Aldon Baker on Safety Equipment
by Aldon Baker
Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto are two riders who you will never see riding without a neck brace on.
photo: Andrew Fredrickson
Motocross is a dangerous sport and we all know the old saying, it's not if you get hurt it's when. Safety equipment has come along way over the past twenty years and you would think that every rider on the track would do everything they can to protect themselves. But not everyone has the same definition of protection. What works for me might be restrictive to the next guy. Some riders won’t even sit on their bike without their neck brace while others think it inhibits their range of motion and actually increases their chances of crashing. Back in the day you were considered safe if you wore a mouth guard and kidney belt. These days, if you want there is more safety equipment to be worn than you can actually wear. Gone are the kidney belts and Jafe mouth guards replaced by carbon fiber braces, full faced helmets, high tech boots, and body armor that would make the toughest of gladiators jealous.
Motocross safety equipment seems to be split into two categories; stuff everyone wears and stuff almost everyone wears. In the first category you have boots, pants, gloves, helmet, jersey, and goggles. The stuff that has been around forever and every rider is just expected to wear. In the second category you have knee braces, neck braces, chest protectors/body armor, elbow pads, and even mouthpieces. This is the stuff that is catching on, but certainly not every rider on the track is wearing. In the amateur ranks, I have to believe that if you are not wearing equipment that falls in the second category, it has to be because of cost. Why else would you not protect yourself to the fullest extent? At the pro level, the reasons are certainly not cost but more on the lines of comfort and vanity. The pros look at their equipment more as insurance policies with variable premiums; the more you wear the higher the cost in the form of restriction, weight, and heat.
If you go to an amateur motocross race whether it's your local track or a big event like Loretta Lynns, you will be hard pressed to find a rider without a neck brace, chest protector, knee braces, and all the equipment that fits in category number 1. But a disturbing trend for many riders is once they turn pro is to actually wear less safety equipment. And guys who are in their twilight years of racing at times seem reluctant to try new safety equipment as it’s developed.
David Pingree recently wrote this in one of his columns. “Sadly, most pro riders aren’t wearing nearly enough protection. Most guys use some type of knee brace and more and more are wearing a neck brace of some sort as well. Beyond that, the extra protective measures are few and far between. In supercross, most riders don’t wear any type of upper body protection. For the national motocross rounds most guys will throw on a thin roost guard to soften the blow of the torturous roost that comes at them for 35 minutes straight… twice. But that doesn’t do anything if you fall and take a bar to the gut or slam into the ground with your chest or back. Those are where your vital organs are folks and you would think we would all know better than to hurl ourselves over the terrain common on a motocross track without reasonable protection. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I’ll start wearing a chest protector for a while only to leave it at home after a month or so because it's uncomfortable and it covers the sweet logos on my New Jersey. Guess what, Captain Vanity? You aren’t going to look cool when you explode your appendix in a crash and have to get emergency surgery to stay alive. They’ll probably cut your silly New Jersey off anyway. That’s it… I’m wearing my chest protector again.”
|Check out this photo of the start of the 05' Hangtown national. No neck braces and only a few chest protectors are visible.|
Aldon Baker, in case you have been living under a rock, is one of the most celebrated and successful trainers in the business. He trained Ricky Carmichael through his championship days; worked with James Stewart for a few very successful years, and now trains the Pro Circuit stable of riders with Ryan Villopoto being is main guy. So to say that Aldon has a unique point as to why pro riders wear certain pieces of safety equipment and not others is an understatement. So, I gave Aldon a call and asked him give me his opinion as to why certain riders choose certain equipment. This is what he had to say.
Racer X: Hey Aldon, thanks for taking some time today to talk about safety equipment.
Aldon Baker: For sure, Tim. No problem.
Well, it seems like there is a disturbing trend for guys to start to shed safety equipment once they turn pro and since you work with the elite in our sport, I think you have a unique point of view on the subject. So what is your take on why guys wear everything as amateurs and then less as pros?
Yea, for sure that happens and I think there are certainly reasons why the pros may stop using certain equipment but I think it is important for the amateur and week end warrior to know that those reasons normally do not apply to them. The way I look at it is, all of these pieces of safety equipment can for sure help but it’s also up to what the rider is comfortable with. And at the pro level sometimes comfort wins out over safety if something is too restrictive. When these guys are amateurs coming up through the ranks they tend to wear more protective equipment, which is good. But at that stage they are still in a learning process and they need more protection. Plus their motos are shorter, laps are shorter and they probably are not riding in the brutal heat. At this stage if the safety equipment is a little restrictive or if their core temperature is slightly elevated because of the gear they are wearing the consequences are not nearly as high as when they are pros. I’ve also heard that some people think pros don’t wear chest protectors because it covers their sponsors names or doesn’t look cool. I don’t think that is the case at all. The rider can always double up and put sponsor stickers on the chest protector or wear something under their jersey. I think it simply comes down to the comfort level of the rider and if a guy thinks a chest protector is too restrictive or if he thinks it is going to make him hotter than the rest of the guys he is racing against, then he has to weigh out the options and decide if he wants to risk not being fully protected. These guys are trying to make a living racing and results are all they have to keep their jobs, so they are all looking for that edge. If a guy feels like he is faster without a chest protector and he feels the odds of getting hurt are low, then he won’t be wearing a chest protector.
What is your take on wearing neck braces?
Well, for sure I think they help. But to what degree I don’t think anybody really knows. The other thing about neck braces is they are a little bulky and restrictive and they are quite a bit of extra weight. I know that some of the older guys, like Ricky when I was working with him, who didn’t grow up with the neck brace didn’t like it. Whether they were too bulky or restrictive or even if they just didn’t believe in the brace it was hard to convince them to wear it. But I only saw that with some of the older guys. It seems like almost everyone who was an amateur when neck braces came out or where on 250s wear them all the time now. I mean, I remember back when I was working with Ben Townley, he started wearing one as they came out. And as far as I know he still wears one. I think that generally once a guy starts he continues. The only guy who I see not wearing a brace that used to is Chad Reed. And I have no idea what his reasons are for not wearing one now.
Yea, I heard him say in an interview that he just doesn’t believe in the brace any more.
Well, there you have it. If a guy doesn’t believe in the product then there you go. He’s not going to wear the equipment. But I have talked to Ryan [Villopoto] and he really believes in the protection and thinks it has to work at least a certain amount. There is also the concern of crashing and breaking a collarbone. That is a real concern for the pros. A broken collarbone that other wise may have been nothing will ruin your season. These guys are constantly weighing their options. It’s like buying insurance. When is enough insurance adequate and when are you over-insured.
You were talking earlier about how a chest protector can hold in heat and possibly make a rider hotter. Has there ever been a time, say like in Texas where you would recommend your guy not wear a chest protector for heat reasons?
No, absolutely not. I would never tell one of my riders to wear less protection. I let them decide on what they are comfortable wearing. It is totally up to them. And if the heat is a factor we will just have to make up for it in other areas by being in shape and acclimated to the heat.
Younger riders like Eli Tomac who have grown up in the era of better safety equipment are more likely to continue wearing their gear even after they turn pro.
photo: Simon Cudby
What about the body armor products? Do any of your guys wear body armor?
No, none of them have tried it. Like I said before it just comes down to restriction. I think those products are great for amateurs but for the pros it just comes down to where do you draw the line. And I think where you draw the line is very individual. Obviously as a kid the parent steps up in the beginning and wants to protect their kid as much as possible: especially in those younger years where he is learning a lot. The kid is going to push the limit and tip over and crash and do stupid things so he needs a lot of protection. I know if it where my kid I would want them to wear as much protection as possible up to the point where it inhibits their ability to handle the motorcycle. Then it becomes too much.
Let’s talk a little about knee braces.
Well, once again I think they are very good. It’s a form of protection that I think just about every guy just uses. I think most riders feel naked if they don’t have their braces on. It's almost like if they didn’t have on a helmet. But, once again it comes down to comfort and the expectations of the level of safety. Every one of my guys who has gone down with an ACL has had a brace on. So you have a lot of protection but it is not going to guarantee you against having no injury at all.
Speaking of helmets, I’m sure that is an area where the pros are way more protected than an amateur. I mean I’m sure they have a new helmet just about every race so they never have to worry about replacing a helmet that has been in a crash.
Yea, that is one area for sure. But I would only say that for the top guys. I’m sure the privateers don’t have access to replacement helmets like my guys do. Replacing a helmet that has been through a crash is very important. It is just one of those things that has to be replaced no matter what the cost. The helmet is the most important piece of equipment a rider is wearing and its very important to replace a helmet that is either old or been through a crash.
So even your guys when they have a really cool paint job on a helmet if that helmet takes a knock, they put it on the shelf and get a new one?
Absolutely, for sure.
Yea, I think with a lot of things, like a mouthpiece, people think that the only reason to wear one is so they don’t bite their tongue or chip a tooth. Those are important reason but it goes much deeper than that. And that can be said for a lot of safety equipment.
Exactly and if you look at a sport like boxing. They all wear mouthpieces and it's not just to protect their teeth. The main reason is to keep their jaw in place when they are getting hit to keep from getting knocked out. The same holds true for motocross and other contact sports.
For sure, Aldon. Thanks for your insight as always and hopefully the amateur riders out there will look at what the pros are doing and not always follow them when it comes to not wearing certain pieces of equipment like a chest protector.
Yea for sure. You cannot just blindly look up to the pros and do everything they are doing just because they are a popular rider. You have to decide what is safe for you and remember that the pros at times have to take certain risks that the rest of us don’t normally have to take.
That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness.