30 Dec 2012

A tyre-ing ordeal: Heidenau K60 Scouts

To me, the weakest point on the F800GS is, without question, the choice of tyre that BMW fits on the bike from the factory—in my case, Pirelli Scorpion Trails. Depending on available stock during manufacture, they also may come with Bridgestone Battle Wings or Michelin Anakee 2s. From anecdotal reports, the only one of these stock tyres that even approaches an acceptable level of traction on anything beyond hard packed dirt or gravel roads is the Anakee.

Objectively speaking, these tyres are all safe choices on the part of BMW since most of the thousands of GS models they sell never see anything rougher than a speed hump or kerb. They are all V-rated (240km/h or 149mph) which allows for a suitable margin of safety for the bike’s top speed.

On road, of course they do the job—I’ve always been partial to Michelin tyres but the Pirellis did all right on both wet and dry asphalt. In fact, having carried out a panic stop once on a wet road only resulted in the ABS activating on the rear wheel—the front gripped remarkably.

Going off road, the Pirellis and Bridgestones would be generously classed as 90/10 tyres—designed for 90% on road and 10% off. The Michelins might be 80/20s.

Following a strange, slow, 180° spin on clay mud last September, which resulted in the bike on the floor and me standing next to it somewhat confused and perplexed, I decided it was time to get something a bit meatier.

BMW recommend Continental TKC80s or Metzeler Karoo 2 (T)s for off road use but these are considered 30/70s and 20/80s respectively. It is common knowledge in the ADV community that the Continentals are great tyres but the treads melt down faster than an ice cube in the Sahara when used on road. And the Metzelers are considered by many to be downright scary on wet tarmac. Both of these tyres appear on BMW’s recommended list for the F800GS.

The list has an obvious gap—nothing in between the on road and off road tyres. Speaking about this to a number of people in the ADV community, and, in particular, Leslie (have a look at her excellent blog ADVgrrl), the Heidenau K60 Scout came out as the tyre of choice for riders in search of the holy grail of dual sport tyres—the elusive 50/50. In fact, I was unable to find a single negative review and we all know how fast bad (misjudged?) reviews flap around the internet.

In mid-October I spoke with Micky at my usual (and highly recommended) tyre shop Essential Rubber Tyres in Bow E3—the K60 was not a tyre they carried, or one with which they had any first-hand experience. He was happy to install them for me if I brought them in, however—£50 fitted and balanced.

I ordered the tyres from Oponeo and they totalled a reasonable £140 including delivery. According to the realtime tracker, they came directly from Heidenau’s factory in Germany—encouraging, as this indicated fresh stock, not tyres that had been sat around in a warehouse for months on end. They arrived 7 days after I put in the order.

I emailed BMW Battersea, my home dealership where I purchased the bike (and they are conveniently just round the corner from me), on the off chance that they were around the same cost for fitting and balancing. I received an email back offering to fit them for £70. I emailed back requesting the next available booking. I received a reply that the earliest appointment would be in 5 day’s time and the service adviser asked what tyres I’d purchased.

I responded and received an email back stating that they were “only allowed to fit BMW recommended tyres and  Heidenau K60 Scouts are not on [BMW’s recommended tyre] list” and that I would “need to supply [the dealership] with these makes or use another dealership to fit“.

Mildly disappointing to say the least, and with a bit more prodding I received an explanation that BMW Park Lane/Battersea is run by BMW UK directly and that was why they were obligated to only install the tyres shown on the official recommended list from BMW. Fair enough, I suppose—if that’s what they’ve been told to do, they’re only doing their job... But it seems slightly odd in that scenario to refer me to a competing dealership.

At the bottom of BMW’s recommended tyre list it states: “BMW Motorrad recommends obtaining a clearance certificate from the tyre manufacturer and keeping this certificate with the vehicle at all times”—so I did the reasonable thing and emailed Heidenau directly.

The next morning I received an email back with a link to Heidenau’s Certificate of Conformity which confirms that the K60 Scouts are approved by the Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und Stadtentwicklung (German Federal Transport Ministry) for use on the F800GS.

I daresay this endorsement is good enough for me—it’s common knowledge that the German authorities don’t f**k about. But also, it’s interesting to note that I have it on good authority that the K60s are among the marques of tyres used by BMW’s own off road training centre in Hechlingen, Germany.

Moving on, I still had tyres to mount so I did as advised and rang Vines of Guildford, the next closest motorrad dealership. I happened to get the service manager who was happy to fit K60s on my bike, but said they were booked up for the next couple weeks. He suggested I contact Guildford Tyre Company whom he said Vines often used themselves.

In retrospect, at this point I wish I’d stopped faffing about and just gone to my faithful tyre shop in Bow but in the heat of the moment I rang Guildford Tyre Company who told me to come in first thing that Saturday morning.

Of course we had a sudden cold snap with the weather dropping from about 15°C to 2°C overnight. The 800cc Rotax engine has some chunky cylinders so when the weather drops much below 8°C the battery feels it—the starter sounded decidedly tired as it brought the bike to life.

I got about 10 minutes down the A3 before noticing that the heated grips were not so heated. In fact, they were stone cold. It seems the ZFE (electronic brain) decided in a moment of self-preservation (rise of the machines?) that, with the battery already tired, it would not permit the grip elements to suck even more electricity. A quick stop at a pull-out to switch off and restart the engine resolved this, and before long my hands were toasty again.

Now, I’m not in the habit of slagging off companies from one bad experience, but Guildford Tyre Company’s negligence in this case had potentially life threatening results.

Arriving at Guildford Tyre Company, I think the chap who helped me had got up on the wrong side of bed, as he was genuinely dismissive when I requested that he remove the ABS sensors before removing the wheels—a peculiarity about several BMW models including the F800GS. I wasn’t being abrasive, patronising or twatty with him at all—it was a simple request.

As much as I don’t like being told how to do my job as the next person, at the end of the day it is my (expensive) bike and I don’t fancy paying to replace the ABS sensors when the induction magnets are sheared off by the brake discs—they only have about 0.5mm of clearance. I would have assumed, being in the tyre business and working for Vine’s preferred tyre shop, he would have known this already—instead, he gave me a look as though I’d propositioned him.

Next—while enjoying my second complimentary coffee in the waiting room—I heard my anti-theft alarm going mad. I popped my head into the workshop and offered to permanently disable it, but I needn’t have bothered since all I got was another contemptuous glare and a dismissive “I think we’re all right here”.

The alarm is not difficult to disable—all that’s required is to press the arming button on the fob twice. But no... his ego again got in the way and so the bike sat for the next 30 minutes with the ignition switched on, further taxing the already tired battery.

Finishing my third and fourth complimentary coffees, nature called and, by the time I’d found the toilet and returned, the tyres were done. The chap was slightly less stroppy now and I thanked him (there’s never an excuse for bad manners, that’s why blogs exist), paid him £54 and left.

On my way home I took to the byways to break in the new tyres. First impressions? On road the bike felt unsettled, like I was riding on marbles—this was expected as it was noted in a number of reviews, and apparently goes away after 50–100 miles, once the tyres properly bed in and scrub off the release agent. Off road, straight away they were bloody fantastic. Mud, dirt, gravel, deep water, sand—the bike went exactly where I aimed it, no slop, no fuss.

After riding about 20 miles off road, I rode the rest of the way home on a mix of motorway and city roads. By the time I was home, the handling had settled down, the ‘marbles’ feeling gone.

The next morning, as I approached the bike, I noticed that something was not quite right. I’m not sure what possessed me to look at the rear axle but the right-hand-side axle locking bolt, used for adjusting the chain tension, had been left screwed fully into the swing arm. Not only that, but the chain only had about 10mm of slack. The F800GS spec is 35–45mm of slack—yes, a very floppy chain, but a necessity with 215mm of swing arm travel. I have no idea how much the life of the chain was shortened, having ridden off road the day before using the full range of suspension travel.

Slightly more chilling was the axle locking bolt—without this being tightened up to the axle, the rear tyre has the potential to twist resulting in a rear-steer effect. Not so much a problem doing 20mph on a trail, but it made me shudder thinking about what would have happened on the motorway at 70mph. Even though I probably should have, you just don’t think you would need to double-check the work of a professional.

So not only did the chap at Guildford Tyre Company give me attitude about the ABS sensor, he ended up screwing the pooch with his incompetence about safely remounting the wheel and adjusting the chain to spec.

I went through everything thoroughly at that point, readjusting the chain tension, checking the torque on the axle bolts, and properly securing the axle locking bolts. I contemplated ringing up Guildford Tyre Company to have a conversation with them, but there was little point since I’d already made it right. I didn’t have the willpower to endure the strop and attitude I no doubt would have received when bringing into question the quality of their work—and I have little reason to believe they’d do anything other than deny it anyway.

I’m perplexed by how something as simple as getting a new set of tyres ended up being such a monumentally shit experience all round. I don’t think I have unreasonable expectations—all I ask is for people whom I am employing to carry out a prescribed job to be transparent, honest and courteous. Is that unreasonable in 2012?

Needless to say, I will be going to Essential Rubber in Bow from now on when it comes to tyres—for the last 5 years they’ve always been great and I’m kicking myself for not seeing them this time around. You live and learn.

Two months on—I love these tyres. On road they match the Pirellis for traction, cornering and braking regardless of whether the road is wet or dry. They mask their semi-knobbly treads well—the only evidence is a slight vibration at 15mph and a modest hum on damp roads at higher speeds.

Off road they are in another league compared to the Pirellis. No matter what I’ve thrown at them, they’ve take it in stride. How those crazy German engineers at Heidenau managed to strike such a balance of inspiring confidence both on and off road, I may never understand. Das grenzt an Zauberei.

I can’t say why BMW don’t include the K60s on their recommended list. I suspect, in the vehicle industry, tyre makers canvass vehicle manufacturers and/or codevelop some of their products. However, all of the F800GS recommended tyres are standard, off-the-shelf models, so perhaps Heidenau hasn’t paid to be on the list. Or maybe I’m just talking rubbish.

Either way, I’ve joined many others in the Heidenau fan club.

[Addendum 19 Jan 2013: Metzeler are releasing the Karoo 3 in March 2013 which appears to be another 50/50ish tyre—it will be interesting to see how it compares to the K60 Scouts once the ADV community get their hands on it. However, from the photos it doesn't look as aggressive as the K60.]

[Addendum 18 Feb 2013: The sidewalls on the K60s are slightly ambiguous regarding the correct pressure—I went with BMW’s recommended 2.4/2.8 bar front/rear which seems to work well. However, I recently emailed Heidenau to find out their recommendation and they have come back with 2.7/3.0 bar front/rear (44/39 psi)—will report back after I’ve given this pressure a go.]

[Addendum 5 Mar 2013: Tyres feel slightly sharper handling at Heidenau's recommended pressures. I’ve noticed no effect on grip wet or dry, ABS virtually impossible to activate in normal circumstances unless deliberately stomping on the brakes.]

[Addendum 22 May 2013: Discovered 4 seized links in my chain which I have maintained meticulously with regular cleaning and lubrication. By fused, I mean absolutely solid, no movement at all, as though they are welded together. Seems riding rough byways with an over-tight chain does inflict irreparable damage. Thanks, Guildford Tyre Company.]