Date reviewed: March 2019 | Tested by: John Milbank | Price: Jacket £899.99, Pants £599.99, Airbag £999.99 | www.alpinestars.com
What price safety? In the case of the Alpinestars Big Sur Gore-Tex Pro laminated jacket and pants with wireless Tech-Air airbag system, just under £2,500 in total. I’ve reviewed this top-end textile kit on a variety of bikes, including the Yamaha Niken, MT-10 and Honda CBR650R. Is it worth spending this much money on riding gear?
The Big Sur jacket and pants are laminated Gore-Tex Pro, so among the best in textile weather protection, and while you don’t have to use the Tech-Air Street airbag system that I’ve reviewed this kit with, as the jacket has the wiring, switch and LEDs built in, the option’s there…
Naturally, what fits one person might not fit another, so always try any bike kit on before you buy it. I usually take a large jacket, and the large Big Sur fitted me very well. Equally, the pants in large (I’m 5’10” with a 42” chest, 34” waist and 32” inside leg) felt just right. But then I fitted the airbag…
The Tech-Air Street airbag is a vest that zips into your jacket. On the rear is a back-protector, then the battery, circuit-board, pyrotechnics and bespoke gas cartridges that control and activate the system. It’s not small, and with no expansion ability built into the jacket (surely the back could have been designed with a pair of zips that allow the back to expand?), once installed the jacket became way too tight; even with the thermal liner removed, I found it unwearable.
The airbag vest carries all the tech, making it very thick
I exchanged the jacket for an XL – it’s better, but movement is still restricted around the shoulders, particularly with the thermal liner in. I wouldn’t want to go any larger as the waist and arms would be too baggy, but I still find this uncomfortable; it’s vitally important that you try this kit on, and you do it with the airbag installed. If you buy this intending to upgrade to the airbag later, make sure you buy the size that will accommodate it.
Wearing the XL jacket without the airbag is fine – it’s not the nice snug fit I’d expect of something at this price, but it’s acceptable. If I never intended to use the airbag, I’d stick with the large.
Another thing to consider with the full system is the weight – the jacket weighs 3.36kg on its own (the Rukka Navigatorr is 3.54kg), but add the airbag and it jumps to 5.54kg. Keep in mind that my RST GT two-piece leathers weigh a total of 5.74kg for the jacket and the pants.
Out of winter, with the thermal liner removed, things improve, but for day-to-day commuting, at least with my body-shape, I’m finding it cramped.
The airbag vest is self-contained
Both the Big Sur jacket and the trousers I reviewed carry no CE certification, but the airbag is approved as PPE.
Putting the airbag aside for now, the jacket comes with CE-approved protectors in the elbows and shoulders, but just a foam insert in the back (offering no protection). Chest and back protectors are available as an optional extra, if you’re not going to buy the airbag.
The trousers have CE-approved armour in the knees, but only foam at the hips (again, armour is available as an optional extra).
Heavy-duty materials are used in the construction of the jackets and trousers, with reinforcements in the seat, knees, inside of legs, back, forearms and shoulders.
From April 21 2018, all new motorcycle clothing is deemed to be Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). To meet this legislation, it must be tested to a recognised standard. For more information on the law, click here.
The Tech-Air system is the result of thousands of hours of datalogging the world’s leading racers, and it’s completely self-contained, requiring no link to the motorcycle.
The airbag has a small power switch on the back, but it’s best to leave this on – the system goes into standby when the jacket is undone thanks to a small magnetically-operated switch in the upper section of the jacket – zip it up and it comes to life, calibrating itself before the green light illuminates on the arm to tell you it’s running correctly.
When zipped up, the two panels meet, arming the airbag
The vest cannot be worn on its own, or with any products not designed for it as there are two wires that must be plugged from the jacket into the airbag for the LEDs in the arms and for the switch behind the main zip.
Once armed, sensors in the Tech-Air system’s shoulders and back (three accelerometers and a solid-state gyroscope) constantly monitor your body’s movement. If the hugely complex algorithm detects an actual crash, the back, shoulder, chest, kidney and hip areas will inflate within 25milliseconds. They’ll stay inflated for five seconds, before slowly deflating. There’s redundancy built into the system, so if a sensor failed, the other two would compensate; only a catastrophic failure or battery short would stop the Tech-Air from working.
The neck area does not inflate – some systems balloon around the neck to support the head in an accident, but after consultation with medical experts, Alpinestars decided that this has the potential to do more harm than good. The understanding is that the real risk to the neck comes from vertical compression, and holding the neck in one plane increases that risk. Alpinestars says that the neck has huge mobility – enough to put your chin through your chest before the neck breaks – so it’s better to allow the head to move and dissipate any energy in an impact, rather than focus it directly down the spine, unless the neck support is completely rigid (like the braces used in motocross).
Whiplash is said to be rare during motorcycle accidents as, unlike in a car, the body is free to move and act as a damper.
Tech-Air doesn’t rely on GPS, so once up and running it doesn’t need to maintain a satellite signal – it’s as reliable in a tunnel as it is on the open road or track.
You’ll get 25 hours of riding from the built-in battery, and months of standby time. To make sure it’s always fully charged, it’s recommended to keep it plugged in overnight (a short wire hangs down from the back protector, into which you can plug a micro USB cable).
The airbag’s controller is sealed, and certified to work in -10°C to +50°C. The inflators are also certified to ISO 14451, which means they can be legally transported on an aircraft (but only in the hold).
The device is charged with a small micro-USB cable in the back
The system is designed to only react to a change in energy – so a rapid deceleration, or a severe pitch change that’s outside normal use (remember, the algorithms have been developed to work for riders like Marc Marquez). Development didn’t just include racers – testers were sent to amusement parks, and even ‘fell’ down stairs to try to ensure false deployment wasn’t possible.
The airbag can be registered on the Tech-Air data portal, where the service history can be checked, along with tracking of any maintenance or service. Using the Tech-Air Connect software (which only works on Windows computers), the diagnostics and error history of the unit can be viewed, as well as the firmware updated.
To keep your warranty active, the airbag vest must be serviced every two years, at a cost of around £150. This takes about ten days, but you don’t have to send the jacket, so you could continue to ride without the airbag. Alpinestars states that the expected lifespan is ten years if serviced regularly, and that if the vest is used ‘extensively’, it should be serviced every six months to a year. As an every-day rider, that would get costly.
I’m using the Street version of the Tech-Air airbag; the main difference between it and the race model (which is not compatible with this jacket), is that while they both use two custom argon gas canisters, the race model fires one at a time, giving track riders the chance to ride again after a crash, while still protected. The street model fires both together, for faster inflation and greater capacity – important on the road where a collision with another vehicle is more of a possibility.
The Tech-Air street model also inflates more at the front of the vest than the race model, due to the increased likelihood of a frontal collision. And it’ll stay active while you’re at a standstill (for instance waiting a lights), unlike the race suit, which goes into standby at pit-lane speeds and below. It’s worth noting that the race system can be switched (using a Windows PC) to street mode, for track riders who are riding on the road, but the body coverage is still weighted more to the rear.
While not certified for enduro use, Tech-Air has been designed to be used by adventure bike riders on fire roads and other gentle trails (minimum 4m wide, no gradients over 30° and no ruts or holes deeper than 50cm). The advantage of a system like this over a tethered airbag, which deploys when a strap is pulled by you leaving the bike, is that you could break your collarbone or ribs in a fall for instance, only to have the airbag deploy as you slide away from the bike after the crash, compressing the fractures and potentially causing more damage; Tech-Air should fire before you hit the ground.
Ultimately, a self-contained airbag like this might be extremely expensive, but it’s the pinnacle of safety technology – it doesn’t matter what your bike is doing; the system is constantly monitoring the acceleration and position of your body.
So is it worth buying? Only you can decide what value you can place on safety, and needless to say, nothing can guarantee your safety in every single crash scenario. But consider a self-employed rider without the luxury of work-provided health care; an airbag system could keep them working and more than pay for itself in an accident.
The trousers have two deep hip pockets and a single, shallower leg pocket. The jacket has two large zipped lower pockets on the front, which have a good capacity and keep the contents dry even in heavy rain. There are also well-sealed pockets on either side of the chest, and a large map pocket on the rear.
Inside the thermal liner are two hook-and-loop fastened pockets, and with this removed you have access to two similar pockets, as well as a vertical zipped pocket.
Overall the Big Sur combination gives plenty of storage for a commuter or tourer.
The jackets’ chunky YKK main zip has a pair of toggles, so it can be opened at the bottom for extra movement, while the pants have the same chunky fly zip, coupled with a popper and a clasp at the top.
There’ a connecting zip covering around two-thirds of the waist, but it sits above the bottom of the thermal liner’s hem – that means the liner has to be bunched up when connecting the two. It’s also a very small and fiddly zip. Add the airbag, and you can pretty much forget about zipping the two together as it’s just too hard to get to the zip behind the airbag, and if you do find the zip, the airbag hangs below its line, so doesn’t fit. A disappointing compromise to safety and warmth. The jacket has a good length, so you don’t suffer any draughts, but I prefer the peace of mind in knowing my jacket won’t pull up in a slide.
The airbag has its own waist straps – you can adjust these for position, but if you have the thermal liner on, you’ll have to remove them altogether, as you can’t easily get them around the liner. If only a pair of slits had been designed into the back of the thermal liner to accommodate the straps.
The jacket’s cuffs have long waterproof zips, which are rather stiff and difficult to operate, making getting your gloves tucked underneath all the harder. There’s also not much room to get particularly bulky winter glove cuffs underneath, especially if you’re wearing a watch. The toughest test is my heated RST gloves, which have batteries in the cuffs; there’s no way they’ll fit here, but they do go under my Rukka Navigatorr. There’s also an unnecessarily complex design with two hook and loop fasteners, when surely one would have been enough to cover the zip and adjust the cuff.
The neck is fastened with hook and loop, but it’s not very strong – I found it has a tendency to pop open at times, despite being a bit chunky and pressing into my throat (as you can see in the garden video).
When you close the main zip, the airbag becomes active, starting a 20-60 second ‘stability check’. During this time, the green LED will flash, indicating that the unit’s looking for the rider to move around, which includes walking, getting on the bike and riding. If it doesn’t calibrate correctly within 60 seconds, the red light will come on, so you have to unzip it and zip it up again.
I rarely successfully arm the system without actually riding the bike, which means I have to zip the jacket up, secure my rucksack’s chest strap (it’s a Kriega R30), put on my gloves (including getting them tucked under my sleeves and the cuffs properly secured), then ride off. Too often, despite getting on the road before the light finishes flashing, calibration fails, but fortunately the unit will continue to try to calibrate, and does successfully arm once you’re riding. You’re unprotected for a while, but not long.
The jacket has cinch straps at the biceps, forearms and waist, while the pants also have a similarly adjusted belt. Without the airbag, I really did find this a comfortable and well-fitted suit.
The limited range previously mentioned on the jacket cuffs is the opposite of the problem on the bottoms of the trouser legs – here the hook and loop fasteners run out before I’m able to get the legs fully secured around my (Alpinestars) boots.
As there’s no real adjustment in the neck, and I’ve had to go for an XL in order to accommodate the airbag, the collar is a bit loose, letting wind and rain blow down my neck when I look over my shoulder or move out of the one position on the bike that keeps it sealed. It’s a shame no storm collar is supplied.
One other point is the LEDs that indicate the airbag status – they’re good and bright to be clear in daylight, but they’re also very bright at night, with no dimming available. Fortunately they’re not in your eye-line, but they do have a tendency to catch in the edge of my Shark Evo-One 2 helmet’s visor, causing a little distraction. Annoyingly, the module that holds the LEDs also digs into the crook of my arm when I reach up to open my visor.
Two long zips on the chest and two more on the rear allow air to move around the jacket quite well, which is particularly important on a garment equipped with an airbag. Bear in mind though that if you’re riding in very hot climates, this will still be really warm if the airbag’s fitted.
The trousers have a pair of long zips on the thighs, which also allow a good amount of air onto your legs.
The removable thermal liners in the jacket and the trousers are comfortable and warm, featuring dimples that should help trap air; certainly, until the temperature really drops and heated kit becomes necessary, the Alpinestars Big Sur does a good job, though it’s let down by the draft that blows down my neck.
In another disappointing piece of design, the thermal liner’s collar is fastened with more hook and loop – it could help keep your neck warmer and reduce drafts. Unfortunately it’s hard to keep in place when putting the jacket on, and keeps popping open as you do the main zip up. A real fiddle with the airbag out, but fit that and everything just gets too hard.
The main lining in the jacket and the trousers is a simple air-tex mesh – it’s a shame there’s no 3D mesh to aid airflow.
Unfortunately, I found that without the thermal liner fitted, the armour feels rough against the ends of my elbows due to its heavy texturing.
The elbow armour is uncomfortable with the jacket liner removed
The Big Sur is laminated Gore-Tex, which means it won’t ‘wet out’ like textile kit with a standard drop liner – you can ride in pouring rain for 70 miles (as I did to test it), shake it off and be ready to go again; none of that ‘soaked in water’ feeling that some other kit can give, and breathability is maintained (as much as it can be with an airbag).
The waterproofing of this Alpinestars gear is by far its best feature, and something that definitely won’t disappoint.
Many of my problems with the Big Sur jacket and Tech-Air airbag are down to its fit; it might be that it just doesn’t suit my body size. Or, if I was willing to go up to an XXL, and wasn’t worried about the loose fit in other areas, I’d get on better with it.
Sadly there’s no avoiding the flawed fastening system for a day-to-day rider like me, the poor design of the connecting zip, and other niggles that, on cheap kit, could be easily forgiven. But not on something this expensive.
Ignore the airbag and the Big Sur is a pretty good jacket and trousers let down by some disappointing faults and poor design choices. Include the airbag – taking the price up to almost £2,500 – and while it’s undoubtedly an incredibly safe system, I struggle to recommend it as it’s so bulky and uncomfortable to ride in; even life-savers are more of a chore.
I’d still rather ride in my Rukka Navigattor jacket and trousers – still hugely expensive at around £2,000 in total, but much more wearable. I do wish I had the security of the highly advanced and technologically brilliant Tech-Air airbag, but personally, I just find it very hard to get on with.
Perhaps the most telling conclusion is that, when I went for the 70 mile ride in torrential rain to test the waterproofing of the Big Sur, I chose to take the airbag out, so I wouldn’t feel as restricted in my movement. Maybe you’ll find it a better fit, in which case the decision comes down to the convenience and comfort of other high-value kit, or the excellent tech in the airbag.