As I go about recovering from my recent accident I have begun to repair or replace key pieces of safety gear that have given of themselves to protect me. My Darien pants are already back in Minnesota, awaiting the patient hands of Aerostich seamstresses. Helmets that could replace my Arai Signet GT are under evaluation and waiting time to try on. But, ironically, I've replaced my gloves first.
My gloves were not noticeably damaged in my latest contretemps, but they have seen extensive duty. In fact, as I departed for my last trip I carefully eyed my gloves and told myself that they deserved an honorable retirement after I returned. They've seen around 50,000 miles of all-weather commuting, plus day trips, track days and week-long adventures. The leather, while still soft, shows the scars of clashes with the pavement and dirt, as well as the stains of weather and perspiration. The carbon fiber knuckle guard on the right hand is partially crushed from my 70 MPH low-side at the track a few years ago, exposing the impact padding underneath. There are other insults to these gloves, but you get the idea of their overall state.
The gloves are Held Galaxies (the inner pair in the accompanying picture), their top-of-the-line racing gloves from several years ago. Although I've long since given up dreams of being an amateur road racer, I continue to look for the best safety gear I can reasonably afford. I figure that a few hundred dollars extra for good protective gear is a lot less expensive and less painful than skin grafts, joint reconstructions, etc.
Held has long been an innovator in the use of unique animal hides to protect a rider's hands, starting with their use of kangaroo skin in the palms. Kangaroo skin has the fewest and smallest pores of any mammal; these qualities make the skin stronger and denser than comparable cow, sheep or goatskin, providing superior abrasion and tearing resistance while still allowing for a relatively thin interface between the rider's hands and the motorcycle controls. Of course, kangaroo skin isn't the commodity that cowhide is, so the gloves tend to be pretty pricey.
|0.8mm Thick Leather||Abrasion Resistance||Tear Resistance|
Held has continued their tradition of employing unique materials with their latest racing gloves, the Phantoms (outer pair in the picture): they've used stingray hide instead of riveted kangaroo along the heel of the palm. The stingray also makes an appearance on the knuckle protectors of the ring and pinkie fingers. Underneath the stingray hide are shock-absorbing gel pads. Stingray is a hard, slippery skin with a pebbled texture to it. Its purpose, like the metal rivets in the Galaxies, is to prevent your hands from sticking when you hit the pavement. Your natural inclination is to extend your hands to catch yourself when you fall, but when you're falling at higher speeds than you can run you're likely to break your wrists, arms, and collarbones if your hands stick when they hit and transfer all that energy up your skeletal structure.
Metal rivets serve the same sliding function as the stingray skin, but they have some drawbacks. First, the metal heats up from the friction and can cause burns. (Held limits this by putting a layer of Kevlar under the rivets.) The other drawback is that each rivet is a puncture through the hide, weakening the piece's ability to resist tearing. Both problems are solved when using stingray hide, and the gel underneath promises to even further reduce the amount of impact energy that gets transferred to the rest of the body.
|10 Newton Load||H 22 Friction Wheel|
|Kangaroo||Chafed through after 4,000 revolutions|
|Stingray||Slightly chafed after 20,000 revolutions|
There are some other interesting differences between the glove designs as well. For example, the leather between the fingers of the Phantom are perforated to allow for better ventilation on hot days. Also, the middle finger now enjoys padding. Although it it styled to resemble the pebbled texture of stingray skin, it's actually just plastic. There's also a visor wipe integrated into the index finger of the left hand—a wonderfully practical addition that means I can probably retire my VeeWipes.
The hard armor over the knuckles and along the outer side of the wrist has changed as well. Whereas before it was straight-forward carbon fiber, the knuckes now use something Held calls a "GFC Kevlar ceramic polymer matrix coating." It's textured to somewhat resemble carbon fiber, but it doesn't have carbon fiber's smooth resin top layer or deep woven look. The wrist armor is more common semi-rigid plastic, again imbossed to provide a carbon fiber woven look.
They've also relocated the velcro fasteners for the gauntlet from the underside of the wrist to the topside, presumably to keep them from coming undone as you imitate Superman while sliding along the pavement. The wrist closure is still on the underside, but it now has an additional security flap that velcros to the wrist strap, esentially covering the strap and keeping it from getting snagged. On first impressions this seems a bit fiddly, but I may quickly get the hang of fastening it.
Fit is the same as my previous pair; size 8.5 fits my hands much better than the usual toss-up between medium and large in other brands of gloves. (Sizes range from 6 to 10, including half sizes, and then whole sizes between 10 and 12.) There's a little extra room at the end of my thumb, but there's also a slight gap in the web between my thumb and index finger. Grabbing a handlebar closes that gap and my thumb takes up the extra room at the end of the glove, so that works for me.
There was a big brouhaha about three or four years ago when the local importer decided to drop the Held line because they were shifting manufacturing outside of Germany. The gloves I have are labeled as made in Hungary, and while you can tell where the hand-stitching is done, it's no different than the hand-stitching done on my made-in-Germany Galaxies.
Speaking of Europe, they have a series of voluntary certifications that protective gear manufacturers can attain if they wish. Much like the Snell tests we're all familiar with for helmets, manufacturers can submit their body armor, boots, and gloves for testing to an independent lab. The lab reports whether the gear passes (or not). For motorcycle gloves, the relevant standard is EN 13594:2002. Unfortunately, it costs $150 a copy and from the excerpts I've seen it certainly isn't intended to be read by an average motorcyclist.
The glove standard is a bit ahead of its time, as not too many manufacturers are having their gloves tested (or, if they are, they aren't trumpeting the results). Fortunately for us, though, the UK magazine Ride does an annual glove test using some (but not all) of the same test procedures. Empirical testing is the only way to discern advertising hype from true product performance, and Ride is one of the few to do so.
In 2005, Ride rated the Held Phantom their "best buy." They tested all the gloves for the palm's ability to resist abrasion, the amount of force reduction in knuckle impacts, seam strength, quality of the wrist restraints, and rider comfort.
In 2006 they got a little more scientific and changed their test protocols to more closely resemble the EN 13594:2002 standard. The knuckle, seam and abrasion tests remained the same, but they now included a tensile test to see how strong a piece of the glove's stitched leather seam was when pulled parallel to the material, and a burst test to see how strong a stitched leather seam was when pushed perpendicular to the material.
Unfortunately for the Phantom, the material used for the tensile test is taken from the index finger. Held chooses to embroider their logo on the backside of that finger, and since embroidering punches hundreds of tiny holes in the material it weakens it. So, the Phantom did very poorly on the tensile test and, as a result, dropped to 10th out of 22 in the 2006 rankings. (This year's winner was the $615 BKS GP2000.)
So, am I planning on sending the Phantoms back? No, not really. Although I agree that embroidery on safety gear is not the smartest idea, I think the penalty on the tensile test isn't representative of this glove's overall performance. Held's gloves have performed very well for me in the past, and the kangaroo has proven to be a durable, comfortable material that can withstand the rigors of all-weather commuting.
But that's the beauty of having empirical test results available to you. Everyone has different ideas of what's important, and having that data can allow you to make the best decision for yourself. If you aren't convinced that the Phantoms are the gloves for you, the good news is that there are several other excellent gloves to choose from, including some that cost as little as $86. (See the previous link to the 2006 results for all the details.) And, we know they're good not because a manufacturer has told us so, but because an independent organization has done the hard work for us.