Choosing the Right Tire for your Motorcycle
Words & Photos: Randy Bolig
It’s a simple fact that eventually, your motorcycle is going to need new tires. As much as we would like our tires to last forever, their construction negates that ever happening. When it comes time to replace your bike’s tires, do you know which ones you should get? For that matter, are their differences in tires for motorcycles? There are some basic principles that you need to follow when choosing tires. For example, what kind of bike do you have?
The easiest way to choose a new tire is to simply install the same make/style tires you already have, only new. Most tire companies still produce tires that are either identical to the ones on your bike, or are suitable replacements that are designed to work with your model. If you can’t find the exact replacement, many tire manufacturers will offer a number of alternative tires that will work on your style of bike.
Different bike styles require different tire styles. For instance, you wouldn’t put a sport bike tire on a touring bike--it just wouldn’t last very long. Tires designed for sport bikes are made of a softer compound that allows them to grip the road better when performance driving is encountered. Since I doubt that anyone with a touring bike is interested in a performance ride… A touring bike needs tires that are not “high-performance” rated, as much as they need to be able to handle the combined weight of the heavy motorcycle, rider, passenger, and whatever items they intend bring along. When buying tires, keep within the load capacity maximums listed on the tire, as well as in the motorcycle owner’s manual.
Buying an OE tire can be costly to replace, but working with a reputable dealer that sells the same brand of motorcycle as what you ride, can insure your bike is properly outfitted. One primary piece of required information needed for your tire search, is to know the exact model and year of your motorcycle. This might seem like a trivial bit of information for a dealer, but your local shop can immediately offer you a number of tire choices from a variety of tire makers. Having a choice between longer wearing tires for increased mileage, or those that provide slightly less mileage capabilities but offer increased performance grip can help you tailor your ride.
The next step in understanding what tires will work on your ride, is knowing proper tire size dimensions. Modern tires have a lot of information on the tire’s sidewall. The numbering system on metric-sized tires (just about all radials), are designated by seven numbers (i.e. 170/80-15). The first number (170) is the tire’s actual width as measured in millimeters. This is not a tread measurement, but an overall measurement. The second number (80) is the tire’s Aspect Ratio. The Aspect Ratio is the tire’s height as measured in percentage of the tire’s width. In this case, the sidewall height is 80-percent of the distance measuring the tire’s width. The final number (15) refers to the wheel diameter measured in inches.
On the side of the tire, you might also see a rotational direction indicator. This is to prevent the tire from being mounted backwards. Many motorcycle tire tread patterns are designed to work in a single direction in order to effectively disperse water from the tire.
When choosing the best tire for your bike, you must first determine what type of tire fits the driving situations you will be encountering.
Tires that are designed solely for racing, allow the motorcycle to be able to handle tight corners at high speeds, and extreme acceleration from a stop. The construction of these tires will allow the bike to grip the road surface, but they will also wear out extremely fast. As the tire heats up, it provides even better traction.
Typical sport tires that are DOT-approved, are closely related to race-bred tires, but have a tread pattern. Some manufacturers now use multiple compounds in their construction; softer compounds on the edge for improved traction while cornering, and a harder compound in the center for improved longevity under hard acceleration. Sport tires generally feature a pointed profile, allowing the bike to "tip in” faster into a corner. A pointier profile tire will result in straight line stability, due to the smaller contact patch. But, traction will be maximized when cornering because the larger contact patch. A typical set of sport tires can have a life span of around 2,000 -5,000 miles, depending on usage.
Cruising/touring tires are usually made of a harder compound than a sport tire. This is done because the touring/cruiser bike is for one, heavier than a sport bike. The harder compounds also give the touring/cruiser tire greater durability. The harder compound construction means that they will last longer than a sport tire. A touring tire is typically good for around 10,000 miles. Touring/cruiser tires typically offer more grip at lower temperatures, whereas a sport tire needs to reach a higher temperature in order to work at its full potential. Touring/cruiser tires are more suitable for riding in cold weather conditions, offer superior grip on a variety of different road surfaces, and give improved grip in wet weather. Basically, touring/cruiser tires offer stability and usage in all weather conditions.
A tire’s speed rating represents the maximum speed at which the motorcycle should travel with a maximum load and the tires at the maximum listed inflation pressure. The maximum load and inflation pressures are also found on the sidewall. The third entry on the tire size number is a letter that represents the speed rating. The following table contains the various speed ratings and their corresponding speeds in miles per hour.
Code Letter Maximum MPH
Z-rated tires have no recognized upper speed. They are listed as 149+ m.p.h., to represent this lack of a threshold.
Although not many motorcycles still run a bias-ply tire, the fourth number/letter in the tire size represents the tire’s construction. If it is a letter B, it is a bias-ply, or belted tire. The letter R designates it as a radial tire. Bias-ply/belted tires are constructed using a fiberglass or Kevlar belt. This belted construction gives the tire added strength and increased load capacity. Radial tires will typically last longer than belted tires, and deliver better steering control. Bias-ply tires make better off-road tires, and have better grip at slow speeds. Radial tires also use a belted construction, but the belts are merely to add stiffness to the tire. Commonly constructed of steel or polyester, the belts in a radial tire reinforce only the tread area.
To Tube or Not to Tube
Recent years have seen the introduction of tubeless tires as a safety feature on motorcycles. A tubeless tire will retain less heat, there is no chance of a sudden explosion when punctured, and tubeless tires tend to stay connected to the rim when deflated.
Tires that are in good condition make for a safer and more enjoyable ride, so your tires should be inspected before every ride. Finally, if you own and ride a motorcycle, you should know what type of tires your bike needs, and when they need replaced to ensure that smooth and safe ride.
Different bike styles require different style tires. For instance, you wouldn’t put a sport bike tire on a touring bike. When buying tires, buy what is designed for your bike. Keep within the load capacity maximums listed on the tire, as well as in the motorcycle owner’s manual.
Typically, the width and height of a tire (e.g. 170/80) determines its profile. But, some tires have a pointier profile than others. A benefit of a pointy tire is that it gives you a larger contact patch when cornering. When performance driving is the goal, this helps as the bike is more prone to “slip” out from under a rider when it is cornering.
The downside to a tire with a pointier profile is that it will feel somewhat unstable when driving in a straight line. This is due to the small contact patch on the center of the tire.