"Crashing," a wise old motorcyclist once observed, "sucks."
To avoid this form of suction, you can hone your skills, learn to anticipate threats in traffic, dress to make yourself conspicuous to other drivers and keep your motorcycle in peak condition. The last two strategies require the least effort, but surprisingly, motorcyclists seem to adopt them less frequently than the others. Most motorcyclists swaddle themselves in basic, hard-to-see black, and cruiser riders seem particularly enamored with the black-is-beautiful fashion philosophy. But that's not the point of this column.
The other neglected safety strategy is motorcycle condition. Two critical items that seem to be most ignored are brake fluid and tires. I am amazed at how many brake levers feel mushy when I squeeze them. I don't know if it's caused by air in the lines or old fluid that has absorbed water, or both, but the solution is the same: bleed the brakes and install fresh fluid at least every other year. It's cheap and easy.
It's Only Flat on One Side
A tire gauge is the first...
A tire gauge is the first tool any motorcyclist should buy. This Radio Shack talking gauge is useful if you check tires in a dark garage because it announces the pressure. It was $15, but a $5 pencil gauge should do the job.
However, the only equipment problem that shows up at any extent as a factor in motorcycle accident statistics is tire deflation or failure. Users of tube-type tires, found on most cruisers with wire-spoke wheels, increase their chances of experiencing the thrill of a sudden tire deflation, but it can happen with tubeless tires as well. If you have ever experienced a rapid tire deflation, usually called a blow-out, you know how exciting it can be, even if you don't crash as a result. If you are moving at highway speeds, you are suddenly riding a bike that is horrifically unstable and doesn't steer very well at all. Just trying to get to the shoulderand stay there as you roll to a stopcan be quite a challenge. If you are in heavy traffic or a corner, things could be quite grim. I have never had a front tire blow out on a motorcycle, but I suspect it's even worse.
Motorcycle tires are both simpler and more complex than brake fluid, but even more vital. Everything a moving motorcycle does relies on those two little hand-print-sized patches where the rubber meets the road. If your tires are not in peak condition, your motorcycle can't steer, stop or accelerate as effectively as it should.
The tires on our bikes are amazingly tough, but they confront an imposing array of threats. Potholes, punctures, slashes, and accelerated wear from lock-up and wheelspin are everyday hazards that can ruin or degrade your tires' condition in an instant. You can't always avoid these dangers, but you can check to see if they have inflicted any visible damage to your tires. Do you inspect your tires for visible damage before every ride? Every day you ride? Once a week? Once a month? If you said yes to any of those, you are probably doing better at it than most riders.
A lift or simple leverage-style...
A lift or simple leverage-style jack can make tire inspection more easy by raising the wheel and tire off the ground so you can spin it. Our affordable Craftsman Motorcycle Jack has proved handy for this.
To be sure, cruiser manufacturers and fashion don't make it easy to inspect your tires. You can count on your thumbs the number of current cruiser models with centerstands. Add in full fenders, long pipes, and other accoutrements that make it hard to see more than a sliver of tire, and tire inspection becomes a challenge. You either need to have someone to help you roll the bike while you look at the tread and sidewalls, or you need a workstand to do it by yourself. Of course, some things, such as advanced wear or unusual wear patterns are easy to spot, particularly up front.
Some things can be checked without viewing the entire perimeter of the tire. You can easily check valve stems, for example. A tilted valve stem on a tube-type tire is trouble. It usually means the tube has been spun on the wheel, which can pull the stem loose. The valve core should also be seated tightly. Avoid flimsy valve stem caps, and use caps with sealing rubber O-rings inside. Check that balance weights are firmly attached. Look for dented or cracked rims. If you find a bad rim on a wire-spoke wheel, consider replacing it with cast or billet wheel that you can run with a tubeless tire. (See the billet-wheel buyer's guide in the "Accessories and Gear" section of this site.
Considering the consequences of a tire failure at speed, you owe it to yourself to get a good close look at your tires regularly. That goes double if you have tube-type tires, which can blow out if punctured. The result of overlooking a nail you picked up on the last leg that you rode the bike can be loss of control just as you're passing a truck.
Some specially designed wire...
Some specially designed wire spoke wheels, such as those on the BMW R1200C, are configured so that the spokes don't seat in the tire's air chamber, permitting them to use the safer tubeless tires. BMW's design also makes it easy to see the tire for inspection. It is also possible to seal the spokes to run tubeless tires.
A tire doesn't have to deflate entirely to get you in trouble, however. An underinflated tire decreases stability, limits traction and has increased susceptibility to catastrophic failure. A significantly overinflated tire decreases traction. And, of course, it wears much faster.
Assuming your tire gauge is approximately accurate, these problems are even easier to avoid than those defeated by regular tire inspection. Yet, a large number of motorcycle tires out on the street remain visibly low on pressure. Tire pressure checks and adjustments should be a very regular part of every motorcyclist's regimen. They should be made when the tire is cold. Even just sitting out in the sun or riding a mile to the gas station can change the pressure. Check pressures first thing in the morning.
How do you know if a tire gauge is accurate? Compare yours to a handful of others. Get your friends together for a tire-gauge party. Bring a large-volume tire so the pressure doesn't change significantly when you lose that little bit of pressure each time you take a reading for a different gauge. Throw out the gauges that deviate significantly, say five psi, from the majority.
Keep your tires pressures at the recommended values. If you are unsure of the recommended pressure and don't have the manual handy, the pressures are often posted on the VIN plate with the loading information If you don't get around to checking them often enough, set the pressures slightly high, so they settle into the pressure range you want. A couple of extra pounds can also improve a tire's traction in the rain.
That nice round profile can...
That nice round profile can be warm flat by hard use or too much straight-lining. Replace it if the center gets flattened out, and learn to lean a little.
Most riders notice a tire that's getting thin in the tread. Wear bars have made it easy to tell when the tread is getting down to its last miles. But a motorcycle tire may have already exceeded its useful life well before then if it has worn so that its profile has changed significantly. Typically what happens on a cruiser is that the middle of the tire wears before the sides, leaving a flat section in the middle. This also creates corners in the profile at the edges of the flat section. When you lean the bike to turn, the bike becomes unstable when you try to ride on this ridge in the profile because it wants to fall onto one side or the other of this ridge between heavily worn and less worn. This can make it weave while leaned over.
As a result, when you can see a stripe of wear in the middle of a tire, the tire should probably be replaced even if the tread hasn't bottomed out. If you avoid locked-up stops and tire-spinning starts, you'll see less of this sort of problem, but it will also show up if a bike is ridden mostly in a straight line and rarely leaned over.
Of course, a tire should also be discarded if it it is significantly damaged. How much damage is too much? There is some disagreement on what's repairable, but most tire manufacturers will tell you that sidewall punctures make a tire unsafe. Deep ozone cracking can also damage a sidewall, but that's rare. Some of those other things you look for in those pre-ride inspections, such as slashes and cord or tread separations are also grounds to ground a tire.
If you are unsure if a damaged tire can be repaired, ask the manufacturer. All have toll-free numbers just for such situations. The tire manufacturers are also happy to field calls about which tire to use on your bike, what tire will mate with that aftermarket wheel, whether one of their tire models is compatible with another or even another brand. (However, expect them to be properly skittish if they have not tested the combination you are proposing.)
Tires don't require much to serve you well. Simply keep them inflated properly and check them frequently for damage. Tires should be your number-one maintenance assignment, because if they don't work right, nothing else matters.
One General St.
Akron, OH 44329
For more articles on how to maintain and modify your motorcycle, see the Tech section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.
For additional evaluations of, comparisons of, and shopping advice for motorcycle gear and accessories, see the Accessories and Gear section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.