Published on August 15th, 2016 | by Boris
HELD MOTORCYCLE GEAR – I CAME, I SAW, I FELT… THEN I PUT IT ON AND RODE EAST
“Would you like to attend Held’s 70th Anniversary get-together?” Ray asked the day I dropped by to grab a set of gloves before sallying off to murder marsupials in the outback.
“Sure,” I said. “I love parties. Is it at your place?”
“No,” Ray grinned. “It’s in the Tyrol.”
“The Tyrol? Out near Lithgow?”
“No. The Tyrol out near Austria.”
“You’re gonna fly me to Europe to go to a party?”
“What do you want in exchange?”
“I want you to write about the Held brand, the factory, how it all works and how it all rolls.”
“I can do that,” I said. “But we need to get a few things straight before I agree. I’m not gonna say something is good, if it’s not good. If I see something is crap, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t see it. If there are small animals being skinned in unethical ways by broad-shouldered Helgas, or if I see a slave-factory full of immigrants struggling to meet insane quotas, I am going to tell people about that. If you give me gear, and it fails, I will photograph the fail and you will read my lamentations. I’m not going to write a fluffy feel-good article just because you flew me to Europe.”
Ray grinned. “I know. That’s why I invited you. You will write the truth, and I want the truth written.”
Ray is good like that.
I have known him ever since we yelled at each other at the Sydney motorcycle Expo two years ago.
“You the importer of this German stuff?” I thundered at him over the noise of the show as I was touching up his merchandise.
“Yes!” he roared back.
“I hear its great stuff, but I have never seen it in Australia.”
Ray grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “I decided to do something about making high-end German gear available here.”
A life-long rider, Ray has worn all the top brands at some stage, with various degrees of satisfaction. Like most long-term riders, he has no time at all for cheap gear.
We immediately had this in common.
I had heard about Held, knew it was big in Europe, and knew it had a reputation as quality gear. And now this fellow I was happily yelling at was importing into Australia. This was a good thing, I figured.
Yet two years after this debut, I still get strange looks when I mention the Held brand, or someone asks me about the gloves I happen to be wearing.
“You do know no bastard here has ever heard of this stuff, don’t you?” I said to him later when the crowds had calmed down.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I’m going to have to educate people.”
Two years on, the education process continues. Ray is not the kind of bloke who gives up. He knows he imports a great brand. The trouble he has is getting other people to know that. Australian motorcyclists are isolationists. Most would have heard of maybe three brands, and think that is the sum total of all the good gear there is on this earth. Trying to introduce this market to really good gear it has never heard of before is like introducing children who have only ever eaten Paddle Pops to a really good chocolate gelato. They scream in refusal until they try it. Then suddenly they don’t eat Paddle Pops anymore.
But inviting me to Germany to look around and then write about Held was certainly a double-edged sword.
I needed him to be clear on this.
“If it’s shit, then I’m gonna say it’s shit. I’m serious,” I said evenly.
“I’m serious too,” Ray replied.
And he was. I did not fly Business Class.
You want to grease someone up, you fly them Business Class. They arrive well-greased and favourably disposed. You fly someone Economy for 23 hours and they arrive entirely ungreased and much less than favourably disposed.
And so I returned to Munich after a 30-year absence – ungreased and ill-humoured. But we will speak of that in another article, where I will attempt to regale you with what became a three-week motorcycle odyssey through Europe.
This piece is concerned about my time with Held.
If you have not heard about Held motorcycle gear (or Biker Fashion as the Germans like to call it), I did a brief intro on the brand HERE.
In short, the German brand began its life 70 years ago as a premium glove manufacturer, and now boasts a 350-page catalogue of motorcycle gear, and a slew of prestigious product awards. It is distributed in 52 countries and in its long history can point to a series of world-firsts in its comprehensive catalogue of motorcycle products.
Its association in 1983 with Anton Mang, five-time 250GP and 350GP World Champion, and his input into what he wanted out of a racing glove, formed the basis upon which all racing and sports gloves are now made. By everyone.
The first use of carbon fibre in gloves? Held.
The first use of metal rivets on the palm of the glove? Held.
The first magnetic tankbag? Held.
The first all-kangaroo one-piece suit? Held.
The first two-into-one glove? Held.
The first two-into-one textile jacket? Yep. Held.
I knew all of this when I got on the plane. And I had also used the gear, and held it (pardon the pun) in very high regard.
But then, I hold pretty much everything made or designed in Germany in high regard. They don’t seem to make much shit in Germany, do they?
I can point to the cars they produce, the bikes they create, or more importantly, the beer they brew (the purity of which is protected by a 529-year-old law), and the fact they mow and edge the entire bloody country every Saturday so it always looks like a postcard.
I think it takes a special national mindset to be like that. And I was curious to see how this mindset translated to motorcycle gear – especially given that most Australians had never heard of the brand.
Of course, we have heard of BMW, right? And we’ve all heard how its motorcycle gloves sits on the top-shelf looking down upon all the other gloves and being very expensive and effective, yes?
Would you care to guess who makes those gloves for BMW?
My first port-of-call was the Held store, which is in the town of Sonthoffen, in the stunningly beautiful Allgäu region of Bavarian Swabia. Well, to be honest, I did stop at a servo first to see if the beer was still adhering to the purity law. It was and I moved on, refreshed and at peace.
The Held store is relatively new and modern. And somewhat refreshing and peaceful in and of itself.
Everything that Held makes is inside. Everything. And it makes a whole lot of stuff.
The store sits astride a road motorcyclists frequent like fleas on a tip-dog. All sorts of alps, insane bends and liberal speed-limits are literally a few kilometres from its doors. The ride-past-drop-in traffic is huge, and the place reflects that fact and welcomes riders with air for their tyres, wipes for their visors, easy parking and a deal with BMW.
This deal means the entire range of BMW motorcycles is at the store. If you wanna buy a jacket, or gloves, or maybe a helmet and you want to try the garment out, why not treat yourself to a relatively cheap rental BMW and do a dash into Switzerland with your soon-to-be-new Held gloves on?
Clever marketing, huh? I thought so.
Anyway, there’s also a bar and a museum on the top-level, but in a country where you can buy beer in vending machines, this is not such a big deal. The Germans looked at me like I was weird when I enthused about it.
Australia makes a big deal about drinking beer. The Germans, who are far more civilised and adult than us, not so much.
I really enjoyed the museum too, but I didn’t drink any beer lest the jet-lag jellied my brain any more than it already had.
It has leather samples of almost everything that walks, runs or swims – because at one time or another, Held has made gloves from it. It also has the old sewing machines, the old presses and the old cutting dyes, as well as yellowed accounting and order books from 70 years ago.
This retention of history is made possible because Held is still owned and run by the family that started it in 1946. Edgar and Erhard Held, sons of the founder Bruno, own the company, and their sons and daughters work as part of the 100-strong team that designs, manufactures and stringently maintains the traditions of quality they are all justly proud of.
I saw this first-hand the following day as I walked through the factory. Much of the gear is manufactured in the company-owned facility in Hungary, but all the quality-control, testing, development, research, repairs and special orders are made in the Bavarian town where it all began in 1946.
But I didn’t see anything resembling a high-volume production line.
What I saw was meticulous attention to detail by craftsmen and craftswomen. I handled razor-sharp glove-dyes. I peered at their machines (they prefer to use the older machines because they simply work better and are more robust than the latest stuff), and I watched as a Uschi, a cheery Bavarian lady checked clothing, gloves, and luggage for flaws, as another lady with a killer manicure pre-stretched high-end racing gloves and checked their measurements. I even watched one bloke making custom-fitted gloves for various customers.
The whole place didn’t feel like a factory at all. It felt like a rather accomplished workshop, where skilled Germans expertly made special motorcycle gear.
My guide was Axel, who heads up Export – and is a veritable encyclopaedia of everything the company makes and how it makes it. He is a childhood friend of the two brothers, Marcus (Head of Marketing) and Stefan (Head of Research & Development), both of whom I spent some time with over the next few days.
There was no mistaking Held’s strong family vibe. It’s a very German business model and many German companies, big and small, are owned and run by the families who started them. It’s very good when it works, and probably not so good when it doesn’t. But the Germans do make it work most of the time, and this may also be something unique to their national character.
I spent a good deal of time at Held’s corporate headquarters as well – a place which fascinated me, because I am a bloke from a country that’s never actually seen war. Held’s corporate HQ is a former army barracks that has been re-purposed as offices, design studios, showrooms and warehouses. It even has a bunker where the kids now running the place played as children. The walls are thick, the stairways wide and it has the feel of stolid permanence. On the walls are signed posters of Anton Mang, who played a big part in the company’s success, as well as Euro-specific promotional posters (you don’t market to Europeans the same way you market to Australians), and a fascinating exploded view of a racing suit and all its many components and panels. The walls also display the multitude of awards Held gear has won from a slew of motorcycle publications, most notably Motorad – a 100-year-old motorcycle magazine (established in 1903) that is still Europe’s largest-selling (135,000 per month) and its most respected.
I spent three days in the HQ, the store and the factory. I saw it all. Nothing was verboten or off-limits. Three very full days before heading off to the Tyrol to view Held’s 2017 range, falling off a wall, tearing all the ligaments in my foot, and limping around some castles, before heading off to see more of Europe on a bike more crippled than an orthopaedic surgeon’s dreams.
But like I said, that is a story that is yet to be told.
At the end of those three days, as I soaked my swollen foot in an ice-cold mountain stream outside my hotel, and a pretty girl in a dirndl brought me beer each time I rang a cow bell, I wondered what I was going to tell you about Held.
Sure, the Australian importer had paid for me to come and see how it all worked. And I had done that. Was a free ticket to Europe something that would colour my take on Held?
No. If I saw weird shit, I would tell you I saw weird shit.
If Held didn’t like that, well so be it.
So yeah, I saw some weird shit. What I saw surprised me, actually. The way Held rolls is not what I had expected. I thought it would be…well, other than what it was. My expectations were informed by an Australian mindset. The actuality had to be parsed with a German mindset.
Held is German-designed gear conceived of and developed by Germans who ride motorcycles around Europe.
That’s the hard-edged bottom-line.
Europe gets just as hot as Australia and is a lot colder for four months of the year. The gear Held makes is designed to deal with the vagaries of it being 30 degrees in the valley and within 10km a mere 5 degrees at the top of the alps. It’s very simple to deploy its features, feels good on, and mostly works like they tell you it will work.
Some of Held’s gear is made in Germany. Some of it is not. What’s not made in Germany is made in Hungary in a factory owned and operated by Held, and in a host of other countries all over the world.
There is a dizzying variety of gear available (especially when it comes to gloves) – and it comes in different price ranges. There is top-end Held stuff you’ll pay serious money for and mid-range stuff that is not as expensive.
But all of it is very well-designed to be user-friendly, totally practical, innovative and durable.
There is no bottom-end, bargain shit. Sorry. You’ll need to shop elsewhere for that.
In the last two years, Held has made a big effort in the cool stakes. It realised that a lot of the stuff it made worked well, but didn’t quite “look” as good as some of the competition’s gear. And this was true. The Italians do make some pretty sexy stuff, and the Germans have never been the epicentre of looking shit-hot.
The solution? Simple. Hire Italian designers, which it did almost a decade ago. Maintain German quality and inject some Italian style. The 2010-2016 ranges and the new bits of the 2017 range very much reflect this new direction.
I tried on lots of gear. I would have spent ten hours or so in the shop feeling up the stock as I endured waves of jet-lag-insanity. I think I even put a pyjama onesie on at some stage.
So Held is entirely and quintessentially German. With everything that qualifier entails. It is well-made. It is very practical. And a lot of it does look pretty damn good when you put it on, but then I could make a flour sack look hot.
Germans, are not small people (though there are certainly very few fat ones), and they are considerate, so the sizing reflects that. Some of the jackets and pants can even be ordered with flared gut-areas in case you’ve been overly keen on indulging your belly over the years.
This consideration extends to the ladies. Much of Held’s vast range is also offered in a specific ladies’ cut (or style), to make room for things like boobs, smaller waists and ovaries. They even make stuff for kids.
There is innovation in its range as well.
Like the twin-chambered Air’n’Dry gloves I wrote about HERE, and which I wore for 3000km around Europe.
Held has extended this concept to a twin-chambered jacket called the Aerosec, which I also lived in for two weeks and in which I crossed the alps pretty much where Hannibal did, but with less elephants. I initially thought the Aerosec 2-into-1 textile jacket was a bit of a gimmick. How could one jacket act as two different jackets? Certainly the concept works in the gloves, but a jacket?
Yeah, well, it worked. It was German. What choice did it have?
I shall tell you about it in an upcoming piece.
Upon hearing of my plans to ride chunks of Europe – and looking alarmed when I said I was going through Hungary – Held generously outfitted me from head to toe for my journey. I was given a helmet, jacket, gloves, pants, boots and socks. I will go into each item (and Hungary) in more detail, dealing specifically with what it did, what it didn’t do, how much some Hungarian thieves offered me for my pants, and how fine I managed to look at 5am in the morning alone in an Austrian truck stop with only the bratwurst-slicing Annie for company.
I have tried a lot of gear and I have a lot of gear. All of it is top-end stuff. Rukka, Dainese, BMW, and Oxford all sit in my cupboard. I very much like top-end gear, for all the obvious reasons, not the least of which is seeing my dear friend Daz freezing to death on the side of the road because he won’t bother to go out and buy good gear.
From what I have seen, and what I have tried and tested, Held gear is certainly as good, and in some cases better than the other brands.
It’s German, remember?
You will of course read my take on the gear and make your own mind up. I cannot tell you anything other than what I saw, what I wore, how it worked, and what I thought about it.
I thought the gear was pretty damn good before I went to Germany.
I now understand why it is as good as it is.
You may view its website HERE
Held Australia paid for my return ticket to Munich and four days’ accommodation and meals. The Australian importer wanted me to see what the company was all about, how it works, what it does and how it does it, and share it its 70th year-anniversary celebration.
And it wanted me to tell people what I saw and what I did. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I was also the only person at this event who was not a distributor. I had free access to everything and everyone.