Motorbike tyre advice: know your bike’s boots
Tyres are the most important part on your bike – your sole connection with the road for the overwhelming majority of the time.
- Related: Best tyre pressure gauges
There’s a lot to know about your bike’s boots, though. In this article we’ve grouped the most important aspects together, so it’s your one-stop-shop for all you need to know about motorcycle tyres.
- How to pick the best motorcycle tyres for you
- What pressure should my tyres be?
- Finding the perfect trackday tyre pressure
- Motorbike tyre sizes explained
- Scrubbing in your tyres
- How to change motorcycle tyres at home
- How to check tyre tread depth
- How to check tyre condition
- Motorbike tyres when carrying a pillion
- Motorbike tyre reviews on MCN
Motorcycle tyres all look black and round, but you wouldn’t believe how much difference there is between tyre genres.
For many the sheer choice of rubber out there is bewildering. It’s not helped by the fact that just about any tyre on any bike will feel kind of ok, even if it’s the wrong one.
Lots of riders stick to the tyre they and their friends like, but they could be missing out, because choosing the right type of tyre is essential to getting the most out of your bike and riding.
There are basically three types of tyre for the road: sports, sports touring and fast road/track. Then there are another two for the circuit: trackday and racing.
On the face of it choosing the right rubber seems easy, but what really is the best tyre for you and what happens if you choose the wrong one?
To find out we’ve gathered all five genres of 17” rubber from a single manufacturer: Dunlop and we’ll put them through a number of scientific tests at their Mireval facility in the south of France. These tyre categories are indicative of what’s available from Dunlop and most other leading manufacturers.
All five tyre genres: the test
A low speed, second gear (on tickover) figure of eight course will reveal how each tyre affects steering effort, a wet handling course unlocks what happens when the heavens open and high-speed track work will uncover a tyre’s potential at the limit. I’m learning the track as the day progresses and my lap times naturally get faster, so we’ve included the times of Dunlop’s test rider, who knows the track’s every stone and tyre’s behaviour as a gauge.
The bike we’re using… and its modes
We’re using a Yamaha R1 as our testing instrument, which will give us consistent results throughout our test. Electronics are turned down, or off, so awe don’t mask tyre behaviour.
- Power mode: B
- Traction control: 1 (minimum)
- Slide control: Off
- Brakes: Race pads, braided lines with ABS connected.
Genre 1: Sports touring tyres (Example: Dunlop Roadsmart III)
- Tyre highlights: Wear-resistant, rain-friendly multi-compound designed. Big grooves for water dispersion.
- Cold pressures (f/r): 36/42psi
- Dunlop test rider’s lap time: 1:23.0
- Neeves’s lap time: 1:30.0
Sports touring tyres have evolved to the point where they’re as happy on trackdays as they are touring, in all weathers, all year round. They’re durable and stable, but that comes at the expense of a lack of outright grip and sportiness.
At low speed: As soon as they start rolling these tyres are ready to go. They give instant confidence, letting you steer the bike with pushbike-light ease and keeping on line with the lightest of touches on the bars. These are characters that will suit almost every riding condition on the road from sub-zero to sunny temperatures.
At high speed: Sports touring tyres aren’t designed for the track, but they actually perform very well. These Dunlops are used by the Honda Ron Haslam Race School on everything from CBR125s to Blade SPs. Front grip and steering accuracy isn’t too different to the sports tyre, but the rear has significantly less side grip, although there’s plenty of feel for when it lets go. For road riding grip won’t be a problem, but for crisper steering and lighter handling sportier tyres are the ones to go for.
In the wet: As you’d expect, sport touring rubber is the best in the wet. Compared to all the other tyres here it’s almost like riding in the dry thanks to the amount of grip and confidence they give under braking, acceleration and lean angle.
Best for bikes: Nakeds, super nakeds, sportsbikes, tourers, sports tourers, sports adventure and pure adventure bikes.
Most suited type of rider: Year-round commuting, all-weather riding, touring fan.
Riding type: 99% road-based, but will handle a gentle trackday.
Genre 2: Sports (Example: Dunlop Sportsmart 2 Max)
- Tyre highlights: Silica-rich multi-compound for wet performance and sporty profiles for easy steering.
- Cold pressures (f/r): 36/36psi
- Dunlop test rider’s lap time: 1:21.4
- Neeves’s lap time: 1:26.9
Lighter, gripper and quicker steering than sports touring tyres these are designed for more fair-weather riding and occasional trackday use, but still won’t let you down when you get caught in bad weather.
At low speed: These have the same neutral steering character as the sports touring tyres, but take a few moments longer to come up to temperature, but there isn’t much in it. They give our R1 test bike a lighter, more agile and you’ve guessed it, ‘sportier’ feel at the bars.
At high speed: Sports tyres are generally lighter than sports touring tyres (they don’t have such a meaty layer of long-life rubber) and more rounded profiles for quicker steering. The R1 is easier to flick through corners and the front has impressive grip. It’s still easy to unhook the rear with the first tap of throttle, but once you’re driving the rear tyre digs in hard.
In the wet: Again, these sports tyres have a similar feel to their touring counterparts in the wet. Ultimate grip and confidence isn’t quite as high, but they don’t spring any surprises or heart in the mouth moments.
Best for bikes: Nakeds, super nakeds, sportsbikes, superbikes and sports adventure bikes.
Most suited type of rider: The more spirited, sporty rider.
Riding type: A and B road blasting and the occasional trackday.
Genre 3: Fast road/track (Example: Dunlop Sportsmart TT)
- Tyre highlights: Front construction and profile identical to racing tyre. Limited grooves for maximum dry grip.
- Cold pressures (f/r): 30/22psi
- Dunlop test rider’s lap time: 1:19.0
- Neeves’s lap time: 1:23.6
Sandwiched in between sports and road compound trackday rubber this tyre genre has enjoyed a renaissance over the past year with riders fitting them to nakeds as well as sportsbikes They’re superb on road and truly capable on track.
At low speed: The first stage of our test with these tyres sets the scene and show how this genre of tyre manage to combine the best bits of road and track tyres. They’re neutral handling, but now the steering starts to feel on the heavy side compared to the sports touring tyres.
At high speed: Where the sports and sport touring rubber have similar characters, save for rear grip, now performance leaps up a level, knocking on the door of pukka trackday tyres. No tyre warmers are needed, but after a lap they’re good to go. Front grip and turning is sublime and you have to be ultra aggressive on the throttle at full lean to get the rear to move.
In the wet: You’d never believe a 50/50 road/track tyre would be so capable in the wet, but it is. It’s one of the surprises of the test. In fact some Dunlop endurance teams use the TT as a racing intermediate in drying track conditions, which shows its true versatility.
Best for bikes: Fast nakeds, super nakeds, sports and superbikes.
Most suited type of rider: Quick rider on road and track
Riding type: Fast roads and serious track action
Genre 4: Trackday (Example: Dunlop GP Racer Slick D212)
- Tyre highlights: Race-derived construction, multi-compounds and profile. NTEC rear allows low track pressures for maximum grip and stability.
- Cold pressures (f/r): 30/17.5
- Dunlop test rider’s lap time: 1:19.0
- Neeves’s lap time: 1:22.9
Unlike racing rubber, trackday tyres don’t need tyre warmers to work, won’t suffer from heat cycle degeneration and operate in a wide track temperature window. Like these Dunlops many are available in treaded or slick versions.
At low speed: Although these are still road tyres (the treaded versions, obviously) and don’t need tyre warmers for use, these have harder, endurance racing-type compounds and take longer to come up to temperature. Bars need a firmer input to keep the Yamaha on course to stop it sitting up and going straight on.
At high speed: Loaded with the grippy character of the fast road/track tyre, these let you corner that bit faster, beg you to let go of the brake earlier to rush in quicker and get on the throttle harder. Unlike race rubber this type of tyre works in a wide track temperature window and don’t degrade through continual heat cycles.
In the wet: Slicks on a wet track is a recipe for disaster, but treaded road compound trackday tyres will be ok in the wet at slow speed, but don’t generate the heat to give you the grip of more road-focused rubber.
Best for bike: Sports and trackday bikes
Most suited type of rider: Dedicated circuit head
Riding type: UK and European trackdays
Genre 5: Racing (Example: Dunlop D213GP PRO)
- Tyre highlights: Different compound options to suit track temperature, conditions and race length. Require a high tyre temperature to work correctly.
- Pressures (f/r): 30/14.5psi
- Dunlop test rider’s lap time: 1:18.0
- Neeves’s lap time: 1:21.6
Racing tyres operate in such a narrow window they only make sense for competition on a racing bike. They need tyre warmers to work properly and the heat kept in them in use and will tear to shreds if you use the wrong compound.
At low speed: This test demonstrates perfectly why race tyres are pointless on the road. Without the heat they need to work properly all our R1 wants to do is sit up straight and it takes a big effort to keep it on line around the figure of eight. Unless you can ride hard enough to keep temperature in tyre-warmed competition rubber, they’ll be worse than road tyres on the street in every way. Fitting race scrubs might look cool, but they’ll never work as well as you think.
At high speed: For just a second, or so, improvement over trackday rubber, race tyres are finicky beasts to manage. They need tyre warmers to work properly and to be able to set the correct pressure. Unless you choose the right compound for the track temperature they’ll tear and degrade badly through heat cycles, so not the best choice for trackdays. They’re too good for a road bike on road suspension, so you can’t get the best out of them. Only a professional racer will ever get close to the exploiting the grip they offer.
In the wet: Forget it.
Best for bikes: Fully-prepared race machine.
Most suited type of rider: Racer
Riding type: Competition
Checking your bike tyre pressures on a weekly basis is a really good habit to get into.
Not only will you ensure that your handling stays sweet, but simply crouching down to check pressures and condition of the rubber will help you spot any other adjustments that may be needed to the chain or brakes.
Motorbike tyre pressure tips
- Tyre pressures should always be checked when the tyres are cold. As a rule of thumb, tyres are considered cold when they haven¹t been used for three hours or have travelled for less than a mile.
- Petrol station gauges are better than they used to be, but there’s no substitute for your own gauge, either digital, or the pencil type (and don’t forget to replace the valve cap). If the tyre seems to be losing 5-10% a week, check that there isn’t a small leak from the valve itself. Get some spit on the tip your finger and draw it across the valve so that it forms a film. If it starts to bubble up you know you need to replace the valve.
A trackday is a great opportunity to test tyre pressures to find the optimum. Road tyres have to work from the minute they start rolling from the garage, when they are cold, so industry advice is to check the pressures when they are cool.
How long they take to become cool after a ride takes depends on the ambient temperature, but a good rule of thumb for a typical British summer day is about 45 minutes.
When it comes to the actual pressures, our recommendation is 36psi front, 42psi rear for road use, dropping four psi front and rear before you start caning it on the track.
Don’t forget to go return to road pressures at the end of the day, especially if you’re riding home from the trackday.
A common question around the size of your bike’s tyres is what the numbers and letters actually mean. For example, what on earth does “120/70 ZR17 M/C (58W)” refer to?
Let’s break it down into its constituent parts. The first part is the tyre’s width in millimetres, so it’s 120mm wide. The next bit is the aspect ratio, meaning its height expressed as a percentage of width. Here it’s 70% of 120mm, or 84mm tall.
It’s the tyre’s speed rating and type of construction next, so ZR refers to the speed rating Z (capable of being ridden above 149mph) and the construction type R (radial). The 17 refers to the diameter of your wheel in inches, so 17”. M/C simply denotes a motorcycle tyre.
Finally, the 58W is the speed rating and load index respectively. “W” means it’s rated for a maximum speed of 270km/h at its correct pressure and under load, while “58” tells us it’s rated to carry up to 236kg.
Head here to read the table showing the speed ratings and load index.
Wondering whether you need to scrub that new set of boots in? The answer’s yes, despite modern technology.
Jim Worland, Metzeler UK Director, told MCN: “There’s a big misconception that tyre moulds have a release agent and that needs to be worn off before the tyre will start to grip. That’s not the case with our tyres, the moulds are highly polished and the tyre comes out easily.
“When you start riding on a new tyre, it’s not just the contact patch that needs bedding in, it’s the whole structure. There are a lot of components including the steel belt, aramid fibres, nylon, rayon, silica, carbon black, oils and a complex mix of elastomers.
“Then there is how the tyre is fitted on the rim, ensuring the beads are properly seated. It’s a running-in process similar to a new bike and it’s important to get the structure working in harmony with the wheel and giving the rider confidence-inspiring feedback.
“One thing that can affect your tyre’s initial performance is how it’s been stored at the dealer or warehouse, as extended exposure to UV light can affect the compound performance.”
Learning how to change your own tyres means that you’re free to take advantage of some of the amazing, mail order tyre deals on offer. That said, changing tyres at home is a fairly physical task and the larger the tyre, the harder the task becomes.
Fat 190 and 200 section, stiff carcass sports tyres can leave you sweating and swearing, wishing you weren’t such a tight arse and had taken it to the local dealer instead. And you also have to make the initial outlay on fitting paraphernalia such as bead breaker, balancer, levers and soap.
Then you have to work out what to do with the old tyre once you’ve removed it, because they won’t accept it down at your local household recycling centre, which means if you’re anything like me, they’ll end up being piled up in the corner of your garage for all eternity.
Here’s MCN’s step-by-step guide to changing motorbike tyres at home:
Stand for action
Put the bike on a suitable stand that will allow the wheels to be removed safely. Use paddock stands, a swingarm pivot stand, or your bike’s centrestand, and tether if necessary. These devices give much more safety than simply propping the bike up with a jack, which could be easily knocked as you wiggle your wheels free.
Pop the valve
Before you remove the wheel, check the tyre you’re about to fit is the correct type and size. Remove the wheel and make a note of the wheel rotation, as it’s often not so obvious once the wheel is out. Place the wheel on a surface that won’t damage the finish. Undo the dust cap then use a valve key to remove the valve.
Break the bead
You will need a mechanical bead breaker to force the tyre off the rim. Apply pressure as close to the rim as possible to focus the force on the lowest part of the sidewall. Deploy enough force and the bead will pop of the rim and into the well of the tyre. Rotate the wheel and progressively push the rest of the tyre off the rim.
Push and shove
Flip the wheel over and use the bead breaker on the other side. With the tyre now off the rim on both sides, now’s the time to apply a bit of technique. The tyre will have a tendency to sit back on to the rim, so you need to push the tyre into the well of the wheel using your hands and knees prior to levering. It’s tricky and fairly strenuous.
Lever it off
Place a rim protector at 12 o’clock and another next to it. Holding the tyre off the bead with your knees, insert a lever between the rim and protector, place another 3in away. Apply pressure to the first lever until the tyre flattens, then do the same with the other. Continue around the tyre.
With one side free, insert a lever under the outside of the bead still on the wheel and, using a thick cloth or rag for protection, lever it over the rim. Strike the edge of the tyre close to the rim with a rubber mallet to knock the tyre off. Take care as sometimes the wheel can be spat out by the tyre.
Push it on
Clean the inside of the wheel, particularly the area where the tyre seals. Lube the bead of the new tyre with tyre soap then offer it up to the wheel, making sure the rotation is correct. Place the tyre on the rim and push on and away from you, using the most force nearest you. As it pops over the rim, slowly transfer the force to the furthest edge and it will pop on.
On your marks
With one side of the tyre on the rim, look for a yellow dot stamped on the sidewall, this indicates where the valve needs to be. Spin the tyre on the rim until the valve lines up with this mark. Doing this will help reduce the number of wheel weights needed to balance the wheel, and will also act as a reference to see if the tyre has spun on the rim.
Lever on and inflate
Start to lever the tyre on using two levers at once, and use your knees to keep the bead away from the rim. If the tyre becomes extremely hard to lever it’s possible the bead will need pushing off the other side. Inflate the tyre with the valve core removed. When the tyre has popped on both sides of the wheel, fit the valve and set the correct pressure.
A fine balance
Place the wheel on the balancer with the dust cap fitted. Remove any stickers and old wheel weights. Spin the wheel, when the wheel settles the light spot will be at 12 o’clock, clean this area of rim and apply a weight. Turn the wheel to the 3 o’clock position and if it doesn’t move the wheel is balanced. If it still creeps around, add or remove weights as necessary.
Top tools for changing your tyres at home
- Bead breaker (£61) – this robust Abba bead breaker works by applying downward pressure on to the bead of a tyre and helps take the effort out of popping a tyre off the rim. It works with tyres up to 200 section.
- Tyre levers (£15) – same principle as the spoons you used as a kid when changing your bicycle tyres, but motorcycle levers are a bit more robust and feature shaped ends to dig under the bead. They usually come in a kit including plastic rim protectors.
- Wheel balancer (£96) – a basic stand featuring a selection of different sized spindles which rest on roller bearings. This Abba balancer is accurately welded to ensure it stays true at all times. Cheaper versions are available from as little as £30.
- Valve key (£2.50) – just the ticket for extracting that pesky little valve. All bikes and cars use a Schreder-type valve which features a threaded core at its heart. This tool will unscrew the core, and it’s very satisfying to use.
As well as inflating them correctly, the Law says that the grooves of the tread pattern must have a depth of a least 1mm throughout a continuous band measuring at least three-quarters of the breadth of the tread and round the entire outer circumference of the tyre.
As quite a few bike tyres have grooves that don’t extend beyond three-quarters of the breadth of the tread any groove of the original pattern must have a minimum depth of at least 1mm.
That’s the absolute minimum and 2mm is when we’d change our rubber as the tyre’s profile will have altered by then.
Buy yourself a tread depth gauge at your local car accessories shop.
Regular close inspection of a tyre is important, as cuts weaken the tyre’s construction and may be deeper than you think.
Carrying a pillion or luggage can lead to tyre damage. Refer to the owner’s manual for correct tyre pressures with a load. If this isn’t available, a good tip is to add 3psi to both tyres until the correct figure can be obtained from your dealer.
Buying a secondhand bike is stressful, and worrying about the condition of the engine can mean missing out on other areas – tyres are arguably as important as the motor. Check the tyres are in good nick, especially on older bikes with original tyres – tyres perish if left in sunlight or if they have come into contact with fuel or oil.
A punctured tyre can be temporarily repaired as long as the puncture isn’t too big (fingernail size penetration) and is on the treaded area only – never ever on the tyre’s sidewalls. Any repair (sealing mousse or internal mushroom patch/plug) must be treated as temporary and the tyre replaced asap. The running speed of the bike must also be reduced as heat can weaken the repair. Repairs should not be carried out to tyres of over speed rating ‘Z’ (149mph – most 600cc bikes and above) – how would you feel if your secondhand GSX-R’s unknown repair blew out at that speed? Larger holes shouldn’t be repaired as the inner carcass is more likely to have been damaged.
A leaking (Schrader) tyre valve core – detected by placing spit on top of the valve to see if it bubbles up – can be cured by tightening the core with a valve key (above left). Replace the core or valve if it still leaks after tightening. Also note that hot air expands, so the core might only leak when the tyre is hot and the air pressure within has grown.
Valve caps are important to retaining air inside a tyre – any flash, gimmicky caps that don’t have a rubber-sealing ring inside them should be thrown away. Why? The seal prevents dust from entering the valve core, causing it to stick. It might also stop all the air from escaping in one hit if the valve core works loose.
Although tyres are made to exacting standards, there is always an imbalance between a new tyre and the rim. An unbalanced tyre will cause vibration and accelerate tyre wear. Balancing by use of weights is best left to dynamic machine balancers as they can detect exactly which part of the rim needs added weight.
A lot of bikers don’t bother changing their tyre pressures for when they carry a pillion, but it is advisable to do so. If you have it handy, refer to the owner’s manual for correct tyre pressures for carrying pillions. If you don’t have the manual handy then it’s best to add 3psi – 5psi to account for the extra weight.