How to Change a Motorcycle Tire in 15 Steps

See what tools you need to get the job done

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What you'll need: (Top row, left to right) Axle and valve-stem removal tools, rim protectors and Bead Buddy. (Bottom row) Tire irons. (Tools courtesy of Motion Pro.)Photography by Mark Masker

Being at least somewhat conversant in the arcane art of tire wrangling has several advantages. First, plenty of cruisers still use traditional spoke rims and tube tires to support themselves. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it does complicate matters if you’re unfortunate enough to puncture a tube, especially out in the boondocks.

In the second place, knowing how to change a motorcycle tire on your own can save you some dough, some time, and more importantly, ensure that the job is done to your standards.

Bear in mind that the following techniques are for tube-type tires. Although a tubeless tire can be broken down and hand-mounted, it generally takes more effort than it’s worth. Since most punctured tubeless tires can be temporarily repaired with the tire on the rim, there’s no real reason to struggle with one on the side of the road.

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A slit piece of hose and an old 20-gallon drum make a serviceable wheel stand and a fireproof trashcan.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

What You'll Need

A few basic tools is all it takes. You’ll need a good set of tire irons, or spoons, which are nothing more than flat hunks of steel dressed and shaped to make removing the tire from the rim as painless as possible. Despite what your buddy says, screwdrivers and crowbars are not tire irons, and if you try to change a tire with them you’ll most likely ruin the rim, the tube and the tire in short order.

Every mechanic has his favorite set of irons. In my opinion a tire iron eight to 10 inches long is the best choice. True, long irons increase your mechanical advantage and in some cases you may need it. But in my experience the short irons are less cumbersome and—unless you’re working on earthmover-size tires—provide all the leverage you’ll need. Most shops, especially those that cater to off-roaders, should have tire irons in stock; don’t forget you’ll need two—one for each hand.

You’ll also need something to remove the tube’s valve core. If you’re lucky, the tire cap may have the tool built in. If not, you can order a valve-core removal tool through any motorcycle shop or trot down to the local auto-supply store and plunk down three bucks for one. Be sure to get the screwdriver style; the traditional automotive-style T-handle versions get hung up on the spokes.

While you can certainly change the tire on the ground (you may have to if you get a flat on the road), you'll find the job goes a whole lot easier if you work standing up. I use an old 20-gallon grease drum as my tire stand, although a five-gallon pail or even a milk crate works well if set on a low bench. Cover the edges with something soft like an old blanket or a piece of hose to protect the spokes and rim and to prevent the thing from sliding around while you work. Like everything in life, the proper lubricant will smooth the way. Auto stores sell premixed tire lubricants—Rim Ease, Tire Slick and Slyde are three that come to mind. You can also use soapy water, and in a pinch WD-40 or silicone.

If you’re fastidious, you’ll want to protect your wheels with rim guards, which are plastic sleeves that snap over the edge of the rim to fend off gouges. Mine came from Motion Pro, but if you’re frugal you can cut strips of material from an old plastic bottle, slice a piece of hose lengthwise or snatch a set of door-edge guards off your dad’s old Buick for homemade versions.

There are also a few optional tools you may find handy. The first is something called a “bead breaker,” which as its name implies is a tool used to force cantankerous beads off their seats. These retail for less than $75 and are worth every penny when you’re dealing with one of those ornery SOBs that just won’t let go.

The second tool is something called a “bead buddy.” These are small clamping devices that act like a third hand to prevent the bead you’ve just levered in place from climbing back over the rim during installation. They sell for between 10 and 30 bucks and are small enough to put in your pocket.

Tire-Changing by the Numbers

1.With the tire on the stand, remove the valve core—even if the tire appears to be flat. Then remove the valve stem locknut. If you’re going to reuse the tire, mark it at the valve stem so it can be replaced correctly. This is especially critical if you’re not planning to (or can’t) balance the wheel.

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Step 1Photo Courtesy of Mark Zimmerman
tire change, tips, maintenance, motorcycle
Step 1Photography by Mark Zimmerman

2.The hardest part of this job is breaking the bead. Since I’m pushing 240 pounds, I can usually frighten the thing into surrendering. If you need help, a C-clamp or welding clamp works well, as does a bench vise if it’s large enough. If the sucker still won’t budge, Motion Pro (www.motionpro.com) makes a nice bead breaker. Once the first bead is broken, flip the tire and break the opposite side.

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When you weigh 240 pounds, you can have your way with most tires.Photography by Mark Zimmerman
tire change, tips, maintenance, motorcycle
If you can't have your way a C-clamp works just fine.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

3.With both beads broken, the tire can be removed from the rim. Wet down the bead and rim with lubricant—the object is to make the bead slip over the rim as easily as possible.

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Soap and water work as well as anything to lubricate the bead and rim.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

4.Install the rim protectors on the valve stem side of the rim and then slip your tire irons, hooked end up, under the bead next to the valve stem. It’s easy to snag a knuckle on a brake rotor or sprocket, so be careful if they’re still attached to the wheel. Leaky knuckles make things slippery, so keep a few blowout patches handy just in case.

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Step 4Photography by Mark Zimmerman

5.Pry the bead up and over, taking small bites, until the entire bead is over the rim. (Some guys prefer to use the flat end of the iron. I won’t argue with them; if it works, it works.)

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Pry the bead up and over, taking small bites until the entire bead is over the rim.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

6.Reach under the bead and pull the inner tube out.

7.If you’re lucky and strong, you can often pull the second bead over the rim without using irons. If it’s too stiff, use the iron. Note: If you’re only replacing the tube, you can skip step 7. However, you should inspect the inside of the tire for damage or foreign objects, especially if you didn’t find anything external—like a spike—that may have caused the flat. Be careful; I’ve seen guys get nasty cuts when they brushed their hands over a piece of glass that had made its way through the tire.

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Step 6Photography by Mark Zimmerman
tire change, tips, maintenance, motorcycle
Step 7Photography by Mark Zimmerman

8.There should be a thin rubber band under the tube to prevent the ends of the spokes from chaffing through. Remove it; you won’t be reusing it. If there’s duct or electrical tape under the tube, don’t worry. It just means someone else who knows what he’s doing has been in there before.

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Step 8Photography by Mark Zimmerman

9.Inspect the rim for signs of damage, particularly for cracks between the spoke holes. Use a wire brush or coarse Scotch-Brite pad to clean away any rust or corrosion.

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Step 9Photography by Mark Zimmerman

10.I don’t like rim bands because they’re flimsy and shift around when you’re installing the tube. I prefer duct tape or wide electrical tape over the spokes—about three wraps should do it. Don’t forget to poke a hole for the valve stem.

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Step 10Photography by Mark Zimmerman

11.Check the tire for a directional arrow and orient the tire to the rim with rotation in the proper direction. Inflate the new tube just enough to take shape, which will help prevent it from being pinched by the tire iron, and place it inside the tire with the stem next to the tire’s balance mark.

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Step 11Photography by Mark Zimmerman

12.Lube the tire bead and force it over the rim at the valve-stem hole. This normally doesn’t take much effort, but if you need to, position the hooked end of the iron under the rim and lever the tire into place. Then push the tube stem through the hole and run down the locknut a few threads (so the stem doesn’t slip back through its hole). Make certain the balance mark stays lined up with the valve stem. Some mechanics find it easier to install the tube after the first bead of the tire is in place.

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Step 13Photography by Mark Zimmerman

13.Lube the second bead and work it down over the rim, pushing as much of the tire onto the rim by hand as possible. As you work your way around the rim, the bead may try to lift itself back off. Hold it down with a knee or Bead Buddy, or have a friend bear down on it. Take small bites with the irons, working your way around.

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Step 13Photography by Mark Zimmerman

14.Make sure the valve stem is square in its hole. If it’s cocked, rotate the tire slightly to square it up. Whatever you do, don’t use the locknut to pull the stem straight. That’s just asking for a torn tube down the road.

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Step 14Photography by Mark Zimmerman

15.Inflate the tire slowly, using no more than the recommended pressure. If you’re installing a new tire you may hear a “pop” as pressure forces the bead into place. Old tires may not seat as forcefully, so don’t be alarmed if yours gives you the silent treatment. Adjust pressure to the recommended setting and then locate the bead indicator on the tire. Some bead indicators are just a raised rubber strip, while others look like hash marks scribed into the tire. The indicator should be equidistant from the rim all the way around the wheel. If it isn’t, try adding air; you can go as high as 45 psi. If the tire still won’t seat correctly, release the air, lubricate the bead and try again. Once it’s seated, adjust pressure to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

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Make sure to locate the bead indicator on both sides of the tire.Photography by Mark Zimmerman
tire change, tips, maintenance, motorcycle
Step 15Photography by Mark Zimmerman

That’s all there is to it. Give the tire and brake rotor the once-over, just in case you got sloppy with your lube, and remember that under some conditions, tire lubricant, especially silicone and WD-40, may cause the tire to slip on the rim, so take it easy for a few miles until the stuff has evaporated. If you’ve installed a new tire, now’s the time to have it balanced (a topic we’ll be covering in a future issue).