This spring, Aether dropped a new pant-and-jacket combo that effectively replaces the Expedition, the company’s previous adventure-ready motorcycle kit, as its flagship offering for long-range touring. Want to travel the length of Chile? Or spend a month cruising the Pyrenees? Aether approves, and the company would like to see you decked out in its new Divide kit when you fire up your bike. We decided to test the new gear for ourselves.
At the Aether retail shop in Los Angeles, I immediately felt the heft and stiffness of the abrasion-resistant fabric. Fully loaded with crash-protective armor, the pants and jacket together weighed more than 9 pounds, which is just enough to make me wonder how much an actual exoskeleton would weigh. I felt protected for the ride ahead.
For the past couple years, Aether has organized an annual overnight ride for its loyal customers. They call it the Aether Rally, and this year’s aligned with the company’s 10th anniversary. It was also the biggest rally yet: Long rides from L.A. and San Francisco, plus two nights of camping in Pioneertown and day trips through Joshua Tree National Park. Aether also arranged demo rides at camp, with motorcycles on hand from Royal Enfield and e-bike companies Zero and Cake.
Starting out from L.A., I’d drive 220 miles through Angeles National Forest and under Mount San Antonio before dropping into the desert sometime before sundown.
Aether sold some 140 tickets to the Pioneertown rally, and about 40 of those people met up at the store in L.A. to ride east as a group. Bikes from Triumph, Indian, and BMW, loaded down with tents and bedrolls, lined the street outside the store. I arrived on a Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled, which delivers Bosch cornering ABS to help prevent downside crashes and a third more suspension travel than anything else in the Scrambler lineup. So while the sled felt safe and strong ripping through paved switchbacks in the mountains, it would also perform heroically on the ruts and rocks I’d find in the desert.
Before the ride, I felt stiff walking around in my off-the-shelf Divide pants and jacket. But that stiffness seemed to lift somewhat as I settled onto my bike. The articulated arms and knees feel most natural in the riding position—almost as if they were encouraging you to stay on your motorcycle.
I also became aware of the leather panels lining the inside of the thighs. They promised to help me grip my bike’s tank on the twisty roads ahead, but in the meantime, they were shielding me from heat coming off my motor at idle.
The Divide line is an exciting jump for Aether. It offers water- and wind-protection via Gore-Tex Pro—a first for the company. While I’m unlikely to hit rain in the desert, it’s nice to know for future rides that the kit can handle nasty weather. And when a surprise shower does break from the clouds, a soft gaiter beneath the jacket’s collar cinches snug around your neck to seal out water dripping from your helmet.
It’s clear that the Aether team put a lot of thought into doing a touring outfit right. In addition to all-weather support, it provides big dump pockets for a camera and sunscreen and whatever else you need close at hand. Waterproof zippers keep everything dry, and if you need to grab your wallet while passing through a tollbooth, you’ll appreciate having a left thigh pocket that opens forward for easy access on the bike.
To prepare for the ride out of Los Angeles, I unzipped the jacket’s pit vents, and using the trio of straps along the arms, I dialed in a mid-level roominess. I followed the group to the edge of the city, and soon we began snaking upward on the Angeles Crest Highway. As we hit cooler air, goosebumps broke out on my arms. So after stopping for lunch at an altitude somewhere near 7,000 feet, I shut the pits, battened down the sleeves, and rolled back onto the road feeling full, toasty, and happy to have miles left to cover.
After sleeping night one in our tents, my band of motorheads set out for 18 miles of off-road riding on dirt, rock, and sand deep enough to spin tires. Direct sunlight put the day at 80-plus degrees, and since we’d be traveling at speeds too slow to produce meaningful wind, I wondered whether I’d boil alive inside my gear.
That said, I still felt confident in the kit’s protection. With Velcro enclosures, the Divide holds sheets of technical D30 armor, notable for its ability to harden up instantly on impact, at the knees, hips, elbows, back, and chest. It’s no invincibility shield, but it’s certainly better than something like leather.
Another of the Divide’s protection perks arrives in the form of a zippered tether that locks the pants and jacket together. Wipeouts are chaos: Jackets can slide up, pants can slide down, and vulnerable flesh can emerge from your midline. To prevent that, a zipper in the back of the pants attaches to a corresponding zipper in the jacket, so they can’t come apart. Customers who buy the pants or jacket solo can take advantage of this, too: Both garments come with corresponding zipper strips that you can sew into whatever protective gear you usually ride with.
After fueling up on coffee and burritos, I followed the caravan of bikes toward the off-road path. We turned off the pavement, and within a couple hundred feet, we were in sand so deep that a few riders turned back. I considered as much, but instead I let some air out of my tires, found traction, and kept moving.
The sand started to thin, and after a mile or two, the ground firmed into a rocky, deep-rutted trail. I shifted through my low gears for power, and the Scrambler’s knobby tires gripped everything I pointed them toward.
Given the heat and the tricky start, I wasn’t surprised to feel beads of sweat running down my back. But then it occured to me that I wasn’t fully vented. I’d unzipped the pits but forgotten entirely about the two breathable gills on my back. So I unzipped those as well, and for the rest of the ride, I could feel fresh air washing past my torso. There’s no escaping a little sweat on a technical ride through the desert, but given how warm the Divide had kept me at higher altitude the previous day, I was shocked at how little discomfort it added in the heat. It was well worth the tradeoff for armor.
During the post-dirt lunch stop, we swapped stories from the ride and refilled our tires for highway riding. Then, taking the circuitous route back to camp, we traveled 80 more miles on serpentine pavement.
As the day started to cool, a small group decided to tackle some more sand. I joined for the ride, and as I was throttling into a loose turn, my pavement-inflated front tire skittered away from me. I pitched headlong off the road and landed in a pillowy dune. Fueled by adrenaline, I stood, dusted myself off, and picked up my bike. Only later, as I was trying to bend my twisted rear brake pedal back into riding position, did it occur to me that I must have come down hard. Would that minor crash have been less minor if I hadn’t been wearing an abrasion-resistant skin?
I asked Jonah Smith, one of Aether’s co-founders, why he called the new kit the Divide.
“I don’t know,” he replied, deadpan. Then after a beat, he offered, “Maybe because it sounds like the Continental Divide?”
It’s rare to find a brand that misses an opportunity to mythologize every product it sells. But despite spending a year designing and refining the new kit, tweaking the details so that the pockets and venting and protection were all above board, Aether passed on the chance to spin some bombastic origin story to go with it. That’s particularly interesting when you consider that before they started making apparel, Smith and his partner, Palmer West, were Hollywood film producers. So presumably, they know the power of story.
I interpret Smith’s “I don’t know” to mean that—consciously or not—he and West would rather Aether’s customers create their own stories. The brand is built on function and style. What you do with that is your business.
At times, Aether feels more like a club than a clothing brand. (“A club for people who don’t like clubs,” as West put it.) At the rally, the founders and their fans all rode and ate together, drank mezcal and wine at night and shared stories from rides past.
The club’s buy-in cost is steep: The Divide pants cost $695, and the jacket $995. (One guy joked on the trip, “I’ll have to sell my bike to get a new jacket!” He was, of course, wearing an Aether jacket.) But both pieces come backed with a lifetime guarantee, which helps to soften the blow.
As I packed my bike for the ride home, I was heartened to see dust caked into the jacket’s seams and yellow starbursts of bug guts splattered across the chest. I looked for signs of my crash from the day prior, but the jacket didn’t even register the impact. To lighten the load on the return to L.A., I removed the chest armor. To save time, we stuck to highways.
After more than 450 miles in three days, we ended our ride back at the shop. I considered changing into something more comfortable, but by then, I’d grown used to the weight of the kit. So I went straight to lunch instead. I was pretending the adventure wasn’t over just yet.