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New Avon Spirit ST tyre tested on road and track

Sport-touring rubber that's just as at home on track

By Alan Dowds

LIFE'S all about compromise – and nowhere more so than choosing a tyre for your road bike. We all want amazing grip, stability and handling wherever we ride, and in all conditions. But the same tyre tech that works on a freezing, wet Tuesday night on the A50 can't always do as good a job on a 50° race track in Spain.

But in recent years, the tyre firms have got better and better at making rubber with a broader performance envelope. So you can now have a sport-touring tyre that works really well on the road in the rain but can also handle warm, dry conditions too. Indeed, if you go to somewhere like the Ron Haslam Race School, you'll see Rocket Ron wazzing a Fireblade round Donington on a pair of sport-touring Bridgestones, rather than hot-poop slicks.

Avon's earned a decent reputation for its sport-touring tyres over the years. I was a big fan of its Storm range, later improved with the Storm 2 and then the Storm 3D X-M. Designed and made in Britain, they seemed to have UK weather in mind, and always worked well in the wet and cold. Yet, whenever the weather warmed up, they still did a top job when pushing harder on the road. I’ve even ventured onto the odd trackday on them in the past, without even losing an eye or anything.

So there's a lot riding on Avon's new sport-touring hoop, the Spirit ST. On the face of it, it looks like it’s been designed very much with wet performance in mind; the tread pattern has loads of water-clearing grooves and thin 'sipes' cut into the tyre surface. It's got the feel of a race wet, a trick that Michelin has used to good effect on its excellent Pilot Road 3 and 4 rubber. At the pre-ride presentation, the engineers tell us the tread compounds have also been optimised to work in the wet, with loads of silica squeezed into the mix, as well as a multi-compound construction on the rears.

But we're here in a decidedly-dry Portugal to give the Spirits a try. Avon's flown us out to the Portimao race circuit, where we're tazzing a selection of bikes round the local roads, followed by a morning on track. That should give us a good idea of how the Spirits cope with warm, dry conditions. But what about the wet? Well, we kick off with a wet-braking test in the Portimao car park. There's a special sprinkler system set up to create a skid area, and Avon's brought along its outrigger-equipped test bike. The Bandit 1250 has a pair of hefty skids bolted onto each side, so no matter how hard we try, we shouldn't come a cropper…

It takes a bit of faith to slam on the anchors on a bike when you're riding through a massive stream of running water. But the twin safety nets of ABS and the outriggers offer some encouragement, and I slam on the front brake as hard as I dare, from about 45mph. The pics show me later that the Bandit has absolutely no travel left on the forks, so it was a proper panic-stations, hammer-down stop. But the most I got in a few attempts was a very gentle cycle of the ABS pump – the front Avon had a tenacious grip on the asphalt, and wasn't ready to let go without a big fight.

With that mark of confidence in the front, we set off for an afternoon riding on the local hillside roads. There's a huge range of bikes, from a Honda CB650 and Triumph Street Triple to a Yamaha FJR1300, KTM Adventure 1190 and Super Duke, and Suzuki's GSX-S1000, so plenty of variety. I start out on a Yamaha Tracer 700, and follow Avon's new Brand Ambassador Steve Parrish up the road.

As always on brand-new rubber, the Avons feel nice and nimble, the unworn profiles of the front and rear giving light, agile steering. The road is quite challenging, and Parrish has been here for a couple of days, so I'm soon pushing on a bit to keep up. And as is the nature of such a ride, I end up relying more and more on the brakes, especially when I get caught by one nasty decreasing-radius bend. And the front Spirit feels great, letting me brake harder and later with no dramas at all. The little Tracer doesn't have a load of hp of course, so the rear tyre is getting an easier time, but I'm still hard on the gas out of every bend, and there's no movement at all. The road has some evil bumps and dips in places, and the bars give a flick now and again, but there's a real sense of stability.

I spend a few hours jumping about on all of the bikes, and I'm growing fonder and fonder of the front tyre, which engenders loads of confidence, especially under braking. There's ample grip at both ends though, easily enough to start scraping pegs and stands on some of the tighter bends. There's an easy, assured feel from the Avons all the way round the road circuit.

We're done for the day now, and head back to the hotel for dinner and a chat about the new tyres. Next dawn, and we're up early to give the Spirits a much tougher test – a blast round Portimao's WSB racetrack.

Now, some of the bikes aren’t what you'd call track-focussed machines, but the Super Duke, Speed Triple, Street Triple and GSX-S1000 and 750 should offer a bit of a challenge. For the first session though, I end up on the KTM Adventure – a fantastic bike, but with its 19-inch front wheel, long-travel suspension and low pegs, not really the best tool for the job. I do a few laps, remind myself what bends are where, and come back in to wait for something sportier.

A GSX-S1000 pulls in and like a good Brexiteer I seize control of it from a nice German chappie. Now, we’re out on a proper bike, and can have a bit of a go. Portimao is a big, serious track, and I’m grateful for my visit here in January, which lets me pick up the pace early on. And the Spirits feel pretty good for starters. The front still gives me plenty of confidence, and the rear does well, until one hamfisted yank on the throttle produces a bit of a slide out of one of the slower bends. Suitably chastened, I take more care, and am able to build back up again, scraping the long hero blobs at will. I come in after another few laps for a drink and a break, then head back out on the Super Duke. That’s a totally different kettle of mad fish: the bonkers orange loony-bike feels like a (barely)guided missile after the soft Suzuki, and it's wheelying everywhere round here. The big gobbets of torque are too much for the rear Spirit on track, and if you start to try a bit harder, things quickly get out of hand. That's no real criticism of course – the KTM has enough grunt to disturb far sportier tyres than these ones.

The next session is the best though. I grab the keys for the Street Triple, and charge down pitlane. Suddenly, everything makes much more sense. The little 675 has a fine chassis, and just enough power for round here. You can give it a proper handful everywhere without worrying about the rear grip, the front end is far more precise and informative than all the other soft naked bikes, and there's a glorious howl from the airbox. The Spirits feel really well suited too – the back end is solid and planted everywhere, and I'm getting more feedback from the front. There's no danger of getting them confused with proper track tyres – but for a set of hoops that are designed to do 10,000 miles two-up, on a wet German autobahn or a cold autumn commute, they're doing amazingly well.

Some of the racier riders on the launch are less sure of the front, complaining of a lack of feel and grip when really pushing hard. But, of course, if you're looking for that level of performance on track, you'd be fitting a different tyre altogether (and probably riding different bikes too, ha).

The day's over, and I've been impressed with how the Spirits have coped on a warm Portuguese day of road and track action. For most of the time, it was the bikes rather than the tyres that held back performance, on the track especially. All we need to do now is give the Spirits a proper try-out on some horrid, nasty UK road conditions.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a new sport-touring tyre that can do the business in all sorts of road conditions, the new Spirits seem like they'll be an excellent choice – with minimal compromise.

Price: Expect to pay around £200-265 for a pair of Spirit STs, depending on sizes

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