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Brace yourself Neck protection: What the riders think of Neck Braces

Ignored? Lost relevance? Or more crucial than ever with crashes and injuries coming fast in MXGP? We asked a selection of both past and current athletes to have used neck protection to find out why there are not more braces in the Grand Prix start gate. We also then quizzed the FIM about the chances of the hardware joining the homologated list of racing gear and finally sought the inventor of the concept, Dr Chris Leatt, for his own views…

Becoming sceptical

Ben Watson, Monster Energy Kemea Yamaha, MX2: Racing motocross you are always thinking about protection and how to compete in the fastest and safest way and I’m interested in new protection or technology to do that…but nothing has really opened my eyes or been put in front of me to test or to change my race gear.

Tony Cairoli, Red Bull KTM, MXGP: In the beginning there were some riders using neck braces and me also but there were a lot of different opinions about it so we decided to skip it. It’s been ten years now. I don’t know exactly what it is the best. 

Justin Barcia, Monster Energy Yamaha, AMA 450SX/MX: I started with one pretty much right away and I have, unfortunately, taken some really hard hits and that’s never fun. I believe in having as much protection as you can get and you hear people say that neck braces are not proven but I feel that I’ve proven it many times! Just watch some of my crashes and you’ll believe it. When it comes to protection I think you should wear as much as possible. Riders always want to feel like they are wearing nothing…but also want the protection. It is a fine line. I’m quite an animated rider I’d say but I’m still able to move around in all my stuff.

Clement Desalle, Monster Energy Kawasaki, MXGP: I was happy with it and I was feeling comfortable in the past but when I had my crash at the end of ’17 that situation changed for me. I would not rule it out again if I could find one that fitted me well.

Ben Watson: When the neck brace first came out and it was a big thing I was using it. Then after two years I stopped because there was a rumour that the design I was using could cause a problem with the spine; the way it was shaped and sat on your back. So I took it off and that was that. You don’t see many people wearing them now and I feel like you don’t really know if they are proven. Some people feel a little bit more confident with extra protection but I don’t believe in the brace enough to have that sensation.

Rene Hofer, KTM Junior team, EMX250: It seems like the kids are wearing them on 85s but when they move to 125s and 250s then they are leaving them behind. Maybe it is to do with moving more on the bike but I think it is mostly about parents pushing for a safe approach and when the kid gets older he takes more responsibility for himself. 

Jorge Prado, Red Bull KTM, MX2 World Champion: Right now I don’t want to change anything – not even the gloves I am using – I want to stay with the brands I have. I don’t want any changes in my mind. 

Adam Sterry, F&H Kawasaki, MX2: I believe they are safer. Other people don’t, and that’s why we don’t see so many any more. Another factor is the extra price of the brace when you’ve probably spent thousands on your bike and kit: you’re hearing a 50-50 argument over whether it does something or it doesn’t and it means people end-up opting out of using one. For me, I’ve worn a Leatt for years and I’ve never had a problem, never broken a collarbone and I’ve had some hard crashes on my head and never had a neck problem or injury. 

Ben Watson: I never had any trouble with them but once I stopped then it was easy to get out of the habit.

Jeremy Seewer, Monster Energy Yamaha, MXGP: I have felt it help in a crash. I’ve crashed on my head and I even destroyed the brace once but was mostly injury-free. I cannot say ‘I would have been injured without it’ because I’m not 100% sure but there was some evidence there. How many people break their neck in motocross? It is not something that really happens a lot…but even just once is catastrophic.

Jago Geerts, Monster Energy Kemea Yamaha: I’ve been wearing one since I was on the 65s, so since I was nine or ten. I think it is really important to use it to protect your neck and I wanted all the protection possible. I feel comfortable riding with it and it’s not a problem.

Tim Gajser, Team HRC, MXGP: I’ve noticed that some others have stopped and it’s true that the more protection you have means less movement and the bikes are getting stronger and the speeds are getting higher. I feel safer with full protection: I also wear the full chest protector.

Tony Cairoli: It was not really easy to ride with but you got used to it. I had a different riding style back then. I haven’t thought about it since but it’s clear that it is a personal preference. A rider has to see if he can ride and race with it.

Becoming accustomed

Jeremy Seewer: It is a very personal choice but I think neck braces benefitted from a big boom around five years ago and a lot of the top guys had them. That’s changing. I think there are only 4-5 guys in MXGP now. Even the kids, if you see the 125 class then there are not many around. Are there more injuries or less with them? Some say yes, some say no and it is the big opinion. My main comment is that the neck brace can be distracting if it is not set-up or fit properly. I have a special way of fixing it and if it couldn’t be like that then I’m not sure I could race with it as it would be touching the back of my helmet all the time.

Jorge Prado: When I started riding I had like a strip of foam…maybe it was because the helmet was so heavy! When I went onto the 65 I remember my father bought a neck protector and I could not ride with it. He told me I had to try but when I was riding down a hill I could not even look up properly, I was too small. I tried again on the 85s and a few different brands but none of them felt comfortable and were too heavy. 

Rene Hofer: I have never ridden without one. My family wanted me to be safer as a kid and now it is such a part of my kit that it would seem really strange without it. In fact, I tried riding without it once and it wasn’t comfortable at all! Obviously that would change. It doesn’t affect my riding but I don’t know if it has helped me in a crash. I think you only have to see replays of crashes and what is happening with a rider’s head to realise something like this might help. 

Jago Geerts: Some riders think it is uncomfortable but I got used to it from the beginning. I can understand if someone has never worn it and then might find it restrictive at first.

Shaun Simpson, RFX KTM, MXGP: I don’t even think about it. The brace folds up and goes into the kit bag in the same way that gloves or pants or a helmet does. The design has really changed over the last ten years. It’s now so light and far less bulky. I think the separated back strut is also an improvement as much for packaging as for what it does! I know GP riders, like Evgeny Bobryshev, that tried one and were convinced right away. It’s a personal taste but I doubt so many would be wearing a neck brace if they stopped you performing. 

Julien Lieber: I prefer to be free. I used one when I was younger – in 2010 with the Ortema neck brace – and you don’t have the same mobility. You see guys having the same accident or injury with and without the neck brace so it is not really clear if it helps or not. I have the same attitude to knee braces. I tried a few different brands but have still broken my ACL more than once. I question how much they help, and so now I go for more mobility. 

Adam Sterry: It’s like if you’ve never worn knee braces before. If you start riding with them then it will feel horrible. It’s the same. If I didn’t have the neck brace now I’d feel like a bobble head. It would be uncomfortable. After a couple of weeks with a brace it will be normal. People don’t give it enough time. 

Dr Dave McManus, FIM Medical Commission Director: The way the riders wear them is an important consideration in the discussion. At the moment of impact the device has to make contact with the riders helmet to transfer energy so if a rider does not wear it correctly [then it will be in ineffective]. Martin [FIM doctor Martin Syrucek] was wandering around a year or two ago with his camera at the starting gate and we could see that some riders wear the braces appropriately but the majority do not, so there would be no benefit in those case because the energy would have already been absorbed by the spine. 

Tim Gajser: I think it is safer to wear one. I’d say you have a bit less mobility for moving the head but since I started in 2010 with the 85 I immediately felt good with it. Now, if I forget it for some reason when I’m practicing it is weird to ride without it.

Adam Sterry: People forget that the design is stress-related so you can almost snap it in your hands. When it reaches a certain point then it breaks, which is good. I’ve never had a problem with movement or weight and never noticed it. I’ll always wear one. 

Becoming hurt?

Pauls Jonass, Rockstar Energy IceOne Husqvarna: I stopped using it because I hit my chin twice and opened it twice in two weeks! I think when it first showed up it was like a fashion thing and everyone wanted to try it. I think that’s the case for many things. I think it might come back. I know riders who have broken their collarbone and didn’t want it resting near the plate.

Jorge Prado: For sure it is something that helps prevent one type of injury but might also cause another. It is a risk we take but then comfort has to come into it. There are positives and negatives.

Jeremy Seewer: I’ve broken my collarbone only once! When I was on a 65 and I had a highside and landed on one of those big hammers they use to put in fence posts! I’ve never had any injury around the collarbone because of the brace but I also put some extra soft protection on that piece of bone. 

Darian Sanayei, Bike It DRT Kawasaki, MX2: A few times I’ve crashed and really crunched it. I’ve hit my head and then looked at the brace and thought ‘I’m glad I had that’. I’ve never had it put any pressure on my collarbone.

Tim Gajser: I’ve broken vertebrae and a collarbone but I don’t think this was because of the brace. I had a massive crash in 2017 at Kegums when I fell on the waves and I honestly think it saved me because it was in four pieces and I went straight into the dirt with my head. It did its job.

Pauls Jonass: If you do break your collarbone then maybe it was because it was really saving your neck. Maybe I will try again but right now I feel comfortable without it.

Jago Geerts: It might be easier to break your collarbone than without. I’ve had some big crashes and I’m sure it has saved me a few times. 

Becoming official?

Tim Gajser: I cannot see it becoming a rule. There are only a handful of riders using it now.

Antonio Alia Portela, FIM CMS President: Anything connected with the safety of the riders has the full support of the CMS commission. We are aware that some of the riders are uncomfortable with some of the items that they wear but once they get used to it then they will appreciate the extra safety. I cannot imagine any rider now saying they would not like a safer helmet or they would not wear goggles. It is a mindset change that has to be put into place. Research has already been carried out to allow us to be more certain about the effectiveness of neck protection. We have to put it in a balance.

Dr Martin Syrucek, FIM Doctor: We have been studying these types of protection for years. We look for new science and approaches regardless if it is a helmet or other type of brace but it is not easy to push for homologation.

Dr Dave McManus, Director FIM Medical Commission: The Medical Commission, and in keeping with the FIA who have the same issues with neck protection in Karting, allow the use of neck braces but we cannot recommend or mandate their use for a couple of reasons. The first is that there is not a lot of scientific evidence about, most is from the manufacturers of the device and we don’t have any independent, validated evidence. There is also some evidence of potential harm from using them, so we need to bottom that out. The number of research papers published have been quite small but they have come to similar conclusions that there may be some mild-to-modest protection from the devices but that they transfer energy and cause injuries elsewhere. We also need to bottom that out before we can take a definitive position. 

Another issue is the lack of standardisation and that’s important for medical teams for the way they are applied and removed. It’s another difficulty. There is also no European standard in the way there is for helmets so it is difficult to be definitive in their use. There is no body of significant independent data. We’ve had presentations from Chris Leatt and we understand where he is coming from and the principle of it but we’ve yet to have that data validated. So our position is pretty neutral.

Darian Sanayei: I think it might be a bit of a fashion thing but there is also personal preference and sometimes other factors like gear sponsors having a say. I like it and I think if you can do something to have even a tiny bit more protection for your neck and back then it’s worth it and pretty important. I guess it just comes down to comfort and if riders see other people using them then their mind becomes a bit more open to it. It’s the same if riders stop using them…the trend also goes that way. Homologation is something they can look at. Back protection is already in the rules.

Dr Dave McManus, Director FIM Medical Commission: We have to leave it to the rider’s choice as we still have a lot that is under review or investigation. Even an industry standard would be helpful. In fact we are talking with the FIA about commissioning joint research to see if we can get something clear.

Adam Sterry: I believe it’s better to wear one that not. I’ve seen Leatt’s research and what can happen without one and for me that was good enough. I feel safer with it and even if it improved my chances by 2-3% – or even less – then it’s worth it.

Dr Dave McManus, Director FIM Medical Commission: It is a bit like airbags in Motogp. If anybody comes up with anything that could be of potential benefit of enhancing protection and improving safety then it is to be welcomed. We have to be sure that it does that and, importantly, there are no unintended consequences that are harmful, and this applies to them all. A lot of people come up with alternative ideas and then unfortunately it turns out they are not as effective as thought. We always have to take the right balance and stance. But, 100%, if we could get further evidence and validation and there was no harm elsewhere then we would embrace this.

Dr Martin Syrucek, FIM Doctor: We made a study six years ago concerning how many riders were using neck braces across the classes. It was almost a ‘fashion’ at the time and it was interesting to see that the majority of users were in the Women’s World Championship class. We met Mr Leatt in the Medical Commission and he showed us some videos and explained the opinions on the brace. Until there is no hard scientific approach that it really helps then we cannot take further steps. It is not easy to have evidence of serious crashes. With the back protector it was much easier and simpler for justification. Nobody can tell if in the seriousness of a crash the neck brace was able to help.

The creator

Surgeon Dr Chris Leatt is the founder of the Leatt company and famously produced prototypes of his first brace after the tragic accident to a friend, Alan Selby, while enduro riding in his native South Africa. The Leatt brace first became part of the off-road scene in 2006 and now has seven different versions of the protection that has progressed hugely in the last thirteen years. Leatt’s research and development from their lab near Cape Town has led onto a raft of other safety innovations when it comes to knee braces, helmets and body protection. We emailed him for some comments based on the collection of comments from riders in this article…

Is neck protection a victim of the times? Of being a ‘fad’? Why do you think it is not being embraced as much compared to ten years ago? 

I think there are two elements at play here: one science, the other psychology. Considering the test data and significant accident statistics with & without a neck brace now available, it is difficult to argue against using a neck brace. However, as it is not yet part of the rulebook for compulsory protection like helmets, boots and back protectors are, despite the benefit, riders still have choice. It is human nature to ignore the potential harm and rationalise it away. Misunderstanding the complex biomechanics at play has led to some very strong opinions on why we should not be using neck braces. In my mind, it is therefore the role of the governing bodies to understand the science, ask the difficult questions and then if appropriate, write them into the rulebooks.

Some professional riders still question the effectiveness of the brace: does the message still need to be hammered home? Does the explanation on the advantages have to be stronger than ever? We continue to market and refine our marketing message. That being said, we have probably not done a great job at this until now but I believe this is changing. Given that we have close to 800 000 neck braces on the market and with research concluded to date, I feel it is now appropriate that authorities fulfil the role of answering licensed rider’s questions and nominate a standard both we as the industry and riders can adopt as best practice.

Why do professional racers not know about the performance of neck protection? I don’t think ploughing through the voluminous research on the topic is a rider’s natural behaviour. They will either inform themselves of the benefits or follow the rule maker’s lead. This is evidenced by the fact that we have for years published very compelling research and independent studies on our web site for all to see. If you visit  Leatt.com you will be able to read about our research, BMW-led testing, independent studies into the biomechanics of the brace and the now popularly cited EMS action sport’s study into the effects of using a brace on injury prevention in a large study group during AMA events. Fortunately this study also dispels what we at LEATT have known for a long time: that neck braces do not injure collarbones. In fact, collarbones are protected from helmet rim strikes. Other data suggests that neck braces reduce head injury likelihood. There is a lot of great reading here!

In what ways have neck protection advanced? Some believe it will inhibit their riding and mobility on the bike… 

Brace shapes have indeed changed in the last decade, where the balance I believe has now been struck between safe protection limits and the professional rider’s needs. Additionally, integration with other riding apparel like chest protectors and body armour is a lot better. If you look at the top athletes currently using the brace, I think it is evident that we have struck the mobility/usability/protection balance.

Do you think neck protection is sufficiently established on the racing scene to be considered as an obligatory safety measure in MXGP now? Back protection is part of the rulebook and airbags in MotoGP… I don’t believe the clinical and test data can be ignored for much longer. In many ways there is now more test data available for neck protection than there is for back protectors or boots, both of which are mandatory.

Is neck protection still a priority for Leatt after all the diversification of the product portfolio in the last five years? Absolutely, it is still our flagship product and still enjoys research and constant upgrade efforts.

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