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Whitham's five best winter tyres

Which is the best tyre for fast road-riding through winter? You need a combination of feel, grip and longevity. We grabbed James Whitham, a Ducati 848, a datalogger and a huge pile of tyres to find out...

As a nation of sportsbike fans, pretty much everybody knows which flavour of rubber they like best when it comes to hazy mid-summer riding. We all have an opinion on what works best for us when the time and temperature is right, but what about when it’s absolutely miserable out there? For most riders the easiest option is to slip into the default ‘get you home’ method of riding, the style that involves tensing up, riding bolt upright everywhere and making tiny inputs in a bid to just get back to the safety of home.

It’s all to easy to do tyre tests in some far flung corner of the world, on a track that has the kind of surface you could happily serve a three course dinner straight on to. But do they really represent what goes on in the real world? It’s sometimes debatable.

In a bid to replicate a typical UK mid winter’s day we used the City Course at the Millbrook Testing Facility in Bedfordshire. It’s a combination of sweeping corners and hairpins. Air temperature was steady at 9°, then we soaked the track with thousands of gallons of water. The aim was to find the tyre that gives the best feedback and feel, as well as the best performance. To provide evidence to support our findings, we hooked up our datalogger system and utilised the built-in telemetry system of the Ducati 848. And what Whitham doesn’t know about riding in the wet isn’t worth knowing. So, step forward the best all-weather performance tyres of the moment, you’re about to get properly found-out.

5TH

Metzeler M3 Sportec

5TH

Tyre: Metzeler M3 Sportec
Price: £245
Web: www.metzelermoto.co.uk

What the manufacturers say:

“Tread pattern design and differentiated compound between front and rear ensures high wet safety feeling and extended mileage.”

What Whitham says:

In a straight line the rear is mint, it’s really easy to lay power down. Mid-corner and on the brakes it’s at least as good as the Bridgestone at the front, but it does turn in slowly, definitely slowest on the test. Especially when trying to tip the bike in while releasing a trailed front brake. As slow as the front turns in, it still filled me with confidence. Once settled into a corner the front doesn’t feel as good as the rear, the feeling was a little detached but it never did anything wrong.

The rear felt good all the way from upright to cranked over, not as planted as the Dunlop but it’s solid.When the Metzelers were leant right to the edge both the front and rear struggled to transmit what the other tyres were telling me instantly, but they never did anything wrong. The rear, mid corner, felt good on a constant throttle, but you have to be flippin’ careful when you open the throttle, really careful. They spun up quickly with a load of lean dialled in. Once they’re off the side and almost stood up you can go flat out. I found myself straightening the exits more, so that I could stand the bike up and get on the gas in a straight line, rather than feeding in the power while leant over.

Ultimately, side grip lets this one down. Getting it settled under the power took some time but the there was plenty of feedback letting me know what was going on so I could ride around that. The biggest problem is feel right at the edges of these. I wouldn’t have thought there would be much in it in the first half of each corner but in the second half this tyre struggles to transmit the power.

What this means for you:

A good tyre for anyone cranking straight-line motorway miles over the winter, but not so good if you like pushing it in the wet through corners. The amount of feedback they provide would let you know that you are pushing them too hard, but if a wet weather rider like Mr Whitham is struggling to get power through these when cranked over, you will too.

4TH

Bridgestone Battlax BT-021

4TH

Tyre: Bridgestone Battlax BT-021
Price: £209
Web: www.bridgestone.co.uk

What the manufactuers say:

“The new Battlax BT-021 is a true luxury sport tyre, with confident front-end feel, high stability both on motorways and winding roads, strong grip on wet and dry, and plenty of shock absorption for comfortable long journeys.”

What Whitham says:

I was reasonably impressed by these, though you can’t open the throttle as hard or as aggressively as you can in the dry, obviously. You can brake a lot harder than I expected, but only in a straight line where you have more chance of feeling it if something happens. For that reason you can have a fair old push on the brakes before turning in. Mid corner, as long as it’s settled, you can feel plenty. They don’t slide easily but I did feel them moving round, consequently this prevented me from driving as early out of the bends. You have to let the bike sit up and find a bigger contact patch before you can exploit the power. You have to be steady on the inputs you make with the throttle, you can still make big inputs, just not fast ones. Don’t go grabbing handfuls of gas. After a couple of laps I pushed a little harder and still didn’t have any serious ‘moments’.

The feedback they provide is progressive. These tyres give me quite a lot of confidence, you do get a little warning at the limit and that gave me the feeling I was looking for to push. Because it’s wet and there’s less grip, you ride in a different style, you don’t make the kind of move that having a sharper profiled tyre helps you to make. In the wet you have to be very gentle when moving from one movement to another, and on the brakes both the front and the rear felt good. The front end gave me bags of confidence once in a corner, all the movement felt like it was coming from the rear, and even then, as long as you are progressive rather than aggressive I found I could make good progress, even through the deep standing water sections of the track.

What this means for you:

The softer profile on the front tyre means that you may think that the Bridgestone doesn’t want to turn, but put a little faith in them and you’ll find that they are both compliant and consistent in even the worst conditions. The thing to watch out for is trying to put too much power through them coming out of corners. Let the Bridgestone’s settle after each input and you will be fine.

3RD

Pirelli Diablo Strada ST

3RD

Tyre: Pirelli Diablo Strada ST
Price: £204
Web: www.pirelli.co.uk

What the manufacturers say:

“Combined front and rear profile design for a neutral response in all riding conditions. Improved compound formulation for sporty performance and maximum safety on dry and wet roads.”

What Whitham says:

Very different feel to these. The first thing I noticed is that the back locks up really easily under brakes before corners, as soon as you shut off and start downshifting the back starts to float and

skip. There isn’t much straight-line traction under braking. They turn in steadily, but even when the bike was settled in the corners these still felt vague, not a lot of confidence to draw from these. That said once you can get some power running through them they steady up and feel better. I felt them slipping then gripping, then slipping then gripping again. I knew the tyre was working well and doing what it was supposed to do but the other tyres here could transmit the power in one smooth movement.

You have to let these tyres settle into a corner before you can think about feeding in more power, and have to wait a little longer than the others before you can think about getting proper drive out of a corner. On the brakes the front felt really strong, even the back skipping around wasn’t a huge issue, once you understood what the thing was doing it was okay. Because it’s wet you never want to trail the brakes as long as you do in the dry. You have to do everything earlier, consequently it seems to put a lot of weight into the front end, which causes the rear to float. I would say these give about the same levels of feel as the Bridgestone, mid corner they were vague but they were still solid. The most surprising thing was the amount of straight-line grip under hard acceleration. Even through massive puddles, once you were upright and on the gas you could throw heaps of power at them. Obviously all wet conditions are different but a good suspension guy could dial a lot of the shortfalls these tyres displayed out.

What this means for you:

Even though the feedback isn’t great the performance of the tyre is good. Trust the front end and the rest should follow. You might not like how they feel initially, but Whitham was 1.8 seconds per lap faster on these than either the Bridgestone or the Metzeler, which is a huge jump in performance.

2ND

Michelin Pilot Power 2CT

2ND

Tyre: Michelin Pilot Power 2CT
Price: £251
Web: www.michelin.co.uk

What the manufacturers say:

“The Pilot Power uses synthetic rubber components that were originally developed for MotoGP racing, minimizing warm-up time and optimizing traction for acceleration and braking.”

What Whitham says:

These felt like the fastest tyre out of all of them, no question. The front end was probably the best one of the lot, it turned in really good, quick and inspiring. What you have to watch for is the rear. It’s a ‘locker’ like the Pirelli, really similar feel. Mid corner I found myself looking for a line without loads of standing water on it, because when I ran this one through deep puddles the front end feel almost completely disappeared. It felt like the front wasn’t cutting through the water enough. Mid corner they are better than the Metzeler but a little like the Pirelli, where I wasn’t always happy with the feel. They felt good all the time but there wasn’t a great deal in the way of feedback in deep water. These allowed me to move the bike around a lot, which gave me the feeling that maybe I had gone quicker than on the Dunlops. I realised half way through this session that it might have felt like I was really shifting because the back was locking up and skipping around. The sharper profile on the front tyre allowed me to turn in more aggressively than the other tyres, again this added to the overall feeling of speed. The front felt mint, like I could put it wherever I wanted to.

What this means for you:

This is the most sports-biased rubber of the lot, and it shows. Probably more suited to the experienced road and track rider who would go out and have fun regardless of weather conditions. As you can see in the graph, the figures for the Michelin are good, but that doesn’t always relate to good feedback for the rideer. The fairly low G figure achieved on the brakes doesn’t tally up with the good lap time, but James didn’t have to brake as hard because he was able to carry a higher overall speed everywhere. The Michelins suit a rider who is more aggressive in the wet and has the skills to pull it off, they allow a high riding speed but this means the margins are reduced if you get it wrong. They move around a lot - some like this and some don’t.

1ST

Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart

1ST

Tyre: Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart
Price: £180
Web: www.dunloptyres.co.uk

What the manufacturers say:

“The best levels of wet grip thanks to innovative tread pattern design and silica compounds, which also ensure fast warm-up time.”

What Whitham says:

Straight away when you get on these you know that they are good. Feel equals confidence, which is important especially in the wet. It’s easy on a race wet to go out and not get any slides, or have any moments. But you don’t always get the feedback you need, you just have to put your faith in the tyre. To get confident you need that feeling from a tyre that lets you know you can push all the way to the limit and beyond if you want to, but in complete safety. This is what the Dunlops do.

In a straight line they feel as good as any of the previous tyres I have ridden on, they turn in easily, maybe not as quick as the Bridgestone, but the feel is a lot more secure. These Dunlops have a really nice balance between the front and the back. From turn in to mid-corner, getting the bike settled these were seamless, no lurching from closed to partial throttle, just so easy to ride. Planted and solid, even when there was a little movement it felt like the tyre was still doing what tyres do, riding over imperfections, rather than moving around while it tried to deal with rider input.

It was so easy to just roll the gas on while the bike was cranked over, it gave me the confidence and feel to know that I wasn’t upsetting the bike, so I could take advantage by braking later and driving the bike out of turns harder and earlier than I could than with any of the other tyres. If you did get carried away and push too hard they would let you know earlier and would also let go in a manner that would give you a fighting chance of keeping a bike upright, whereas some of the other tyres are a bit all or nothing. The bottom line with the Dunlops is lots more feel, which gives you the confidence to ride how you want rather than defaulting to ‘get home mode’ just because it’s wet. If, like me, you trust your first instincts these tyres would suit you.

What this means for you:

Dunlop has made your job of getting around in the winter a whole lot easier. The triple tread compound means you get the benefit of a sports tyre in the corners and the longevity of a touring tyre in a straight line. The biggest thing with these is the amount of feedback from the front and the rear. The more a tyre tells you the easier it is to deal with the conditions, and the Dunlops tell you what’s happening more than any of the other tyres on test. An outstanding winter tyre.

Conclusion

Conclusion:

Tyres are undoubtedly the biggest sign that we as road riders are benefiting from top-level race tyre development. Multiple compound tyres are commonplace now, and not just for those looking for track day kicks. As you can see in the graphs for each tyre the results are very close. That said, this was a test to find the tyre that not only performed well but also supplied the rider with the kind of feedback that you need when the weather is against you.

While the results are close, the feedback that James provided us with shows that a tyre can be quick but not tell you what’s going on (the Pirelli). On the flipside a tyre that gives you buckets of feedback will allow you to make the most of the conditions, which ultimately means you will be both safer and quicker. The Dunlops won thanks to an almost perfect mix of compound choice, tread pattern and profile. They also had the best balance between front and rear.

The Michelin had a great front tyre but the wayward rear pushed it into second place. The Pirellis took third place thanks to the under-power performance, which Whitham was really impressed by, but a vague feeling mid corner and the tyres lack of ability on the way out of corners let them down. The Bridgestones placed fourth, though James did state that there was very little between second place and fourth place. The profile and turning speed of both the front and rear compromised the 021. The Metzeler placed last, thanks to grip on the edge of the tyre and a lack of feedback.

Even the best winter tyre in the world won’t stop you crashing if you ride like a gooner in the wet. Stay loose, use more progressive inputs on the throttle and brakes, sit more upright on the bike and feel what the front end is doing. You learn loads about riding when it’s slippery.

Winter Set-up:

Whitham's Opinion

What works for me might make you want to get off and walk, but I aim to make the bike tell me as much as possible about whats going on at the contact patch. All we did with the Ducati 848 was back off the compression on the shock by one turn. This allows the shock to compress a little easier than normal. In my head this helps the bike replicate the way a bike feels mid corner in the dry, which for me is the critical point when riding on a circuit. Another crucial thing is tyre pressures, I ran this test with the pressures between 30 and 32psi, and do so on the road in the winter. But lots of people (Niall included) like to keep the pressure in the tyres high, as this allows the tread pattern to stay as wide open as possible, which helps channel the water away from under the bike. Like I said you might not feel the same way as I do. Experiment if you have the chance, just remember to write down all your base settings before you start fiddling otherwise you wont know where to go back to if it all goes wrong. A base-line is to soften off your settings by around 10% from your summer suspension settings.

The Ultimate Winter Tyre

If you want to go totally ga-ga in slippery conditions this winter, you could always stick a set of Michelin Full Wet race tyres on your bike. Illegal, but bloody good fun. Race wets are made of a much softer compound, which allows them to heat up quickly, but more importantly the tread pattern that is cut into them has a far lower Land/Sea ratio than standard tyres. The part of a tyre that makes contact with the road (being the land) and the part of the tyre that has been cut away (being the sea.) The more ‘sea’ a tyre has, the more effective it is at shifting water.

How much better are they than the best road tyres here? James managed to ride this circuit in 54.3 seconds on the wets, over 4 seconds quicker than the Dunlop road tyres, although his max speed was only marginally higher at 75.2 mph. Our telemetry showed that he wasn’t braking, turning or accelerating anywhere near as hard as he had been on the road tyres, as he was able to carry a higher speed all the way round the circuit. The feedback these tyres give is amazing, all the way up to and past the point where they break away. James also stated that if you decided to break the law and fit these to a road bike they far outperform the average road rider’s perception of fast in the wet.And they’re cheaper, too, at around £170 per pair. Remember they still won’t get you over white lines, through diesel or across wet drain covers without a hiccup, though...

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