When it comes to motorcycle tires, the wisdom used to be “cheap, sticky, long-lasting: pick two.” Tire technology has come a really long way in just the last ten or so years, though, and that old adage isn’t a slam dunk anymore. So how much of the “old wisdom” still applies? When it comes to tires that still have a bunch of tread life, how old is too old?
I’m going to give you an answer you’re not going to like, and say “it depends.” It depends on how the tires have been stored this whole time, it depends on the tire, and it depends on your personal risk tolerance.
I know that too many of us do not pay enough attention to our tires. They’re easy to overlook, especially on big touring bikes that have low rear fenders. How often do any of us get down on the ground and really inspect that tread? Not often enough. Every time I’m on a trip with a group of motorcyclists, someone is always surprised that the cords on their tires are showing halfway through the trip.
What about the age of your tires, though? They can look like they have plenty of life left and still fail you at a critical cold-rain, coming-in-too-hot moment. That’s because the rubber compounds in all tires age and lose their effectiveness before many of us wear the tires down. The tire’s wear surface dries out, and when it comes to the attributes you want in your bike’s tires, they cannot be safely resurrected.
Most tire manufacturers try not to sell a tire that’s more than five years old. Few of us buy our tires directly from the manufacturer, and an unscrupulous distributor might sell you their new-old stock. The date code is stamped into the tire near the “DOT” stamp. It is a four-digit code which indicates the week and year of production.
To protect yourself, learn to read the date code on your tire’s sidewall. If you order tires online and mount them yourself, check the date code when you receive the tire. If you have a shop or dealer put them on, ask them about the date code. If it’s more than five years old, you may have some wiggle room on the price they charge you.
If you buy tires that you’re not going to mount immediately, keep those tires inside. Make sure they aren’t in direct sunlight, subject to temperature extremes, or exposed to chemical residue or vapors. All of these things can age your new tire prematurely.
Make it a habit to check your own tires at every oil change. This way it’s tied to the mileage you’re putting on your machine, and you’re already up close and personal with the bike. Here’s a bunch of things to check:
- The wear on the tire. First and foremost, how’s that tire wearing? Is it rounding off nicely, approaching the wear bars, or is it losing chunks?
- The tread itself. Is the tread even, does it still look like fresh rubber or is it drying out and turning grey in its old age? Do the creases in the tread show any signs of cracking or breaking? Does the tire look or feel brittle?
- The sidewalls. Sometimes a tire shows its age with cracks in the sidewalls, so keep an eye on everything.
- The stem. Common wisdom says these stems, especially the friction-fit rubber style, should be swapped out with every tire change. I go through tires at least yearly, so I swap the stem with every other tire change. A broken stem is an easy way to end a trip, so keep them fresh; they are very cheap insurance.
- What kind of abuse has it seen? Does it have a bunch of plugs in it, or has it been sitting flat for ages? Replace that tire.
If you have ever swapped your own tires, you know exactly how a too-old tire fights you as you peel it off the rim, and how a nice fresh new tire, even with all that tread, is much more pliable. Imagine the difference between the way that dry old tire grips onto asphalt, or the way the knobs grab dirt, versus how a much softer, stickier tire does that same job.
Sometimes the better part of valor is replacing that tire that has slipped out on you or is cracking, before you’ve worn the tread to the wear bars. Hardened rubber has lost a lot of its grip, and trying to make them last is a false economy. A new set of tires will cost way less than a crash. Besides, fresh new tires feel so good!