TYRES - HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW?
Tyres; they’re those round black things that separate your bike from the road. Well, at least you hope they will! It’s quite a sobering thought to consider that your life depends on two patches of rubber, about half the size of the palm of your hand. Think about it; over 300kg of bike and rider, being propelled by the kind of power-to-weight ratio that’d embarrass a Ferrari. And it’s all being held under control by two small contact-areas of rubber, each one just a few square centimetres. Yeah, tyres are important! I’ve always been fussy about tyres – on bikes and cars. I might not have bought the most expensive ones in the shop, but I’ve always made sure that my vehicles had good quality rubber. It not only makes your riding (and driving) more enjoyable, your life actually depends on it! But I’m no expert on tyres. And I’ll hazard a guess that most people reading this aren’t either! Yes, you probably have a favourite brand, and know what tyre you like. And, like me, you might even know some of the more in-depth technical details about tyres. But do you really know the technical specifications and performance characteristics of the various brands and types, how each compares to the other, and which one will give you the best combination of performance, handling, and wear-rate, for your particular needs and riding style? No, me neither! So, if you want to choose the best tyre you can for your bike, and if you want to find out more information, where do you go? Well, actually, nowhere! Unlike the situation with cars, in most localities there aren’t any motorbike-tyre specialists. So you rely on your own experience and knowledge; which, to be honest, is probably fairly limited in terms of different brands and compounds etc. Informed specialist advice on motorcycle tyres is very hard to come by! What got me thinking about this (or thinking about it again, it had occurred to me before) was having to replace both tyres on my bike. Unusually, both ended up in need of replacement at the same time. While putting extra strain on the bank-balance, this did provide an opportunity to consider a different brand to what I was using. (I don’t like mixing brands of tyres – especially on bikes). When buying tyres for cars, and especially when it came to considering a different brand or model of tyre, I’ve shopped around and asked the advice of tyre-specialists. Yes, a lot of them are there to sell a particular brand, but if you go to a dealer that sells several different brands you’ve got a fair chance of getting someone who can talk to you about different tyres and discuss compounds and performance-characteristics etc. I know that the staff at these places often attend product-information / demo days put on by the tyre companies to keep them well informed about the products they sell. Another source of advice has been suspension / wheel-balance specialists. But there are almost no tyre-specialist places for motorbikes! So if you want advice you’ve got to rely on the bike-shops. If you’re lucky you might get a mechanic with a good knowledge of tyres, but often you’ll just get a sales-person who probably doesn’t know as much as you do. And I’m pretty sure that not many will have had the product-training that staff in a tyre-only outlet have had. I certainly got some dubious advice when I went asking about tyres for my bike! When I bought my current bike it came with Dunlops, the rear being almost new. I was happy enough with Dunlop as a brand, and had no problem with them, so as one wore out I replaced it with a new one of the same brand and model. But then when both needed replacing I thought I’d see what other alternatives there were; see if there was anything better available. At first the information offered was quite informative. For good quality alternatives to the Dunlops I was given a choice of Michelin and Metzler by one dealer, and Michelin and Bridgestone by another. But when I asked for more information, how they compared technically and performance-wise, the response was more vague. One suggested that the Michelin would probably be the best because it was the more recent design. Logical, but not based on specific product-knowledge. The other dealer also suggested the Michelin, mainly because it was the more expensive. (“If it costs more it’s got to be better”). Not really very helpful; they’re the sort of uninformed assumptions I could have easily made myself! Now, I do like Michelin as a brand of tyre (I’ve used them on my cars for many years); but I know that quite a lot of their tyres are made in various factories all over the world, so I wondered if the quality was as consistently high as might be expected. So I wanted to find out more. The internet is always a good source of information, but it’s less helpful than you might think. You tend to get either dealer web-sites that push one particular brand, or forums where people push their own personal opinions. It’s certainly worthwhile, but it’s not the ultimate source of objective and informed information and advice that you want. (Yes, if you look hard enough you might find an objective comparison of different tyres conducted by a bike magazine or similar, but this level of expert information is pretty hard to come by). I even left questions on the forum sections of some club web-sites asking if anyone had experience with the particular model of tyres I was considering. But all I got was some very vague replies that, at best, reflected uninformed personal preference; and that only on brands, not on the particular models of tyre I was looking at. Of course the tyre manufacturer’s web-sites are useful in providing information. And the Michelin web-site is an excellent one. There is good product information, with a chart for each tyre that rates them in areas of dry-road grip, wet-road grip, handling, wear-rate, comfort and price. And no, they don’t rate everything as “Excellent”! The ratings are quite realistic; although they are really rating each tyre against their over-all range, so you get Michelin compared with Michelin. But it’s still quite informative. There is also a facility that will recommend what tyre is best suited for your particular bike. Using that at least confirmed that the particular model of Michelin the dealers were suggesting was the one that Michelin recommended. I was attracted to the Michelins, but initially decided to stick with the Dunlops. Price was one factor, but my research had confirmed that they were still a well-regarded tyre, and I’d been happy with them, so there was no real need to change. And it was staying with something I knew. But here’s where the bike-shop advice got really scary! It turned out that the Dunlops were in short supply and the next batch wouldn’t hit the country for another month. So I rang around again to see if anyone had them in stock. One sales guy said he had a front tyre but not a rear in the size I wanted. But he suggested a couple of alternatives. One was 10mm wider (which might have fitted, but it’s best to stick to original sizes on bikes), but the other was an inch less in diameter! “Are either of those any good to you?” he asked. I didn’t bother pointing out the stupidity of this; but it shows the sort of advice you can get when you’re talking to general sales people! All this got me to wondering why there aren’t specific motorcycle-tyre outlets. The obvious answer is that there aren’t as many bikes on the road as cars, so the market is smaller. But when you think of how many outlets there are for car tyres, surely the market would be big enough to support at least one specialist supplier, particularly in the major cities. And when you also consider that bike tyres wear out a lot quicker than car tyres, and the fact that the motorcycle market is going through a boom period at the moment, I reckon a motorcycle-specific tyre specialist would be well supported and appreciated by the biking world. I knew there weren’t any in my neck of the woods, so to get an idea of what the situation might be nationally, I phoned the head offices of Bob Jane and Tyrepower to see if there were any such outlets elsewhere in the country. Tyrepower said they didn’t deal in motorcycle tyres. Bob Jane told me that they only had one outlet that included a motorcycle-tyre specialist, and that was Bob Jane Melbourne in Elizabeth St. (If you’re in that area, the phone number is 03-93296999). I asked if they had considered establishing specific motorcycle outlets in any other branches and the spokesperson told me that their branches are all franchises, so are independently owned. As such, it would be up to the individual owners to decide on what facilities they provided at their stores. But I reckon it’s something they should consider; because there sure is a need there! Maybe we should all petition our local Bob Jane store (or Tyrepower or whatever), and try to convince them to open a motorcycle section! Anyway, what did I buy? Well, I decided to go with the Michelins. As I said, I like Michelin as a brand anyway, and from what I could find out they seemed like a good choice. And at the time of writing I’ve covered well over 1,000km on them, and the handling, feel on the road, comfort etc, have all been good; probably just a bit better than the Dunlops. So I’m pleased with my choice. So, after all this you might be wondering just how do you decide on what tyre to buy – especially if you’re considering changing to a different brand? Well, you could do the sort of thing I did; find out what the alternatives are and then try to find out as much about them as you can. But, as I found, that can be difficult! There is one thing in our favour though. As one sales-person said, all the major brands are pretty good these days anyway, so you aren’t going to get a “bad” tyre if you stick to these major brands and go with a tyre recommended for your bike. Some people use racing as a guide. And that’s why tyre companies get involved in racing; to convince you that their brand is best and to inspire you to go out and buy their brand. At the time of writing this (late 2007) Casey Stoner has just wrapped up the MotoGP championship. He uses Bridgestone tyres, so that might make you think that Bridgestone is the best tyre you can buy. But the tyres on Casey’s Ducati race-bike are a long way from what you’ll be buying for your road-bike! So that’s far from being a definitive guide. Although you can be guided by the brands in general that are used. You’ll find only top-quality brands like Bridgestone, Dunlop, Pirelli, Michelin etc. You won’t find them using some el-cheapo brand that comes out of a back-of-beyond province of China or something. And you shouldn’t either! Okay, I’ve written enough on this. But it is something to think about. Time for a quick tip before I go? Okay. You know that waxy coating that new tyres have? I’ve always been a bit concerned about this. To their credit, every time I’ve bought new tyres the mechanics who fitted them have warned me about it. They usually say that by the time you get home it’ll be okay. But it’s not. Riding gently home will remove it from the “normal” areas of contact, but not from further down the tyre. And if you look at the tyre you can see where the waxy stuff remains. The danger, to my mind, is the first time you lean the bike over a bit further than you have previously, you’ll be running on the gooey stuff. Or more likely, falling-off on the gooey stuff! So I try to remove it from further down the side of the tyre. You can do this to some extent while riding home. For example, I turn into side-streets at walking speed, turning sharply and leaning the bike over as far as I can. It probably looks like I’m drunk, but it does wear the goo off a bit further down the side of the tyre. But what I’ve also done is to use fine-grade wet-and-dry sandpaper (“emery-cloth”) and gently sand off the wax. You can see the waxy stuff quite plainly, so you can tell when you’ve removed it, or most of it anyway. This doesn’t harm the tyre because you’re just rubbing the gooey stuff, not the rubber. And you’re doing this with fine-grade paper, and doing it gently by hand. (Don’t attack the tyre with an angle-grinder!).
With so much business being done on-line these days, getting your tyres through Ebay or similar is becoming increasingly popular. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Firstly, to the price advertised you have to add freight from the seller to your home. Postage or freight for two bike tyres is not inconsiderable, so that will eat into that saving you are going to make over buying from the local bike shop. The other thing is that if you go into your local bike shop they will either fit them for free (rare, but some will), or for a pretty nominal fee. But if you just front up with two tyres and ask them to fit them, they will charge the usual hourly labour rates for the job. And that will add substantially to the bargain price you paid to buy them. One other thing. It is often claimed by local bike shops, that the people who sell on-line get out-dated stock, or inferior quality products not made in the usual factory. That's probably a scare-tactic to try to stop you from buying on Ebay, but it's something you can check. There's a lot of useful information written on tyres, and that includes the country where they were made, and the date (in month / year form) when they were made. So if you are looking at tyres on-line, ask them for these details - where the tyres are made, and when they were made. If they don't know how to read the manufacture-date, it is a 4-digit number in the details that follow the word "DOT". The first two digits are the week, the next two are the year. (So, for example, "2214" would mean they were made in the 22nd week of 2014). Compare that with what you find in the local bike shop to see if you are getting teh same product. Actually, tyres can be a bit like helmets (see my article on buying helmets), in that certain sizes / brands can end up sitting on the shelf for years before they are bought. So now that you know how to check this, you can check out the age of even local ones you are buying. Okay, well good luck with your tyres; and I hope you do manage to make those round black things keep the shiny bits separated from the road!
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