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Common Tread

The dual-sport segment is growing, but where's it going?

Jan 06, 2020

Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in the presidential election, Hurricane Andrew ravaged southern Florida, and the Mall of America opened in Minnesota. The year was 1992. Elsewhere, the new Honda XR650L starting appearing on dealership floors.

More than 27 years later, you'll still find the big red thumper on the floor of your local Honda dealership. Meanwhile, if you walk into a European dealership, you'll find dual-sport models built from modern, lightweight off-road race bikes merely fitted with lights and turn signals to make them street-legal. Then there are twin-cylinder, 450-pound adventure bikes with cruise control and TFT displays. Despite this variety, and despite the fact that the dual-sport segment as defined by the Motorcycle Industry Council is one of the few segments with positive sales growth in the United States, it still feels like there’s a gap in the middle of the dual-sport range.

Honda CRF250L
The Honda CRF250L is a competent if not outstanding dual-sport ride. Photo by Drew Faulkner.

What’s going on in the dual-sport market?

In 2018, I bought a Honda CRF250L. While flexible, the 250L is an unremarkable motorcycle by modern standards. Outside of words like “versatile” and “ease of ownership,” it’s difficult to shower the machine with superlatives. While daydreaming about the 250L’s ultimate successor, I found myself considering the state of the dual-sport market in the United States.

Like scramblers and adventure bikes, the definition of dual-sport is broad and, depending on who you talk to, evolving. I've seen the Triumph Tiger 800 listed on a dealer's website as a dual-sport, which arguably puts it right next to a featherweight KTM 350 EXC-F. Some would say that any motorcycle that meets legal requirements to be ridden on public roads while also meant to be ridden off-road qualifies as a dual-sport, but that casts a very large net. If I get the final say on what makes a dual-sport, I would probably tighten the definition to something akin to "single-cylinder motorcycles fitted with a 21-inch front wheel and the necessary equipment to be road-legal."

Kawasaki KLR650
The Kawasaki KLR650 is clearly a dual-sport but it provides a riding experience that's considerably different from lightweight, sportier dual-sports. Kawasaki photo.

That still includes a wide range. The late and lamented Kawasaki KLR650 tipped the scale at more than 430 pounds. Its owner’s manual recommended replacing the engine oil after 6,000 miles. Though discontinued, a 2018 model is still listed on Kawasaki's website with an MSRP of $6,669.

KTM 350 EXC-F dual-sport
The KTM 350 EXC-F is clearly a dual-sport, but it falls at the lighter and sportier end of a broad spectrum. KTM photo.

Now circle back to that "Ready to Race" KTM EXC. The orange 350 fights in the 255-pound weight class, emissions equipment and all. Thumbing through the owner's manual, I see the Austrian engineers suggest changing the engine oil every 15 running hours. That should be easy enough. The same manual claims there's only one quart in there. However, checking those valves every 30 hours might become tedious. I also see KTM's website lists an MSRP of $10,999 for the 350 EXC-F, a meager $500 premium over its XC siblings for blinkers and a license plate holder, but far more than the KLR.

The above two machines are the furthest extremes I could think of among street-legal (mainstream, four-stroke) singles. The KLR being the simplest of adventure machines, and the 350 EXC a bike that'll ride trails on Saturday or put you on a podium on Sunday. Despite the number of bikes on the market that meet my definition of dual-sport, there seems to be a considerable gap in between those extremes. Deep in the valley between these motorcycles sits a handful of mostly Japanese alternatives ranging from 30-year-old, air-cooled singles fitted with rollover odometers, a capable 400 entering its 20s, a trio of liquid-cooled, quarter-liter machines on the cusp of being a decade old (sans the CRF250L), and few noteworthy outliers.

When I look at brands like Beta, Husqvarna and KTM, I see near race-spec off-road machines with blinkers and lights. When I look at Japanese offerings, I see mild-mannered bikes like my 250 or the Kawasaki KLX250, or the even milder Yamaha XT250. One exception is Honda copying the European formula with the CRF450L, a race bike with a plate. In both cases, the most modern dual-sports appear to put a premium on off-road performance, which consequently drives up the price and the maintenance requirements. Is this the future? Have motorcycle buyers become so specialized in their taste that generalist tools like the Suzuki DR-Z400 are becoming irrelevant?

Honda CRF250L on the road to get to the trails
My Honda CRF250L can handle some highway miles to get to the off-road riding, even though it's not ideal for the task. Photo by Drew Faulkner.

Why I’m a dual-sport rider

How much all this matters to you depends on where you live and how you ride, too. To grossly oversimplify, the western United States has more federal land open to off-highway vehicles, a longer dry season and a more vibrant motorcycle population. You can drag a toy-hauler to the desert and go free-riding on an off-road-only bike. Here in Appalachia, if I want to explore more challenging trails beyond the forest service roads, I must be mindful of federal regulations, avoid trespassing, or pay a fee to ride at an OHV park. More often than out West, I need a license plate and, if nothing else, having a street-legal dual-sport means I can stop mid-ride at a filling station.

On a personal level, until recently I had no truck, no trailer, and no garage. The nearest trails worth writing home about are at least three hours from my driveway. If I wanted to ride off-road, that meant choosing a machine capable of commuting six hours round trip, as well as handling the trails. That means compromise, both in terms of comfort and performance. Sure, my CFR250L will do it, but six to eight hours of commuting to the trails means I may ultimately spend more time on the asphalt than on the dirt.

At the other end, having a more street-friendly steed can limit you when you’re staring down an obstacle on the trail that challenges the limits of your skills and the machine’s ability. You’re often reminded that home is still three hours away, and that tends to limit the difficulty of trails you’re prepared to tackle.

KTM 790 Adventure R Rally on the trails
Motorcycles like the KTM 790 Adventure R are an increasingly popular alternative that provide much of the on-road comfort of the larger, multi-cylinder adventure-touring machines with some of the off-road capability of smaller thumpers. KTM photo by Montero F.

Is the answer to this to change my definition of dual-sport to include two-cylinder machines, specifically the ones that are coming out that are lighter and more capable off-road? With the advent of the KTM 790 Adventure and the long-awaited Yamaha Ténéré 700, will traditional dual-sport customers shift to middleweight adventure bikes in lieu of more traditional dirt machines?

Anyone who’s talked bikes with me for more than a few minutes will tell you I’m a sucker for inline twins. Both KTM and Yamaha are raising the bar (or is it lowering it?) for acceptable wet weight in the adventure segment. Twins have been staples of flat-track racing for some time. Triumph twins of the 1960s were staples of the motorcycle cross-country scene. Perhaps what is old is new again, just for different reasons?

Emissions regulations play a role here, too. Euro 5 takes effect this year, so existing models have 12 months to become compliant. While I value the simplicity of air-cooled engines like the one in that Honda from 1993, it won’t pass muster come 2021. As emission standards choke out the single-cylinder workhorses, liquid-cooled twins could fill the void.

Yamaha XT250
Emissions regulations may do away with air-cooled engines, but for now you can still buy a simple single like the Yamaha XT250, if you prefer the milder and less expensive end of the dual-sport spectrum. Yamaha photo.

I agree with so many others who have said that this is a great time to be a motorcyclist. The equipment available to modern riders is incredible, be it the top-of-the-line race-spec dirt bike, the versatile modern adventure bike, or even the simple appeal of the reliable, antiquated thumpers.

I’m curious what the masses expect to see from the OEMs in the near future. Have buyers just decided to set up residence in the “race-spec” or “adventure” camps? Will smaller, more efficient twins take up residence in the vacuum left by the big-bore thumpers? Or will the big brands just abandon the simple do-it-all machines in lieu of premium offerings that yield bigger profits?

As one of the few areas of U.S. motorcycling that’s growing, at least the dual-sport segment promises to remain vibrant, so it will be interesting to see what comes next.