Neil Hodgson is a former BSB and WSBK champion. Remembered fondly for his ‘Doohan’esque riding style, and his epic title decider with Chris Walker at Donington Park, Hodgson announced his retirement in 2010 after 20 seasons of racing after suffering a brutal shoulder injury.
He’s now the MotoGP commentator for BT Sport, where he uses his knowledge to offer a valuable insight into racing’s premier class alongside Keith Huewen. After two decades of competition, he’s got a wealth of experience with kit from a huge range of manufacturers, and is uniquely placed to explain what works and doesn’t. Here he shares his hard earned kit wisdom:
“I know it’s obvious, but your helmet is your most important piece of kit. It has to be – you only get one head, so you need to do everything you can to protect it. My advice is to buy the best helmet you can afford.
“As well as being protective, it also needs to work. It needs to be comfortable, needs to fit and it needs to offer decent levels of vision. When you come off you’re going to hit the ground hard, so you need to know everything’s going to work. For example, it’s no good having a strong shell but a weak visor. If a visor comes off when you crash that’s not going to end well as you’ll either get hit in the face by flying stones or a handlebar.
“In the 1990s I had a crash and the helmet was totally destroyed. It was a nothing crash, yet it had shattered like an egg. It was only after the crash that I proper looked at it and realised how flimsy it was.
“I’ve got so much experience with helmets. I raced for 20 seasons, and I have ridden with every brand you can imagine, from FM to AGV to Shoei to Suomy and UVEX. It’s funny, I never raced with Arai during the entirety of my career, and everyone always said they were the best. I so didn’t believe it. I thought it was all hype, but it was only when I wore one for the first time that I thought ‘what have I been doing?’. I’m such a stubborn bugger, and I guess I was trying to prove a point, but the reality is that everything about an Arai helmet is better than what I have experienced before.
“Yes you pay a bit extra for it, but the design justifies the price. The design has virtually remained unchanged for years, and everything is researched and made to the highest level. There really is no compromise – the reason it has the shape it has is solely down to safety. It’s a brand which focuses on protection, not fashion or the latest trends, and I love that.
“My helmet is an off-the-peg lid, standard RX-7V that you can buy yourself, and apart from the paint, it’s not been changed or modified in any way. What I love about it is that everything works perfectly – it fits me, the lining is comfortable and effective at wicking away the sweat, the ventilation is superb, and the vision is excellent.
“I need my leathers to be comfortable, but prefer them to be tight too. They also need to fit, and all the internal and external armour needs to sit where it’s supposed to – if it moves it’s not going to do you any good in a crash.
“It’s no good them being too loose and rolling up when you hit the Tarmac. A good test is to pull the leather at the wrists and ankles. If they move up your arm or leg then they’re too big. You need to try them on in the correct way – by sitting as if you’re crouching on the bike. It’s no good just trying them on standing up as this wont replicate how they’ll sit on your body when you’re on the bike. When you crouch, the suit changes and you need to realise this.
“In 1998 I was testing in Indonesia and I crashed. It really was nothing of a crash – I just tucked the front. I had changed manufacturers and didn’t have any leathers ready, so I was I was wearing a baggy, off-the-peg suit. Basically, the leathers spun, my leg was trapped under the bike, and the elastic part of the suit was now over my knee. This wore out really quickly and holed, and put a big hole in my knee – the local hospital stitched my up, but I’d gotten gravel in the knee and it got infected. That was a miserable experience, and all because I wasn’t wearing tight fitting leathers.
“And that’s still the case today. I see so many people on trackdays, as many as 90 percent, wearing leathers that are just too big for them. I go up to them, grab their arm and I can pinch a full handful of leather. I can spin the elbow protector right round, and that’s just with my hand. Imagine the g-forces involved if you crash at Craner Curves when your elbow hits the ground. That is the reason so many trackday riders get injured.
“Kit works, it really does. But it has to fit. Think about MotoGP – the number of crashes last year was sky high, but the number of riders injured was low, and that is because kit has improved since the days I raced in a full Kevlar suit.
“I wear RST. They have progressed so much over the past few years. What I like about the owner, Jonny Towers, is that five years ago he told me he wanted to RST to be the third best leather manufacturers in the world after Alpinestars and Dainese. And he’s committed to achieving that – every year he tweaks the suits, and makes them better. Go into the BSB paddock and there is a reason a lot of riders are wearing the suits; they work. A lot of that is down to the fact that Jonny races himself and understands what it takes to make a good suit. An RST suit is very, very impressive for the price.
“Another exciting thing from my point of view about RST is that they’re always listening to rider’s feedback and constantly evolving and improving their products.”
“There are a lot of bones in your feet, and the ankle’s a really complicated joint, so you can’t afford to take chances. You need your boots to be protective. But you also need them to be flexible.
“It’s the ultimate compromise. You need safety around your ankle, but you also need the flexibility, especially when you hang off the bike a lot. I roll my ankle in weird shapes when I ride, so I need lot of movement. I have tried Daytona boots, but they were so rigid I couldn’t ride how I wanted to.
“I also ride with the back brake a lot, and need to have a pair of boots which will let me accurately feed back what I’m doing. If the sole is too thick, I know full well it will cost me a second a lap, so I need my boots to offer some flex. It’s about trying different sets on, and discovering what works for you.”
“I’m quite picky when it comes to gloves because I need them to look after me. And they have – I have been so lucky throughout my career, I don’t have a single scar on my hands.
“When I was racing, once I’d found a pair of gloves I liked I’d wear them for the whole season. I hated new gloves, still do. Yes, new gloves are much better at breaking in, but I still prefer older gloves. I like my gloves to feel like old slippers, and in a weird way, because of this I have probably compromised safety in the past.
“Today’s gloves have so much armour and protective features – looks for sliders on the palm and fingers, and make sure the cuff closes over your leathers.”
BACK AND CHEST PROTECTORS
“I’ve always worn a back protector, and I wouldn’t race without one. It just gives me peace of mind.
“Having said that I don’t wear a chest protector and I’ve never given one any thought. People started using them when I was racing, but I was so fanatical about being tucked in, being as low on the bike as I could, that I thought the extra 1cm thickness would cost me 0.001 of a second. It’s absolute stupidity thinking about it now, and I’d consider wearing one so long as it doesn’t restrict movement on the bike.”
“Airbags are compulsory for all racers competing in MotoGP this year. The whole technology is getting better, and the low number of riders getting injured is testimony to the fact that airbags work. Just look at Jack Miler’s crash at Le Mans last year. It was a fast crash, a massive crash, and he walked away unscathed.
“I think we’re in golden age of rider safety and we’ve never had it so good. For example, I know wrist locking technology is coming and that will help stop riders injuring their wrists. And RST are developing their own airbag system; you know full well it will represent value for money. I’d wear one…”
ANY CRASHES WHERE YOU FEEL YOUR KIT WORKED PARTICULARLY WELL?
“I’ve had some decent crashes, but not many major ones. I never used to crash that much – I averaged six crashes a year over my 20-year career, and most of the time I tucked the front, which is the type of crash you want.
“I once highsided on some oil coming out of Turn 1 at Valencia, it wasn’t actually that fast, but I was well out of the corner. My own oil caught me out, I got stuck under the bike and slid all the way down to Turn 2. I stood up after that and my AXO leathers had literally split open, but I didn’t have a mark on me. That was incredible. I kept that suit – the leather and back protector had completely worn away, but I didn’t have a single bruise or cut.”
Neil Hodgson has joined forces with Niall Mackenzie to create a new insurance company – Mackenzie Hodgson. Specialising exclusively in motorcycle insurance, the company prides itself on offering riders the right cover at a competitive price while providing best service and attention in the case of a claim.
For more details visit http://www.mackenziehodgson.co.uk or call 0330 343 8751