The temperature in Austin had dropped nearly 20 degrees and track conditions at the Circuit of the Americas had become tricky as a result. Few teams or riders were ready for what the track had in store — 11 riders would go down. Even the current Champion, Marc Marquez, would succumb to the conditions. Twice, in fact.
Of course, “offs” are simply a part of motorcycle racing. It is an assumed risk that every rider will hit the deck any number of times throughout their career. Which is why protective gear is so important.
Marquez speaks later in the track paddock, his ever-present smile fading briefly: “Even if it is motocross or supermoto, I will not ride without my (airbag) system.” He’s speaking about TechAir from Alpinestars. Under development since 2001, riders like Marquez and his grid mates both past and present have played an instrumental role in the evolution of this newest form of rider safety. The TechAir system works as a zip-in vest that doubles as a back protector; its largest air chambers are found at the shoulders and neck area; there are also chambers at the hips. Altogether, the unit is self-contained, sensors included.
Those sensors take a mere 8-12 milliseconds to detect an “incident,” evaluate the need to fire and initiate inflation. In race mode TechAir is again unique in that anything from a mild lowside to a violent highside will fire the system. But it is also intelligent enough to discern that an abrupt speed wobble or mild tank-slapper is not an emergency. The bags fully inflate in under 40 milliseconds and maintain total expansion for five seconds. Marquez tells us this timeframe is a very good thing, especially when the tarmac ends and the gravel traps begin.
Weeks before the checkered flag dropped in Austin, I had the opportunity to suit up with the TechAir system myself during a track day at Willow Springs. Installation was easy. A cable connects the suit to the vest and everything is held in place via zippers and velcro. Fully zipped, there are no discernible differences in weight or comfort from a standard suit. The only difference between Marquez’s MotoGP rig and mine is that his pro model covers the hips too. My shoulders, neck, kidneys and chest, however, are fully protected. Once activated, a series of LEDs light up on my left arm, indicating the suit is operational; once in motion, the sensors arm and I’m fully protected. Important, because I was about to feel exactly how the system would work.
Within the blink of an eye I had ballooned into Wolverine’s slightly chubbier Canadian cousin, fully encased in a firm cushion of air.
Although it was only a demo, the initial shock of deployment grabbed me by surprise. Within the blink of an eye I had ballooned into Wolverine’s slightly chubbier Canadian cousin, fully encased in a firm cushion of air. More surprising was that I still had near full mobility. This is engineered partly so that an uninjured racer can pick up their bike and get back in the fray, but it’s also meant to enable those who are a little less lucky to move out of harm’s way. It also means that if there is an accidental misfire, you can still control your bike. Five minutes after deployment, everything was back to normal. Had I been in the middle of a race or qualifying, I could continue. The suit would detect my movement at speed and arm its second charge automatically — another unique trait.
Of course, it isn’t only track riders that need this kind of protection. And this is why Alpinestars has elected to use the “zip-in” vest system for TechAir, enabling the airbag tech for street-specific applications as well. Currently there are two compatible street jackets available that work with the vest in a re-programmed “street” state. Unlike race mode, instead of falling into a passive state when a rider is stopped, the sensors remain armed. This mitigates collision damage when riders are at a stoplight, a notoriously dangerous time.
The trickle-down of performance, safety and protection from racing’s elite is nothing new. And while things continue to improve thanks to the evolution of materials and fabrication, this latest integration of airbag technology is tomorrow’s safety, today. Alpinestars isn’t the only manufacturer offering this kind of protection for riders, either. Both Spidi and Dainese have similar systems currently on the market, but the TechAir leads the pack.
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