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27th June 2014

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Famous Last Words 23: Tyres and their Motorcycles

Classic motorcycle tyres; does your choice depend on pride or prejudice? Frank Westworth is bewildered as always...

Famously, tyres are round and black. Equally famously, they are one of the few components of a motorcycle which can kill the rider. Apart from the rider and other inconsiderate road users, of course. One of the very many delights of being a long-time writer about motorcycles and an occasional judge of motorcycles at motorcycle ensembles is the subject - and the realities - of tyres.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: I do practise what I preach. I do buy the best. I replace the tyres on my bikes long before they achieve baldness, and on the motorway mile-munching magnificence which is my Norton Commander I replace them in pairs, even though the front is likely to be only half-worn when the rear is down to the markers. Which may strike you as being both profligate and extravagant, but it helps me feel relaxed while droning down the outside lane, conscious that I may need to anchor up hard from an alleged 3-figure speed. That would not - so my reasoning goes - be the best moment for a tyre to lose grip or to decide upon a sudden deflation. This has happened to me in the past and I have no - absolutely no - desire to repeat the experience. Thrilling though it was.

How Used Bikes Become Classic Bikes

It is plain that not everyone feels this way. That's fine. What folk do is their own concern and if they believe their lives to be worth less than the cost of a couple of tyres then that is fine with me. They are probably correct.

There are many areas in which an impecunious rider can keep costs under control rather than saving money on tyres. Paint is my favourite; likewise chrome. Also pointless cosmetic oddities and satnav systems. It is impossible for anyone sane and sighted to get truly lost in the UK. These are small islands. Getting mislaid on the wild plains of Suffolk is not quite the same experience as in the Serengeti.

And tyres do not in fact pass the point of usefulness all of a sudden. I mention this because at an event last year I remarked to a concours entrant of my acquaintance that he was being bold indeed riding on the front tyre fitted to his large capacity Japanese four. I was being kind and friendly, you will observe. Had I been feeling merely honest I would have told him that he was stupid. His reply was that the tyre had been fine the last time he'd looked. And what did I reckon to the cheap tyres available in the autojumble at that very event? Maybe he should get one?

I shrugged and remarked that I'd fit the best, not the least expensive. His motorcycle could very easily reach 125mph and the thought of hitting the road at that speed after a rapid deflation is unpleasant. However, the front tyre on the bike before us would have been excitement itself negotiating damp and greasy roundabouts, I think.

Tyres for Classic Bikes
Nortons (tyred) on ...

Actual choice of tyre is also a vexed subject. There is a wide range of the things available, and all of those offered legally are of a certain standard of something. I'm sorry to be vague, because I don't actually know what the relevant EU standards involve. Depth of tread? Softness of compound? Do they measure grip across a wide range of conditions and under the wildly variable performance extremes available? Is there a different standard for, say, a 125cc MZ and a Z1300 Kawasaki? I am aware of the manufacturer's speed ratings, of course, but how do these translate in practise? Have you read the writing on the wall recently? The tyre wall, that is.

Because although I buy only the best - and always new; how is buying a 'part-worn' tyre ever sensible? - rubberware for my motorcycles I am ever-aware that different makes, compounds and patterns can perform very differently on different motorcycles. The Norton Commander mentioned above, for example, steers with excellent accuracy when fitted with new Pirelli Phantoms, but like a shopping trolley when the rear is 2000 miles into its stride; about half-worn if you ride gently. Bridgestones don't work on it so well from new, but last longer before the wobbles set in. I've tried Dunlops, Metzelers and Avons, too, with varying degrees of delight.

This is of course the problem with attempting to produce a tyre 'test' for a magazine. Ignoring the different abilities of any two riders, as well as their weights (because for a tyre to perform at its best its pressure should be matched to the load it's carrying), the same make and model of tyres can feel completely different when fitted to different machines. Even machines which are supposedly the same. I ran a Norton Commando for a couple of years which handled superbly above a pair of Dunlop TT100s (the original K181s), although it was also OK on original Avon Roadrunners. The Commando which followed it through my hands (I am consistent in some things and unadventurous in others) was appalling on TT100s, wandering around so much that I thought it had a broken frame, or maybe forks with no springs in them, never mind oil. But no: fitted with Roadrunners it was suddenly fine.

There's a tiny message here. Two. Firstly, you are valuable; you owe it to the rest of us to look after yourself and to ride far and fast on tyres which are suited to riding far and fast … not bald, bone-hard relics of the 1980s. Second, unless you were delighted by and confident in the tyres you've just worn out and are about to replace, try something a little more modern, a tyre recommended by riders whose views you respect and who ride big miles on machines which are similar to your own. There will be plenty of those in the relevant owners' club. You are a member, of course…

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