You may not have given your tires a second look when you bought your motorcycle. But your bike’s tires can make or ruin any single ride.
The right tires will make you feel like a champ. And they’ll transport you safely and efficiently. Bad tires will leave you spinning your wheels. Or worse, they’ll put you on the ground. This is true no matter what you ride – street bike, dirt bike, or four-wheeler. It’s true no matter where you ride – canyon roads or freeways, motocross track or deep woods trail.
Still, when most of us make tire-purchase decisions, the most important consideration is often price. That’s reality, especially today. You want the best tire you can get at the right price. Of course, if money were not a factor, you’d be like the top racers – pulling into the pit stall of your garage and swapping tires after every good weekend ride.
That works if your last name is Hayden, Spies, Villopoto or Carmichael. The rest of you? After insurance and your loan payment, tires are likely the largest expense of owning a motorcycle. You can buy a tire that will last and also perform for you. Here’s what you need to know.
Street or Dirt: Mileage, Performance, Price
Motorcycle riders are as varied as the bikes they ride. And tire manufacturers have created products specific to every interest – from high-mileage touring tires to high-performance sportbike treads, trail and dual-sport riders to MX racers. Within each segment, there is likely a value-priced tire and a high-priced one.
The purchase process need not be confusing. Start with your riding habits and a budget – and this goes for off-road and street riders. Then add some knowledge about tire design, construction and terminology – that’s why we’re here. Finally, talk to all your riding buddies. Most experienced motorcyclists have an opinion or two about a tire they like.
Tire Info at a Glance
First, know how to read your tire. The Kawasaki Concours 14, for example, runs a rear tire measuring 190/50-17. It’s 190mm wide. The height is 50-percent of the width (this is the tire’s Aspect Ratio). And it is mounted to a 17-inch wheel. Simple.
You’ll also see designators like “73W” or “69H” on your tires. The number is the Load Index; that’s the maximum weight-carrying capacity of the tire. (73 means 805 pounds, 69 means 716 pounds). The letter is the Speed Rating, and it indicates the top speed at which the tire can carry that load. (H equals 130 mph, and W equals 168 mph). Sportbike riders, watch that speed rating. Touring riders, know that load index.
When replacing that tire, you are best to stick with that same size. Depending on the bike’s fender or swingarm, you may be able go one size wider or narrower, and you may vary the aspect ratio slightly. However, a wider tire on that same wheel might be squeezed into the wheel, changing its shape and ride character from its intended design. Some cruiser riders like to go wide for style, and aside from fit issues, this can change the handling character, not always for the better. It can be more difficult to initiate a turn on a wider tire. If you go narrower, you’ll essentially flatten the shape of the tire; and that can change the tread character.
Your riding habits will dictate tread patterns and tire construction. But your budget may begin the process. You can save money buying a bias-ply tire. A radial tire requires an extra step or two in manufacturing, and that is part of why radials cost more.
Radial tires, to explain, are constructed with materials running from bead to bead, at 90-degree angles to the radius of the tire. Bias construction means those similar materials are built criss-crossing each other – they were once called cross-ply tires – at around 60-degrees to radius of tire. Besides costing less, bias-ply tires are likely to be lighter than a same-size radial. Radials wear longer, and generally provide better performance. Do not run one bias-ply and one radial tire on your motorcycle. Their unique performance characteristics mean this could be troublesome.
If you’re a performance-oriented rider, a dual-compound tire might be best for your street bike. Michelin Pilot tires, for example, use dual-compound designs. They generally run a firmer rubber in the main contact patch of the tire, and softer material on the edges. The percentages vary from one tire to the next, but the softer edges add grip when leaned over, while the firm center reduces friction, lasts longer, and helps with fuel mileage.
If you get choices in tire compound otherwise – mono or dual-compound – know that softer rubber is great for traction but bad for fuel mileage. Go with a harder compound if you’re more about fuel efficiency and high-mileage tires.
Street-bike tread patterns may look like a mystery, but they can be quite simple to decipher. If you ride in the wet, look for tread grooves that will carry the water to the side and away from the tire. A deeper and wider channel means more capacity to move water, but can also increase tire noise and make for a less-smooth ride.
Read above first! The same rules apply for reading your tire, though the numbers will look quite different. Changing tire sizes may be more popular among off-road riders than street riders. There has been a lot of debate among MXers about running a 110 mm or a 120 mm rear tire. The 120’s wider contact patch can give better acceleration, assuming your bike has the power to spin a heavier tire. Some riders prefer the narrower 110 because they can roll it over more easily for quicker handling.
You can also choose from different Aspect Ratios. A “100” size tire (means height is 100-percent of the stated width) has a taller sidewall than a “90”, and it can provide a softer ride. But that same flex can diminish straight-line acceleration, or the tire’s ability to hold its shape through a corner. Trail riders can have similar discussions. Those types of considerations require trying different tires, or simply quizzing other riders on their tire tastes.
Off-road riders need to consider if they want tires with soft, intermediate or hard rubber compounds. Or you’ll see a blend of soft/intermediate, or intermediate/hard. Softer compounds give great traction, for a little while. A hard off-road tire might cause you to slip in certain conditions, but you’ll get more life out of it. Of course, if this hard-compound tire causes you to crash more because you really need a soft tire for sandy or loamy soil, then what’s the point?
Some intermediate tires use the same rubber compound as hard tires, and the difference is in the tread design. The “hard” tire might have shorter knobs packed more closely together.
Tread patterns are especially important in off-road tires. And look closely at the knob construction. Especially if they’re tall knobbies, do they appear well-connected and reinforced on the tire carcass? On soft-compound tires, knobs might break off prematurely.
Dual-sport riders need to look for DOT-rated tires, of course, meaning these tires have been tested and certified for road use. These are often marketed showing a percentage breakdown of road and off-road use, like 50/50, or 90% Off/10% Road.
Two More Things
First, proper tire inflation is key to safe riding and to getting the most life from your motorcycle tires. From street use to dirt and dual sport, tire-inflation ratings vary widely. Your owner’s manual will give recommended tire pressure settings. The “maximum pressure” rating on the tire sidewall is just that, a maximum; you should not run the pressure that high. Make sure you have an accurate tire-pressure gauge, and that it remains accurate. And – you’ve heard this before – don’t check air pressure when the tire is hot. Pressure increases with temperature, so wait until the tires cool to check their air pressure.
Second, you can still just buy tires on price alone if you like. But at least now you’re informed.