The Myth of Chicken Strips

The Myth of Chicken Strips

Spring is in the air! The rain is warmer. The sun may be even be out. Is this great or what?

And so, once again, we arrive at that time of year when some of your friends and colleagues are thinking about getting into motorcycling.  You may be able to offer “been there and done that” advice of great sagacity, although it’s always advisable to wait until you’re asked. 

If you’re new to motorcycling yourself, please keep in mind that advice offered for free is at times worth less than that, and if it comes from the Internet it may cost you.

Skipping over the ironic chasm created by your reading this on the Internet…

I was reminded of the perils of being a new motorcyclist the other morning when a fellow I chat with at the YMCA mentioned that his son is enjoying his first motorcycle.  His son is new to both riding and is “not a good ride yet”, according to Dad.  One of the lesser problems his son has dealt with occurred at work, where others with more experience chided him for the rear tire wear of his Yamaha 600, most of which is in the middle. They used the term “chicken strips” for the unworn sections of tread at the outer sides of the tire.

Aghghgh!  This sort of thing drives me up the wall.  Ever happen to you?  Allow me to offer some counter explanations. 

In this case, by the way, the young man did not need my help. All he did was spend some time with a friend who is a road racer.  They swapped wheels for a week and the young man’s co-workers were stunned by the altered appearance of his tires. The edges were now shredded to an admirable degree, and none of them figured out what he’d actually done.

If such a ploy is not available to you, the vast ocean of logic and fact that so few toes wade into can be your friend.

The phrase “chicken strips”  refers to the area of the tires, especially on sport bikes, where the tread has not been used.  The width of this area will vary depending on the type of bike, the type of tire, the rider’s aggression level, and where and how the bike is being ridden.

There lies the rub. There is virtually no connection between the width of the so-called chicken strips and the skill of the rider, once all other factors are taken into consideration.  In some cases the opposite is true.

Let’s take Sally, for one fictional example. Sally is a committed enthusiast, and rides every chance she can get, including about 80% of her work days. Since she lives in the Northwest, this implies that Sally also has an impressive selection of riding gear and does not melt when she gets wet.  Sally’s daily commute is 50 miles each way on surface streets and connector highways. On weekends she enjoys riding with friends and strafing corners in the vast playground of lesser back roads east of Seattle.   Sally rides more than 90% of the motorcycle population, and yet her front and rear tires are always going to wear out in the center section because so much of her riding is her commute, on roads more or less devoid of cornering opportunities. On weekend rides that are wet, she is not so silly as to lay the bike that far over on roads with uncertainty of surface and sight around every corner.

Bob rides a Harley Road King. A Road King can be hustled down a winding road with aplomb by a skilled rider like Bob, and is a lot of fun, And yet, due to the design of the bike and a relative lack of ground clearance, Bob is never going to develop chicken strips on his Harley.

Sidney Squidly has a sport bike and is inordinately proud of the tread wear on the sides of the tires. He’s sure this proves that he is the man among men cornering faster than anyone.  And he is – maybe.

If the tire is worn all the way to the edge of the wheel rim, it might be that all of the available traction is used.  It is more often the case that the rider is not using body positioning and leaning off to maximize the capability of the bike and has in fact more lean available.

But on the street?  Is that wise?     Er….no.  Is it necessary to make good progress?  Also no.

A number of years ago I was out riding with three friends. All of them were quite fast on the street, and in fact soon progressed to either racing or racing and track days only.  They were all younger and lighter than me (that happens a lot) and on lighter and theoretically faster bikes.  Ripping along the twisting route we were enjoying they all leaned off and used the “proper” racing line.  I was at the back and chose, instead, to use a combination of late braking and a late apex, followed by aggressive acceleration when I could see where the road went.

I noticed over a period of an hour that I would lose about 100 yards every few miles with my technique.  I was never in a situation where I could not see a far ways ahead, and I never came close to using all of the side traction of the tire.   There would be the occasional slower vehicle, and the guys in front had to slow down, at least momentarily, to locate a good passing opportunity.  And I would catch up.  Throw in a stop sign here and  there and I stayed with them for the entire ride while exposing myself to significantly lower risk.

That was a powerful lesson for me.  What Sidney Squidly is missing is that the street is not a race track, and going fast is not the same thing as racing.

On a race track the road map remains a constant, once you’ve learned it. The surface conditions remain relatively stable as well, except for changes in the weather that are obvious.  You can commit fully to a corner you’ve seen 15 times previously – hang off, put a knee down, and all that sort of thing. You will soon not have any chicken strips showing.

On the street, there’s a man backing his pickup out of his driveway around the next blind corner.  The last rain has run a string of gravel across the road at the apex.  A cow got loose last night and marked his territory at the corner exit.  Tires get very little traction in manure, whether straight up or leaned over – which reminds me of a hilarious story for another time.

If you’re racing, the point is to win.  Block passes, altered lines, using your knee as a road surface feeler, maximum rpm and power in all gears, braking to the threshold of traction, and even psyching out the opponent are all legitimate techniques.   On the street they’re all recipes for disaster.

If you’re talented enough to be dragging your knee, hanging off the bike, using all of the tire – and still have the reaction time to correct for a station wagon, trail of gravel, or pile of manure, you should not be wasting your talent on the street but pursuing a career as a MotoGP star.

For 99% of us, chicken strips are not a sign of lack of pace at all but may well be indicators of intelligence and skill.   If that won’t work for you, sign up for a track day or an advanced cornering school (there are many in our area) held at a racetrack.   You’ll lose most of the chicken strips you may have and can then get back to enjoying brisk street riding based on logic and talent, rather than the hot air of a squid.


Copyright 2013                             David Preston

About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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