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ADV PreppingAre Knobbies the Best Adventure Motorcycle Tires for Noobs?

Are Knobbies the Best Adventure Motorcycle Tires for Noobs?

Think you need a set of knobbies when learning to ride off-road? Think again!

Published on 08.10.2016

I know what you’ve been told, I’ve heard it all as well. “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!”

Like I said, I’ve heard it too. Sometimes the advice shouted from inside your friend’s helmet is all you have to go on. And through it all, there is one piece of advice about adventure motorcycle tires that seems universally given to all would-be adventure riders, one that we are going to debunk right now.

That advice is, “If you ride off-road, you need knobby tires.” By knobbies, we mean tires with large, square rubber knobs sprouting from the carcass (i.e. DOT knobbies approved for road use). This monster tread ensures a solid grip on just about any surface, making for a surefooted off-road riding experience. Essential, right?


No. No no no no. You. Don’t. Need them.

DOT Knobbies vs. 70/30 Dual Sport adventure motorcycle tires
DOT knobby tire (lower left) and a street-biased OEM adventure motorcycle tire (upper right).

Now before you recoil in horror, hear me out. Invariably, what a ‘new’ Adventure rider needs is proper training. These days, training schools are sprouting up everywhere. Some lean toward the all-inclusive, ‘ride/eat/drink/sleep’ at one location option. Others go for the simpler clinics, at times provided for free by your local dealer (if yours doesn’t, ask them to). And 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, 80/20 dual-sport tires (80% street/20% dirt) — 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.

knobby dual sport adventure motorcycle tires

Now that may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. 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, they feel the movement, reacting instinctively to the action with their own neutralizing counter-move.

A set of smooth-tread 80/20 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 onset; they are going to slip, and you are going to 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, we’re talking about NEW Adventure riders. Why is a new rider trying to traverse the advanced stuff? The answer is usually the trial by fire, “I’m a total N00B going riding with my experienced buddies” approach. In this instance, sure; knobbies are a good idea, along with a substantial first aid kit.

I say, learn the fundamentals first, and do it on flat, hard-packed dirt. Your 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.

best adventure motorcycle tires for noobs

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. Careful though; lower the pressure too much, and the dangers associated with high pressure come right back again (I’ve seen many a bent rim and unseated tire bead due to under-inflation).

So what pressure should you be at when riding off-road? Depends on what you ride, where you ride it, and who you ask. I keep my BMW R1200GS Adventure at about 32psi front and 36psi rear. This allows me 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 — I’ve been known to raise the pressures up to spec for aggressive street riding, and down to as low as 20psi front and rear for particularly challenging off-road. What’s right for you will become clear with time.

In the end, you’re not in a bad way regardless of what kind of tire you use. Just know that you stand to learn a lot more, a lot faster, by keeping those Metzler Tourance or Michelin Anakee III tires on when you start riding off-road!

Author: Shawn Thomas

For more than 13 years, Shawn has been immersed in the motorcycle industry and in particular, Adventure Riding. What began as a “temporary job” selling BMW motorcycles evolved into a career in media, tours, and off-road instruction. On behalf of BMW Motorrad USA, he has traveled the world coaching thousands of riders on the nuances of managing “big” bikes in the dirt, and has become an ambassador to those looking to begin or improve their understanding of adventure motorcycling.

Author: Shawn Thomas

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20 thoughts on “Are Knobbies the Best Adventure Motorcycle Tires for Noobs?

  1. I read your article and I have to say, whenI finished I was left wondering what you were really trying to communicate. Some of what you say is right on and some of what you say doesn’t communicate your point well (i.e. you don’t need Nobby tires, but Nobby tires would be better). You need to qualify what terrain you are riding and then talk about tires for these environments.

    We are in the Colorado Rocky mountains and there is a very specific set of tires you would want to have in the mountains (beginner or not). It sure wouldn’t be 80/20 or 70/30 tires. I think the term adventure riding has been muddled by the industry who sells the bikes with what would be considered a street tire and not an off-road tire. For those who are riding almost exclusively on the highway, those tires may work fine. If you are from Kansas a 70/30 tire would work fine. But if you are going to go off-road with a bigger bike, you definitely would want at least a 50/50 tire like the Heidenau K60 Scout, Continental TKC80, or the Metzeler Karoo 3 (to name a few).

    The one point you made that I completely agree with is, before going off-road with any bike, get the proper training for off-road riding. We offer a clinic every spring for free to help people learn how to ride off-road ranging from a CRF-250 to a BMW1200GS. I see many people who do not take any training or don’t practice the necessary riding skills after training and they become very discouraged as they keep picking their bike up off the ground. In the clinics, most instructors will talk about gear, tires, protection, technique, etc. They should walk away with an idea about tires, but the real learning curve will come when they start riding. A couple other things that comes into play when deciding to purchase a tire is cost, quality, and the number of miles you will get out of a tire.

    In my opinion what tire you choose isn’t a matter of whether you are a new rider or not. The decision will be based more on the terrain they will mostly ride, cost, handling, and the number of miles between a new set of tires. Ask other riders that ride in your area and from online forums what they use, weigh the opinions along with industry reviews and try a set of tires. If they work for you, keep buying them. If you don’t like them or they wear out sooner than you like, try a different set of tires until you find one that works for you. Make sure they will work for the type of terrain you are riding.

  2. I agree that knobbies are not mandatory for MOST adventure riding. For the hard-core stuff, sure, but in those cases I’d rather be on a dirt bike or one of the very lightweight ADV bikes (DR650, DRZ400, or one of the 250’s) than some big bike like a BMW or Super Tenere. I’m not a big guy either.

    FWIW, I run Shinko 705’s on my V-Strom 650 and they work VERY, VERY well off-road in anything Ive thrown at them.. including some technical stuff I would have preferred to NOT do, but hey, it happened. Those are amazing tires for their price and lack of knobs.

    I’m currently running the newer Shinko 804/805 on my DR650 and do not like them one bit. Can’t wait to get rid of them. The front doesn’t climb ruts well, and they don’t stick well in corners on asphalt. I’m probably going back to the Shinko 700’s or I might try Michelin T63’s.

  3. Are they needed? No. Are they nice to have, and a valuable safety measure? Yes, just like a lot of other things in life, for example helmets, riding gear, good suspension, etc…

    New users when starting out have a lot of learn, if it’s their first time on the dirt. Figuring out how and why the bike slides is one of them, in a long tail of other things. I’d rather they concentrate first on body position, balance, braking and getting the basics right. Knobbies are one of the best things a new rider can slap on. They provide an instant leap of confidence in the dirt, and confidence is one of the things they lack the most while starting out. Once they are comfortable, and enjoy the experience, it is far more easier to have them try out more street friendly 80/20 tires.

    I know that your advise is well intentioned, it’s just one of the worst I have come across in recent times.

    • “I know that your advise is well intentioned, it’s just one of the worst I have come across in recent times.” I just happened on this article, and agree. It is amazing that this person makes money teaching. He actually experimented with students. Here is a thought Mr. Thomas, “give students EVERY advantage that you can, so they don’t get hurt or discouraged.” Geebuz. By your thinking, you should send newbies out flat-tracking on milers with a couple of AMA pros leading the way.

      • Hahaha WOW. It’s been awhile and I am surprised that this article is still getting traction (no pun intended). When I originally posted this, it was the most controversial motorcycle article I had ever written. Man oh man did I get negative feedback (I should have posted some of the PM’s, you’d think I was out punching babies). And I’ll admit, it got to me that people disagreed so strongly. It’s hard to put a perspective out there and see it lambasted by the community I love. But it was good for me, because it tested my values. Was I wrong? Did I make a mistake? Should I re-think my training techniques?

        Many years have passed now. I know alot about training that I didn’t know before, and still have alot to learn! That being said, I stand by my article; though I welcome opportunities to be shown a better path. I don’t know you, Skippy. Maybe you have something to teach me. If so, give me a reasoned argument and I’ll listen. 🙂

  4. Message from the author:

    Hey folks,

    I have been reading your thoughts on this article with great interest. I’m loving the feedback. From what I’ve seen here and on shared links, the reactions have ranged from complete agreement to quite the opposite. One way or the other, I dig it.

    I was never told that dual-sport tires were the way to go, quite the opposite; I remember taking my first class with Jimmy Lewis, maybe 12 years ago, and hearing him mumble darkly about my showing up with Metzler Tourance’s on my Adventure Bike (his class required knobbies, but I hadn’t had the $$$ for them). I made it through the class, but it stuck in my head that I might’ve done better if I had run knobbies.

    Subsequently I started running knobbies, and definately noted the positive difference. Again, as I say in the article, there is a huge benefit. But as I became a coach, and 10 students turned into hundreds, then thousands, I noticed a trend: Oftentimes the N00B’s on dual-sport tires carried a better understanding and technique of the teachings than those on Knobbies. Certainly not EVERY time, but enough to catch my eye. So I started experimenting on my own, running “Knobby-Only” advanced tours with mostly-worn knobbies, or Dual-Sport tires. It was alot more work, and exhausting, traversing sand and rock and hills in this manner. But I found that my sense of balance and interface with the controls were far more acute when available traction was so minimal.

    I felt like I was on to something. And when people started asking me which tires they should bring to training as new students, I gave them pretty much the same speech I give in the article. “It’s your choice,” I would conclude. “Experience tells me that people tend to get more out of the class when they’re on dual-sport tires. But either way, you’re going to learn something and have fun!”

    Folks, I appreciate both the agreements and disagreements here. It’s giving me plenty to think about. After reading the arguments, I’m sticking with my point of view on this, as experience tells me it’s valid. But by all means if you disagree, no worries. If you want to discuss it further, hit reply and lets keep this going. And FYI: If you want to have a private discussion, here is my number: (831) 419-5965. Lets talk!


    -Shawn Thomas (Rock On)

  5. This is one of the more insightful pieces on tire choice and riding style I’ve ever read. Yep, ever and I’ve been reading and riding for 36 years. Thanks for a well written, intelligently extemporaneous ride Sean. Thoroughly enjoyed the read.

  6. Hey Shawn. I read your article and understand what you’re saying. To some degree I agree, But to a larger extent I disagree. Yes, riding 80/20 tires suffixes most of the time given the terrain most beginners ride and the intensity with which they ride. But, aside from motorcycling I have taught mountain biking, cross country skiing, alpine skiing and horseback riding. In all disciplines I have taught, we start students in situations and using equipment that gives them the best possible chance to succeed. We use mountain bikes with a bit of a longer wheel base for stability, we use quiet dead broke horses, we use fat stabile easy turning downhill skills, and we use wider and slower cross country skis. Knobbies give off road motorcycles a bit more bite making them a bit more forgiving of mistakes. Once technique is learned and muscle memory is developed, adding in a higher level of challenge develops a higher level of skill. Shawn, you are a young big strong man. I wonder about the demographics of riders coming to the adventure world. Perhaps you know the figures. I do not. But I certainly see huge numbers of “silver hairs” coming into this discipline. The older we get, the more prone we are to injury when we fall. A lot of new riders have yet to develop strength and endurance off road riding requires. Anything I can do to avoid a student falling and being hurt, in my mind, is a good thing. Confidence is key! “If you think you can…or can’t; you will.” Anything I can do to build confidence is a good thing. All this said, I come from a time and era when some riders rode their Motos to the track, removed the headlights, raced, put them back on and rode home- all on the same tires. And just last weekend I rode with a very skilled rider with 50 years racing experience. He took a VeeStrom with 80/20 tires up some crazy gnar which was challenging to me on my 1190R with Karoo 3s! Like I said, I get what you’re saying, but with beginners I prefer to give them the absolute very best chance to succeed, build skill, and confidence and knobbies are a good choice for that! Cheers buddy! Rock On Dude!

    • Hey my friend! I have read your thoughts here and given them a lot of thought. Ultimately I agree with what you’re saying here, and I think we’re going after the same ultimate goal using different techniques.

      Let me offer a specific example of the value of dual-sport tires vs. knobbies: When teaching turning technique (easily the hardest element I teach a new rider), there are so many ways to do it ‘wrong,’ and far fewer ways to do it ‘right.’ If a rider positions their weight in the wrong place, they may experience some drift of the tires. Not necessarily a fall-inducing slip, but enough to know that their technique can be improved. If in this situation the rider is using knobbies, the tire may not slip at all. Now, the rider has begun to solidify a poor technique, and the confidence that goes with it. Later when these same techniques are used in more challenging environments (teaching off-camber downhill turns, for example), the need for proper technique becomes far more critical. In this instance, I find the knobby folks will often have challenges the dual-sport folks do not, since the former is building on improper technique.

      Another example is braking technique. When teaching students front braking skills, the absolute first and most important goal is moderation. If they “stab” or “grab” at the front brake, the front suspension has no opportunity to react and no weight from the machine will press down on the front tire. Less weight means minimal traction. The tire will slip and drift, and they will feel it right away. It’s not necessarily a ‘crash-inducing’ experience, but the student feels it, and it freaks them out. This is usually enough to convince them to listen to our “stop grabbing, start squeezing” mantra. When using knobbies, this feeling is highly diminished. They might still feel a drift, but oftentimes it does not encourage proper technique. This might be fine when they’re training on flat ground; but when the class goes to, say, steep descents, front brake moderation becomes far more critical. This is when I start seeing the dual-sport folks excelling where the knobbie-booted folks start falling behind (no pun intended).

      All in all, there are far more instructors that will wave the flag of knobbies than of dual-sport tires for new riders. And I completely agree that success can be achieved either way, so in this regard we’re both right… In any event, I always enjoy our talks, Pat. Rock on my friend!

  7. I did the Northwest Advernture a few years ago and went on the street tires that came with my R1200GS, they were so worn the riders there advised me not to try to ride home on them. I had the assistance of two experienced dirt riders who took me on the ‘knobbies only’ most challenging part of the trip for 150 miles of gravel,ruts, across meadows (we got lost for a bit), shale slopes, volcanic rock hills, mud, even some ice. The bike performed flawlessly, I learned to fall by doing so, but only once in each type of terrain (4 falls all day) , after which the instruction proved it’s worth immediately.
    It’s not the tires. It’s the instruction and the rider listening and trying them.

  8. To me, your advice seems right in line with the reason for learning to ride as slowly as possible before learning to ride fast – knobbies (as well as speed) hide a multitude of sins. It’s an angle I hadn’t considered before. I’m still fairly new to the adventure style and think I might trade in my Shinko 804/805 combo for something a little more “street friendly” when the time comes.

  9. Shawn, meaning no disrespect but riding off road on anything but slow mellow fire roads is downright dangerous with smooth tires. It is impossible to safely control any bike in deep sand or any kind of loose terrain with anything other than a knobby.

    At the minimum I would go with a TK 80 or Big Block. They might wear quicker and not handle quite as good on the pavement but will save your bacon when pushing it off road.


    • Hi Chris, no offense taken my friend. Heck, it wasn’t long ago that I would have been arguing the same points you are making.

      There’s only one way to settle this: lets ride!

  10. After reading all the comments I can definitely see your point of view. I am a relatively new rider who owns two bikes. My first was a TW200 with really fat knobby tires. This thing instilled a lot of confidence off road as a beginner. I recently bought a Yamaha Versys X 300 with a much more street oriented tire. I immediately noticed the difference and began riding more conservatively. I also began riding more focused and paying much more attention to proper technique. Having said that, I will probably switch to a bit more aggressive off road tire for next season as I’m old and can’t stay focused that long.

    • In my humble opinion YOU did it RIGHT…you learned all the basics on a super forgiving motorcycle and then thought about moving to something heavier and more difficult to safely operate offroad …the RIGHT WAY …people who jump immediately to a 600llb (fueled and add ons) are FOOLISH I don’t care how many “clinics” they pay for …unless you are super gifted there just is no substitute for saddle time on a forgiving motorcycle …I watch these videos of guys on HEAVY “adventure” bikes that have little saddle time and I just cringe….they drop it over and over and over and think it’s normal …that is NOT normal!

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