Bridgestone, Dunlop, Michelin, Metzeler, Avon, Pirelli -- most manufacturers offer a range of tires from racecourse slicks and off-road knobbies to the paddle-shaped tread of a sand tire or the spikes of an ice-rink tire. The bottom line, when shopping for motorcycle tires and accessories, is to know your bike, know your style and know how to match these two with a tire type to boost safety, performance and comfort.
Here, we'll look at some of the different types of motorcycle tires you'll encounter, as well as some accessories that can help you make your bike your own.
Do you have a trailer? If not, you'll be riding your bike on the street at least some of the time. And for most of us, the street's the beginning and end of our time in the saddle. That means that if you're a biker, you're going to want to know a little something about street tires.
In order of aggressiveness, they run from cruiser, to touring, to sport touring, to sport bike. And generally, along that spectrum, you start with high stability, high durability and high gas mileage, then move toward higher speed and cornering performance with less durability and fuel efficiency.
Be realistic: What kind of riding do you do? What's your skill level? What kind of bike do you own? Answering these questions will tell you where your tires should be along the cruiser/sport spectrum. Then look for the tire that fits your bike's specs in terms of tire width, aspect ratio and rim size. These are the three numbers you see printed on your tire in the format of, for example, 120/70/R17.
Track tires are high performance. So why not just slap 'em on your aggressive street bike? Because track tires aren't street tires, that's why. Simply, a track tire makes you slower on the road.
First, track tires are designed to grab like gecko's feet to the road. They do this with soft, treadless rubber -- great for a smooth, dry track, but the tiniest bit of rain puts you up the creek -- and say goodbye to your gas mileage. Second, track tires generally have a high arch and high crown, allowing them to flip from left to right like a coin on its edge and ride smoothly in an aggressive lean -- great for high-speed cornering, but at the expense of stability. Also, despite sticky rubber, the track tire itself is more rigid, built to stand up to the increased load of high-speed cornering -- but this can make it chatter on street bumps. Finally, and this is a little more esoteric, a track tire is designed for fewer heat cycles. You heat it up, ride it, then you cool it down, as opposed to a street tire that's going from cold to warm with every stop. Track tires take longer to warm up, and until they do, riding a cold track tire is like riding a rock.
If you're trailering your bike to the track for a sunny day's ride, pick up a pair of slicks. Otherwise, stick with street tires, or at the very least, a sport crossover tire with enough tread to keep you alive in a drizzle.
If you're looking for a motocross or off-road tire, it's easy: Pick the surface you ride -- desert, forest, hard rock or dirt -- and a quick internet search will return your perfect tire. The biggest differences are the tread and the pressure it's designed to run at.
But now imagine you're not only going to ride the wilds. You want to ride the freeway to the hills, catch a fire road to a single-track, then ride the freeway home. So you're going to need a tire that can do both.
To help you out, many manufacturers list percentages, for example, "20% off-road, 80% street." If you can figure out how much you ride, where, it makes picking a tire easy. As you'll see, the big difference is tread -- deep, spaced lugs for off-road, and tightly packed, shallow lugs for street.
The right balance is up to you.
Bias ply tires have a round profile and high sidewalls, and tend to be for older cruisers. Radial tires have a square profile with shorter sidewalls. A radial tire sidewall flexes more, giving it a larger contact patch with the road when leaned over, and allowing higher performance in corners. With the increased flex, a radial tire also tends to absorb small bumps better, making a smoother ride.
That said, motorcycles are built from the tire up. This means that when radial motorcycle tires came on the market, bike design changed -- new frames, new suspensions, etc. Your bike is designed for bias or radial tires -- not both. Run the tire your bike's made for or check with manufacturers' recommendations before switching.
Above all, don't run bias on one wheel and radial on the other, which can result in an unpredictable ride.
As seen in the tire types on previous pages, rubber comes in many forms. Usually the type of rubber is paired with tire design to create a purpose, and again, it's on a spectrum running from durability and gas mileage to performance.
Basically, soft rubber sticks and hard rubber lasts.
This is partly due to off-gassing. As a tire heats up, the rubber literally turns from a solid to a gas. The rubber in a softer track tire may only be designed to off-gas three or four times before the once-pliable rubber turns brittle and your tire is toast. That's an expensive habit for the road rider. On the other hand, the rubber of a cruiser tire is designed to hold its gas. It can heat and cool many times before it's gassed out.
If you plan to ride in the rain, considering ponying up for a silica-enriched compound, which is grippy when wet.
Unlike car drivers, you probably know the difference between a wheel and a tire. A wheel is the hard, circular thing, and a tire is the rubber that covers it. And with motorcycles, as with cars, there's a range of custom wheels available to the deep-pocketed rider.
You want chrome, chrome and more chrome? Or black as the blackest night? Or a whirl of spinning blades? Or vanity wheels with flags or a picture of your mom? If you've got a credit card with space on it, they can be yours.
But because you're likely planning to make them the only thing between you and the pavement at highway speeds, make sure they're designed for action. Buying wheels new rather than used, and having them professionally mounted and balanced (unless you're an expert), is an investment that pays off in reduced emergency room bills.
Compared to wheels and tires, valve stem caps are a funny little side note. They're easy to lose, easy to buy and easy to forget about completely. And because they're so easily interchangeable and relatively inexpensive, buying custom alien, skull or fairy princess stem caps is a tempting way to put your personality on display.
But stem caps fulfill an important function: keeping air in your tires. Without them, even a new stem tends to ever so slowly bleed air. And a low-pressure tire is a squirrelly tire, prone to pinch flats and low gas mileage.
So make sure your new, flaming-snake stem caps include a little rubber gasket on the inside that will press against the top of your stem, keeping dirt and grime out and air in.
Yeah, it's a picky point, but it's an important one.
Generally, newer bikes run tubeless tires. That said, there are a couple advantages to using tubes. First, it's easier to repair a tubed tire on the side of the road or trail. The tire slips off easier, and a tube with a small puncture is easy to patch or replace. Not so with a tubeless tire, which generally requires specialized equipment to get off the rim and repair. This makes tubed tires the choice of many recreational dirt bike riders -- when you get a flat in the middle of nowhere, you can pull over, fix it and keep riding.
However, there's a reason that most new tires are tubeless, and the reason is safety. Tubed tires are more likely to pop like a balloon in the case of a puncture. That's not saying tubeless tires won't burst or that all punctures of a tubed tire result in an uncontrolled crash, but tubes are more likely to pop than tubeless. Also, the comparatively looser fit of a tubed tire to the rim makes it a little more likely to separate from the rim in the case of fast action.
If you're running on tubed tires, make sure you keep the right pressure -- a floppy tube is a dangerous tube.
A fairing is any kind of shell placed over part of the motorcycle to guard against grime, improve aerodynamics, make for a comfortable ride and generally make your ride look boss. Usually we think of fairings in relation to handlebars and windscreens, but some motorcycles add varying degrees of wheel fairings, too, either pre- or post-market.
Most wheel fairings are designed for style. If you're into the look, that's the reason to buy. But for a highway cruiser, some fairings can increase your gas mileage.
There are a thousand bike designs and another thousand fairings. If you're buying used or specialty fairings, just make sure the additions match your model.
Sure, you can spend $1,000 on new wheels. But why not spend a couple hundred on simulators that make your stock wheels look custom?
There's some crossover in the terms -- a hubcap is really just a wheel cover, and a simulator is just a hubcap designed to make your wheel look like something it's not, namely custom, vintage or otherwise cool.
In addition to style, adding a solid wheel cover over spokes can keep grime from accumulating inside your rim, and some forums claim that a solid wheel cover can improve gas mileage. But mostly, custom covers are a way to add style on the cheap.
For more great motorcycle articles, check out the links on the next page.
Cold-weather motorcycle accessories can help keep your ride comfortable in the cooler seasons. Read about 10 motorcycle accessories for cold weather at HowStuffWorks.
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- Chaparral Motorsports. "Street Motorcycle Tire Buyer's Guide." Oct. 26, 2010. (May 21, 2011)http://www.chaparral-racing.com/news/6/102610/Street-Motorcycle-Tire-Buyer-s-Guide.aspx
- Motorcycle USA. "Motorcycle Tires Product Guide." Dec. 4, 2007. (May 21, 2011)http://www.motorcycle-usa.com/379/749/Motorcycle-Article/Motorcycle-Tires-Product-Guide.aspx
- Trevitt, Andrew. "Street vs. Race: Choosing the right tire for the job." Sport Rider. June 2010. (May 21, 2011)http://www.sportrider.com/tech/tires/146_0002_street_vs_race_tires/index.html