RIDER’S TALES – Kissing the surface!


Kissing the surface!

More than a few years ago…whilst riding into college, in the busy morning rush hour, I turned off a road into a smaller side road which had a slight incline and negative camber.

There were lots of stationary cars in traffic and the road was damp. My speed was no more than 15mph and as I turned I rolled on the throttle and the bike slipped from under me, more so the front wheel first it seemed.

I slid for some time but I did not hit any of the other cars. I bruised my shoulder a little but no other damage apart from torn jeans and a slight cut to the knee. As I got to my feet I noticed that the surface of the road was very slippery and when I looked at the place at which I came off I saw that there was a small patch of diesel. I picked up the bike and was able to continue the ride and later had to reset the forks and handlebars.

Looking back I probably didn’t expect the road to be that slippery and didn’t expect there to be diesel at the junction. Although my speed was low, it was the wrong combination of speed and manoeuvre which caused me to slide off. 

I became much more aware of turning at junctions especially in the damp and when I thought there was oil or diesel on the road.I changed my riding style from then on to steer around the turn at a junction, rather than lean and I was a lot less eager to open the throttle so soon. 

I also, from that day on became a ‘student’ of road surface conditions and types of tyres and the interaction between surface and tyre. I soon learned that having the best tyre on the market does not necessarily mean that I will be more secure on the road or less prone to slide or lose traction. It is a combination of factors, as is always the case, that largely determines stability and in this case….grip!

I am sometimes confused by reviews or recommendations of tyres, either by manufacturers, press or other riders. What do they mean…? “It’s a great tyre!”…”It’s brilliant in the wet!”…”It fantastic for touring and great mileage!”…etc.

I suppose my indifference to other opinions of tyres…is because it is just that! It is their opinion or experience of a particular tyre on a specific bike with a certain rider with a certain riding style in a geographic area with local weather conditions, etc.

Manufacturers will extensively test patterns and compounds to perform in particular ways and they will test with multiple models of bikes and possibly with very experienced test riders…but dare I say it…how do I know those testing standards are ‘down at my level!’

What I want to know is how a tyre that I choose will work on my bike, with the way I ride and with the road conditions I encounter. It is not that I do not believe the reports or opinions…but it doesn’t tell me anything until I actually start to ride.

So in general, I’ll go on consensus opinion or reviews for a tyre that will suit my general riding style or for the types of journeys I’m likely to take and of course that will be acceptable for my finances. But, then it’s down to me to ‘listen & feel’ how my tyre is doing.

It is the feedback from the tyres, the small lateral movements at particular speeds and with certain conditions, that I’m really interested in.

I am constantly scanning the road surface for levels of moisture, contaminates, fuels and oils, debris, grit & mud….anything that will interfere with the interaction between tyre and surface that may cause a loss of grip and I will adjust my riding accordingly. Under deteriorating conditions I do not test the performance limits of the tyre…it just isn’t worth it!

I look for changes in the road surface structure; cracks, potholes, painted surfaces, camber, manhole covers…anything that may affect the stability of the ride or may affect the ‘contact patch’

And there it is…’CONTACT PATCH’…that phrase that we’ve probably heard so many times but how much emphasis do we place on it?

That part of the tyre that actually is in contact with the road surface can and will change during the ride and will be affected by the load imposed on the tyre either by speed changes of acceleration or braking, suspension settings, weight, by turning forces or the curvature of the road. It will also be affected by the condition, wear and pressure of the tyre and how it will function at varying temperatures.

Regardless of how a tyre is supposed to perform on a bend or under braking etc, I always defer judgement until I ‘field test’ the tyre in my riding. I constantly test the tyre to varying degrees but always exercise caution, especially in unfavourable conditions. I gradually bed or scrub tyres in, always monitor tyre condition, wear and pressure and I’m always thinking ahead about the contact performance and how it might be affected and how I will change my style as appropriate. 

I am very selective about testing or nearing the limits of the tyre. I acknowledge that I may not have the same high riding or testing standard of those ‘test riders’. Whenever I do, I am acutely aware of the feedback from the tyres and environment in which I’m riding…and of course my own ability!

Maintaining grip is so much more than avoiding diesel spills, greasy roads or manhole covers. It is about interpreting the feedback from the tyres and making decisions based upon the road and weather conditions of the day. But most importantly it is about the relationship between one rider, one tyre (or two, three, four tyres etc), one bike and one environment!

It is about the rider’s choice and the ultimately the rider’s decisions that will keep within the limits of the tyre under varying conditions!

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