MOTORCYCLE TIRE PRIMER

By Miller Langhorne

There’s that old saying about automobile shopping and “kicking the tires”. When it comes to motorcycles, I’m not sure you’d want to put your boot to one but there are a few things you should know about tires that can make your ride safer and more enjoyable.

You hear details of motorcycle accidents where they note if the victims were wearing helmets or not. Helmets are an important safety feature but I’d rank tires even higher on the safety scale. I’d sooner ride a bike sans helmet than ride one with worn-out rubber. A couple of small tire contact patches are all that hold you and your bike to the planet, along with a little help from gravity, and it’s in your best interest to make sure those rubber patches are ready to grip when needed.

I can’t tell you which brand or type of tire is best. That depends on you, your budget, and your riding style. Street riding, road racing, and off-road tire compounds and designs all have different characteristics that will give the best and safest performance under those different conditions. But I can tell you a little bit about those round rubber donuts that will make you a more educated tire shopper.

The Numbers Game

Whether you realize it or not, your tires are talking to you. You don’t hear anything? Ok, bend down, put on your reading glasses, and take a closer look at the sidewalls of your tires. Along with the tire brand name and model, which is probably prominently displayed, you’ll find information that can save your life. There will be a DOT certification along with information about the materials used in the construction of the tire and there will also be a series of mysterious numbers that tell you the tire size. For example 100-90/19 MC. The 100 indicates the width of the tire in millimeters. The 90 is the sidewall aspect ratio which means this tire’s sidewall height is 90% of the tire’s width. This number is also referred to as the tire’s series, profile, or aspect ratio. The 19 indicates this tire fits a 19-inch wheel and MC means it was made for a motorcycle. Some tires will also have letters, from J to Z, which are speed indicators. I think the J is for cruising around and the Z means Zoom Zoom.

Sidewalls will also tell you when the tire was made through the tire identification number. The last four digits will indicate the week and year the tire was produced for those made after 2000. Prior to that, well, do you really want a tire that old? I didn’t think so. There should also be an arrow which will indicate the direction the tire should rotate when mounted on the bike. This is important because the tire construction and the design of the tread pattern will give you the best performance when rolling in the correct direction. Incorrectly mounted tires can cause instability and loss of control.

Once you’re sure you’re rolling in the right direction make sure you’ve got enough air in the tires and that you’re not exceeding their weight limit. Inside the tires, proper air pressure, which is measured in “pounds per square inch” or PSI, ensures that the tire will remain affixed to the wheel rim, provide proper and secure traction on the road surface, and support the weight of the bike, riders, and gear. Speaking from experience, I can say it’s possible to overload a bike and not suffer a catastrophe, but it’s not advisable and it definitely affects the bike’s handling. Each tire sidewall will tell you how much air to put into the tire and how much weight it’s been designed to carry. Checking tire pressure is something that’s best to do prior to riding. The sidewall tire pressure settings are always calculated for a cold tire. Once you hit the road, the heat of the highway will have an effect on the reading you get. Proper tire pressure is one of the best things you can do for a safe ride and will help you get the most mileage from your tires.

Why Not Use Car Tires?

One thing you learn if you ride a lot is that motorcycle tires aren’t cheap and they tend to wear out a lot sooner than the ones on your car or truck. So why not use the longer-lasting treads on your two-wheeler? Several reasons, the first and most important being, it ain’t safe! All you have to do is set a motorcycle tire next to a car tire and you’ll see how differently they are designed. Tread patterns on car tires pretty much end at the sidewall whereas motorcycle treads run up the sides of the tires. Why? Cars don’t lean but bikes do and when you’re carving up some back road twisties you want as much tread against the pavement as you can at all times. Put a car tire on an angle and look at how little of a road patch you get. Bikes use up more of the tire surface and that’s one reason we grind them down quicker than on our four-wheeled transports.

Breaking In New Tires

Just like a new pair of boots, new tires require some care and attention for those first few hundred miles. New tires don’t have the same traction ability because the manufacturing process for tires often includes using a release lubricant to keep them from sticking to the production molds. Traces of that lubricant can remain on the tires and it needs to be worn off with some moderate riding. At first, a new set of tires might seem to be a bit slippery and braking distance will not be as short as a pair of road worn treads. This is also a good reason to replace both the front and rear tires at the same time with the same brand so you’ll get the same performance characteristics from both wheels.

Also if you’re running tires that require tubes you should put in a new tube whenever you put on a new tire. The bladders expand and contract and become more susceptible to failure as the miles mount up.

Tire Care

Keeping the tires properly inflated is one of the best things you can do to ensure your tires operate properly and last as long as possible. Prolonged direct sunlight can cause tires to harden and age more quickly and harsh chemicals like gas, oil, or cleansers should not be allowed to linger. And even though your tires will look cool and shiny after an application of one of the very popular tire dressings, you should just stick with soap and water. The dressings have lubricants and getting that stuff on the tread area can cause traction failure. But hey, at least your bike will look good sliding across the highway.

Online Tire Resources

All of the manufacturers have extensive websites where you can get the latest information about their products and the Motorcycle Industry Council has an online Tire Guide at mic.org.

Last Word

Two things here. First, if you’re not sure if it’s time to replace the rubber on your ride there’s a very easy way to find out. You just need a penny. You see, the space between the edge of a penny and the top of Lincoln’s head is 1/32 of an inch, the minimum tread you should ride on. Just stick the penny upside down into the tread to see if it’s time. Now, if you look at your tires and can see fiber sticking through, it’s past time. And if we’re talking off-road riding, you want even more tread on your tires.

Lastly, don’t buy a discount tire online and then expect your local shop to mount it without charging you appropriately. The brick and mortar shops have to cover their expenses and maintain enough expensive inventory on hand to meet customer demand. The selling and mounting of tires is a complete service they offer. Look around, do you see any “Tire Mounting Only” shops in your town?


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