Earlier this spring, a friend rode his Suzuki TU250X from Santa Fe to the west coast and back. On the way back, he got hammered by winds that were almost enough to exhaust that little single-cylinder 250 into a low gear and wore himself out keeping the bike on the road. Yesterday, I did a piddly 50-mile round-trip ride in my local area. On the way back, I experienced 30-40mph side and head winds and re-discovered the joys of skating on a motorcycle. The bike, literally, slides a foot or so across the lane when a big gust hits it strongly. It’s not that different from riding on loose gravel or even a sandy country road, but it’s a little disconcerting and definitely tiring after a few miles. And I wasn’t loaded up with a week’s worth of gear and camping gear, so my experience was a small sub-set of his on the high plains of Idaho. Still, it brought back a lot of memories about motorcycle tire evolution in my lifetime and experience.
When I bought my first street bike, a ‘80 Honda CX500, I got my first taste of getting hammered by the wind when I rode that bike from Omaha to California in 1983 to start a new job. Between Omaha and western Kansas on my first day of the ride, I got my ass kicked by strong winds constantly blowing that oversized, under-powered boat from one side of the highway to the other. Since that bike had barely more than 1,000 miles on the odometer, I’m fairly certain it was still wearing the stock tires when I evacuated the Midwest for California. Probably 4-ply, bias-belted, symmetrically patterned tires like the ones in the Honda ad picture to the left and above. Those tires were consistently awful on waffle-steel bridges, gravel, newly paved roads with loose grit, wet surfaces, and any irregular surface. Not that great on regular surfaces, either. And, of course, the bike was more like a sailing ship than a land vehicle in the wind.
Not long after arriving in California, I had to reshoe my bike and the first tires I remember making a difference were Dunlop Elites. The tire in the picture to the right is the newer Dunlop Elite 3, but the treat pattern is essentially the same as I remember from the first gen Elites, more or less. The trick is increased contact patch, irregular grooves in the tire to move water away from the contact patch, and the difference in the ride and stability was revolutionary. Most of the problems I complained about in the above paragraph vanished with the Dunlop shoes. Especially wet surface stability and grated bridges became mostly non-issues. And I stuck with those tires on all of my bikes except the two dual purpose bikes I owned for the next 8 years. The last bike to wear Elites was my XTX550 Yamaha Vision. I moved from California to Indiana to Colorado with that bike and a Yamaha XT350 Enduro.
Not long after moving to Denver (Parker, actually), I stumbled on to a killer deal on an 850 Yamaha TDM and that bike, owned by a doctor who farkled up the bike to the max but rarely rode it, came with Michelin radials. They were, as I remember, tires that I’d considered out of my budget up to then, but I don’t remember what model of tire they were. What I do remember is that the TDM was the most stable, sure-footed motorcycle I had ever ridden at speed on any surface. From that bike on, every motorcycle I’ve owned that could take a tubeless tire got high-end radials: from my TDMs to my SV650 to my V-Strom. And all of those motorcycles and tires convinced me that weight, style, and the rest of the excuses motorcyclists use for “needing” a large, heavy, unwieldy motorcycle are clueless.
But yesterday, back on a small motorcycle with old-fashioned bias belted tires, I was thrown back in time to the bad-old-days when tires were designed intuitively rather than using science and engineering. I have a pair tires in the garage waiting to be installed, but the miser in me wanted to get at least enough use out of the damn 10-year-old OEM Cheng-Shin CS Marquis Chinese junk to satisfy something-or-other waste-wise. Before writing this essay, I hadn’t really looked at the OEM tires. After writing “10-year-old OEM Cheng-Shin CS Marquis” I realized how stupid that argument is. Those tires were installed on the bike to protect the rims in shipping. No rational person would be dumb enough to ride a motorcycle on public roads wearing those sad faux-tires.