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Common Tread

How to change your own motorcycle tires

Nov 26, 2014

Common Tread Supreme Ruler Lance made one of his regular sojourns to ZLA headquarters in Philly from his lair in Ohio in early fall. Although he was up for the trip, his tires were not. His rear Dunlop had seen better days, so he took a little detour up the hill to Lemmy Mountain for some tire attention before making the ride home.

Our first order of business was to eat the doughnuts Lance brought, washing them down with coffee. If you’re swapping tires before 9 a.m., we recommend you do the same. (If it is after 9, please swill beer instead.)

tar repar sign
For some reason, we don't always feel comfortable handing off our tire-changing jobs to the "professionals." Photo by Lance Oliver.
Lance's editorial comment #1: Lemmy likes to dive right into a job, but I like to think about the meaning of it all. Such as why do I always change my own tires? There are a couple of good reasons. First, you can save money by buying your motorcycle tires from RevZilla at a good price, probably better than what your local shop charges. Plus, you'll save the fee for changing them. With shops charging $20 to $40 per wheel, the equipment you buy to do it yourself will pay for itself before long. The second reason is that you'll save yourself some time, and that's even more valuable to me than money. I can change my own tires faster than I can make an appointment, take the wheels off the bike, take them to the shop and wait for someone to do the work. I do it on my own schedule, when it's convenient for me.

I should also specify that everything here is about changing tubeless tires. If Lemmy ever gets out and rides his neglected Honda XR650L enough to wear out the OEM tires, maybe I'll be able to get him to do a how-to on changing tube-type tires. Now I'll hand the mic back to Lemmy...

bike on jack stands
Too many trips across Pennsylvania flat-spotted this rear tire. Before making the 475-mile trip home, Lance wanted a new one. We used jack stands to raise the bike. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Our first task was to get the rear end of the bike up in the air. There’s lots of methods for lifting a scooter: bike jacks, ratchet straps to overhead rafters, centerstands, wheelstands, you name it. I’ve even changed tires with a bike frame up on a log before, and I’ve laid them on their sides as well. Be creative, but be careful. Lance set his bike up with a pair of swingarm spools at some point, so we just picked up the machine and put it on some plain old automotive jackstands. We did loosen the axle nut slightly while the bike was still solidly on the ground. No need to torque on it after it's raised.

Lance's editorial comment #2: I have the swingarm spools because at home in my own garage, I'd quickly and easily raise my Versys on my rear stand. Since Lemmy only rides Shovelheads, choppers of muttly lineage and other odd junk, to which no one has ever fitted swingarm spools, he didn't have a rear stand. The jackstands worked just fine.

Next, we loosened the chain adjusters so we could slip the chain off the sprocket, and then slid out the axle. Keep track of the order of the axle hardware, especially wheel spacers. If you fail at this step, you have to put together a little jigsaw puzzle when you reassemble everything.

Lance's editorial comment #3: My tip: I like to put the spacers back on the axle in the proper order and put the nut on loosely. That keeps me from forgetting what goes where and misplacing any pieces. Plus, make a note of where the brake caliper mounting bracket fits into the scheme.

using drift to remove axle
Lemmy uses a drift to coax out the axle. Photo by Lance Oliver.

suspending brake caliper
Rather than let the brake caliper's weight dangle on the brake line, Lemmy suspends it using a bungee cord. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Before sliding the axle out, I like to put a little chock of wood under the tire being removed to hold it up. Then I use a drift punch to drive the axle out of the wheel. If you’re doing a front wheel, the process is the same (don't forget to loosen the pinch bolts at the bottom of most fork legs), but you will probably have to remove both brake calipers to remove the wheel. Wire the calipers up out of the way. Don’t let them dangle by the brake hoses.

If you’re so inclined, now is the time to check those wheel bearings. If they feel gritty, repack or replace ‘em! Don’t forget to check the brakes while you’ve got them off, as well.

Deflate the tire by removing the valve core with a valve core tool. After the air has made its exit, it's time to break the beads. There are a multitude of ways to do this, but we elected to use a manual bead breaker. It makes quick work of an otherwise-difficult job.

bead breaker
This bead breaker tool Lemmy has works well. A variety of tools, from clamps to levers and wedges, are available for the job. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Lance's editorial comment #4: Breaking the bead can be the hardest part of the job, in some cases. The tool Lemmy has worked like a charm. At home, I have a Harbor Freight changing stand I bought years ago. It has its drawbacks and doesn't get much respect from tool aficionados, but it has a bead breaker that works well, and that alone makes it worth its cost, to me. There are some other nifty tools that don't cost a fortune.

After the beads are broken on both sides, it's time to begin pulling the tire off the wheel. This part of the job is more of an art than a science. Everyone seems to find their own way of doing things. I like to work on old squares of carpet to keep from beating the tar out of the finish on the wheels.

tire changing
Lemmy gets down there with the wheel, like an old-style wrassler. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Lance's editorial comment #5: Although it was mildly alarming to watch Lemmy battling my wheel and tire on his knees like an Everglades 'gator wrestler, I have to admit his methods got the job done. Personally, my knees have a lot more miles on them than Lemmy's and I prefer to work standing up. Plus, having the wheel clamped to a stand makes it easier to avoid the possibility of putting pressure on a brake rotor. If you do use the Lemmy method, keep the rotor side up to avoid leaning on it.

There are ways to make your own tire-changing stand, if you're lacking funds to buy one. I've seen some good homemade tire-changing setups created with a few dollars of materials: A discarded car wheel with a section of old garden hose sliced lengthwise and put on the wheel's rim for rubber protection, and a threaded rod in the center to clamp your motorcycle wheel to the car wheel. My store-bought tire-changing stand is another option. If you're ready to pay more, I've seen people change tires in a flash without breaking a sweat using one of those fancy (and pricey) No-Mar changers.

The job will go easier with the right tools. Use tire lube. They make this stuff for a reason — it works! It helps with de-mounts as well as mounting, and protects the bead from rips or tears from the tire irons.

tire irons
Use dedicated tire spoons. I’m not going to kid you and say I’ve never fudged it with the wrong tool, but I’ve also ruined some wheels half-assing the job alongside the road in the middle of East Jabip. Rim protectors are a great idea if you want to keep your wheels looking good. If you think I’m just pitching stuff we sell, let me dispel that notion: You can easily cut up old milk jugs, or you can use College Lemmy’s impromptu rim-saver: heater hose scraps filched from the auto parts joint.

Removing the tire is prolly the trickiest step. Use the spoons, take your time, and as Lance kept reminding me, “Take small bites!” He’s got a great point. I have a habit of getting greedy. I try to de-mount the whole dang tire at once, and it never works. It bends the spoons, makes my arms sore, and puts the delicate beads at risk. Work smart, not hard. Do little sections of bead at a time and don't forget the tire lube.

drop-center of wheel
With one bead off the wheel, it's easy to see the drop-center and understand how it makes this whole process possible. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Here's the most important thing to remember. The act of levering the bead over the rim lip only can happen if the bead is in the “drop-center” on the opposite side of the tire. The drop-center is the shallow channel that runs the circumference of the wheel at the center and it makes the whole process possible. If you're having to use excessive force and still can't get the bead of the tire over the lip of the rim, your problem is that the tire bead is not in the drop-center.

It can be difficult because the tire doesn't want to stay in the drop-center. I typically kneel on the tire to keep it where I want it. At this point, after a few bad words, you should have one bead free of the tire. Repeat the process on the other bead, but the same side of the wheel.

Lance's editorial comment #6: I find that having a couple of different shapes of tire irons makes the job much easier. I have one long iron with a nice bend in it that's almost indispensable for that first grip on the second bead, which is harder to access than the first.

With the tire off, I give the wheel a visual inspection, and then replace the valve stem. You can either pull the old one out with a tool or just cut it out. Lance didn't have a replacement valve stem ready, so we reused the same one. You can do that, but replacing it is cheap protection.

mounting the new tire
Almost done. Rim protectors keep wheels from getting marred by tire irons. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Using the directional arrows on the sidewall, check and double-check the direction of the new tire relative to the wheel. Nothing is worse than mounting it backwards and having to do the job twice. Be generous with the lube and slather the new tire’s beads. Installation of the new tire is much the same as removing the old one. Again, “take small bites” and be sure the opposite bead is in the drop-center of the wheel. If there's a small dot of paint on the sidewall, that's the balancing mark. Line it up with the heaviest part of the wheel, typically where the valve stem bolts in (see balancing section below).

Once the tire is mounted onto the wheel, you need to seat the beads. Remove the valve core from the new stem so you can inflate it faster. A large air compressor will have enough oomph! to blow the beads of most tires onto the wheel, but there are always kludgy exceptions. If your compressor’s not doing the job, there are a number of redneck ways to make the tire assume its new home. I’m not going to claim that I’ve never used ether to blow a bead onto a wheel, but I sure am not recommending anyone else do it. Bead seating tools (also known as Cheetahs) are much less dangerous. Watch your fingers during this step! I have pinched the ever-livin’ bejesus out of myself by getting my finger too close to a bead that was about to seat.

Lance's editorial comment #7: Lube is again your friend when trying to seat the beads. It encourages the bead to slide into its home and, because it is liquid, it will create tell-tale bubbles to show you where air is escaping, instead of inflating your tire. Sometimes pressing on the tread next to the spot where air is escaping past the bead will be enough to get that satisfying and loud "pop!" you're seeking.

With the bead set, replace the valve core and adjust the inflation to the correct pressure. If you are the balancing kind of fellow, now is the time to do so. (Lance and I have similar views on balancing tires. We don’t.) Please don’t leave murderous comments about balancing. I encourage everyone to do what they feel is best with regard to tire balancing.

Lance's editorial comment #8: Uh, actually I've been known to balance tires, especially front ones and especially on a bike I'm going to take to the track and ride at higher speeds, where a vibration can show up that I never felt at street speeds.

tire balancing stand
Static balancing isn't hard. One of these balancing stands (or a homemade alternative), some stick-on wheel weights and some patience are all you need. The good news is that quality control keeps getting better, and more often these days I find tires need little or no weights to be in balance. You can also use your balancing stand on your wheel alone to determine if the valve stem area really is the heaviest spot on the wheel. That lets you know where to line up the balancing spot on the tire.

installing the wheel
With the chain back on the sprocket and the spacers and brake caliper bracket lined up in place, it's time to slide in the axle. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Lemmy's editorial comment #1: This guy sure has a lot of advice to dole out for a guy with clean hands, doesn't he?

At this stage of the game, you ought to be ready to reinstall your wheel. I put that chock of wood back in place to hold the wheel up. Reinstall your caliper (or brake assembly, if your bike has a drum brake), get all your spacers lined up in the right spots and slide the axle back in. Leave the axle nut slightly loose while you adjust the tension on the chain. Snug everything up, check the chain tension again (the chain on Lance's Versys gets tighter when you torque that axle nut), check to make sure the rear wheel is straight by sighting down the chain, lubricate the chain, put a new cotter pin in the castellated axle nut, and go ride! (Carefully, of course, so you can scrub in that new tire and make sure you have everything snugged down right. And don't forget to pump up the brakes before you ride.)

As a parting thought, keep your head about you if this is the first time you’re changin' tars. Even thousands of tires later, these things still get me riled up. Beads don’t seat, tires won’t get onto their rims. It's always something. Patient and methodical work gets the job done, so don't get discouraged!