Motorcycle Tires - What you need to know

Motorcycle tires are one of the most important parts of your motorcycle. Because of the large range of different tire sizes and brands available on the market for all motorcycle types and riding conditions, it’s extremely hard to recommend a particular brand or tire type for an individual. The best way to go about choosing a tire for your motorcycle is to educate yourself on what you need to know for your particular motorcycle, the conditions you ride in and how you ride and treat your tires. Tires always have a compromise between grip and durability, so take this into account.

When coming out of the factory, the tire on that particular motorcycle will be chosen by the manufacturer depending on the genre of the motorcycle and what it’s designed to do so this is a good place to start. What you plan on doing with your motorcycle will narrow down your options on tire choice making it easier to make a decision.

Simple tire facts you need to know

  • Tire grip is created by the compound in the rubber and needs to be scuffed up (broken in) to grip
  • Tire temperature is the most important component of tire grip, a cold tire will not grip very well
  • Tire groves displace water so the rubber can grip the road, they have nothing to do with the actual grip itself
  • New tires need to be broken in by scuffing up the rubber
  • Buy the correct tire for the correct need, a race tire should not be used on public roads

Information printed on the tire

Your motorcycle manual will tell you what you need to know when it comes to the right tire information needed for your particular motorcycle. This information is printed on the tires itself, here is a list of that information:

  • Date code – tells you when the tire was produced
  • Speed rating – described with a letter, J being the lowest speed, Z being the highest (over 150mph)
  • Size – width, depth, size of wheel
  • Maximum tire pressure
  • Rotation arrow – Which way the tire rotates when moving, used when fitting the tire
  • Colored dots on some tires – marks the lightest part of the tire so the tire fitter can line it up with the valve stem (the heaviest part of the rim)

3 common formats that tire information comes in

  • Metric – Most common type of tire
  • Alpha-numeric – Harley or older style motorcycle
  • Straight numeric – Vintage motorcycles or sidecars

Common tire categories

Cruiser tires – Harder rubber compound, more groves and long lasting to handle many straight line miles in a range of different weather conditions. Designed to handle more weight and abuse than the average tire.

Race slicks – Soft, high performance rubber that’s very sensitive to pressure and heat providing extremely good grip but lasting a very short time and a low number of heat cycles. Usually requires tire warmers to heat the tires evenly and to the correct temperature before use. Only to be used in dry conditions by experienced track riders. Designed for track use only.

Dot race tires – Basically race slicks, but have a minimal amount of tread to conform to production racing rules. They look a little like street tires, but just like race slicks are designed for track use only as they require high heat to grip, only designed for dry conditions and only last a few heat cycles. Do not use these on the street!

Sport touring tires – More tread groves to help with water dispersion, with slick or semi-slick shoulders of the tire for cornering grip and performance. Some have multiple compounds, with harder rubber in the middle for commuting or touring, softer more high performance rubber on the shoulders for the corners and are multi-layered to aid performance. The rubber compound is designed to work over a wide range of temperatures and can include some silicon to help grip in wet weather.

Hypersport tires – A race tire for the street. Will have a few more groves and a usually at least a duel compound to aid with tire life, but will still wear out quickly. A bit more sensitive to heat and pressure and will provide a high level of grip when heated up and used in the twisties. Keep in mind these tires will wear out quickly if commuting.    

When to replace a motorcycle tire

All tires are stamped with the manufacture date on the wall of tire. Manufacturers recommend the tire be sold before they are 5 years old, a tire that is 3 or 4 years old is fine, a tire that’s 10 years old is classed as no good. As rubber ages its interaction with air will cause oxidisation which makes the rubber harden and become brittle. The rubber will begin to crack and provide less grip. Most tire manufacturers will provide a 3-5 year warranty for their tires. Take care if buying second hand tires as they may be quite old.   

Heat increases the rate of oxidisation, so keep this in mind if you live in a hotter climate. Tires heat up as you ride then cool afterwards, this is called a heat cycle. Tires can only endure a certain number of heat cycles before the rubber begins to grip less. This depends on the tire compound and design. A sport touring tire will usually withstand a lifetime of heat cycles whereas a track tire may only survive a few heat cycles before its grip is diminished. A wet weather tire may degrade faster in warmer weather due to its inability to endure harsher heat cycles. This just drives home the point of buying the correct tires for the correct conditions.       

Difference between tube or tubeless tires

A tubeless tire doesn’t have a tube in it! A tire with a tube in it is usually reserved for dirt bikes or motorcycles with spoked wheels. A tire with an inner tube can take more of a beating from the environment, this is why most dirt bikes have them.

Tubeless tire design is an advantage of the modern world, with many positives such as saved weight and improved puncture protection and repair. Most modern motorcycles are made to take advantage of tubeless tire design.

Tire pressure

When riding on the road, start with the motorcycle and tire manufacturers recommended tire pressure (usually 36psi front 42psi rear) then tailor the pressure to suit your needs by experimenting. The tyre manufacturer will usually have a recommendation for their different categories of tire, so start there if its available. That recommended tire pressure is what the tire carcass is designed to operate at, riding at a lower tire pressure may damage the carcass of the tire which you can’t see.

Different conditions play a huge role in picking the correct tire pressure for yourself. When riding with a pillion passenger there is a recommended tire pressure for the extra weight.

When riding on track the conditions are different than the road. If you’re a beginner, stick with the recommended tire pressure. Once you start to improve and get faster, your tire pressures will need to come down a bit because of the extra heat in the tires (32psi front 30 psi rear for example). Road tire pressures are advised at cold temperature, race tires are advised at hot temperature.

Tire pressures for a motorcycle is a complicated topic that can’t really be summarised in a few paragraphs. Check out this video for a very comprehensive guide to picking the correct tire pressure for you.  

Putting a larger tire on a smaller rim

If you’re trying to put a different sized tire onto a different sized rim the performance of the tire will be negatively affected.

Larger tire on a smaller rim – The sidewall of the tire will be pulled in, making the tire thinner, reducing the contact patch with the road, reducing grip and making turning into a corner super fast and dangerous.

Smaller tire on a larger rim – The sidewall of the tire will be pulled out, flattening out the middle of the tire increasing the contact patch with the road making turning near impossible.

Make sure to use the correct tire size for the rim on your motorcycle so the tire can perform correctly.

Common mistakes made when choosing a tire

  • Choosing a tire based on tire groves
  • Choosing a tire based solely on looks
  • Only replacing 1 tire at a time
  • Buying the wrong type of tire for the riding conditions

Should I repair or replace motorcycle tires?

A punctured tire can be fixed if the puncture isn’t too close to the sidewall of the tire regardless of if it’s a tube or tubeless tire. If the object has penetrated the tire on an angle, usually it can’t be fixed. A tire repair will affect the performance of the tire especially in tougher conditions like high lean angle or higher speeds.

For the short-term, a tire repair may be necessary to get the motorcycle to a bike or tire shop, but for long term a tire repair can be dangerous. It is always recommended to replace the tire rather than repair, although this can be an extremely painful process if the tire is near new (speaking from experience). Safety is always more important than money so just replace the tire.  

Breaking in new motorcycle tires – (Very Important)

All brand new motorcycle tires have cold, slick rubber because of the manufacturing process and the way they come out of the mold. Breaking in new motorcycle tires is crucial in maximising the grip between the rubber and the road. The temperature of the tire is even more important than the texture of the rubber, always make sure the rubber is up to temperature before applying any significant lean angle.

The time and miles it takes to break in new tires will depend on the type of tire and the compounds used in the rubber. A good rule of thumb is to ride at least 100 miles of easy riding to scrub up the rubber enough to get it to its maximum grip and also allows the new tire to settle to the rim. The extra layers to the rubber need time to settle and the tire needs time to settle to the rim, making the breaking in period very necessary.

During this first 100 miles make sure not to do any hard accelerating or braking until the tire has been broken in. The reason 100 miles is recommended is because that is the assumed distance it will take for an average rider to hit enough corners. It will also give the rider enough time to get accustom to a new make or brand of tire.

Keep in mind the harder and more long lasting the rubber, the longer it will take to break in, softer rubber will scuff up much quicker. Full race slicks will usually take 1 lap to break in.  

Riding a straight line for this first 100 miles isn’t good enough, you will need to apply different lean angles to scrub up the full usable surface of the tire. To do this, start off riding a straight line then slowly apply lean angle. This can be done on a twisty road or at slow speeds in a large car park. You never want your contact patch with the road to be all new tire as this may cause the tire to slip, this is why we slowly increase the lean angle as we go (half scrubbed rubber, half new rubber on the road at the same time). Taking this approach to breaking in tires can speed up the process, just be careful not to push too hard too fast.

Choosing a motorcycle tire is a complicated and hard decision to make especially in the highly competitive tire market we have today with a huge range of different brands and prices. Tire technology and design has improved drastically over the years spoiling all motorcycle riders for choice in the modern age. The best way to make a solid decision on what tire will suit you is to educate yourself on the topic, resulting in you making a better decision and making you a much better rider in the process.