Motorcycle tires face an impossible task set: Provide predictable, reliable grip across a wide range of surfaces while lasting a long time and providing ideal handling qualities whatever the bike or the terrain.
Here’s the deal: No one tire will be ideal for all conditions, so it’s a matter of deciding what’s most important to you. How much riding do you really do off road? How much time do you spend commuting or touring on your big BMW GS or KTM Adventure?
Before we get into what fits your particular bike, let’s talk about tire design. The ultimate tire for use on pavement is the slick—it has the largest possible contact patch because there’s nothing but contact patch. And all that would be fine if it weren’t for sand on the roads and moisture falling from the sky. So street tires have grooves or sipes cut into the tread to move moisture away from the contact patch. Generally speaking, the more “open” the tread the more adept the tire will be in wet conditions and on less-than-perfect roads.
The ultimate dirt tire is almost the exact opposite of a slick. Instead of smooth it’s all “sticky outy,” because the goal is to dig down into the terrain and present a lot of surface area–in this case, the sides of each knob–to the task. Plus, a knob design allows a certain amount of dirt and mud to flow “through” the tire, keeping it clear. Even among pure off-road tires there are distinctions, tires designed to work best in mud, sand, and hard pack; and none of them is ever meant to be a good street tire. Yeah, they’re that specialized.
Making the trek from specialist to generalist gets us to dual-sport tires, a catchall description that takes in tires meant mostly for on-road to those meant mostly for off-road use. It’s an insanely wide range of requirements. To help navigate this rubberized maze, we refer to tires by a percentage of terrain use. A 90/10 street tire is designed for the majority of the riding on paved roads, with just 10 percent off road. A 10/90 tire reverses the priorities, working best in pure off-road conditions but also carrying DOT approval (to be street legal) and just enough on-road capability to allow you to wander onto the road in search of the next trail.
In between are tires designed to do each of those disparate tasks reasonably well. Here we get the middle siblings—the 60/40, 50/50, and 40/60 tires. Each gradation trades one set of capabilities for another. For a look at which types of dual-sport tires are available to fit your bike, see the Tire Size Matrix at the end of this article.
The Big Boys
2016-2017 BMW RnineT Scrambler | 2013-2017 BMW R1200GS LC | 2014-2017 BMW R1200GS LC Adventure | 2017 Ducati Multistrada 950 | 2016-2017 Ducati Multistrada 1200 Enduro | 2013-2017 KTM 1190 Adventure | 2015-2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure/T | 2016-2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XC and XR
When BMW redesigned the R1200GS for the 2013 model year and KTM quickly followed suit with the 1190 Adventure, a new adventure-bike tire size was released upon the land. The goal was simple: Each manufacturer recognized that ADV machines were getting heavier and more powerful, which taxed the abilities of the relatively narrow tires previously deployed. That’s how we got the 120/90-19 front tire and 170/60-17 rear tire, a set of sizes also used by Triumph’s newest Explorer.
Even though these sizes are recent additions, already there’s a good selection.
If your mission sticks more to pavement than hard-pack, consider the Continental TrailAttack2 or Michelin Pilot Road 4 Trail, both so-called 90/10 tires (or 90-percent street/10-percent dirt). The Continental uses wider and slightly deeper tread grooves than a typical sport-touring tire but still has large tread blocks for a generous contact patch. This kind of tire is meant to excel in dry grip, handling, and durability.
Michelin’s Pilot Road 4 Trail is essentially the same tire as the sport-touring Pilot Road 4, introduced two and a half years ago. It was built to retain the Pilot Road 3’s wet-weather capabilities but adding better wear characteristics, greater dry-weather traction, and quicker handling.
Both the Continental TrailAttack2 and the Michelin Pilot Road 4 Trail are great choices for ADV riders who use their bikes most as sport-touring machines.
If you spend more than just a little time off road, consider a 60/40 tire. Moving toward more dirt orientation, we find the Continental TKC70, a recent addition to the lineup, wedging in between the TrailAttack2 and the knobby TKC80. We call the TKC70 a 60/40 tire, since it still looks and acts a lot like a street tire but has smaller and more numerous tread blocks, wider tread grooves, and other design compromises to improve its performance off road. The TKC70 rear also has a continuous tread block, which helps improve durability on heavyweight ADV machines.
One click over on the dirt-biased scale is the Heidenau K60 Scout, a truly 50/50 tire. Overall, it’s like the TKC70 but with bigger, tougher tread blocks, even larger tread sipes, and a strong carcass to tolerate really nasty terrain without damaging your bike’s expensive rims. And like the TKC70, the K60 Scout in the sizes for the new BMW GS, KTM Adventure, and Triumph Explorer has a continuous center tread block on the rear tire for improved longevity, on-road handling, and reduced noise. If your motorcycle adventures are evenly split between highway travel and off-pavement trails, this is the tire for you.
If you spend more time off road than on. This category of tire is for those who only ride paved roads to connect to their favorite trails. Here you want a 40/60 (40-percent street/60-percent dirt) tire like the Continental TKC80 or the Michelin Anakee Wild. The TKC80 has been the go-to street-legal knobby for big adventure bikes for a long time, and it’s easy to see why: It has very good off-road capabilities while retaining good on-road manners. Compared to a full-on dirt tire, the TKC80’s tread blocks are larger and shorter, but there’s still a lot of daylight between them, which improves off-road traction because the tire can clear mud and dirt quickly, sinking down to good traction just below the soft stuff. Michelin’s newer Anakee Wild follows the same philosophy, with widely spaced knobs to drive through mud, sand, and over boulder fields, but with a profile designed to preserve on-road handling and rubber compounds meant to increase longevity.
Every 40/60 tire is a compromise. You get amazing performance in demanding terrain but the design choices made impact things like street handling, durability, noise, and even wet-weather capabilities. Which is why you have to be utterly honest with yourself. If you don’t truly ride mostly off road, you’ll be happier with a 50/50 or a 60/40 tire.
The Popular Kids
1999-2002 BMW R850GS | 2000-2004 BMW R1150GS | 2000-2006 BMW R1150GS Adventure | 2004-2012 BMW R1200GS | 2006-2013 BMW R1200GS Adventure | 2016-2017 Honda VFR1200X | 2015-2016 KTM 1050 Adventure | 2010-2016 Moto Guzzi Stelvio | 2004-2017 Suzuki V-Strom 650 | 2002-2018 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 | 1999-2001 Triumph Tiger 900i | 2001-2006 Triumph Tiger 955i | 2012-2015 Triumph Tiger Explorer & Explorer XC | 2010-2017 Yamaha Super Tenere
Until the 2013 BMW R1200GS debuted, this was pretty much the standard tire size for large and middleweight adventure bikes: the 110/80-19 front and the 150/70-17 rear. When an industry standardizes on sizes, tire manufacturers can invest in development with some sense of a return on the investment.
Such is the case with this class of tire. All of the tires described in the “Big Boys” section above—from the 90/10 Continental TrailAttack2 and Michelin Pilot Road 4 Trail, through the 50/50 Heidenau K60 Scout, 60/40 Continental TKC70, and 40/60 Continental TKC80 and Michelin Anakee Wild—are available in these sizes.
If you plan to ride equally on road and off, look at one of these 50/50 tires. One of the most popular is the Mitas E-07, a 50/50 tire built for a broad range of terrain, from highway to Jeep trails. Capable of running tubeless, the bias-ply E-07 uses deep tread with many closely spaced blocks for the best compromise of traction on dirt and handling on road. Another excellent choice is the Mefo Super Explorer. Like other 50/50 tires it’s ruggedized for really tough terrain and built with a long-wearing rubber compound that owners have said offers 7,000-9,000 miles on your typical dual sport. Note that the Super Explorer is intended to be run with an inner tube.
If you intend to ride mostly off road, consider the Mitas E-10 (a 40/60 tire) or the even more aggressive E-09 (a 20/80 tire). By the way, we offer standard and Dakar versions of various sizes, the difference is that the Dakar is a beefed-up version suited for heavier bikes and/or rougher terrain.
Where the Adventure Begins
2008-2017 BMW F800GS, 2013-2017 BMW F800GS Adventure, 2016-2017 Honda Africa Twin, 2003-2005 KTM 950 Adventure, 2006-2013 KTM 990 Adventure, 2014-2016 KTM 1190 Adventure R, 2011-2017 Triumph Tiger 800 XC
Motorcycle manufacturers recognize that not every adventure bike fits all riders’ needs. Some riders want what amounts to a large, upright sport-touring bike while others really want to go deep into the outback. The solution? Build distinct versions off the same platform. BMW does it with its Adventure models, as does KTM, and so too does Triumph with its XC-badged derivatives. Honda decided to jump right in with the Africa Twin.
One major difference for these models biased toward off-road use is tire size. In short, when a manufacturer chooses a 21-inch front wheel on a midsize-or-larger machine it’s an indication that scrabbling up rocky slopes or slogging through mud bogs is high on the mission list.
Putting a tall, skinny front wheel on a big ADV machine buys a lot of off-road competence because the larger-diameter tire rolls more easily over rough terrain and its narrow tread helps keep it from being as strongly redirected by rocks and terrain. What you sacrifice is braking capability and steering feel on pavement, but for most adventure riders who really spend time off road the compromise is more than worth it.
Because the 90/90-21 is used on a wide range of lighter dirt bikes and dual-sports, there’s a lot of variety. We carry the Continental TKC70 and TKC80 in that size, as well as the Mefo Explorer (a 50/50 tire), the Heidenau K60 (also a 50/50), the three most aggressive Mitas models: the 50/50 E-07, the 20/80 E-09, and the 40/60 E-10.
The two most common rear sizes, the 150/70-18 and the 150/70-17 likewise come in a range of styles, though the 18-incher is limited to the more dirt-biased tires, as you’d expect. For that size, choose from the Continental TKC80, the Heidenau K60 Scout, the Mitas E-07, E-09, and E-10, and the Mefo Super Explorer.
2000-2005 BMW F650GS Dakar | 2012-2016 BMW G650GS Sertao | 2013-2017 Honda CRF250L | 2017 Honda CRF250L Rally | 2003-2017 Honda XR650L | 2017 Husqvarna 701 Enduro | 2013 Husqvarna TR650 Terra | 1988-2017 Kawasaki KLR650 | 2005-2006 KTM 400 EXC | 2008-2011 KTM 450 EXC | 2012-2016 KTM 500 EXC | 2008-2011 KTM 530 EXC | 1995-2008 KTM 620, 640e and 640 Adventure | 2011-2017 KTM 690 Enduro R | 2000-2017 Suzuki DR-Z400 | 1996-2016 Suzuki DR650 | 2008-2017 Yamaha WR250R | 2008-2017 Yamaha XT250
When you get into the lightweight class of dual-sport machines, the emphasis naturally turns to off-road capability. As you know if you own one, a small-displacement dual sport is a wonder out there in the woods or bombing along single-track; this is when you get to chuckle at the flop sweat your GS-riding friends display at every snack stop.
Once again, we have a wide range of tires for this class of bike, but you’ll notice that the bias here is on 50/50 tires over the off-road-intended skins. It’s less likely you’ll take your KLR650 or CRF250L for tours involving hundreds of miles on the highway, so the product skews to the fun side of the chart.
For most of these models, we have the key versions of the Mefo Explorer, a very successful 50/50 tire, the Mitas E-07 (50/50), Mitas E-09 (20/80) and Mitas E-10 (40/60), and MC30 (80/20). Likewise, the Continental TKC80 is available in all the core sizes, as does the 60/40 TKC70.
Incidentally, some of the bikes in this category use “odd size” fronts. It’s common to use the 90/90-21 even when the stock tire is slightly different, and it’s not uncommon to change sizes slightly at the rear to accommodate availability. As always, check clearances before you order.
One big advantage of taking your lighter-weight dual sport on the road is tire wear. When your whole rig weighs 200-300 pounds less than a fully equipped BMW GS or KTM Adventure, tires last longer, which gives you the option of running more aggressive tires over the same distance or 50/50 tires for much longer.
The Last Word
Whichever tire you choose for whatever kind of adventure bike you call your own, remember a few things.
- Tire maintenance is an ongoing deal. Inspect your tires after every long ride and given them more than a cursory glance while you’re on your trek of a lifetime.
- Respect tire pressures. Off-road tires generally grip better with lower air pressures, but this tactic can cause additional heat build up and expose tubes and rims to damage from rocks.
- Always replace the tubes when you buy new tires.
- Bring tools to repair flats, whether that’s a plug kit for tubeless applications or a tube-repair kit (or even spare tubes) for tubeless rims.