If you’ve been tuning in as of late, I’m obviously gearing up for another motorcycle Rally; with that, the issue of tires always comes up. Considering I attend about three to five major motorcycle events each year, I’m constantly fussing about how long tires will last and what the best tires will be for the next trip I go on. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that different tires are better at different jobs, and there’s nothing worse than spending a pile of cash on new rubber that you absolutely hate from the very first ride. Everyone undoubtedly has their own opinion on the best motorcycle tires, long-time readers know I’m no different, but I really want to focus on a few of the less discussed facets of adventure, or dual-sport tires.
Why are Dual Sport Tires Measured in Percentages?
At some point customer X asked brand Y, “What kind of conditions are these new tires meant for?” As any good marketing person would do, they apparently came up with a short answer, “These are 80/20 tires, meant for 80% on-road, and 20% off-road riding.” The more time I spend taking inappropriate equipment to out of the way places, the less helpful I find these percentages. “So what you’re saying is, if I only spend 20% of my time off-road, these tires will still be awesome off-road right?” Well, not exactly…
My synopsis on how we got here is completely fictitious, but I suspect things played out that way to some degree. I also understand the need for a simple baseline or a general rule of thumb so to speak. This percentage-based rating system offers a general idea of how focused a given tire is for asphalt versus dirt, longevity versus traction, and on-road handling versus off-road confidence. However, having run everything from 90/10 to 40/60 dual sport tires on the Scrambler, I’ve discovered that these percentages might “suggest” how road-fairing a given tire may be, but as far as off-road traction and longevity are concerned, there are numerous other factors that get lost through ambiguity. Thus, assuming you don’t burn through tires on a regular basis, I suggest you approach “adventure” tire buying a little differently.
In my opinion, adventure or dual-sport tires have an incredibly difficult job, they need to be confidence inspiring on the asphalt, gravel, dirt, sand, mud, while also maintaining indefinite tread life. As we all know, this is an impossibility; each of these conditions creates unique traction situations, often at odds with the others, and on any good adventure ride, it will invariably rain. Rating dual-sport tires by a percentage is a very black and white method for choosing a tire for your next adventure. Personally, if I’m going to use a black and white, pass-fail method of rating dual-sport tires, I would start with, “Will these tires paddle through the mud?” Followed by, “Do these tires provide reliable traction on wet pavement?” Obviously, there are very few black and white solutions in life, so let’s pretend for a moment that the motorcycle gods have put me in charge of adventure tire classification, I think I would go with something more like a 4-tiered rating based on how a given tire handles on the dry asphalt, dry soil, wet pavement, and most importantly, mud. This too would be less than a perfect system, as it ignores longevity, and more importantly, off-road riding conditions range from packed gravel to wet sand, so there are a few more things to consider.
Where are You Riding?
It goes without saying, I love riding in Kentucky; one of the reasons I keep going back to the Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway (DBBB) is the wide range of trail conditions you experience each time. While creek crossings and ruts evolve with storm activity, beyond the weather’s impact on the evolution of the trail, the soil types vary heavily from one mile to the next. One section of trail will be firm dirt interrupted by puddles and loose mud, while the next will be rocky, then sandstone ledges, and finally patches of hidden sand. Taking that further, the double-track trails in Kentucky are narrow, infrequently traveled, passing through dense foliage, with steep elevation changes (even if they’re short). Considering those conditions, the perpetual mud, and the frequency of my visits, I usually run the most aggressive set of knobbies I can get my hands on.
On the other end of the spectrum, I also take day trips to Shawnee State Forest near Portsmouth, Ohio. Shawnee has miles and miles of gravel and dirt roads; most of which are relatively well-manicured and regularly trafficked. There are a couple sections that can get muddy from time to time, but the mud patches are typically brief, so tire selection is nowhere near as critical. I’ve had similar experience in Tennessee; most of the legal trails are well-maintained forest service roads, which, depending on skill level, means you could easily run street tires and get by just fine. Pennsylvania was somewhat the same, however considering the endless “baby-head” rocks protruding from the dirt, the terrain was firm, if not downright “boney”. There are obviously more challenging trails in both of these locations, and likely even more so when you move beyond Appalachia, so adjust your tire selection based on where you expect the greatest difficulty. If I spent most of my time riding at Shawnee, I would probably run 50/50s like the Avon Trekrider, or perhaps even something as street oriented at the Shinko 705.
How Sharp are Your Off-road Skills?
The importance of this question cannot be overstated. I’ve heard it from multiple outlets in the past, identifying your comfort level with the conditions is a massive part of selecting the best tire for the job. If you’re new to off-road riding, still adapting to the rear end being loose, and have concerns about getting stuck in the mud, I suggest you bring the gnarliest tire you can buy to the party. With only a couple gravel roads under my belt, a particular moment stands out in my mind: the handle bars swinging from lock to lock as I skated through the mud on Spaas Creek Road; riding on a set of 90/10 tires, I was not exactly having fun off-road. A few months later, I made the investment in a set of “adventure” knobby tires, and the experience changed dramatically. A good set of knobbies can cure a lot of ills in the skills department while you’re still learning the ropes. Aggressive off-road tires inspire confidence in bad conditions, and confidence reduces the stress of making it across the next obstacle, and ultimately enjoying a ride, instead of feeling like you’re being dragged along by your buddies. As you gain experience, you’ll start to master your machine, and know how to handle it in adverse conditions; then you can potentially downgrade your tire selection to something a little more road-oriented, perhaps a little cheaper, or a tire that lasts longer.
What Bike are You Riding?
So there you are, scrolling through tires on the web, trying to decide on the tire you want. You get on some motorcycle forum and ask for recommendations for the best adventure tire; three or four people insist it’s this tire or that. You decide to go with “mainstream advice”, only to discover that tire is absolutely horrifying in the rain and slides all over the mud. How could so many folks love this tire, yet you find it completely unreliable? The Heidenau K60 scout comes to mind. The K60 is a good, respectable tire; lots of long-haul adventure riders love that tire, while others scream about wet weather manners and mediocre off-road performance. So, when folks start yammering on about how much they love or hate tire “X”, the first thing I ask is, “What bike are you on?”
Case in point, a while back I ran the K60 Scout on the Scrambler. Admittedly, I can’t say I “loved” the K60, but it was a reliable tire; even if I found it unremarkable. My experience convinced a buddy of mine to buy a set for his Tiger 800. Turns out, the rear tire spun up on tar snakes every time it rained, and I witnessed his tires get “loaded” with mud and the front tire “push” multiple times. The Triumph Scrambler and the Tiger 800 XC run completely different tire sizes; meanwhile the two bikes also have dissimilar weight distribution and have diametrically different power delivery. Assuming the two bikes wore the same size shoes, the difference in weight and power delivery alone will affect how the tires heat up, and how the tires hook when it rains and in the sloppy stuff. My point is, be careful where you get advice about the best tires for your bike (pot, meet kettle); just because a given tire is a superstar on one bike, doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be a flop on another. This is especially true when you start comparing results between bikes like the BMW R1200GS and the Suzuki DR650; vastly different tire sizes and significantly different weights. If the loudest voice in the room is riding a different bike than you are, you may want to take their opinion with a grain a salt.
How Do You Like to Ride?
Do you blast around full-tilt or are you a casual adventurer? Do you scream on the dirt and ride lazy on the asphalt, or do you rip it on the tarmac and tour on the gravel? Per my comments about off-road skills, you may not know the answer to this question just yet; however, once you’ve been down a few trails, and depending on who you ride with, you may discover you have one propensity over another. In my case, I typically put performance and value in front of longevity and price. I’m frugal when it comes to tires, as I buy a quite a few of them each season, but I won’t think twice about paying more for a tire that lasts longer and performs better than a (marginally) cheaper competitor. If you’re a casual rider that doesn’t pile on the miles and replaces tires maybe once a season, then splurge on the performance tires and enjoy the rides with confidence (or perhaps reckless abandon). If you’re a pragmatic hyper-miler that doesn’t grind the pegs at every opportunity, while seldom finding yourself in the mud, you’ll probably be happier if you put the priority on longevity, even if it costs you a little more.
Again, this isn’t black and white; in my case I usually choose the tire with the least amount of compromise. For me, that means the best wet traction on the tarmac I can get, without losing confidence in the mud. I like to ride the Scrambler near the limits of its capability (which isn’t saying much), but that also means my tire choices are somewhat limited, and I’m changing a rear tire every four to five thousand miles. If you have any sense about yourself, and a little throttle discipline, you can probably squeeze more miles out of a set of aggressive knobby tires depending on your bike. If you live to hoon around the trails and the backroads, you may want to learn to live with cheaper, or less competent tires, or come to grips with the fact you’ll be spooning on new tires every couple months.
How Far do You Need to Go?
Are you riding hours to the trails, putting the bike on a trailer, or packing the tent and living off the bike on a trans-continental tour? This is yet another compromise you’ll need to make, choosing a tire that has the longevity to last the full length of your trip, making an appointment to install a new tire mid-adventure, or humping the spare tire for the first leg of the journey until it’s finally needed. There’s a lot that can go into this; you may find that you want to run a slightly less off-road capable tire in favor of superior wear on the pavement, that way one set of tires will last through the entire trip. On the flip-side, let’s say you’re headed out west and you’re good at swapping your own tires; you may decide to throw a knobby rear tire on top of your luggage and run a street tire for the long sections of interstate, then swap the rear tire in a truck stop parking lot that last night before you hit the big trails, then just burn off what’s left of those knobbies riding the interstate on the way home.
Thus far, I’m generally not more than five hundred or so miles from home, and even on my extended motorcycle adventures, don’t typically cover more than 2,000 miles in a given trip. While I typically just install a new set tires before I leave for a big event, living here on the east coast generally means I could feasibly have a replacement tire shipped to wherever I’m staying, if not have it swapped at a local shop. Riding long trips out west or other remote destinations may make those decisions a bit more difficult. I’ll also add, if you’ve not run a given tire in the past, you may discover that tire doesn’t last nearly as long as you thought it would. That can make for a bad day, stuck in the mud out on the trail, with no plans for suitable replacement rubber. Like I said, there’s no easy answer to this type of trip planning, but it’s certainly one more thing to considering when picking a set of tires.
Mixing and Matching
While not as controversial as mounting a radial front and a bias-ply rear (or god forbid, a car tire), mixing and matching new with old, and especially different brands and models can be taboo for some motorcyclists. That said, you may find there are economic or performance advantages to running one model of tire on the rear and a different model on the front. I’ll pick on the K60 Scout again because it’s a popular tire and an easy target; I frequently see the Heidenau K60 rear mounted to any given bike, however it’s also common to find it paired with a different, often more aggressive, front tire. I’ve heard lots of folks say they don’t care for the K60 front tire because it’s too loud, or they don’t trust it in the rain. Others have said that considering how long knobby front tires last on the pavement (compared to a matching rear), they might as well run an aggressive tread pattern on the front wheel and change both tires at the same time as they’ll now wear out at about the same rate.
I’m no exception; my typical uber-off-road go-to setup has been the Shinko 804 front and Karoo 3 rear. Both tires are particularly affordable in Scrambler sizes and perform well in the mud. I find the matching Shinko 805 rear doesn’t have the large, mud clearing gaps in Scrambler sizes compared to the wider “Tiger-sized” rear. At the same time, the Karoo 3 front tire is almost double the price of the 804 front, so I’ve not made the commitment to a matched set just yet (combined with the fact 19” Karoo 3s are radial). Knobby front tires on the Scrambler typically last double the mileage of most rear tires; more so for the street-oriented skins. I’ve typically run matching sets of Trekriders and 705s in the past, as they work well together; especially the Trekriders which are nearly a faultless tire. I have, however, debated mounting the Trekrider on the front with the 705 in the rear purely because I like a surefooted front end, but I’m becoming more comfortable with sliding the rear wheel. This whole idea may be witchcraft in your eyes, but if you’re open to experimentation, you might be pleasantly surprised (and sometimes the “Minister of War and Finance” will thank you).
Despite wanting a superior classification system for dual-sport tires, I’d say we’re unlikely to get something better from tire industry any time soon. Being stuck with this percentage based system, it would be wise to realize there will always be exceptions. Take the Metzeler Karoo 3 for example, I’ve seen the Karoo 3 marketed as a 70/30 tire; I’m here to tell you, those paddles churn through the mud better than any other tire I’ve run thus far. Inversely, Continental’s TKC70 is marketed as a 60/40 tire. I have not personally run the TKC70 on the Scrambler, and dare I say, “based on looks alone”, there’s simply no way you’re going to convince me that the TKC70 will dig the Rosie the Warthog out of a mud hole with the same tenacity of the Karoo 3. What I’m trying to say here is, regardless of how the distributors or manufacturers rate their tires, take a close look at the tread patterns and gaps between the lugs when evaluating the best tire for the riding you’re going to do. Deep channels and wide gaps between the blocks will clear mud and get you out of tight spots, “paddles” will often dig you out of a hole better, but staggered knob configurations will keep the rear end from sliding laterally (which paddles have a tendency to do).
Beyond how tread patterns vary from one model to another, you will also want to be mindful of how the tread fluctuates with tire size. Going back to the K60 Scout, the rear tire tread pattern is drastically different depending on tire width and rim size. 130 scrambler-width tires have the typical ADV-chevron lugs, while the 140 includes a center strip for increased wear, and the 150 has an even larger integrated center strip; the center strip also differs between 17 and 18-inch rims. I already mentioned the difference between the 130 and 150 width Shinko 805s, the “paddle” tread blocks have significantly larger gaps on the wider tire. On the flipside, the 130/80-17 Karoo 3 has the tallest lugs with the largest gaps of all of the Karoo 3 tires I’ve seen; surprisingly taller than the more dirt oriented 140/80-18 tires on my buddy’s MZ Baghira 660. Front tires are no different, there’s almost always a massive difference between tread patterns on the more dirt worthy 21” tires versus the more road friendly 19” hoops. It’s unwise to take the retail website photos as the gospel, make sure you do a little extra surfing on the web to find images of the tire sizes you need for your motorcycle.
For some reason, tires seem to be this controversial subject among motorcyclists. I admit, you can create some negative handling issues when mixing and matching tires and straying too far from the factory recommended sizes (as I have done recently). That said, don’t get spooked by folks touting “absolutes” on social media site; things like “Never go cheap on tires!” What you ride, how you ride, and where you ride are likely completely different from those people (not to mention your budget). I’ve run expensive tires that simply did not perform as well as cheap tires; I’ve ran cheap tires that are decent, but not as good as a slightly more expensive tire. If you’re not exactly sure which tire you need for a given application, I recommend you buy “more” tire than you actually need. Taking the time to find a tire that needs to be replaced sooner than expected sucks, but it’s not as bad as being miserable on the trail for days because you don’t trust your bike. When “polling the crowd” for opinions, I recommend you make connections with reputable motorcyclists on bikes similar to yours, and use them for advice when shopping tires. Make sure you ask them these questions about where and how they like to ride, and how far they typically go. Sometimes you just have the bite the bullet and give a set of a tires a shot. It sucks when you realize you just blew $300 on a set of tires you hate, but the good news is that someone else might even buy those tires from you despite being “used”… but that’s a topic for another day.
Tried and True Dual Sport Tires: Shoe Shopping with Rosie the Scrambler
Tires: The Original Traction Control by Spurgeon Dunbar (Revzilla)
Adventure Motorcycle Tires / ADV Tyres by MOTOTREK