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Strategy – Ugly Air


Stuck in urban traffic, behind vehicles bellowing plumes of toxic blue-gray exhaust, carcinogenic enough that there are no birds or bugs. Off-roading with pals through dust-filled tracks, until your sinuses slam shut. In both cases, ugly air.

The carburetors on motorcycles like clean air, thus the use of air filters. The same clean air requirement applies to our bodies. The pursuit of adventure often exposes our personal air intake system to air that is noxious, even poisonous enough to stop our personal engines from running.

German and Swiss riding acquaintances taught me the advantages of wearing a balaclava, for facial protection from cold weather. These were cotton ski masks, seldom sold through motorcycle outlets and more easily found in ski shops. In the early 1970s, balaclavas became part of my standard cold weather riding gear, whenever leaves or snow begin to fall.

For a June journey to Alaska in the 1980s, I had packed a balaclava thinking I might find snow in the summer. Following a truck over a dirt section of the former Al-Can Highway, I found myself enveloped in a cloud of dust. That dust was part calcium chloride, meant to hold water and road materials together. The chemically-enhanced dust was nasty stuff that hung in the air for minutes after vehicles passed over.

I tried breathing through a handkerchief, but it allowed the dirty air in, because it was not form-fitting. I remembered the balaclava in my tank bag, pulled it over my head, and breathed through the cotton the rest of the day. After seeing the amount of gray dust on the balaclava, where my nose had been underneath, I started wearing a balaclava year-round.

Traveling through the sands of the Sahara in Morocco affirmed my conversion to breathing through a nose filter. Frequent winds blew the sand off the ground, placing me in the middle of small sandstorms. The face mask filtered out the gritty stuff.

Traveling through summer forest fires in Montana and California further sold me on face attire. The particulates and ash in the air were restricted from entering my body through my personal air intake ports.

Australia’s unpaved outback roads feature bad air, called red bulldust. The balaclava did its job filtering the air, but at a boiling price. Temperatures were well above 100 F and it prevented cooling air from flowing through the vents in the helmet.

A motorcycle traveler from Japan showed me his air filter. It covered the nose and mouth, wrapped around the head, affixed in the back, and fit easily under the lower portions of a helmet. I use them when adventuring through congested traffic in the concrete jungles of the world, like Delhi, Bangkok, Mexico City, and Los Angeles.

These work as well for off-road riding. Especially when I was not the lead dog, but following someone or passing an oncoming motorcyclist, car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle pilot that was kicking up clouds of dust that could linger in the air for minutes.

I recently retested my mettle against 1,864 curves, over the 360 miles of the Mae Hong Son Loop, along the Thailand and Myanmar border. The area had earned the designation of the world’s No. 1 worst air quality, well ahead of Delhi, India, or Shanghai, China.

The unique opportunity of having almost no other vehicles on the road (due to government warnings of bad air) included three full-face masks for the three-day journey. My eyes were red at the end of each day, but my sinuses weren’t plugged, and I had pushed my adventure-seeking envelope.

Some balaclavas are stretchy enough to allow pulling the front opening down below the chin when passing through clean air. Others were rejected when made of non-stretch material, or when they did not fit comfortably between helmet and head. Also rejected were those that only had eyehole openings, because they could not be comfortably worn with glasses.


» Wash the balaclava or mask with soap or shampoo while showering at the end of each day, to remove the stuff you can’t see.
» Cheap, white, medical face masks are one-time use and don’t stay in place with a helmet. Cloth or synthetic ear-loop models are also best tossed after a few days.
» A female motorcyclist claimed that her balaclava prevented being hassled by men because her long hair and female facial features were hidden.
» Immediately remove face coverings and sunglasses when meeting people, especially officials. Your eyes and smile will make them more comfortable.
» Choose cotton over synthetic, it absorbs body oils better.

Dr. Gregory Frazier has authored four global motorcycle adventure books, logging six circumnavigations and over a million miles.

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