Choosing a Dual-Sport Bike – 2014

If you are considering a dual-sport bike so that you can enjoy motorcycling both on and off the road, perhaps this post will provide some useful information.  Keep in mind that everyone’s needs differ, so pick what works best for you.  I share my experience in hopes that it will help you pick right the first time.

What is a Dual-Sport Bike?

First let me share my definition of a dual-sport bike.  To me, a dual-sport is a dirt bike that is legal to ride on the street.  Typically this means that the bike has blinkers, a horn, a mirror, brake lights, and high/low beam headlight.  It also has a license plate.  This is often referred to as being “plated”.

I would further subdivide dual-sport bikes into three categories, which I will call; connector, commuter, and adventure.  Let me explain:

  • Connector: The primary purpose of getting the bike plated is so you can ‘connect’ multiple dirt trails together by riding sections of pavement.  Street riding isn’t the main focus, but being plated makes it legal to ride the street when necessary.  Pavement miles would typically be quite low with this type of bike.
  • Commuter: This is perhaps the most popular form of dual-sport bike.  A bike that is used to commute to/from work, or to/from a trail.  Such a bike would be useful for riding a few hundred miles on pavement, but you likely wouldn’t want to make extended trips for weeks or months on end.  You could also do some minimalist multi-day trips that do not require a lot of luggage.
  • Adventure: An adventure bike is meant for long, multi-day adventures.  It has the capability to handle high-speed travel on the pavement and it has the capacity to carry a fair amount of luggage.  Since I have no experience with a ‘true’ adventure bike, my article will mostly exclude this class of bike.  Examples of what I consider to be an adventure bike are the KTM 690 Enduro, the KTM 990 Adventure, and the KTM 1190 Adventure.  Other popular adventure bikes would include the KLR650, and the BMW GS series.

What Are Your Needs?

Before you can select the right bike, you need to evaluate how you intend to use the bike.  What is your skill level?  How much do you weigh?  How tall are you?  What do your friends ride?

Evaluation of such questions is crucial to help you zero in on the best bike to choose.  If you buy a light-weight trail bike while all of your buddies are riding large adventure bikes, you are not going to enjoy riding with them.

The recommendations I will make are based on my experience.  I consider myself a slightly overweight, older, intermediate level rider.  If you are light weight, or a beginner, you may want to move down in size from my recommendations.  Or if you are heavy and/or an advanced rider, you may want to move up in size.  This is not an exact science – but hopefully some of my analysis will help you sort it out for yourself.  If possible, take a test ride before you make a purchase.

Bikes For Comparison

The data I will use to illustrate my opinion is based on KTM dirt bikes.  Partially because I have experience with several different sized KTMs, and partially because KTM offers such a wide range of options.  But feel free to consider other brands that interest you.

You have two options for getting a dual-sport dirt bike; you can buy a bike that is street legal direct from the factory, or you can modify a dirt bike and add the necessary accessories.

KTM offers the EXC line in a variety of sizes.  These come street legal in all 50 states (in US).  Many people will modify the stock bike to make it a little better for use in the dirt.  For example, you may want to alter the gearing for better low-end torque.

Another option would be to buy the cross-country, wide-ratio transmission product line, the XC-W.  This is the route I chose.  This is a very robust dirt bike.  It comes with a headlight and a taillight, so it is relatively easy to convert it to a dual-sport bike.  You do need to add blinkers, hook up the brake light, a mirror, and a horn.  See my post on making my XCF-W street legal (the “F” indicates it is a four-stroke bike).

Which line you choose is totally up to you.

What Size Of Bike?

The next question is what size of bike do you want.  A light-weight bike will be better on technical trails, while a larger bike will do better at high-speed cruising.  So once again, you must decide how you intend to use the bike.  What percentage of the time will you be on dirt vs. pavement?  Do you plan to ride on the freeway?  Or just back country roads?  Do you intend to ride tight and technical single track?  It is essential that you answer these questions if you want to choose a bike that will be fun and safe to ride.

You should also decide whether you want a two-stroke or a four-stroke bike.  They have different characteristics.  In my opinion, a two-stroke bike is not a very good choice for an adventure bike, and it is marginal as a commuter.  But they make excellent ‘connector’ bikes.  If you need more help evaluating two vs. four, take a look at this post.

The following chart shows a spectrum of riding conditions, from super-tight technical single track trails on the left, to freeway cruising on the right.  I also show the sweet spot of where various bikes fit in the spectrum.  Any of the bikes can cover the entire spectrum from tight single track to freeway, but none of them cover the entire range optimally.

Dual-Sport Application Chart

Dual-Sport Application Chart

You may notice that I left out the 250 and the 450 four strokes.  These are also good choices if they meet your requirements – I left them off just to simplify the chart.  The 250 is a little lighter in weight than the 350, but it may be a little under powered for highway use – unless you are fairly light in weight.  Your skill level and usage model may indicate that a 450 is your best option.  The 450s are very popular bikes, so you would not be alone.

My Opinions

In my opinion, the KTM 300 XC-W is the best bike for tight and technical single track trails.  It has plenty of low-end torque and more power than you will ever need for trail riding.  But it is fun to ride because it is so light and nimble.  It also makes a great ‘connector’ bike, but its use as a commuter or adventure bike would be taxing its abilities.

KTM 300 XC-W

Some people feel that the 300 is too much to handle.  If you want an even lighter bike, or if you want less power, then consider the 250 or the 200 two-stroke bikes.  The two-stroke bikes are relatively easy to maintain.

In my opinion, the best commuter type dual-sport bike is the KTM 500 XC-W (or EXC) – especially if you want to do some minimalist style adventure rides.  It has sufficient power to get you down the road at a reasonable pace, but it is still a very capable dirt bike.  The bike is noticeably heavier than the two strokes, but if you are competent rider, you can still ride very technical trails – it just may not be quite as fun.

To illustrate how to use this chart, consider my evaluation.  On the chart below, I overlaid my personal preferences on the spectrum.  The horizontal line represents the range of trail types I like to ride, while the triangle is a rough indication of my preferred trail type.

I enjoy riding single track trails – but I do not like really technical and challenging trails.  For example, I have no desire to ride the famous “Five Miles Of Hell” trail in the San Rafael Swell.  Hence, my range line does not go all the way to the left.

Why I Chose the 350

Why I Chose the 350

Furthermore, I have no desire to ride on the freeway, or even in heavy traffic.  I enjoy riding canyon roads and country roads.  Thus, the right boundary of my range.

The triangle indicates my favorite trail types, which primarily include easy single track and various ATV trails.

Comparing my personal preference to the chart, it is easy to see why I chose the KTM 350 XCF-W.  It is pretty close to a perfect fit for my needs.  In my opinion, it is the best compromise “do it all” bike.  Not quite as good as the 300 on the tight stuff, and not as good on the highway as the 500, but it can get the job done and you will have fun almost all of the time.

KTM 350 XCF-W

Here is a photo of me with my Husaberg FE450.  This makes a great trail bike and a good dual-sport bike, but it was a little heavy for my old bones to pick up, so I opted to down size a little bit.

Husaberg FE450

If you plan on primarily riding the pavement – especially on the freeway, or if you want to carry a passenger or a lot of gear, then you probably ought to consider a larger adventure bike.  Unfortunately, I can’t offer much help in that category.

Happy hunting.  I hope you find the bike that works best for you…

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About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
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2 Responses to Choosing a Dual-Sport Bike – 2014

  1. Great article Dee! I can’t decide between the 350 and 450. I may just keep my CRF450X and buy a 300 XC-W. We may be doing some organized rides this year. I’ll let you know if and when they will be.

  2. You should try a 350 before you buy one. You may miss the power of the 450 if you stepped down. It was a good move for me. But if you can afford two bikes, one of them should be a 300.

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