Dear MOby,

Dovetailing into the article about how fast we’ve gotten… is the question of whether today’s “average” sport tire is as good as top-of-the-line racing tires of, let’s say, 30 years ago? Growing up in France (1965-’72) I saw incredible lean angles on OEM tires by guys riding stock bikes: CB350, H1, CB750… and this was street riding, often on cobblestone.

Sincerely,

Jong


Yup, and I remember watching guys on our trails jumping 80 feet in the air on Hodaka Combat Wombats as I pedaled asthmatically along trying to keep up on my 200-pound Huffy-10-speed. Not to question your memories, but lots of things seem to take on heroic proportions looking back 30 years, don’t they?

Not that you’re totally imagining things: Mike Hailwood on the Honda RC166 250cc six-cylinder.

No doubt at the time they looked like incredible lean angles to a 10-year old kid, and you may have observed Christian Sarron in training, who knows? But incredible lean angles for most riders with a self-preservation instinct only occur on race tracks, and nobody really even needed knee pucks until Kenny Roberts came along in the late ’70s. Granted, it was his new “hanging off” style that got his knees dragging; before that riders mostly stayed tucked in, and many of them did get leaned right over. KR’s advantage was his ability to over-ride the tires of the day, and slide the bike dirt-track style without falling off. Knee-on-pavement is really nothing more than an evolution of steel shoe-on-dirt.

Embed from Getty Images

Why did Goodyear quit making motorcycle tires?

What happened next, of course, was tire manufacturers attempting to build tires KR couldn’t slide. The biggest tire innovation occurred when Michelin and Pirelli both came up with radial motorcycle tires: In 1983, Freddie Burdette Spencer won the first Grand Prix on a 500cc bike with a Michelin radial rear tire (and went on to beat KR for the 500 title). In 1984, Pirelli’s new MP7 radial was standard equipment on the amazing new Honda VF1000R. In ’85, Randy Mamola became the first to win a GP (San Marino) with Michelin radials at both ends (while Freddie won both the 250 and 500cc titles). The radial undergoes less heat build-up than a conventional tire, which means longer life, softer rubber compounds and higher cornering speeds. The radial was a huge step forward; we’re still awaiting the next one. (Maybe it’s traction control, now ubiquitous on serious sport motorcycles.)

To answer your question as to whether today’s “average sport tire” is as good as a “top-of-the-line” racing tire 30 years ago, I’d say indubitably yes. I mean, they have to be, since bikes are all way more powerful than they were 30 years ago and lap times have fallen dramatically at every track in the world. That old aphorism “racing improves the breed” is probably truer about tires than any other motorcycle component, especially given the inscrutable nature of their manufacture. Pirelli, Michelin, Bridgestone and Dunlop have all used that line in at least a few of their ads over the years, and riding any of their recent high-performance DOT-legal street tires around the world’s racetracks has us MOrons believing it’s far from hype.

Herr Duke on DOT-approved Bridgestone R10 tires at Suzuki GSX-R1000’s Phillip Island intro.

Thirty years ago it was a big deal to drag your knee, a death-defying feat that spawned a million t-shirt sales, thousands of moronic (small “m”) how-to articles, and huge profits for purveyors of aftermarket bodywork. Today, if you can’t get your elbow down you might as well stay on the porch. Sure there’ve been huge improvements in frames and suspension. But the lion’s share of higher corner speeds and lower lap times is down to where the rubber meets the road. Tires.

I predict the next breakthrough will be VRCT: Variable Rubber Compound Technology. Your ECU will detect real-time traction and how aggressively you’re riding, and will send an electronic signal to the rubber molecules to stiffen up or go all gooey, depending. One set of tires will last 50,000 miles and will be perfectly adequate for everything from track riding to grand touring. Leaving the shop after purchasing a new $2000 pair, you will run over a drywall screw.


Send your moto-related questions to AskMOAnything@motorcycle.com. If we can’t answer them, we’ll at least make you feel temporarily better by thinking you’re talking to somebody who cares even if we don’t. Though come to think of it, we haven’t not been able to come up with a plausible answer that’s provably wrong yet. Hah! Snopes can’t touch us. And we do care, really we do.

Recent Ask MOs:

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  • JMDGT

    Supercorsa Diablos are the best tires I have ever used.

    • Mad4TheCrest

      They wear like chalk on a cheese grater but are god to the last drop!

    • Johnny Blue

      That’s what I thought about my Bridgestone S20 EVOs, which were much better than the Diablo Rosso I had before them. But then a few weeks ago I installed a fresh pair of Metzeler Roadtec 01 and suddenly I discovered that I have a new bike which does not resist initiating turns anymore. So at the moment I’m a Metzeler fan. The bike can turn so much easier. And wet pavement is a given around here on most days, summer, or winter. The amount of grip is amazing.

  • Larry Kahn

    But so many Kool Kustoms run Firestones from 200 years ago, they must be the best still.

  • It is truly amazing how tire technology has changed. 20 or 30 years ago no one would have guess that tires will communicate with ECUs and adjust according to the rider’s riding style.

  • Walter

    “Leaving the shop after purchasing a new $2000 pair, you will run over a drywall screw.”

    John, that is a vintage Cycle Magazine-worthy ending line.

    Well done.

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    • Jon Jones

      Horrifying, but true. I’ve had very unlucky customers return within ten minutes of installing new tires due to this.

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  • Mad4TheCrest

    It’s clear that racing tires have improved almost magically. It’s harder to see how vast the improvement is for street use tires, beyond that big step to tubeless radials mentioned in the article. Sizes and profiles have changed/grown, that’s clear, but the composition of the rubber is mostly hidden to most of us average riders. It’s clear tires for uses other than big twin cruisers or long haul touring are soft enough to not last very long compared to the old tires from back in the day, but unless you go to a track day it may be hard to recognize/remember grip differences. It’s hard to remember the past tires accurately and there aren’t auny new versions of those tires being made to A/B with modern rubber compositions to refresh our memories. Would be a cool test if you could though.

    • deadarmadillo

      Half-Vast. Also the wheel designers can’t seem to figure out how to locate a valve stem that you can get to.

      • Sayyed Bashir

        Usually the right brake disc gets in the way.

        • Jon Jones

          This is why I prefer flexible, short rubber stems. It’s OK to bend them over a bit to check and inflate tires if your gauge and/or chuck doesn’t line up perfectly. Replace them at the first sign of cracking.

      • Steve Erdosi

        Use 90deg valve stems.

        • Sayyed Bashir

          My 2007 Suzuki Bandit 1250S has chrome right angle stems installed by the previous owner.

      • BillW

        Modern BMWs have a valve stem embedded in the wheel spoke parallel with the axle, instead of in the rim aimed at the axle. Works pretty well.

        • DeadArmadillo

          Had a 2012 RT that had the front wheel valve stem pointing out, but the rear stem was in the regular position. That said, i think that Beemer had about the most user friendly system of the bikes I’ve had. But on another subject, the oil fill tube and oil level sight glass were on opposite sides of the bike??

          • BillW

            My 2004 RT had the same thing with the sight glass. My 2015 has the sight glass and fill both on the right side, and has right side spoke valves on both wheels.

          • Johnny Blue

            Having the oil level sight glass on the other side was good design. Prevented the occasional moron from overfilling the engine with oil. You pour a little bit at a time and by the time you walk on the other side of the bike and squint at the oil level, most of the oil would have flowed to the bottom of the engine allowing for a more precise read. 🙂

    • Gee S

      Sorry man, but I don’t need any kind of memory refresh to know how much street tires have improved over 30 years.

      30 years ago, tires like Continental Supertwins or Dunlop 591s meant that when it started to rain, you were going to die — lean angles, transmission of power or any braking power were proximate causes for pavement abrasion sampling.

      Do not ask how I know this. 😉

      Fast forward to today, and big tourers with tires like Avon Storms or Michelin Pilot Road 4s can corner, accelerate and brake in the rain like you were on dry pavement. On dry pavement they can routinely handle lean angles that were a stretch on my 1975 Sportbikes.

      Modern street tires — in the context of the street tires of 30 years ago — are PFM.

      The only thing more magical is the autonomous magical drywall screw.

      • Mad4TheCrest

        My pre-modem tire days go way back to the early eighties and even then I rolled on tubeless radials. I can’t recall the brands distinctly but I remember Yokohama and Goodyear. I racked up 10s of thousands of miles all over California in roads of every kind with no bad memories of tire-related scares or limitations. Of course being in SoCal i didn’t ride in rain much but do remember a mildly squirrelly front lock/slide coming down a wet freeway off-ramp. No drama though. Overall I would say the tires of the day were matched pretty well with the power and handling of the bikes of the day. Modern bikes have better chassis and power so need modern tires.

      • Jon Jones

        Used to love Metzeler Marathon ME88s on my GS1000s, particularly for rainy rides. Seems this is when tires started really getting good.

    • Sayyed Bashir

      Also tire rubber hardens over time so even if any old tires were found, the rubber would be like petrified wood..

  • Cam

    Fun article. Having commuted daily here in the Pacific NW for 15 years, I would also add that modern tire compounds have massively improved wet traction over tires even 10 years ago. Although it’s pouring today, I wasn’t worried about the pavement so much as the wet leaves….when is the next compound advance going to relieve me of THAT anxiety?!

    • Johnny Blue

      Install some leaf blowers in front of the bike to dry and clean your way as you ride. And you can charge the city for cleaning the roads too!

      • Cam

        I think the magical combination of one leaf blower & one propane-fueled flamethrower pointed ahead would be perfect. Of course, I’m possibly the most responsible motorcyclist who would only use this arrangement for good….not to spook hooligan bicyclists or melt the tires of distracted drivers….

        • Johnny Blue

          Ha, ha… believe it, or not, I did think about the flamethrower (only the napalm version), but I chose the leaf blower instead. I have no idea why.
          For the distracted drivers I’d like to have a teleportation device. Move them 100 miles away from their destination every time they are distracted. After a while they would really pay attention, or spend the eternity behind the wheel.

          • Burnerjack

            Speaking of ‘distracted drivers’, I have to ask: “when did the word ‘distracted’ take the place of ‘negligent’?”
            Truth be told (IMHO), when a person looks at their phone (or other) instead of the road in front of them, that’s not distracted, it’s negligence and used to be prosecuted as such.
            Now we live in an age of “Limited Personal Responsibility” so should an incident or worse occur, it’s deemed ‘due to distraction’ instead of putting the blame squarely of the negligent driver where it belongs.

          • Johnny Blue

            I don’t see distracted as replacing negligence. They are distracted, but the root cause for it is the negligence. I do however agree that we’ve become more lenient with negligent drivers. Or with those showing poor judgement.

          • Burnerjack

            Well, let me put it this way: Looking at your phone instead of where you’re going: negligence.
            Looking down because your scaldingly hot coffee just dumped into your lap: distracted.
            Both result in not watching the road, the former is willful while the latter is distraction.

          • Johnny Blue

            Well, I think both are the same. Eating and drinking while driving are not necessary, so any ‘distraction’ caused by handling food, or drinks is the result of negligence and it is indirectly willful. The hot coffee doesn’t just happen to jump in someone’s car. It is conscientiously brought in the car. When you’re operating a vehicle your full attention should be directed to that task. One needs to eat while driving even less than he needs to talk on the phone. Eating is never an emergency.

          • Burnerjack

            While that is all true and your point is valid, my point was that the phone was willful intent while the coffee scenario (while negligent on the outset) is an immediate and natural reaction to being burned. Maybe a poor example on my part but I hope you can see what I mean.

          • Johnny Blue

            I fully understand what you mean. I was only emphasising that neither scenario is excusable.

          • Jon Jones

            Good points for both of you.

          • Ken Olson

            It can be for a diabetic.

          • Johnny Blue

            I beg to differ Ken. A diabetic should pull over, get his sugar fix then wait for it to kick in and then continue driving.
            Or better he can work towards reversing this horrible disease which is largely metabolic. This is for type II, but even type I can benefit from this, reducing his insulin resistance and therefore the amount of insulin he needs:
            https://nutritionfacts.org/video/reversing-diabetes-with-food/

          • Jon Jones

            Nice.

    • Sayyed Bashir

      I dropped my 2007 Harley for the first time in 10 years, in my driveway, losing the front on a tiny pile of decomposed leaves.

      • Old MOron

        You and Evans can have a beer together!

        • Sayyed Bashir

          I love Mountain Dew.

  • toomanycrayons

    VRCT: Virtual Rider Conflation Technology?

    This will occur when the internet is invented: “I was as good as I remember I was.”

    “So was my equipment,” being the corollary.

    • johnbutnotforgotten

      my line to students is “i’m no longer as good as i used to think i was”

    • Larry Kahn

      “The older I get the faster I was.”

  • Jong Lee

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d121e892216682a0e277fdc41716b05f7a1767c9a4c16329375d8a3853d7989f.jpg
    Thanks for the well researched response. Would like to have a truly nail-proof tire.
    The knee/elbow-draggers of my time were actually toe-scrapers. I know memory is the second thing to go, but I do remember seeing guys dragging their toes on the pavement. That’s me in my Belstaff jacket (de rigueur!) trying to do as well – 1972 CE. CB125. Right now I ride a XSR900 and am pleasantly surprised at how the OEMs react to the ABS. I have felt the ABS modulate and the combination of suspension, frame, and tires still tracks true.
    Thanks again.

  • Rapier51

    I just remember that on my first modern bike, a 1982? Kawasaki KZ 750, that maximum braking was indicated when the front tire started chirping, ie. locking up a bit. The now ancient dual disk set up more than a match for the tires.

  • johnbutnotforgotten

    I hope the next breakthrough is a motorcycle tyre that lasts at least 1/4 as long as the ones on my M roadster.

  • Larry Kahn

    If your time frame was back to the late 60’s/70’s modern sport tires would make you swoon. The BIG deal in 1969 was when the Isle Of Man was first lapped at a hair over 100mph on street tires. The Dunlop K81 was given the name “TT100” and that was a triangular profile that gave you a flatter footprint when leaned over. Theoretically. If any of you that started riding in the 80’s or later rode on a pair of these you would be SO happy to get back on even the worst of the new stuff. Be grateful.

    • Jon Jones

      I remember a local pro who absolutely blistered K81s on his battered CB750. His advice of “trust good tires” made me a better, more confident rider.

  • BillW

    In one sense, though, it’s a tough comparison to make, because modern bikes have been engineered to take advantage of the changes in tires, and because today’s engineers know a hell of a lot more about how to make a bike handle. The tires have undoubtedly gotten better, but so have the bikes. It’s a system.

  • James Edward Zeiser

    I just wish there were tires that “Non-Racers” could buy. In the 1980s a rear tire
    would last about 12,000 miles while a front would go 30,000 easily. Not so today. A rear goes less than 6,000 and you’re lucky if a front lasts 10,000. I’m glad magazine writers can drag their elbows on Track Day with today’s tires but I would rather have longevity and use my head riding. Unlike today’s scribes I have to pay for my tires.

    • Johnny Blue

      And I am happy to take half the mileage, for much more grip. It’s the best insurance

      • Jon Jones

        Have to agree here.

      • James Edward Zeiser

        I can buy tires for my car with wear and traction ratings to suit my tastes. I don’t need race track grip for my riding style. It’s not insurance to me. It’s an annoying non-necessity. Tires are only available that don’t last and their not cheap. It shouldn’t be “Take it or leave it”. It’s not for automobiles, why is it that way for bikes? I shouldn’t be stuck with tires I don’t want with no alternative. That would be like forcing everybody to ride supersport bikes because they have all the bells and whistles and are safer technologically. There are choices for bikes. Why not tires.

        • Johnny Blue

          There are choices for motorcycle tires. Most manufacturers offer a range of tires from one extreme to the other. At one end of the spectrum are the racing tires, the slicks, non DOT, then you have DOT with race compounds (soft, medium, hard), then you get supersport tires for the road, then there are the street tires, built for longevity. But you can’t expect a manufacturer to sell you very hard tires, for a 150+ HP motorcycle. I don’t know what bike(s) you ride, but with increased horsepower come the softer tires which offer plenty grip. Nobody is going to build tires only for yourself, because you claim to have a conservative riding style. And even the most careful rider out there can get into a bad situation. Then you’re going to sue the tire company that your tires didn’t have enough grip and you got injured.

          • James Edward Zeiser

            I have used a broad spectrum of tires in the past few years and none have lasted beyond 6,000 in the rear. You have struck upon the core issue “you’re going to sue the tire company that your tires didn’t have enough grip and you got injured”.
            No I’m not. If I put myself into a situation that requires Race track grip to get away with it, that’s my bad. All the tire companies are building tires to keep the lowest common denominator alive. I haven’t gotten anywhere near that bad a situation since I started street riding in 1973. Most of my peers either. We are saddled with compounds that work really well on the truck but just don’t flat last. Read Cycle World’s extended tests. They toss tires at 3,000 miles on most bikes. I’m not that rich. I have a hard enough time justifying the tires now. Any more “Grip” and I’ll have to retire.

          • Johnny Blue

            I’m pretty sure the guys at Cycle World are well above average riders. I used to go to many track days a few years ago. My tires would last 2-4 track days, while expert riders would shred a set in less than a day. So what the guys at Cycle World are doing is not necessarily an indication of tire mileage capabilities.
            Also, it’s not about what situations you’re going to get yourself into, but what others would put you in. Granted, maybe it happens once every few years if you’re very defensive, but it can and given enough time it will happen.
            6000 miles really don’t tell the whole story. Maybe your bike is heavy and powerful and you ride two up. It will wear tires faster. Do you inflate them properly?
            Do you ride the same bike you did in 73? Does your current bike have the same power/weight? I would think not. I think you have a lot better bike now than you had in the 80s. Even for cars, nobody will sell you a Porsche with minivan tires…
            Maybe if you get a lighter, less potent bike, your tires will last longer and/or be cheaper. I don’t know your situation, but I hope you’ll keep riding… It’s too good to let it go because of a few extra $s spent on tires. You don’t need to justify anything. If it makes you happy, it’s worth it!

          • James Edward Zeiser

            I’m riding a 1983 Kawasaki 750 Spectre. Tires are burning up faster than they did back when it was new. My Honda Rebel at a whopping 331 pounds is smoking off tires at the 6,000 mile for a rear rate, 10,000 for the front and yes, I’m checking air pressures.
            No. Today’s tires are all race track ready but not suitable for long life. I blame liability issues for the softer tires. It might make corporate lawyers happy but it’s ticking me off.
            Not only that but the softer they are, the more tires they sell for sure.

  • Jon Jones

    Have to give a shout-out to Suzuki here. Pretty sure the ’88 GSXR750 was the first mass-production bike to utilize the now-ubiquitous 17″/17″ wheel sizes that are still the sportbike standard to this day. Even the tire profiles and widths are still close to today’s: 120/60 and 160/60.

    Right?

  • Bill Oakes

    I just read an article in a local bike mag that finally confirmed what I have experienced.
    Sportbike tires are horrible in cold weather. The full dressers have better traction than the “sticky” tires on your sport bike. Be careful out there. This can be a great excuse to buy another motorcycle like a cruiser or touring bike !!! Be safe out there and keep the shiny side up!

    • Johnny Blue

      Do you have a link to that article? Or it was in print?
      It depends on what you call a sportbike tire. If it’s designed for track days and/or racing it’s true. They need to be ridden hard to get them to the optimal temperature. And then they grip like glue. But they only last a few heat cycles and take a lot longer to warm up. Tire warmers have been invented for a purpose after all.
      But more street oriented sportbike tires are different. They warm up quickly and grip really well in traffic conditions. I ride on them. Often near freezing temp in the winter. Believe me, they do grip like nothing else. Wet and cold grip is superb.

      • Bill Oakes

        It was in Thunder Roads.
        ” While Touring tires with their hard rubber compound are generally more suitable for cold weather, sportier tires are not. The sportier the tire the softer the rubber. This is fantastic in hot weather and gives them their sticky characteristics which aid traction. In the cold, they’re hard and that traction is gone.”

        • Johnny Blue

          I think that’s rubbish. Winter tires for cars are softer than summer tires. All rubber becomes harder when cold.
          There is a difference indeed between racing compounds and street, with the latter warming up faster and resisting a lot more heat cycles. I’m riding on sportbike tires. They grip well.

          • Bill Oakes

            40’s on down and My Ducati Diavel rear tire spins if you apply too much juice same with the ZX14.

          • Johnny Blue

            Those bikes will spin the tire in any conditions if you apply too much throttle. And I’m sure harder, longer lasting tires would spin easier.
            Today we had 32. Frozen windows on cars. Plenty grip on my Metzelers Roadtec 01. As it was last couple winters on my Bridgestone S20 EVOs. And the Pirellis Diablo I had before. All on the same bike. A 2003 CBR954RR Fireblade with 147ish HP at the wheel. Not the most powerful, but not slow either. And no electronics to control the power delivery, obviously.
            What makes a whole lot of difference is the tire pressure. I run them 30-32PSI front and 36-38 rear.

          • Bill Oakes

            2 years ago in winter. Temps in 20’s and I could hardly get the rear tire on the Diavel to hook up at all. This was just starting out on the road and no warm up. Hard to warm up when there isn’t a warm road.
            Went to school in VT, 1/2 hr from Canada, and had a girlfriend who was two years behind me. Would ride 6 1/2 hrs in below freezing temps from southern NY as long as there wasn’t snow on the road. Been winter riding since 1983 and two weeks ago I made a right turn with the ZX14. No traffic, right turn, still slightly leaned over and apply a little throttle.Tire just spins.