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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.

Have you ever seen where a guy stops wearing knee braces?
No way, without a doubt I have never seen a rider stop wearing knee braces and all my riders have always worn them. It seems like with the pros, wearing knee braces has just become one of those things that they all wear like a helmet.

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.

What is your opinion on wearing mouth pieces?
You know that’s interesting because [Blake] Bagget wears a mouthpiece. I think that really depends on the individual but I certainly think there are some good things about using a mouthpiece. It’s actually really big in road racing. Rossy wears a mouthpiece and few of the other guys do as well. There is actually a lot to wearing a mouthpiece that you can learn. You can see wear patterns from gritting or grinding your teeth while you are riding which can cause tension in the jaw and neck. Then you can try to do something about the grinding by relaxing more while you ride. And possibly the most important thing is that some concussions are caused from the jaw snapping shut and if you have a mouth piece it absorbs the energy and can lessen the chance of concussion. I don’t know exactly how significant a role it plays but it seems like a reasonable argument. Again, I think its one of those things that if you can get comfortable with it then it’s a good thing. I don’t have a lot of experience or all the answers when it comes to mouth guards but to me its another one of those things that if a guy can get used to riding with it then why would a rider not use it.

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. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Metta September 08, 2011 at 11:02 am

    What I find interesting is that, like Aldon said, these guys get paid to race and results are how they get paid. But everyone knows just making it through the season uninjured is the toughest part. Last time I checked your are not getting any results while on the couch.
    Take Shorty, for example. I wonder if he had still broke both his elbows if had been wearing elbow guards. They make great wrist braces too, just like knee braces. Barcia did fine with his on, but every year there are wrist injuries.
    At the end of the year check out who is third and fourth in the standings... it's not always the fastest guys but the ones who made it through the season.

  2. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins September 08, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Need to ask Grant Langston about neck braces...Claims he has seen the real research behind them!

  3. Gravatar
    Zak September 08, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    One thing I'd really like to know is, do the more expensive helmets, for example Arai, offer better protection than a helmet half that price?

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer September 08, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Zak - I doubt it. All helmets have to meet certain minimum government standards. That is what the DOT approval is all about. I'm not an expert by any means on these standards but I've been told they are pretty stringent. I don't think "expensive" means it meets higher standards necessarily. The government does not charge for higher standards.

    Metta - Here is the thing. Let's say for arguments sake that if I wear the minimum required safety gear, I am a top 5 guy. But when I wear every piece of safety equipment there is to buy it slows me down (for what ever reason) to the point where I am a 10th place guy. Somewhere I have to decide what it is equipment-wise that is slowing me down b/c a 10th place guy makes a whole lot less money than a top 5 guy. There is a point (AS A PRO ONLY) where too much equipment is, well, too much. Like Aldon said, it is completely individual to the rider. And I completely agree that longevity is the key to winning.

  5. Gravatar
    Metta September 08, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    @Tim... from 5th to 10th would be a big swing and I don't think many riders could survive that big of a difference, but if teams are looking at end of year results, not just individual races, many times it's the guys that stay injury free all year that are in the top 5. I don't remember Short getting many podiums for example, but the guy always seems to around 3rd in points by years end. Plus, the sponsors pay the money and they want a bike out there every weekend.
    I think it would be an interesting test to see what the lap times would be if a top rider would put on every piece of safety equipment possible compared to without

  6. Gravatar
    Comedian September 08, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    The answer is simple...An NFL player cannot even enter the field without the proper safety equipment, period....The AMA needs to set the same standard...Without the proper safety cannot enter the race

  7. Gravatar
    JMR5 September 08, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    The DOT approval doesn't really tell you much, it's the bare minimum. The Snell certification is a step up, but again it doesn't mean that all helmets that pass are equal. Arai has the best safety performance, with great impact absorbtion & dispersal of impact energy, so I believe you do get what you pay for. Snell is based out of Northern California, and our local forum had quite the conversation on the topic of helmet safety a few years back. Take a read if you have the time....

  8. Gravatar
    JMR5 September 08, 2011 at 6:07 pm

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer September 09, 2011 at 5:45 am

    Metta - I agree with you and I was exaggerating a little to make a point. I agree that sponsors want their bike out on the track each week but I don't think any of them are in it to just go around in circles. They all want to be on the podium and mostly on TV. Like any sport the leaders get the spotlight unless there is a good battle going on somewhere else. And as far as Shorty goes, he is one of my favorite riders. The main reason he is so popular is not b/c of his ability to go fast (which he certainly can!) but its his marketability off the track that counts. So whether he is racing or not, he is making money for KTM. He is a rare rider for sure as most of these guys don't have the marketability off the track as Andrew and have to rely on results. Nick Wey is another example of a great guy who probably has more talent off the bike than on. And I mean that as a compliment.

    Comedian - The answer is never simple. In my opinion, the AMA has set a high enough standard and anything beyond that should be up to the individual rider to decide for himself what he should and should not wear when it comes to protection. The minimums are set to level the playing field and ensure the integrity of the sport. As long as guys are not going out and killing themselves on national TV, I think the level of required gear is appropriate. This goes to a much bigger level but I think people as individuals in this Country need to be responsible not the governing bodies. And to force people to do certain things only takes that responsibility away from them. And as far as the NFL goes for protecting their players, I'm not so sure they are the group to carry the torch. The NFL has huge problems when it comes to safety especially head injuries. Sure they are making it a two hand touch game for the QB but not much else is being done for guys like linemen who hit their head every play. Those are the guys dying young long after their football careers are done. If motocross had as many injuries (especially on the amateur level) as football, the sport would be banned!

  10. Gravatar
    Tyler September 09, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    what about shoei helments they are expensive so are they good for protection

  11. Gravatar
    Lucky Guy September 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I took a nasty crash at my private track, ended up gettin hucked off the face of the jump. Not sure how but landed on the handlebars with my chest.

    Chest protector is broke, My ribs arent.

  12. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer September 21, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I don't have the actual statistics but I would trust a brand like Shoei helmets as being safe.

  13. Gravatar
    Magnus November 08, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    The best protection is being fit !

  14. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer November 08, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Magnus.....You are 100% CORRECT!

  15. Gravatar
    Toby June 18, 2014 at 2:14 am

    Interesting words there. Coming from the mountain bike downhill world I now a lot of us used upper body protection during practice but in the racerun not so much.

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