"This is Continental, and Continental Wants Its Market Back."
The Contidrom. Each one of those sections is like a speed bump when the
suspension is bottomed out from the Gs. With two ovals like this and two
straights, you can play with full throttle in sixth gear as long as your
sternum and vision can take it.
Continental has factories all around the world but their top end motorcycle
tires are all produced at the historic Korbach tire plant, which was originally
established in 1907 to make bicycle tires and other technical rubber parts.
Now the plant makes mostly car tires but also produces the motorcycle radials.
I struggle to inhale as the extra eighty pounds of weight on my chest lifts slightly and the big KTM hurls around the finish of the second oval. My vision is blurred from the violence of the ride and my arms are burning anaerobic. The 150 mph and 80 degree banking are enough to mock Daytona, but the kicker is the shock loads. The concrete oval was poured in short sections fifty years ago. Since they have each settled at their own rate the riding experience is akin to being kicked in the chest ten times a second. The bike has been in sixth gear for over six minutes at anywhere from 80 to 100 percent throttle and the exhaust note from the solitary bike is reverberating around the bowl of the Contidrom causing worried looks to appear on the faces of the listening factory test riders. I tuck in as tight as I can and use what is left of my peripheral vision to watch 287, 288, 289... the KPH speedo is still climbing when I have to ease out for the next oval.
Sam is lost in quiet contemplation at the sacrifices his ancestral racers made
so that proper liquid cooled motorcycles with fuel injection can be raced
now. Continental is now making very successful high tech modern race
tires for classic racers.
This was my second trip to Germany at Continental's behest. Two years ago I had a harried visit to Hanover to sample their Sport Attack tires. The tires were good, as you would expect any premium street/track tire to be, and the facilities were impressive. I was told that Continental was committed to the motorcycle market for the long haul.
She's a big girl but the tires kept pace with these sorts of
antics for two days on the street and various test tracks.
Now, back in the day, we used to ride tires with inner tubes and 50 psi of pressure. Back in those dark days of spokes and bias plies, Continental Sport Twins were the ubiquitous fitment in a 19" front and 18" rear. Sure, there was the odd Dunlop fan here and there but basically everyone ran those same ribbed Continental tires. Then Metzler showed up with the chevron treaded Laser tire and Continental's market share rapidly shrank.
Sam grabs the coveted ZX6 for a few laps on the Continental dry course
proving ground. Note the banking of the Contidrom in the
left background just beneath the slowly turning windmills.
The whole Radial tire thing didn't turn out to be a phase and Continental was left without any product for the high-end bikes. They sulked a bit, made a fortune in bicycle tires, and secured OE fitment for all the top end luxury sedans in Europe but after fifteen years of only having tires for Harleys they decided to re-enter the high end of the market.
Continental brought out a few tricked out BMWs built by Wunderlich. These
included a naked BMW S1000 complete with street fighter bars and GP shift.
Continental has a dedicated wet track that is permanently soaked with
little fountains. It is very tight with mostly first gear turns on a
big BMW. This is just as sketchy as it looks.
For a company the size of Continental (founded in 1871, $40B in sales, 160,000 employees, European auto fitment leader, auto electronics supplier) it wasn't really a question of resource, it was a question of will and, of course, talent.
All tire manufacturers have internally developed the machinery and process
to produce tires. Michelin, Pirelli and Continental all do it in a different
fashion. The Continental tires are produced with a combination of automated
machines and hand operation. Here the rubber coated steel belt is laid onto
the carcass of a RoadAttack tire. Note the individual metal dies that are keeping the shape of the tire. These dies must be machined for each tire size and tire shape in the in-house machine shop.
After a good initial effort (see the Sport Attack line) was launched Continental rehired Thomas Zoller to be their director of motorcycle R & D. Having spent over a decade building Pirelli into a world leader in performance tires, Zoller was singularly qualified for the position.
Tom Zoller (not labeled Sam) was stolen back from Pirelli by
Continental five years ago to build a line of tires that would put
Continental among the leader of motorcycle tire technology.
He has been busy.
It was a late afternoon end to two long days of hard riding. Any street ride that requires dragging a knee off a K1300S in pursuit of a German road guide on a liter sport bike and leaves one unfortunate journalist in the hospital counts as a hard day of riding. The holiday traffic on the Autobahn resulted in digital riding that was tiring at either extreme: 1st gear lane splitting, or 6th gear and 156mph for miles on end. Arriving back at the Contidrom to drop off bikes and shuttle back to the hotel, we were informed as we were changing out of leathers that the oval was open to us for the next thirty minutes, but please refrain from using the 1300s. The angel on my right shoulder whispered sensible suggestions about jet lag, long days, and the pleasures of joining the other scribes settling into chairs. The devil on my left countered with "Tempus Fugit, Carpe Diem"* and I started putting back in my earplugs so I wouldn't have to hear the inevitable "so don't be a pussy".
Tires, although it sounds idiotic, are undeniably a consumerist brand statement on a bike; for example, picture a 916 with Cheng Shin tires. Continental was, therefore, up against a bit of a barrier because, although they were associated with Porsche and Audi performance in the car sector, they were associated with bias ply cruiser tires in the motorcycle arena. They wanted to update their image and have the brand associated with more of an edgy sports feeling. Most companies do this through their racing strategies (Dunlop (DMG), Pirelli (WSB), Bridgestone (MotoGP), Michelin (Army Of Darkness WERA Endurance)) so Continental built some slicks and their Sport Attack tires.
The Continental line from race to touring. Aside from the wet tire second
from the left, the more tread the more street focused the tire.
Two years later I am witness to Zoller's handiwork. Continental has not only built a Sport Attack 2 tire (the OE fitment on the world leading BMW S 1000 RR) but they have also built a dedicated Super Motard tire, a performance updated narrow rim tire, and an updated classic racer tire in an attempt to push Dunlop and Avon out of the classic bike race tire market. They also built the strangely compelling dual sport TKC 80 for the 1200GS.
Another custom BMW by Wunderlich with Continental TKC 80 tires
(original fitment on BMW GS) brings forth every latent Road Warrior thought.
Continental knows that they are still working on the branding so they are trying to keep a theme on the tread patterns as well as doing such tricks as printing the lettering on the tires inside out so the name is clearly readable on the bottom of the rim.
New Tricks for old dogs. Continental used to rule the bias ply 100/18
90/90/19 world of 70s and early 80s bikes. While they were building
their modern line, they built some modern tires for the old bikes as well.
There was a time when a SuperMotard tire had to work on both pavement
and dirt. Those days, apparently, are long past. The Continental SM line
is basically a slick for the street.
There amidst the plethora of the naked bikes were two faired middleweights that the Interlink Media boys were grabbing for their video,. The K1300 was off limits, but no one said anything about the 1200 KTM RC8. The Oval is two 180 degree banked turns that are gradually banked up to 80 degrees at the top. Connecting these are two straights. The idea is to allow for continuous high speed testing in a variety of vehicles. I have been fast on motorcycles before, but never for extended periods of time where the bike is in sixth gear and the throttle is never below 90 percent, for minutes on end, with two periods of astounding G loading in the middle. Only four of us went out to ride and the KTM had 30 mph on the 600s. We each had to periodically stop to take rest breaks from the G strain and for extended periods I had the oval all to myself.
The release of a new Sport Attack 2 and the expansion of the rest of the motorcycle product line in only two years shows real commitment by Continental. The Sport Attack 2 has been redesigned to give a little bit faster warm up and dry grip while delivering much improved durability, wet grip and handling.
The tire ends up being built in multiple stages and moved between
machines as the different sections are added. Here the tire has been
switched from the metal dies to an internal pneumatic fixture to attach
and form the beads which are still in their open form in this photo.
Like other premium sport tires, these are a blend of carbon black and silica compounds. The carbon gives good dry and hot grip, the silica provides grip in the wet and at lower temperatures. To solve the "hard in the middle, soft on the edges" design problem Continental simply bakes the tires asymmetrically. By vulcanizing the edges of the tire at a lower temperature, the edges stay softer while the center of the tire is more durable. They call this "continuous compound". For reference, Pirelli uses different compounds on the sides and center; Michelin uses a single compound and varies the belt to achieve a similar result. That is three significantly different solutions to address the dreaded "wearing down the center first" problem.
Where the rubber meets the mold. Korbach can produce about 30,000 tires a day. Of those about 1,000 are for motorcycles. These tires are acquiring tread compound. The tires in the foreground have tread rubber applied but have not been stamped into tread. The tires in the background have the tread pressed into them. The tread pattern is visible (in negative) in the molds suspended above.
While Continental is cooking the tire, they also bake in a texture treatment on the tire called Traction Skin. This effect roughens up the surface of the tire to avoid the problem of riders crashing from the mold release on their tires leaving dealer parking lots. This seems like a non-issue to me but, to be fair, I have actually witnessed such a thing twenty five years ago on a freshly mounted street legal Dunlop.
Premium brands are tough to create and even tougher to maintain.
Every Continental tire is hand inspected for blemishes
or imperfections before being cleared for shipping.
After a couple of sessions to get a little acquainted with the bike, I began to wonder how fast the KTM would actually go on the straight leading into Oval 1, and how durable the connecting rods were on these big twins. Each time I went into Oval 1 the speed was still climbing before I had to ease out for the brutal pummeling of the banking. I knew I needed to carry more speed out of Oval 2 and get the throttle open earlier. I know that I only have a few laps left in my exhausted shoulders so I need to make these count. I pull in my elbows to get my sternum a little off the tank and wrench open the throttle. The speedo climbs and the polished cobblestone infield turns to a slick green sheet from the grass growing in the spots between the pavers as the tunnel vision sets in 298, 299, 300. A red light is flashing on the dash. Maybe I should have examined the controls when I started the bike?
And the new tires are excellent. It is always impossible to compare brands on radically different bikes on different days and in different conditions, but after riding everything from the K1300 leviathan to the nimbler ZX6; from a custom GP shifting street fighter to an RC 8; on wet test tracks, dry test tracks, 160 mph autobahn cruising and irresponsibly high speed back road street riding, ; the tires were never the limiting factor. Continental has firmly placed itself back in with the other top tier tires in the world.
Street fighter scratching on ContiAttack 2
Last lap. My neck can't take much more and there is that red light that keeps flashing on the dash. I let my chest crush into the angular tank of the KTM as the Oval 2 banking pushes back against my inertia and after a three count I will the throttle back from 90 percent to 100 percent. I drive down the banking to exit away from the cobblestones and inside the water drainage grating on the outside and tuck in as tight as I can. With the mysterious red light blinking furiously, 303, 304, 305 kpm.**
Continental, Uber Alles.
*time flees, seize the day ** 189.5 mph
Hustling the big BMW.