If you’re thinking about trying your hand at taking a big adventure bike off-road, don’t buy a 50/50 street and trail tire.
As the current professor of PRO 103, RevZilla’s two-hour internal training course (with pre-reqs!) for people who need to know all about tires, I wish I could say I am omniscient, but alas, I am not. In that class, I used to recommend 50/50 tires for a lot of riders, and I still do — but I now scratch beginning ADVers from the list. (For those of you who don’t know it, when you see that fraction in front of an on/off road tire, those numbers are roughly what the mix of usage is for the tire, with the on-the-road number coming first, and the off-the-road number second.) Perhaps counterintuitively, I feel that a do-all tire on a do-all bike is a bad idea for a freshman.
I know, I know. They sound like the perfect idea. Much like the adventure bike itself; you can be equally as effective off-road with your machine as you can on the road with a set of tires that perfectly splits the difference. Spurg wanted me to clarify my terms when he read this piece, so I’m going to do that: I’m not talking about fire roads or gravel logging paths. I’m talking about real, live single-track trails with baby-head rocks, nutty elevation changes, and logs and trees blocking a path. If you want to ride that stuff as a novice, I now believe 50/50 tires are a mistake. Here’s why my opinion on that has swung around 180 degrees.
Riders (and their motorcycles) are different now
One thing I have observed in my time as a rider is that the motorcycles people learn on seem to have changed. When I was a rookie, if you asked older riders what their first bike was, it was often a Honda Trail 90 or maybe a small 125 cc dirt bike. Almost universally, Dad had taken tyke and bike into a field, instructed the child, and the kiddo was cut loose for the next 10 years to ride all over God’s green earth, rarely touching pavement.
I’ve seen a shift, though. Ask riders today what their first bike was and it’s far likely to be a heavier street machine. “Ninja 250!” or “Oh, man, a little Honda Rebel.” That’s all well and good, but decreasing access to off-road riding means fewer riders have a background that involves sliding the rear wheel. Take it from a late dirt bloomer: your dirt skills help immensely on the tarmac. Your street abilities, though, are largely irrelevant off the macadam.
Like me, many riders are turning to off-road exploration later and later in their careers. As a pretty prolific road rider, I think that starting off-road later in life is more difficult. Being older is usually not a boon in any athletic or physical activity and riding a motorcycle is no exception.
Meanwhile, many riders do not have the space or desire to own or care for multiple bikes and are looking for a “do-it-all” motorcycle. A small 250 cc dirt squirt leaves a lot to be desired for comfort, speed, and general day-to-day usability on the road, so it’s easy to see why a “Swiss Army knife” would be appealing and why big adventure bikes sell in big numbers nowadays. The tall prices of these bikes mean they’re being bought by riders with thicker wallets, and that may also explain partly why riders are a bit older when they first take their bikes into the dirt.
How does this relate to a 50/50 tire?
Well, it’s pretty simple. An older rider with less dirt experience on a bike that is generally quite a bit larger and heavier than a standard dirt-only motorcycle is going to struggle when he heads off-road. Consequently, I feel that if a rider is going to bring a heavier, more powerful bike that is in many ways a compromise, then the tires should most definitely not be a compromise.
I believe that any bike that’s going to be ridden in serious off-road terrain needs a fair amount of protection added to it, like a skid plate, hand guards and crash bars, but the most important item one can buy, other than experience, is a set of tires. Heck, a good set of tires is often the key to making sure all those protection pieces don’t get used too often.
So you may be asking what tires I do recommend for the uninitiated. I try to steer first-time adventurers to very cheap 20/80 tires. The reason here is that the price is usually just as palatable as a 50/50 tire, but a nice fresh set of very knobby tires increases the odds that the bike will have the best grip possible in dirt, sand, mud, muck, slimy rocks, roots and most other obstacles encountered when one leaves the pavement. If you are new to off-road riding and don’t know how aggressive (knobby) your tire should be, know this: If you buy too much knob, you may have to back your speed down on the street when you’re riding to the trailhead. If, however, you buy too smooth a tire, there may be a number of places off-road you won’t be able to go — or worse, come back from.
A knobbier tire gives a less skilled rider the best chance at making the bike do what it's supposed to with the least amount of effort.
There are always trade-offs. Note that asphalt will kill those knobby tires quickly. That is the penalty incurred for taking a pretty capable motorcycle into an environment that’s a little inhospitable to big bikes piloted by inexperienced riders.
On an anecdotal level, I run into riders who are undergunned in terms of tires fairly regularly. It can be tempting to try to save some money and use one tire for everything, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. And the 50/50 tires? Well, I think they’re actually about the perfect tire for a veteran adventurer who spends as much time on the road as off it. An experienced rider will have a better idea of what those tires can do on the pavement and in the dirt and will likely have more tools in his toolbox for coping with scenarios for which a 50/50 tire is not perfect.
Long story short: If you’re new and you want to give yourself an edge on unfamiliar unpaved terrain, 20/80 or 10/90 tires are the ones to buy.