Let’s see the the difference between knobbies and dual-sport motorcycle tires
Often, experienced off-road riders will tell their less experienced friends that: “This is an easy route, you’ll be fine”. “It’s just sand, just go as fast as you can and you’ll make it through”. “Just stand up, unless you need to sit down. Maybe just hunch a little. Keep your knees straight and bent, TWO FINGERS ON THE LEVERS!”
And sometimes the advice shouted from inside of your friend’s helmet is all you have to go on. But most importantly, there is one piece of advice about adventure motorcycle tires that seems universally given to all would-be adventure riders: “If you ride off-road, you need knobby tires”.
By knobbies, we mean tires with large, square rubber knobs sprouting from the carcass like the iconic Continental TKC 80. This monster tread ensures a solid grip on just about any surface, making for a surefooted off-road riding experience.
Some might think this kind of tread is essential when off-roading, but this is not true in its entirety.
Most importantly, what a new adventure rider needs is proper training. These days, training schools are becoming more and more common. Schools like the Zacker Adventures Riding School and the BMW Performance U.S Rider Academy offer the proper skills for new adventure riders to tackle the most demanding terrains safely and efficiently. Some lean toward the all-inclusive, ‘ride/eat/drink/sleep’ at one location option. Others go for the simpler clinics like the BMW Performance U.S Rider Academy. Be aware that even your local dealer could provide you with a small clinic.
In these venues, DOT knobbies are encouraged. Why? Because they give you an edge. Whatever your riding skills, knobby tires will make them better. The consistency of grip enables the pilot to feel similar feedback across all sorts of terrain; be it dirt, fluff, gravel, etc.
By contrast, 70/30 dual-sport tires (70% street/30% dirt, such as the Continental TKC 70) — typical adventure motorcycle tires installed at the factory — have a smooth, less pronounced tread pattern. These tires offer grip limit feedback that is far more subjective to terrain, and will drift and slip; especially when turning.
That may sound like a bad thing, but not necessarily. A good off-road rider learns to move and flow atop their machine, nimbly shifting weight and mass to compensate for movement of the bike. As the tire drifts or slips, the rider feels the movement, reacting instinctively to the action with their own neutralizing counter-move.
A set of smooth-tread 70/30 dual-sport tires promote this at a critical point in the learning curve, as the instinct to move and flow is promoted right from the outset; they are going to slip, and the rider will feel it. This also has the benefit of cementing these instincts when the rider is still moving slow enough to learn the hard lessons of drift and flow — and the occasional tip-overs that come with them — when it is unlikely that a fall will cause injury. In short; knobby tires will solve a lot of problems you have in the dirt. But so will good riding technique, which you will better establish by using dual sport tires in that 70/30 to 80/20 range at the onset of your learning curve.
Sure, there are limitations. Mud, deep sand and big, loose rocks to name a few are elements where DOT knobbies are nearly essential. But remember that we are referring to NEW Adventure riders. If a new adventure rider commits to traverse advanced off-road challenges with his experienced buddies with a trial by fire approach, sure; knobbies are a good idea… along with a substantial first aid kit.
We recommend to learn the fundamentals first, and do it on flat, hard-packed dirt. Your 70/30 or 80/20 dual-sport tires will be more than adequate. And once the elements of balance and control have been established, the harder stuff can follow.
Far more important than the type of tire used is the air pressure. Riding on dirt with street pressure is like riding on marbles, as every pebble and branch instigates a drift or slip. This is due to the lack of carcass flexibility, the inability for the tire to absorb bumps in the trail. Dropping the pressure makes the tire more compliant, and lowers the chances of a sidewall blowout or bent rim. Be careful; lower the pressure too much, and the dangers associated with high pressure come right back again with possibly a bent rim and unseated tire bead.
So what pressure should you be at when riding off-road?
Depends on what you ride, where you ride it, and how you ride. Adventure rider and BMW MOA journalist, Shawn Thomas likes to keep his BMW R 1200 GS Rallye at about 32 psi front and 36 psi rear. This allows him to transition from street to dirt to street again without changing pressures back and forth every time. It’s not the best for every riding situation, as on road aggressive riding requires higher pressure than off-road riding. Always start with the motorcycle manufacturer recommended specifications and what’s right for your specific riding will become clear with time.