The balance between having enough grip to carve up your local twisties, and enough traction to crawl through the thickest puddles of mud is a tricky balance. In fact, the inherent design of motorcycle tires prevents the rider from having the best experiences on both types of surfaces. Your best-performing road tires will perform poorly off-road. The converse is true for dirt tires as well.
There is a natural trade-off that has to be sacrificed if a rider wants to achieve superb road performance or phenomenal off-road traction. It all boils down to the design of your rubber and how the rubber meets the ground. If there’s anything to remember when balancing road and off-road tire performance, tire surface area is what you will need to keep in mind.
To simplify things, more rubber on the tarmac means there is more surface area for grip to be transferred onto the road. This is why many track-only motorcycles wear slick tires – perfectly round tires that have no grooves and allow for maximum tire surface area to contact the ground. However, if you were to take a BMW S 1000 RR on a dirt road, you would find that your supersport tires will slip and slide on top of the loose terrain. This is where the design of dirt tires come into play.
Where did all the rubber go?
Dirt tires are designed to dig into the dirt in order to provide the rider with as much traction as possible on loose surfaces. This is why dual-sport and trail tires are designed with grooves and empty spaces between the protruding tire knobs. When dirt is allowed into the grooves and spaces of the tire, the knobs are able to dig into the dirt and paddle their way through a multitude of loose surfaces. Tire grooves and spaces are also designed to evacuate the dirt it has absorbed, allowing the knobs to effectively dig into the dirt once more during the next rotation. This is why the most dirt-oriented tires are designed with sharp knobs and large spaces between the knobs.
Now we understand the trade-off. There is no one tire that will perform like a supersport tire on the road and like a motocross tire off-road. After all, road grip demands rounded tires for maximum surface area, while off-road grip demands a healthy balance of knobs and grooves. While some may be disappointed by this limitation, many will find excitement with the number of tire options available on the market for your respective ride. If you’re seeking to spice up your on-and-off-road ride with a tire change, here are a few key tire options for your dual-sport or adventure motorcycle.
Road-oriented Dual-sport Tires
Dual-sport tires are designed to provide you with sufficient grip on-road and off-road – hence the name, and have to compromise on having phenomenal grip on either surface and allow you to enjoy the best of both worlds. Despite being able to do both jobs relatively well, dual-sport tires are usually designed to tackle one surface better than the other. If you’re enjoying the majority of your seat time on the tarmac, and a small amount of it off-road, then you’re probably going to enjoy your bike with road-oriented dual-sport tires, or road-biased dual-sport tires.
Road-oriented dual-sport tires are designed with as much surface area as possible, while grooves and spaces take the back seat. These tires are often designed with light off-road duties in mind. Examples of these tires can be found on the Honda XR150L sporting a set of CST C6559’s, the Royal Enfield Himalayan wearing the Pirelli MT60’s, and the BMW G 310 GS which rolls off the showroom floor on Metzeler Tourance tires.
All of the aforementioned tires are generally designed for on-road use as first priority with large areas of rubber available to hit the concrete and ample spaces between to provide sufficient traction for light trails. If you’re looking for a set of road-oriented tires for your dual-sport or adventure bike, we highly suggest you check out the Shinko E705, Pirelli Scorpion Trail, Metzeler Karoo Street, Mitas E-08, and the Continental TKC70.
Dirt-oriented Dual-sport Tires
If you prefer spending more of your time on the dirt, however, you may want to consider rocking a set of dirt-oriented dual-sport tires. These tires have a more aggressive tread pattern where grooves and spaces are substantially larger, and protruding knobs stick further out. Tires in this class will provide you much better stability and traction on more gnarly terrain. The trade-off is that these tires don’t often last too long on the road either.
Less overall surface area meeting the ground means that your tread and knobs will be working extra hard to provide you grip on the tarmac. Some manufacturers may choose to use harder rubber compounds to extend the tire’s tread life at the expense of road grip. Others choose to use softer compounds for excellent road grip at the expense of tread life. A massive pro, however, is that all of the tires in this class will perform far better on the trail than the tires mentioned in the section above. You will find yourself more pleased and confident in a variety of terrain conditions on the trail with a set of these types of tires.
Tires in this segment are found on many of the dual-sport and off-road-oriented adventure bikes currently for sale. The Honda CRF150L and CRF250L both wear the IRC GP21/22 — one of the more road-friendly tires you will find in this section. KTM also utilizes dirt-oriented tires on a few of their bikes from the factory, The Mitas E-07 on the 690 Enduro, and the Metzeler Karoo 3 on the 790 Adventure R. Both bikes are advertised to be ready for gnarly off-road duties from the factory. Other fantastic options on the market for dirt duty include the Dunlop D605, Pirelli Scorpion STR, the Shinko E804/805, and the Kenda Big Block K784.
Dirt-oriented dual-sport tires are favorites of many trail riders, and it’s no surprise why. Riders will gain much delight with the off-road capabilities of these tires, and will not sweat the ride back home. However, if none of these options meet the off-road capabilities you might demand, you may want to consider something a little bit more aggressive.
Built to tackle the most extreme trail conditions, trail tires are the most off-road-oriented tires your money can buy. In fact, nearly all of the tires in this class are not built to traverse the pavement. This is why trail tires are not found on road-legal dual-sport and adventure bikes from the factory and are instead found on dirt bikes without papers and registration. In countries like the USA, dedicated trail tires —those without DOT approval— are 100% illegal to use on the road, and for a good reason.
Be cognizant and mindful while on these purpose-built tires. Trail tires have very sharp and tall knobs, and the lack of surface area to grip the road can result in a slippery tire that tends to slip and slide on even the driest road you can find. On top of this, trail tire knobs are known to fold under cornering on-road due to the length and size of these knobs. These tires also have very large grooves and spaces in between the knobs and do not provide enough usable road grip due to the lack of tire surface area for the tarmac.
On the trail, however, you will find yourself kicking and smiling. Trail tires provide excellent grip off-road on nearly all surface conditions. Large grooves and spaces allow the tire’s tall and sharp knobs to dig into wet and loose terrain in order to maintain stability for the rider. Drastic improvements to acceleration, braking, and cornering will allow the rider to maximize the bike’s capabilities while maintaining a relatively safe margin of grip on the trail. Tires in this class include the locally popular Dunlop MX52, the Shinko 525 Cheater Tire, the entire Pirelli Scorpion MX series, and the Michelin Enduro which comes stock on the Beta 430 RR 4T.
Choosing the right tire for your dual-sport and adventure bike will inevitably include trade-offs to grip on the road against the grip on the trail, yet owners can take delight in the abundance of tire options on the market to suit each one’s particular need. Because of this, it’s important to be aware and realistic about the kind of riding you will be doing. After all, your next best ride may just be one tire change away!