Next: Off-road Motorcycles

Dual Sport Motorcycles

2010 Suzuki DR650SE - above Lower Arrow Lake BC

A dual sport (dual purpose) motorcycle somewhat bridges the street and off-road categories. Generally, a dual sport motorcycle is one that is street legal and can be ridden off-road as well. These are versatile bikes, but they are also compromise bikes. Some are more suited for around town and easy trails; some work well on the highway and make good adventure touring bikes; some are more dirt oriented: you can ride them on the street, but they are much more suited for off-road / trail use (dirt bikes with lights). Some bikes in this category are quite “tame” and built to a budget, while others are essentially competition bikes, with high-end components, made street legal.

Characteristics that make a bike good on the highway generally work against it off-road, and vice versa. For off-road use it’s desirable to have a very light bike, low gearing (for trails), knobby tires, long travel suspension, high ground clearance, firm and narrow seat, etc. For highway use it’s desirable to have a bike that’s a bit heavier, has taller gearing, more street oriented tires and a wider, more comfortable and lower seat. I don’t know if there is such a thing as the perfect dual sport motorcycle. A lot of owners buy what they consider to be the best compromise dual sport, and then they modify it to suit their intended use – more off-road, more street use or 50/50 riding (all around). Others will set their bike up for adventure touring. Even if you get a bike that’s, say good off-road (relatively light, good suspension, high ground clearance, etc.), if you set it up for adventure touring by putting more street oriented tires on it, a bigger gas tank, racks, raise the gearing, etc., it will no longer be as good off-road. You’ve detracted from its off-road qualities to make it work better on the street and gravel roads. Think about what your intended purpose is. It may have been better to buy a more street oriented dual sport bike to start with; one with a lower seat height, a bit more weight for better stability at speed on the highway, and maybe some comfort features like a windscreen and a plusher seat. If you’re only going to be riding your dual sport bike on the street as a way to get to the trails or to connect trails, then a dirt-oriented dual sport is probably the ticket.

2009 Kawasaki KLX250S

About the greatest limiting factor on a dual sport motorcycle is the tires. Tires work well off-road or on the street, but they don’t work well everywhere. Knobby (DOT approved) tires don’t work that well on the pavement mainly because there isn’t much rubber making contact with the hard road surface. They can be dangerous on wet pavement. They also wear out fast on the pavement. Knobby tires are superior in off-road conditions, but if used on the street, the “knobs” may flex causing less than ideal handling characteristics. Street-oriented tires offer better traction and a smoother, quieter ride on the pavement, and they don’t wear out nearly as fast when riding on pavement, but they don’t work well off-road, especially in loose or muddy conditions where they can be hazardous. Another thing to consider is that a single dual sport ride may cover a wide variety of road surfaces such as pavement, gravel, sand, rock and mud. What tire do you pick then? Good question. The answer will always be a compromise. Pick a tire that will be suitable for most of your riding conditions. If you find that those tires don’t work out well, try something else when they wear out; off-road oriented tires can wear out quite fast.

Don’t buy a dual sport and expect it to work great everywhere, in all conditions, with a single setup or configuration. It’s just not going to happen. If you’re not going to be riding aggressively on the street or on the trails, and you want to go most places, then a single setup with all-around (50/50) tires may be just fine. You can also switch between different setups. Unless you have a second set of wheels, though, switching tires frequently would be a real hassle. Changing a front sprocket to change the gearing does not take much time or effort (depends on the bike). What I’m saying is that you’re not “locked-in” to a particular setup. It would be nice to have multiple bikes for different riding conditions, but most of us probably can’t afford that luxury.

Divisions in the dual sport category are somewhat arbitrary. On the one end we have small, mild, casual trail and commuter bikes mostly in the 200 to 250cc range (Suzuki DR200, Honda CRF230L, Yamaha XT225 / XT250, and Kawasaki KL250). Next up are the higher performance and / or more off-road capable Japanese bikes in the 250 – 400cc range (Honda CRF250L, Kawasaki KLX250S, Yamaha WR250R, and Suzuki DR-Z400S). Then we have the high performance, high specification bikes ranging in displacement of about 250 to 500+ cc. These are generally European brands (KTM, etc.) and are often based on competition bikes; they are essentially street legal dirt bikes (enduros). That leaves the heavier, general purpose bikes (Suzuki DR650, Kawasaki KLR650, Honda XR650L, KTM 690 Enduro and Husqvarna TE610 (discontinued). Because these bikes are quite heavy (at least some of them), they can be a handful off-road, at least for some riders, when the trails get tight and rough. They work well on dirt roads and on the highway, and they make good light weight adventure touring bikes. The KTM and Husky are lighter, have higher performance and are quite off-road capable. The big adventure touring bikes like the KTM 990 Adventure or the BMW GS line can be considered dual sport bikes also. They are heavy and are more suited for the highway and good gravel roads. They are capable bikes, and some good riders take them in more challenging terrain, but they are not dirt bikes (some riders ride them like they are, though).

2011 KTM 530 EXC

Super-Moto / Supermotard

2011 Suzuki DRZ400SM

A super-moto (supermotard) bike is like a dual sport bike that has been set up ideally for street riding. Often they are based on an existing dual sport bike in a manufacturer’s lineup. When compared to a similar dual sport model, the super-moto version typically has street (sport) bike tires mounted on wider, but smaller diameter wheels (rims), has larger diameter brake rotors, maybe more powerful brake calipers, perhaps different steering geometry and suspension components. The gearing is often higher, and the seat may be lower than the dual sport version. There may be other subtle differences as well. These bikes are well suited for riding around town and on tight, twisty, paved back roads. Both Honda and Kawasaki had small displacement super-motos, the CRF230M and KLX250SF, but they have been pulled from their product lines, at least in Canada. Other examples include the Suzuki DRZ400SM, Yamaha WR250X (discontinued) and Husqvarna SMS630, SMR449 and SMR511; the latter two are essentially race bikes.

Next: Off-road Motorcycles
Back: Overview of motorcycle types
Back: Street Motorcycles
Motorcycles for Beginners