No, if the front has enough tread life then it doesn’t need to be replaced with the rear. If however, it has any physical damage or is over 5 years from its date of manufacturer it should be replaced along with the rear. Most seasoned touring riders replace the front every second rear tire change.
In normal operation and usage, the rear tire wears out about twice as fast as the front. The rear tire transmits all the engine power to the road and supports more than half of the bike’s weight, so faster wear rate is inevitable. When it’s time to replace the rear tire do a thorough inspection of the front and only replace if it is required.
Another reason to switch a front before it’s time is to keep both tires the same brand and ideally, the same model. It has been reported that mixing manufacturers brands can cause odd handling issues. So, if you want to switch to another brand/model you may want to first try replacing the rear, and then deciding if handling is OK. If not be ready to replace the front prematurely to get handling back in order.
Are My Tires Worn Out?
Tires are considered worn and need replacement placed on measurable physical wear. When tread depth reaches 1/16” (1.6mm), it’s time to replace the tire. Most tires also come with tread wear indicators (TWI’s), these are physical indicators of maximum wear. When reached replacement is required (it can also be a legal requirement). TWI’s are typically a block molded in an open tread section that will be flush when maximum wear is reached. Some TWI’s are symbols the outer circumference of the tire – when the open tread reaches these symbols the tire is at maximum wear. TWI’s located near the tire’s center will be reached first, so not all TWI’s will be reached at the same time.
A word of warning – continuing to ride on tires that have reached their minimum tread depth will likely not be noticeable in regular riding. However, when you run into rainy or wet conditions, water may not be effectively purged from the tire’s contact surface – which could result in very dangerous hydroplaning.
While inspecting the tires look for uneven wear. Continuous straight-line highway driving will wear the centerline of the tire, leaving outer edges looking good. Although the tire may look good on the edges if TWI’s in the center has been reached the tire needs replacing, period.
“Scalping” is another form of wear. It is a series of oddly placed wear areas around the tire. A tire with significant scalping is considered worn out, especially if you notice any extra vibration. Check your suspensions, this is a major cause of this tire condition.
Physical damage like punctures or slashes needs to be evaluated. A straight-on puncture, 90 degrees to the tire’s surface, can be professionally repaired. These are usually caused by screws or nails, and the object remains embedded in the tire until repaired. Damage to the sidewalls or any slash cuts cannot be repaired, the tire needs to be replaced. Also, if any sections of tread have peeled off the tire is not safe to drive on, replace immediately.
Tires – Age Limits
Rubber compounds oxidize over time, resulting in lost flexibility and increased brittleness. Because of this ongoing process, tires have limited lifespans regardless of being in use or not. Each tire is marked with a “DOT” code – look for the last 4 digits. This code indicates the week and year of manufacture. The format is “WWYY”, for example, 2419, means the tire was manufactured in the 24th week of 2019. The countdown starts from this date.
A tire manufactured within a year is considered very new by tire standards. The safe limit for tire’s age is up to 5 years from the date of manufacture. In other words, the tire’s rubber compounds are expected to be in usable condition up to this expiry date.
As the tire ages and goes past 5 years, there is are usually little to no visible sign of the underlying oxidation process. Very old tires will be noticeably shiny, hard and may even have sidewall cracking. These are typically very, very old on “barn finds”, NOS (new old stock), they should not have offered for sale or used on the road of course.
WARNING – never ride a motorcycle with noticeably cracked tires – tires in this condition can fail catastrophically with no warning.
Motorcycle Tire Design
Motorcycle tires are expected to do a lot in all kinds of road and weather conditions. Considering that your tires contact the road on two small contact patches – selection and care become a top priority. Shopping based on the cheapest price possible or neglecting to replace worn/damaged tires because the expense is a foolish decision and very possibly a dangerous one too.
Tread patterns, materials, and technology have come a long way in a short time. Today’s tires last longer and perform better. Materials, manufacturing and testing science provides the rider with a great selection of reasonably priced tires to choose from, however, you need to know hew basics before you buy.
For road touring world, there are two general applications, Touring and Sport Touring. Each has its own performance requirements and tires to match. While there is no hard separation between these applications – meaning you could use either design of tires on either design of the motorcycle. Just be aware of the limitations and performance characteristic before committing to doing so. A third touring sector – adventure touring, with significant time spent off-roading requires a completely different tire design. Adventure touring, is not covered here.
Touring – designed for straight-up long-distance riding, with heavier total overall loads, and often with a passenger. The focus is on high mileage compound for longer tire life. Typically constructed with single compound material that is wear-resistant, and not as agile or sticky because of these design priorities.
Sport Touring – a mix of road touring with some sportier riding expected. Meeting these dual requirements are often achieved with two rubber compounds in one tire. The center has a higher wear resistance material, and the tire’s sides have a softer compound for better cornering. They tend to be a higher price per tire and do not last as long as straight-up touring tires.
Radial versus Bias-Ply – radial tire construction results in a stiffer sidewall ultimately resulting in less flexing. Radials also run cooler, potentially lasting longer. Radials can be more expensive. Bias-ply tires main advantages are greater loading capacity, softer ride and generally lower prices. Rider’s reviews of radial versus bias-ply don’t seem to point to a clear winner, the overall tire design seems to make the difference.
Tire Selection Process
Before you head out on the web or start calling around to the local shops, I suggest you take the following steps. To illustrate let’s use a typical large touring bike, in need of a set of new tires.
2010 Gold Wing, as per the owner’s manual, it requires;
- front 130/70 R18,
- rear 180/60 R16
First – take note the exact tire sizes you need. Write it down, for quick reference – it will be easy to get off track with all the sizes you will see, so keep this info handy.
Second – determine what will fit your particular riding style and expected conditions. You may prioritize a long-lasting tire, or sport performance, or wet conditions, etc. You should prioritize these characteristics before starting the selection process, and ultimately laying down your cash!
In this case, I am looking for a good all-around tire, in dry & wet conditions, with decent performance, but not requiring sport bike grip. A tiebreaker would be expected lifespan.
Third – research and do more research. This will be the hardest part – next to parting with your money. If you are fortunate enough to have friends or acquaintances into the touring scene – ask them for advice, and what they recommend for tires. If their riding style and machine(s) are similar to yours exactly, great! If you are stratified and trust the advice you can move directly to looking for the best price and service.
Otherwise – start with searching buy the tire code – this example, “130/70 R18”, and “180/60 R16”.
Prepare to be bombarded with information…some tips,
- People selling the tires will naturally review and promote them as The Best Tires Ever!
- People leaving base reviews may be justified, but if it seems isolated then it might just be someone’s bad luck or a combination of fairly rare circumstances
- Watch the date of the review or post, it’s a total waste of your time to research tires that are no longer available
- Motorcycle Touring forums can be a good place for more realistic and honest reviews
- Look for independent, verifiable 3rd party reviews of manufacturer’s claims (any links?)
- Price – compare the well-known and “convenient” sources like Amazon and eBay against dedicated re-seller sites, they can be significantly different
- Do not mix tire brands on your motorcycle. Manufacturers design their tires to match performance characteristics front to rear
- Always replace the inner tube with a new tire, if originally equipped
Example Research Results – Front & Rear choices found;
A) 2010 OEM replacement – Dunlop D250/F – $412
Generally replaced by the Dunlop Elite 3 & 4 models. Some riders have reported issues in wet and on very smooth road surfaces. I could not find tire life estimates, but no one is complaining they wore too quick either. Overall, a tire that delivers respectable performance.
B) Dunlop Elite 3 – $320 USD
Bias-ply, single compound replaced by Elite 4, a mix of good and poor ratings, owner’s indicating 10 – 15k miles tire life, worth it if you can find cheap and with that have been manufactured recently (this tire has been discontinued – check dates).
C) Dunlop Elite 4 Tire – $395
Rears are radial, front bias-ply, dual compound design, good dry & wet, good handling owner’s indicating 10 – 19k mile tire life,
D) Metzeler ME 888 Marathon Ultra – $388
Advertised as high mileage tires, owner’s indicating 17k – 23k mile tires life. However, riders say they have poor handling in rain, and many reports of tires failing – with chunks coming off reported. Not recommended for safety reasons.
E) Avon Cobra – $365
Radials, there are a few reports of tires failing, with tread separations reported, riders like the great wet and dry traction. Owners are indicating they get between 15k – 21k mile tire life. Recommended with caution, only buy from a local dealer for quicker service if problems occur.
F) Bridgestone G704/G709 – $315
Radials, OEM equipment on newer Gold Wings, radials, “Designed and developed specifically for GL1800 Gold Wing 2001-2007”. Sporadic quality issues, owners indicating 12k – 20 k mile tire life.
My Tire Decision
I would go with the Dunlop Elite 4. For overall good performance and tire life. I would only consider the Bridgestone G704/G709’s if purchased from a local shop – for warranty purposes if there were any issues with tread separation. If I was heading out on a long tour the Dunlop Elite 4’s would be a great choice for peace of mind.
Note: In the example above – Dunlop Elite 3’s was found at a very good price. But this tire model has been discontinued by Dunlop. I would want to check the date of manufacture on each tire, they could several years old already.
Actual costs to install a set of tires is different because of the effort to remove and remount the wheels. If there are saddles bags, guards and loads of chrome gizmos it will naturally take longer and cost more.
It’s best to get a quote from your local shop – always ask for flat-rate pricing, so you are not shocked when presented with the bill for how long it actually took. Flat rates are set, based on industry-standard times, versus actual time it took to do the work. If you buy a pair of tires at a shop you may get a deal on installation – but come prepared with the knowledge of what you need and what the going rates are to make sure there total price is actually a deal.
The first level of Do-It-Yourself is to take the wheel(s) off your bike and take them to the shop. Avoiding the labor costs of the shop doing this. And of course, you put them back on too. You will save a lot of cash and will be able to schedule the drop-off / pick up much easier with the shop.
The next DIY level is to do the whole job yourself. Of course, this takes more effort on your part, and a few tools will be needed. If you do this for the first I would recommend only tackling the front wheel, then decide on the rear. The front is more accessible so much easier to remove & remount, and usually is less effort to dislodge the bead from the rim to remove it. Give it a try, worst case you just take the wheel, and new tire to your shop and have it completed. There are lots of great how-to videos out there, or better find someone who can walk you through it (most experienced dirt riders will know – some old-timers can even change a tire barehanded, no tools, no kidding, it’s awesome to watch).
Breaking in New Tires
New tires surfaces are relatively hard and slippery. Their surfaces require some gentle scuffing to be fully functional. To do this drive around as-if the road was wet for about 50 – 100 miles. Go gentle on braking, turning and acceleration. When completely scuffed properly the tire will look dull across all contact areas.
New tires will have different characteristic, even if you replace them with identical units. Take your time to get used to them. Note that bias-ply tires may have a settling-in period also, this is not found on radials.
Be aware, if the temperature drops cold tires can be dangerous. In cool weather go slow for the first few miles. This applies to any tire, new or used.
The most important tire maintenance you can do us keeping correct tire pressure. Check it on a regular basis – at a minimum weekly, and more frequently doesn’t hurt. When checking tire pressure, visually inspect the entire surface for embedded objects, slashes, tread separation, bulging and any signs of excessive wear. If the tire uses an inner tube, make sure the filler nipple stands at 90 degrees to the rim. If not the tube has slipped out of position, and there is an unwanted force on the nipple, any further movement could cut the tube off at the filler nipple cause rapid and dangerous tire deflation, aka a blowout.
TPS – Wireless Tire Pressure Monitoring System
Maintaining correct pressure is a big factor in tire life and your safety. This wireless TPS will cut out the hassle of manually checking (and forgetting to check) and give you the confidence you are riding on perfectly inflated tires – highly recommended!
Tire Pressure Gauge
Simple and effective, small enough to fit anywhere – every rider needs one, if even if it’s back up to your TPS monitor.
If you are storing your bike, or not riding for several weeks it is recommended that you raise the bike off the ground so both tires elevated. Use the bike’s center stand, hydraulic floor stands that fit under the frame, or one of the many designs that lift the bike at the axel.
Clean your tires with soap as little as possible, rinse well. When using tire cleaners & conditioners – never apply to tread surface that contacts the road.
Wrapping it Up
When you ride there’s no getting away from the fact that you will be buying tires fairly often. Motorcycles go through tires faster than other vehicles because of their design and performance needs. By maintaining correct air pressure, accurately judging wear and looking for damage you can remain confident your tires are working for you and are safe, as well as will last as long as possible.