Which Motorcycle Tire Is Right For Your Riding?
Riding on- or off-road is all about managing traction. That’s why tires are one of the most important choices you’ll make for your motorcycle. Along with suspension and brakes, they are key to your bike’s performance, as well as your safety and comfort. When choosing the right dual-sport tire for your bike, the first thing to consider is what kind of riding you’ll be doing the most. How much will you be on dirt versus pavement? How technical will that dirt riding be? What kind of performance do you need on asphalt? It’s important that you answer these questions honestly, to truly get the right tire for your riding needs. A few words of advice from one of our resident dual-sport riders, Brad Z:
“When it comes to ADV tires, it’s best to be honest with yourself and your riding. How much knobby do you really need? Sure, the 80% dirt tire looks badass and lets everyone know you’re hardcore, but why compromise traction and stability on the street when that’s where you spend 90% of your time? Besides, you actually are hardcore when you make it through that hero section with an 80% street tire.”
Brad wrote this review of the Mitas E-09 tire, which gives great insight into how a tire design can affect your riding. As Brad points out, the best place to start is with your ratio of pavement to dirt riding. Dual-sport tires are often listed by this ratio, as you can see under “Tire Use” on our tires page. There are three key characteristics that determine where a tire falls in that spectrum:
- Knob size: This determines how much of the tire’s surface area makes contact with the road or trail. The more surface that makes contact, the more traction is available.
- Tread depth: For dirt riding, this determines how much soft/loamy material you can displace to get to the harder, better-traction surface beneath. The deeper the tread, the more material is displaced.
- Pattern shape: “Pattern” refers to the grooves and channels that are cut into the tread. This determines how the tire gets grip in wet and dry conditions. Also, those open spaces (or voids) between the tread provide room for displaced material to move to, allowing deep knobs to gain better traction. Larger voids release mud more easily and keep your tire from gumming up.
Sand, mud, and soft, loamy dirt require taller, wider-spaced knobs that act like paddles, keeping mud from packing between the knobs. The tire should also be made of a harder-compound rubber. By contrast, on trails with lots of rocks and a harder floor, you’ll want knobs that are shorter and closer together for better traction. Hard terrain also requires a softer tire that more easily conforms to the surface, creating a larger contact patch for better grip. On pavement, as you’re probably well aware, a tire with minimal or no knobs is best, giving you the most traction possible.
One last thing to consider is tire life. Softer compounds wear faster, while harder compounds last longer; and softer tires generally offer more grip than stiff tires. So compound choice often comes down to a compromise between longevity and traction — that’s a choice you’ll make based on your desired performance, comfort level, and budget. Let’s take a look at some common surface ratios, along with tire recommendations for each:
Defining Motorcycle Tires
80% Street / 20% Dirt
For the street rider who likes to hit the occasional fire road. These tires give good grip in a variety of conditions. Look for a tire with a big, wide tread to give you good cleaning on well-groomed backcountry roads and good traction on both wet and dry pavement. These tires also provide a quieter ride with less vibration on paved surfaces.
The Mitas MC 30 Invader Dual-Sport Tire is primarily for pavement riding with occasional unpaved surfaces. It uses a soft compound and directional tread pattern for good grip in a variety of conditions. This tire offers a good combination of grip and tire life; though it’s made with a softer compound, it’s also designed for optimal wear.
50% Street / 50% Dirt
The jack-of-all-trades of dual-sport tires, this is your most versatile option. These tires have the ability to handle more challenging dirt conditions as well as wet or dry pavement. They’ll have more knobby tread than the 80/20’s, with lots of gaps for cleaning sand and mud (but not super-soft, loamy dirt). On pavement, they’re less squirrely at lean than true knobbies, and they’ll get better mileage.
The Mefo Explorer Dual-Sport Tire is our long-distance specialist. Customers have reported to us that a set of Explorers can routinely take about 7,000-9,000 miles of use under harsh adventure-touring conditions. These tires offer a great combination of all-around handling and high mileage.
The Mitas E-07 Dual-Sport Tire offers excellent traction on a variety of terrain, from pavement to stones to sand. Bias-ply construction and a chevron tread pattern give a fairly smooth ride with good grip on wet or dry pavement. The Mitas E-07 Dakar has thicker sidewalls for greater puncture resistance.
The Heidenau K60 Scout Dual-Sport Tire incorporates large rubber lugs in the center of the tire for straight tracking on pavement. Large gaps between the lugs are good at cleaning mud, dirt, sand, and gravel. Patterns may vary with tire size for this model; some have a chevron pattern, while others use the center ridge design.
40% Street / 60% Dirt
These dual-sport tires are going to have knobbier edges, deeper tread, and much larger gaps for cleaning dirt. Compared with 50/50 tires, you can start getting into softer, loamier dirt. However, you’ll be giving up some handling confidence on twisty roads, and you’ll have more vibration on pavement.
The Mitas E-10 Dual-Sport Tire has a big-block knob pattern and a radial/bias-ply hybrid construction designed specifically for large adventure bikes. The Mitas E-10 Dakar is made with thicker sidewalls for greater puncture resistance.
20% Street / 80% Dirt
Taking it another step further, these tires will have more aggressive knob patterns to handle difficult, technical off-road terrain. Generally, they’ll be really good off-road but won’t kill you on pavement, though the front tire is often the more squirrelly of the two. You’ll get decent wear for dirt-oriented tires, but don’t expect the same life as a 50/50 tire.
Brad recently tested out the Mitas E-09 Dual-Sport Tire — read his review here.
The Mitas E-09 Dakar Dual-Sport Tire has one extra ply for a stiffer carcass, which produces less heat build-up at lower pressures. It’s also more resistant to punctures.
10% Street / 90% Dirt
This is the tire for people who ride short sections of pavement primarily to connect trails. The big knobs give you superior handling on technical off-road terrain, but also make these tires wear out faster on pavement. You’ll also get much less grip at extreme lean or under hard braking, compared with more street-oriented tires.
The Mefo Stone Master Dual-Sport Tire is probably the most dirt-oriented street-legal rear tire on the market. The open-block profile provides good grip in any kind of muddy, rocky, or sandy terrain, with stable handling on hard surfaces and pavement. We recommend you combine the Stone Master rear tire with the Mefo MX Master front tire for the best handling and wear characteristics.
A Note About Tire Pressure
In general, you probably want to use the recommended tire pressure (in your bike owner’s manual) for a given type of terrain. But once you’ve put a few miles on your tires, you may want to experiment with the tire pressure to find the sweet spot for you. We recommend that you make changes in small increments (just a couple psi at a time), and take some time to get a feel for the new pressure before adjusting it again.
While you might be tempted to run higher pressures to try to extend the life of your tires, overinflation comes with some risks. Tires that are overinflated will lose some ability to conform to the road, which reduces the size of the contact patch and results in less traction. Overinflation can also cause an unnecessarily harsh ride, both on- and off-pavement.
Underinflated tires can feel squishy or tend to wander on smooth, hard terrain, and reduce your confidence while cornering and braking. You could even cause wheel damage on rough, rocky terrain, and you run the risk of pinched tubes and flat tires. If your tires feel squirrely, immediately go back up to a pressure where you feel comfortable.
It’s not a bad idea to carry a small pump so you can adjust tire pressure out on the road or trail, especially if you’re doing both pavement and off-road riding in the same day. You’ll likely want to drop the pressure when riding off-road, then pump the tires back up for the tarmac.