March 26 2010 by Jason Fogelson
I have to warn you in advance -- this article might get a little technical. Don't be afraid, though. I promise to keep it to a minimum.
The subject is motorcycle wheels.
There are several good reasons to think about your wheels. On a purely cosmetic level, the look of your wheels can radically change the stance, appearance and attitude of your ride. Changing the style, diameter and width of your wheels can turn an ordinary-looking bike into a hot rod.
Performance is an important consideration when selecting wheels, as well. Adding some width to your wheels can improve straight-line stability. Choosing narrower wheels can affect turn in and handling. Altering wheel diameter and width can have a dramatic effect on your motorcycle's performance, both for good and for bad. You have to really know what you're doing to ensure proper fit and calibration of your instruments.
Safety is also a very important consideration in wheel choice. Most motorcycles used to come with wire wheels, most of which require tube tires. Today, most bikes arrive with cast alloy or carved billet wheels, which can be equipped with tubeless tires. Tubeless tires behave more predictably when they are punctured, and many experts consider them safer than tube tires, which can lose air rapidly and "blow out." Wire wheels must be trued periodically in order to maintain ideal proportion, whereas a good cast or carved wheel only needs to be balanced. Ironically, wheels equipped with tube tires are much easier for shade tree mechanics to change and repair themselves, so serious long-distance and dual-sport riders usually opt for tubes. It's easier to deal with a blowout that you can fix on the side of the road than it is to find a tire dealer in the middle of the Ukraine.
Here comes the technical part. To really understand motorcycle wheels, you have to consider the concept of "unsprung weight." Unsprung weight is the part of a motorcycle that is not supported by the suspension system: the wheels, tires, brakes, wheel bearings and other pieces that contact the road beneath the shocks and frame. In theory and in practice, less unsprung weight contributes to a motorcycle that handles better, tracks road imperfections better, and rides smoother. Motorcycle designers and engineers constantly balance the compromises between cost, weight, appearance and durability when they select unsprung components, including wheels.
If I haven't frightened you off of changing your motorcycle wheels yet, you should know that we are actually living in the golden age of motorcycle wheels right now. The technology exists to make it possible for you to equip your bike with a variety of different wheel choices. The Harley-Davidson Parts & Accessories catalog offers dozens of wheels for each model the Motor Company makes, and there are dozens of aftermarket wheel manufacturers out there with every kind of wheel from mild to wild. There are even companies that will custom build a wheel based on your personal design, for the ultimate one-off motorcycle.