Oct 12, 2022

There Are Tires and There Are Tires

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 bias-belted Dunlop Elites. 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.

Oct 10, 2022

Life Is A Small Window

Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done since sometime in mid-2018, I rode my TU250X about 50 miles from my small town home to the Twin Cities to meet a friend for lunch. I know that seems like a small thing and 5 years ago if someone like me described that as an “event” I’ve have worked hard to politely nod my head in acknowledgement without at least grinning a little. 10 years ago, I’d have laughed. I was/am an asshole, I know, but I did start calling myself a “geezer” (in a monthly publication and in this blog) when I was 50, so it’s not like that is some kind of sudden realization. For the most part, the 120 mile round trip was uneventful, in a good way. The TU is absolutely competent in normal city traffic and I’m still moderately competent, when my eyes are working correctly. My biggest problem yesterday was the fact that I’m definitely a lot more sensitive to light than I was pre-cataract surgery, so I’m stuck wearing glasses inside my full face helmet and face shield when the sun is out. Two sets of lenses puts some stress on my MG (myasthenia gravis) weakened left eye, which made managing double-vision symptoms difficult for a few miles. As soon as the sun went below the horizon and I could dump the glasses I was fine.

MG isn’t a curable disease. It will continue to plague me until it or something else puts me in the dirt. Yesterday was an anomaly from my last 4 years of life and, as such, it was a brief open window of freedom. People like me who have mostly skated through life without many injuries or problems that weren’t self-inflicted naturally forget that this life we enjoy and take for granted won’t last. Sooner rather than later, the window of life that we learn is “normal” when we are young begins to close and, if you are half-aware, you learn to appreciate the moments of fresh air that you still have. Yesterday’s ride was a true moment when that window opened and I was allowed to feel that “I’m not dead yet.”

In fact, riding home as the sun went down, there was a brief moment when the sun going down in a blaze of yellow, orange and red, blue and purple cloud cover on my right was spectacularly balanced by a huge, bright orange full harvest moon rising on my left. That lasted for about 5 miles and 5 minutes of when I rode along the ridge of two valleys before turning east and riding down into the Mississippi River Valley toward home. I got a glimpse of the moon just as I came down the last rise toward my home stretch, but after getting the bike parked, unwrapping myself from my ‘Stich, when I tried to show that natural wonder to my wife it was hidden behind cloud cover. Another brief window of life.