What’s a Dual-Sport Motorcycle?

You’ve probably heard the expressions “enduro” or “Street & Trail” in the past, but today I suspect most folks use the word “dual-sport” to describe a motorcycle that’s intended for use both on and off the pavement. On and off-road riding? Sure my Scrambler does that; but does that make my Scrambler a dual-sport motorcycle? Well, I suppose it depends on who you ask. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

This is the KLR 650. To many, the KLR is the king of all dual sports. Ask around, any motorcyclist with any off-road chops has heard of the KLR; Many will suggest that, along with cockroaches, KLRs will inherit the earth after our mass extinction. Forged in some ancient dwarven cave, the KLR is powered by a single-cylinder, 650cc lump. Climbing up to the seat, you’ll notice plush suspension, assuming you didn’t fall over because you can’t touch the ground. Below the front fender, there’s a run-of-the-mill 21-inch hoop shod with some flavor of knobby-ish tires, and because it’s a KLR, there’s a milk crate hiding about somewhere. For a little over six-grand, this juggernaut could be yours.

Let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum for a moment, shall we? Here’s the KTM 350 EXC-f. This top-of-the-line motorcycle from Austria is probably as close as you can get to flat-out race bike while still saying “Why yes officer, here’s my license and registration.” Tipping the scales around 250 pounds, this bike is only a few bills and a “DOT light kit” away from the starting line at the local hare scramble.

To some, these two bikes may look the same, to others the differences are evident. To me, these motorcycles are lightyears apart; one’s a race bike with a plate, the other arguably an adventure motorcycle. That said, when you look at each manufacturer’s website, you’ll find them labeled as “Dual-Sports”.

So what’s a dual-sport?

At a minimum, off-road riding capability and the necessary equipment to make the motorcycle street-legal. In most U.S. States, that means headlight, tail light, indicators, mirrors, horn, a street motorcycle title, along with plate and tag.

By that definition, the Tenere 700, my Scrambler, and the TW200 would all be dual-sports. A Harley Sporter with a determined rider could be a dual-sport for that matter. Should dual-sports be lightweight? Do they need specific wheels or tires to be categorized as a dual-sport? What makes a motorcycle off-road capable? The KTM 390 Adventure and the Kawasaki Versys 300X are both lighter than the KLR, are they also dual-sports? Perhaps this “street and trail” expression needs a little more definition.

If appointed dictator for life, I would say a Dual-Sport is:

A single-cylinder motorcycle designed for off-road use, with 21″ front wheel, and comes fitted with street-legal equipment and sold with a street title from the factory.

By that definition, despite its off-road capability, the multi-cylinder Versys 300 is out. Like the Versys, the 390 Adventure is sporting a 19″ front wheel, even worse, it has cast wheels, which is another reason I put it firmly in the Adventure category. Bikes like the Tenere 700 and the KTM 890 Adventure R start encroaching on the specifications and capabilities of the KLR. Both bikes tip the scales shockingly close to the 2021 KLR, and both have 21-inch spoked wheels out front. However, in both cases, these bikes are sporting twin-cylinder engines, and for as much as I love them, they’re still designed for more pavement than trail use.

That same metric will also exclude a perennial favorite, unfortunately. If you go to Yamaha’s website under dual-sport, you’ll find the ever revered TW-200. Like Suzuki’s VanVan200, the “TeeDub” is a micro motorcycle that is far more capable than most could ever imagine. If not for riding the TW through my favorite parts of the Danial Boone Backcountry Byway, I wouldn’t even be writing this article right now. Folks have ridden the mighty TeeDub across the country. A beast of burden that’s well prepared to be loaded with camping gear or hauling a deer out of the woods. All that said, with its 14-inch rear wheel and balloon tires, I would wager to say the TW200 was designed as a “farm bike”, a more useful answer to the mini-bike, than it was intended for modern public (American) roads.

Despite said exclusions, the Royal Enfield Himalayan still fits the necessary criteria to be a Dual-Sport, even with its heft and limited suspension travel. With that in mind, perhaps I’ll add another qualifying statement to this definition. To fall under the umbrella of dual-sport, the motorcycle should be capable of finishing a hare scramble. While I still suspect the 890 Adventure or the TW200 could accomplish such a feat in the right hands, most of us mortals agree, it would be a futile attempt on our part.

What kind of dual-sport motorcycles are there?

We can split hairs all day, but despite my attempt to narrow the definition, there’s still a massive gap between the lightest, heaviest, cheapest, and most expensive motorcycles under this multi-purpose tent.

Folks come in all flavors, but I find dual-sport riders typically come from former racers and off-road riders, or street riders that are dipping their toe into “woods riding”. As a result, I typically sub-categorize the dual-sport segment into two groups: Dirt bikes with plates, and leggy street bikes.

Long-time readers know all about the CRF250L I owned for 10,000 miles. While not as capable as Yamaha’s WR250R, I wager to say that the Japanese 250cc dual sports are the heart of the segment. The 250L would set you back around five grand new. It had 9-inches of suspension travel, tipped the scales just over 300 pounds, and asked that you change the oil every 8,000 miles. It was a lazy street bike, but could carve a corner with the best of them. It was a capable dirt bike, but certainly on the portly side. Jack of all trades, master of none is unquestionably its mantra.

Now let’s take a look at KTM’s 350 XCf-w. Kailub Russel rode XC version of this bike to go on to win the AMA Grand National CrossCountry series in 2020. I imagine it looks familiar, as KTM offers virtually the exact same bike with factory DOT equipment, and a sticker that says “EXC-f”. Like the race bike, the street-legal EXC weighs 65 pounds less than the CRF250L, needs an oil change every 500 miles, and will set you back an additional $6,000 over the little red pig.

In the middle of this field are bikes like the DR200 and KLX230. Both of these bikes will get you through the woods without a lot a fussing; maybe some lifting, and cussing, but they will gladly take the flogging and ask for more the next day. Moreover, when you’re hustling along the pavement, you’ll be whistling in your helmet, albeit not breaking traffic laws, but you certainly won’t be changing oil at the end of the trip, maybe not even after the next one. Those race bikes, on the other hand, will pull dank whoolies, cross logs with ease, and unabashedly tear up singletrack, whilst vibrating the fillings out of your skull on the pavement and will likely need a refill of the dino juice Sunday evening.

Speaking plainly, while I’ve been specific and deliberate to draw a fine line in the sand about what constitutes a dual-sport, the range of bikes that fall into that circle is vast. Between weight, suspension travel, horsepower, comfort, and price, there’s a massive chasm between the big-bore 650s designed in the 90s, versus the most modern street-legal European race machines. It’s also easy to suggest that the antiquated 650s are the closest to the adventure category considering weight and street manners, while the European bikes parody their race-ready brethren, the capabilities and price vary wildly across the field.

What’s a Dual-Sport for?

Ultimately I think the dual-sport segment grew out of the need for street legal equipment to connect the trails. As more and more backroads became paved, and the distance between trails became greater, street-legal off-road machines gained better and better road manners. Similar to how street motorcycles found off-road chops to define the adventure segment, bikes like the DRZ-400 and the WR250R have defined the dual-sport segment with equal capabilities as both commuters and off-road explorers. That I think is the epitome of what makes a dual-sport a dual-sport; definitions aside, the ability to ride on-road and off-road equally. Capable of tackling single track, while also capable of crossing the country… mind you, not in a hurry.

Stay tuned for an in-depth trip down the rabbit hole looking at every bike in this segment…

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