A couple of years ago I conducted an extensive review of armored motorcycling jackets suitable for touring and off-pavement riding. The selection ranged from a budget, Chinese-made, $300 offering from Fieldsheer to an outrageously exquisite $1,300 Rukka from Finland, presumably sewn by organically grown virgins in Helsinki.
A bit up from the bottom of the pack pricewise was a First Gear Rainier, a $400 jacket made in Vietnam. It stood out in value with its combination of good quality and looks, comfortable armor, and effective waterproofing. Based on those initial impressions, Roseann decided to order a women’s Monarch jacket and Escape pants from the company. She’s now had two years and two motorcycles worth of time wearing the set, and we decided to do a long-term update.
An adventure-motorcycling jacket must strive to combine several features that are mutually exclusive. It must be warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather. It must be able to resist not just rain, but rain driven at 60mph or more, while allowing flow-through ventilation in sunny conditions. It must protect the wearer against abrasion and impact forces in a laydown on a trail or a more serious accident on pavement, while retaining freedom of movement and comfort, and avoiding bulk. Finally, it’s nice if the package looks good.
Obviously no jacket combines all these features perfectly. A Motoport Ultra II jacket in that first test boasted unequalled crash protection, but was so bulky that, as I mentioned at the time after looking in a mirror at my bloated profile, “Entomologists will think you’re pupating.”
On the other end of the fashion scale was the legendary waxed-cotton Barbour International, which lends anyone who dons it a rakish hint of Steve McQueen but which lacks any armor whatsoever. So picking a motorcycling jacket is a matter of deciding on one’s own priorities, up to and including style, while also keeping in mind keeping one’s mortality and fragile, evolutionarily compromised anatomy.
I was leery about including First Gear at the time of that review, since the company had been through several changes of ownership. But the current management, motorcycle equipment distributors Tucker Rocky, apparently had cracked the whip and gotten a handle on quality control. Roseann’s experience seems to confirm that—her jacket and pants have held up well, showing no fraying stitching, failing DWR (durable water-repellent) coating on the exterior, or even pilling on the fleece neck lining. Only the slightest wear on the inside of the knit cuffs is apparent.
In terms of performance, the rundown she gave me while I took notes adds up to a grade of about a solid B.
Significantly, she mentioned that she’s able to forget the Knox CE-rated shoulder and elbow armor while riding; some armored jackets I’ve worn (such as that Motoport) never let you do so. Her only note was that the jacket’s arms fit somewhat loosely on her 115-pound frame even with the two Velcro cinch straps pulled all the way tight, resulting in some flapping at speeds over 110 mph. I think she was kidding about that last bit.
The pants, while also very comfortable around their armored hips, weren’t quite so forgettable in the knees: When in a normal riding position, Roseann found she needed to slightly hitch up each leg to arrange the knee armor comfortably on top of her knee rather than binding below it. This might be a personal fit issue, but it points out the importance of trying on armored cycling clothing before buying it if possible. Fortunately the knee issue is a small and correctable one.
Roseann rated ventilation in the Monarch as “adequate.” A seven-inch zippered vent in front of each shoulder lets in the breeze; corresponding vents in back let it out again. Small vents behind each sleeve add a bit of air movement up the arms. Considering Roseann’s Arizona-native tolerance for heat and preference for riding in the desert summer, I’d guess her “adequate” means ventilation in the Monarch could be slightly better.
There are two approaches to the conundrum of rain protection versus ventilation in motorcycling jackets. One is to make an outer armored jacket of breathable or even mesh material, and employ a separate inner waterproof (and frequently insulated) shell for dryness. This works well for mostly dry environments, but the waterlogged outer shell can become annoying if experienced too frequently.
The other approach is to make the outer shell waterproof, and ventilate it as well as possible with covered or waterproof zippers. The latter is the approach First Gear took; the Monarch is waterproofed with an interior coating of minimally breathable polyurethane (dubbed “Hypertex”) and an outer DWR coating.
Nevertheless, the company includes an inner shell incorporating a three-layer waterproof laminate (and a fleece lining). The outer jacket on its own has proven completely rain-tight so far. The inner jacket is stylish enough to be worn on its own, a good addition to kit for long journeys where you might need a jacket for visiting museums or restaurants.
With nary a spill to her credit, Roseann is in no position to rate the crash effectiveness of the Monarch and Escape. On paper, however, the specs look good. Both jacket and pants are sewn from 600-denier nylon, a step above the 500-denier fabric generally accepted as the minimum for adequate abrasion resistance. Kevlar underlay at knees, shoulders, and elbows should help prevent fabric tearing in an accident (Kevlar fibers resist shearing but, surprisingly, nylon is more abrasion-resistant). The CE-rated (Conformité Européenne) shock-absorbing armor is generously sized in the same three areas; a simpler closed-cell-foam pad adds some protection on the back.
On details and convenience, Roseann had nothing but praise. Pockets on both jacket and pants are plentiful, easy to access, and well-sealed with storm flaps or YKK water-resistant zippers. An MP3/phone pocket is completely protected inside. Jacket and pants zip together, enhancing both draft protection and safety in a fall and slide on pavement (when an unsecured jacket can ride up and expose skin).
All in all, Roseann’s experience with the Monarch and Escape seems to have reinforced the favorable impression my brief time with the Rainier left with me. First Gear has produced an affordable, yet comfortable and protective set of outerwear that should hold up well to extended riding.
Even if it’s not sewn by organically grown virgins in Helsinki.
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First Gear Monarch Jacket, msrp $470 (5-year warranty, 2-year crash protection policy). Three colors, sizes XS-XXL. Men's equivalent: Teton Jacket. Now includes LED light that clips on back.
First Gear Escape Pant, msrp $380 (5-year warranty, 2-year crash protection policy). Black, sizes 6-18. Also in Men's. Now includes inner liner pant.