In just a few days I was leaving on a 3,500 mile trek that would include some of the best mountain twisties in the East. After giving my Honda ST1300 a careful once-over, I felt confident that my dual-compound sport touring tires had more than enough tread remaining for the trip.
Alas, not so. The combination of a big sport tourer, a full load and winding mountain roads still littered with winter gravel took their toll. No doubt an enthusiastic right hand accelerated the problem. Only 1,300 miles from home, while giving my Honda ST1300 another once-over in my Aunt Muriel’s driveway, the evidence was clear. The wear bars had been flush for a while already. Numerous chunks of tread were unaccounted for. Sliding my hand against the direction of rotation revealed substantial cupping. Come to think of it, U.S. 421 through Shady Valley felt lumpier than the smooth pavement would suggest.
With two more days in the Carolina mountains on tap, then two days winding around mountains in Tennessee and Kentucky, then a 1,000-mile blast on super-slab to get home, this newfound lack of tread was cause for concern. Bob looked at me: “Bones, your tires are toast!” I stood there amazed. Tires that looked good three days earlier now looked like crap. I should have known better, too, because I had tires before that deteriorated with similar haste. Suddenly I was in the market for tires. Fortunately, I knew who to call.
Tim and Ernie Keel operate Keel Brothers Motorcycle Tires in Lawrenceville, Georgia. I’ve bought tires from Tim and Ernie for years. People have asked me why a born-and-bred New Englander buys moto tires way south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I must admit that I enjoy the chance to work on my north Georgia drawl when calling to place an order, but it goes deeper than boning up on Peach State lingo.
The Keel brothers were motorcycle guys long before they were motorcycle businessmen. Those vintage Evel Knievel lunchboxes on display in the shop office help to gauge the length of time they’ve loved bikes, and their life-long passion means people like me are more than customers, even more than friends. We’re fellow riders. In this internet shopping age when good prices on tires are a click away, you need something more, and Ernie and Tim put something more of themselves into their business that others can’t quite replicate. The Keel Brothers stories I’ve heard around campfires scratch at the surface.
There was the time Tim saved a trip by first locating a hard-to-find tire and then getting it delivered overnight to a rider stranded someplace west of nowhere. (Actually, this has happened multiple times.) There was the time when I was on the fence about a new set of tires for my Kawasaki Versys. They were a new offering from a brand I’d never bought, so I called Tim for his advice. The tires were so new he hadn’t seen them himself, but he offered to drop ship a set to me in Massachusetts. If I liked them all right, I could send him a check. If not, I could send them back to him and try another variety. Tim also makes the effort to alert the long-distance rider community—people who go through more tires in a year than some riders do in a lifetime—in advance of upcoming price increases from tire manufacturers so serious mile-eaters can stock up.
Fortunately, my error judging tire life was easily remedied because Aunt Muriel’s place isn’t that far from Lawrenceville, Georgia. Steve punched the address into his GPS. “Bones, we can be there in less than two hours.” A plan was building. I called the shop and asked Ernie if he could set up my ST with new donuts and, oh yeah, I’d be there today, before lunch. “Sure, Bones,” he assured me, “we’ll get y’all set.” He even had my preferred brand in stock in the right size. Given the ST’s unusual 18-inch front tire, that’s not something you see every day.
So on a sunny Monday in April, I visited Keel Brothers Motorcycle Tires in person for the first time. In fact, all four of us on this trip have been long-time customers from our various locations in the North, so everyone decided to ride down to Lawrenceville.
Ernie took a moment away from his work on a Valkyrie to offer warm greetings and assure me that my bike was next. He displayed the focus of a man experienced in his work and committed to getting it done. For 20 years before going into the motorcycle tire business he was a crane operator, so clearly he’s done some heavy lifting. He and his younger brother Tim also owned a landscaping company before shifting to motorcycle tires, so they knew a thing or two about working together to build a successful family business. For more than a decade now, they’ve been keeping riders on fresh tires.
I walked into the office to say hello to Tim, who I first met several years ago at the Moonshine Lunch Run. Coincidently we would be seeing each other at Moonshine 2013 just four days later. Tim’s wife Leah was there, too, ready to enlighten me with more gems of Southern vernacular. She comes in a day or two each week to keep the office humming. “When I started coming in, there were piles of papers everywhere,” she recalled. “Darlin’ there’s still piles of paper everywhere,” came the rejoinder from Tim, smiling quietly at his desk. “Well sure, Tim, but now we know what’s in ‘em!”
While Wilson, Leah and Tim’s son, and Wade, the shop mechanic, tended to my bike, I drew more bits of family history out of Tim. I learned that his dad was the kind of father who made his kids try to figure out what was wrong with their bicycles or motorcycles or whatever else was broken to see if they could fix it themselves, before running off to dad for a solution. He was ready to help when needed, but his “help a man learn to fish for himself” approach let his sons develop observational skills, problem solving methods and mechanical aptitude that set them up well for life with a wrench in hand.
As newly shod rims were reinstalled on my ST, another customer, this one a north Georgia native, filled us in on roads he liked that would get us back to North Carolina. In no time, the beautifully banked curves of U.S. 129 heading north through Vogel State Park scrubbed in my tires clear to the shoulders.
My vulcanized link with the road was back. Next time, I won’t forget: nothing feels better than new “tars.”