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What is the CE standard for bike clothing?

I’ve been reading on my regular haunt over at the www.therevcounter.com forum that suddenly there’s a bunch of kit being produced that has passed the CE standard. For example, Clover is advertising its range of CE ‘personal protective equipment’ (PPE for short) for motorcyclists in Superbike magazine this month and RiDE has covered the launch of Weise’s Avance jacket and trousers. Both of these brands now offer textile clothing that meets the CE level 2 standard. Spidi has a level 2 jacket out and Furygan has produced clothing that meets the level 1 standard.

But CE-approved kit isn’t new. The textile CE-approved Scott Road Jacket has been available for some time, and bespoke leather manufacturers such as Hideout adopted CE testing standards well over a decade ago.

I was talking about CE-approved kit in CBT lectures as far back as 1997/98, but fifteen years on many people are still vague about the standard. So what’s CE all about? Superbike interviewed Paul Varnsverry, one of the people who have been working for decades to improve motorcycle clothing. Back in the ’80s, Varnsverry was regularly consulted by the Auto-Cycle Union, the governing body of motorcycle sport in the UK, to improve standards of riding kit for competition riders.

More recently, he’s been working on Europe-wide standards for motorcycle clothing; CE approval. To quote the interview:

“A product is either ‘Conformité Européen’ (CEmarked) or ‘caveat emptor (‘buyer beware’).”

I rather like that!

But what’s so good about CE approval? Well, it acts as a “dependable mechanism by which consumers are able to distinguish between competing products in the marketplace”.

In other words, if it’s passed the European standards, then we are getting reliable kit that’s been tested for the kind of damage that occurs when we fall off a motorcycle and come into contact with the outside world.

The testing procedures developed to gain CE approval are carried out in laboratories and impose minimum safety requirements for various pieces of protective motorcycle clothing. A key point is that these tests are independent (ie, they are NOT carried out by the manufacturer), standardised, and repeatable. There are numerous European Standards regulating the protective qualities of motorcycle products, and one applies specifically to jackets, trousers and one-piece or divided suits; that is EN 13595, Parts 1 – 4. The standard has two levels: Level 1 is slightly more basic, ensuring that clothes provide some degree of protection, and is intended for low speed use; for example for commuting riders. Level 2 however, is tougher and more suitable for sports and competition riding, demanding a greater degree of protection by the clothing. In gaining CE approval at either level, a product must satisfy all of the standards.

Part 1 describes the general requirements of the materials used in the product and the specific zones subject to varied testing. For example, those areas of a product most likely to experience heavy and prolonged contact with the road are required to provide a significantly higher level of protection than those less likely to come in contact with the road surface. Design specifics also dictate the measures that must be taken to prevent the product moving on the body during an accident.

Parts 2, 3 and 4 refer specifically to the tests measuring abrasion, burst and tear resistance, including the seams and zipper. These tests were designed specifically by Dr Roderick Woods of the Protective Clothing Research Facility (PCRF) at Cambridge University to replicate (and therefore represent most accurately) the forces experienced by motorcyclists during an off.

To test abrasive resistance, a section of the product is mounted on a hinged arm that is then released onto a constantly moving abrasive belt. The test continues until the sample is abraded through, whereupon the time taken from contact to perforation is recorded. To test for burst strength, a small sample of the product is securely mounted to the top of a metal cylinder. Below the sample is a flexible membrane behind which water is pumped. The membrane distends, placing increasing pressure on the test specimen until, eventually, it fails. The water pressure at the point of failure is recorded. Part 4 is a test for impact cut resistance and provides a “double-check” on the suitability of materials, as sharp impact can negatively affect a product’s other protective qualities. This is done by dropping a blade from a specified height and measuring the depth of penetration.

So as you can see, these jacket and trouser tests haven’t been dreamed up in some back office in the European Commission, but produced by scientists with a wealth of experience in clothing technology behind them. And if you look around you can also find boots and gloves to CE-standard too.

OK, so with all that testing, we might be getting quality kit but it must be expensive, right?

Wrong. I remember talking to Paul Varnsverry who as long ago as the mid-90s put in an appearance on the old Compuserve RIDE forum! He was using the forum to canvas opinion and (if I remember correctly) to collect samples of clothing that had been crash tested. At the same time many clothing manufacturers were arguing publicly that the CE tests would be too difficult to pass and would lead to products that would be expensive, weighty and cumbersome, he was insistent that the tests would not be expensive and would not add significant overheads to the cost of clothing once standards had been met, and he also was keen to point out that using the right materials and construction techniques wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive either.

The cost factor was confirmed in practice. I’m pretty sure the first off-the-shelf CE-approved gloves and leathers were made by MotoHart and sold under the RS Performance moniker, and they were significantly cheaper than the ‘fashion’ leathers from the likes of Dainese and Alpinestars. In terms of construction, they scored consistently right up the top of the RiDE test reviews of leathers for the years they were available.

The only real complaint on testing was that the new RS kit was incredibly stiff as new and needed significant breaking-in, and I think they only did them in black, both factors which probably contributed to the fact they never sold in vast quantity. I had several pairs of their gloves myself, and can attest to the break-in period, but not to the crashworthiness as I never fell off in them, I just wore them out! I can’t quite remember when I bought the first pair (late 90s I’d guess) but I certainly ordered the last pair (they become increasingly difficult to get hold of) in about 2003/4.

It’s certainly true that kit that meets Level 2 does tend to be bulky and reviews of Draggin Jeans’ C-Evo jeans have said they are as heavy and bulky as a pair of leather trousers, but quality cowhide kit is heavy and bulky anyway.

Why was it only the smaller companies that produced kit that conformed to CE standards? Why did it take so long for the bigger brands to jump through the not particularly demanding hoops and put CE-approved kit on the shelves? Think what a killing could have been made if just one of the top brands had adopted and marketed the CE standard first!

I can only speculate but I’ll hazard a couple of guesses.

As consumers, we tend to be drawn to what our peers are seen in. The difficulty in sourcing CE-approved riding kit in the late 90s and into the 2000s meant there weren’t many magazine tests of CE-approved kit and as a result there was low take-up of such garments by consumers. And if they’re not losing sales, there’s no need to for the big boys in the market to change what they’re doing to meet what are voluntary standards, particularly when they could fit CE-approved armour and get the words on the label. It wasn’t until the consumer became more savvy about what they were buying and brands like Halvarrsons suddenly became something to be seen in that the trickle from the mainstream manufacturers started to become a steady flow.

Why none of the big manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon early is, I suspect, down to the source of supply. Most leathers and textiles are made in Pakistan and it’s a fair bet that the raw materials simply weren’t available to the right standard. Producing properly sliced and tanned leathers isn’t a trivial task, nor is stitching them to a high standard. My guess is that the relevant machines and techniques simply weren’t available fifteen years ago.

As Superbike said: “it’s important to understand that that non-approved garments aren’t necessarily suspect”, but we also need to be aware that wearing CE-approved garments does not mean we’ve acquired a Star Trek ‘shields up’ system; hit a bus or a tree at 60mph and it makes little difference whether we’re wearing Level 2 approved kit or teeshirt and shorts – the internal organ damage from stopping suddenly will kill us just the same.

But CE approval will provide guaranteed anti-burst strength from falling from the bike to the ground and then guaranteed abrasion and tear resistance as we slide down the road.

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