, Aerostitch is my only real option. I do like the versatility of jackets and pants, though, as I can mix and match, or take a jacket off when arriving somewhere wile leaving on the pants.

Finally, if you ride late into the season, consider heated gear for underneath everything. Just don't exceed what your motorcycle can put out in power and you'll stay nice and toasty!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The value of carrying a knife

More coming soon on the chest, but recent events have made me consider that I should throw this out there now.

What is it?

It wasn't that long ago, probably under 30 years, that most men carried at least a penknife wherever they went. We've progressively gotten away from that as a society, even while technology has improved our options for what we might carry. I'm not sure on why we've moved this way, but it is a good habit to be in and comes with its own set of skills.

Why do it?

Almost every day, I have need of a knife. Most of the time I'm in a kitchen and cooking, so I have a variety of knives at my fingertips. But quite often I'm at work, out with friends, working in the yard, or a number of other places where there isn't a wooden block with a variety of blades at my beck and call. That is when carrying a knife comes in very handy. Whether it is opening up the plastic on the latest gizmo you bought, cutting a piece of twine in the garden, opening a box at work, or trimming the end off a plug you just placed in a flat tire, having a knife when you need it is a level of security well worth the effort of carrying it each day. Those times you don't have it and need it will just drive the point further home.

How did I learn it?

As I've mentioned in prior posts, I'm an Eagle Scout, so pocket knives go hand in hand with Scouting (well, except in England). In Cub Scouts we started learning about them and being allowed to use them on specific projects. I'll admit, I was given one a bit too young (IE, I wasn't yet mature enough) and cut up my mother's easy chair, for which I didn't see one of my own until I was a few years older. Losing it made me seriously appreciate it when I got one again, and I stopped doing such stupid things. As I grew older, I always carried one on camping trips, and eventually I carried one every day. What I carry varies, as I'll mention below, but I have at least one knife on me whenever I leave the house, and often I have 2 or 3 nearby.

How do you learn it?

This is easy. if you have cut vegetables, you know the basics of using a knife. There are a few other things worth noting when you carry a knife:
#1 - Sharp is safe, dull is dangerous - I had this drilled into my head when young, and it makes sense when you consider that a dull blade will cause you to apply more force, yet be less likely to cut when and where you want. This can lead to slipping of the blade, often into something you DIDN'T intend to cut, like your skin!
#2 - Observe what you are cutting and what is nearby - should you slip, what will the knife hit? What if you drop it? Whittling a piece of wood on your leg is a bad call!
#3 - The knife is a tool, not a toy - I've seen a lot of injuries come from people flipping blades around in their hand, playing mumbley-peg, or generally doing something dumb with a knife.
#4 - Cut in a safe direction - which generally means away from you and everyone else. There are times and certain types of knives that require cutting towards you (drawknives, for instance), but those require a lot more attention and are the exception, not the norm.

But what kind of knife should you get and carry? That's a tough thing to answer as it is very personal. I personally have different knives for different situations. I almost always have a Benchmade Griptillian in my pocket. It's small, locks very well, and has a clip that keeps it from sliding too deep into my pockets. I often carry, or have very near by, some form of multi-tool, like my Leatherman Charge TTI. A multi-tool has some big advantages over a pocket knife, offering screwdrivers, saws, pliers, and any number of other useful bits. They are, however, heavier and bulky, thus normally requiring carry on a belt. Because I wear armoured pants over my pants and belt when I ride my motorcycle, carrying the Leatherman has gone from an everyday item to a nearby one. Additionally, I have a few fixed blade knives, like my SOG SEAL Pup, that reside in bags for really big jobs, but for most people that would be too much knife for everyday work.
Let's see if we can't break out a few questions to make it easier to select one for yourself.

1)How will you carry it?: Is this going into a bag or purse, a pocket, on a belt, or residing in a vehicle? The smaller the place it will reside, the smaller you want the knife to be. Something in a purse can be larger, like a multi-tool, where a pocket may call for a more traditional pocket knife.

2)How big do you need?: I tend to err on the slightly larger side, but honestly, a 3-4 inch blade will meet almost all of your cutting needs, yet can fold down quite small. Too small can leave you with not enough blade surface or not enough grip

3)Folding or fixed?: Nowadays, you get strange looks if you have a straight, fixed blade (those that need a sheath and can't fold in half) hanging off your belt. Our society sees knife and thinks "weapon", not "tool". However, a fixed blade is far stronger than any folder can hope to be as the blade actually extends up into the handle as the "tang". Thus, when you cut, you are exerting force on one solid piece of steel, not a joint like with a folder. Of course, you can't keep it easily in a pocket, it takes up more space, and is hard to conceal. For an everyday knife, you will almost always answer "folding"

4)Carbon or stainless steel?: Carbon steel has long been the favorite of "serious" knife fans. There was a time when stainless steel was new and would not hold an edge well, becoming dull very quickly. However, stainless is less likely to rust, which can become a serious problem on a folding knife where the pivot point could rust making it hard to open or close. Well, modern carbon stainless has dealt with this issue. Yes, maybe a truly skilled sharpener can get a better edge on a strictly carbon blade, but for most of us this will never be enough of a difference to warrant the drawbacks of wear and tear. In fact, it's tough to find a pocket knife made with anything BESIDES carbon stainless, so accept it and enjoy.

5)Straight or serrated: For general use, a straight blade will do good service. It is easier to keep sharp and less likely to get caught up. A serrated blade is nice for those items on which a straight blade might slide, such as webbing or tomatoes, or those that are very tough to cut through. My preference is for a straight blade as it is far easier to sharpen, but I do have a few that are straight at the front and serrated in the back half of the blade.

6)Locking: For almost all pocket knives and multi-tools, you can get a locking version. This keeps the blade open and prevents it from closing on your fingers when in use, a very useful addition! Some will also lock the blade closed. It is well worth it to have. Some may work better than others, but most work well enough.

7)Thumb assist, spring assist, and other fanciness: When most of us think of pocketknives, we think of little indents in the blade to slip a thumbnail in and pry the blade open. Things have changed, and for the better, making it simply a matter of using a thumb while comfortably holding the handle. Personally, I think this makes for a safer opening.
There are also additional assist options which speed the opening, all the way up to the switchblade. Please check on the legality in your area before getting one. Be aware, too, that some switchblades, especially cheap ones, that can open in your pocket!

8)Handle materials: This is really a matter of personal preference. I personally like something with a bit of grip to it, which means I often opt for either a checkered grip or something with rubberizing. If you see "glass" in the options, don't worry about brittleness. These tend to be made with a very high impact form of synthetic glass. Think "fiberglass" and you'll feel a lot more comfortable! You also want a handle that's long enough to fit in your hand comfortably.

9)Price: This is the most defining/restricting choice of all. You can spend $5 on a cheap knife, or you can spend $500 on a custom model with Damascus steel. Keep in mind that this is a tool, an every day item, and keep your spending in reason. If you're the kind that loses things a lot, consider owning a few cheaper ones you won't cry over when they're gone. I generally opt for the $30-75 range as knives are one thing I seem to be able to keep from disappearing. Within that range you'll get good quality without feel you've been raked over the coals.

When it comes time to buy one, I really recommend going out and handling them before just buying off the internet. Go to a sporting goods store, especially one with a knife counter (Cabelas, Bass Pro, EMS, REI, even most Wal-Marts will have one) and physically pick them up. Open the knife, see if the blade wobbles within the handle, figure out how the lock works, feel the handle in your hand. Does it feel like it is worth the money? Is it solid enough to do work? Will it fit in your pocket or chosen bag? If so, why not take it home? I guarantee, after a week of carrying one you'll wonder why it took you so long to do so!

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

You may eventually want to add more knives to your collection. it's worth looking at multi-tools as an option. I'll talk about them in the future.
Knives with clips often allow the clip to be removed if you prefer not to use it.
You want to keep your knife sharp, which we'll talk about in a later post. For now, know that you want to avoid electric sharpeners!