If you are into dual sport and adventure bike riding, you would have noticed that they nearly always run on wire-spoked wheels. The wire-spoked wheel has been around forever, but in the 1970’s motorcycle manufacturers started churning out cast alloy one-piece wheels with hundreds of different designs.
You won’t find a sports bike or road tourer on spoked wheels these days. Why is it then that adventure bikes still have wire-spoked wheels?
Dual sport and adventure bikes have wire-spoked wheels that are made from steel and aluminum, rather than cast alloy, magnesium or carbon fiber. This makes wire-spoked wheels more elastic and durable than cast alloy wheels. It is possible to repair wire-spoked wheels, making it more practical for adventure bike riders.
So wire-spoked wheels are stronger than one-piece cast alloys and can be fixed. Why in the world then would motorcycle manufacturers change a winning recipe. There are a couple of reasons and as with most things related to dual sport or adventure biking, it comes down to a compromise.
Let’s have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of wire-spoked wheels and one-piece cast alloys.
Wire-spoked Motorcycle Wheels
Spoked wheels have been used on motorcycles since the early 1900’s, and on bicycles long before that. It consists of a steel or aluminum rim, a hub and and between 36 and 44 wired spokes.
The rims are attached to the hub my the spokes. The spokes are usually attached to the outside of the hub and runs to the center of the rim. They also don’t run straight out from the hub to the rim along the radius, but rather tangentially. That means they are mounted in pairs that cross each other in the middle.
In additional to carrying the load, the spokes works mechanically the same as flexible wire under tension. This tension in the spokes pulls the rim into shape, preventing it from going oval upon impact. By ensuring even tension in all the spokes, the wheel can be kept true (or perfectly round). A wheel that is out of true will wobble and cause vibration when riding, or a bike that is out of alignment.
So if wired spokes on motorcycle wheels are such old technology, why on earth would a BMW R 1250 GS Adventure costing more than $20 000 run on wire-spoked wheels? Let see:
Advantages of Spoked Wheels on an Adventure Bike
Wire spoked wheels are more durable
Each individual steel spoke can withstand massive amounts of tension and there are many pressure points, making wire spoked wheels much more durable on rough terrain. The spokes offer strength in three planes:
- Radial: This helps resist deformation when hitting a pothole of a rock
- Lateral: Since bike riders lean over to turn, side-to-side movement is limited unless you power-slide around every corner
- Axial: This transfers drive and braking force from the hub to the outer wheel and is proportional to the number of spokes that cross on each side
Most modern adventure bikes have cast or spun aluminum rims that will bend before they break.
Spoked wheels are elastic (or flexible)
Due to being manufactured from steel, spokes are elastic and absorb some of the jarring on rough roads, as well as impacts from hitting a hole or an obstacle. Not only will it prevent the wheel from breaking, but it will lessen the impact on the rest of the bike and the rider.
Spoked wheels can be repaired
If a spoked wheel gets damaged upon impact or due to poor maintenance over time, it can be rebuilt by a skilled wheel builder. This can save you a lot of money if you don’t have to replace the whole rim and hub.
If you damage a wheel on a long adventure bike trip and you are far from the nearest big city, you can bang a bent rim into shape in a pinch and true the wheel by adjusting the tension on the right spokes. This cannot be done on a cast alloy wheel.
Spoked wheels weigh less
Really? Well, it depends. And on a 600 lbs adventure bike it is not going to make a difference. A slightly heavier wheel at the lowest point of the bike will not be felt blasting down a dirt road. It is also un-sprung weight, which matters less than weight higher up on the bike. Either way, a spoked wheel will only weight less than cheaper cast alloy wheels. Some one-piece alloys are design to weigh next to nothing.
Spoked wheels are cheaper
Again, as with weight, it is all relative. Due to being manufacturing from cheaper materials like steel and aluminum, instead of magnesium or carbon fiber, it may be cheaper than some expensive alloys. On the flip-side, wired wheels are labor intensive to produce.
Spokes look cool
If you need another reason, here’s one. Wire-spoked wheels just look cooler on an adventure bike. In fact, that is one way I used to decide which bikes to leave off my list in a post about the best mid-sized and big adventure bikes. The Kawasaki Versys 1000 was one unlucky bike that didn’t make it on the list. A bike that is sold with cast alloys was almost certainly not designed with the dual purpose of being equally good on tarmac and dirt.
It is not only the looks of dual sport and adventure bikes that benefit from spoked wheels. Most Harleys and retro bikes, like the BMW R Nine T would look silly without spokes.
Tires are easier to seat on the bead
I know we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel now, but hear me out. Wire spoked wheels generally run tubed type tires (I’ll explain in a moment). Tubed tires are easier to seat on the bead than tubeless tires, making for easier roadside repairs if you need to fit a new tube.
Disadvantages of Spoked Wheels on an Adventure Bike
Spoked wheels requires maintenance
Due to the spokes being under such high tension, they need to be inspected periodically and adjusted if any are slack. A damaged spoke will need replacing immediately to avoid additional strain on the remaining spokes, as well as uneven tension on the rim.
It takes special skills to replace spokes
While it is possible to adjust the tension of your adventure bike’s spokes yourself, it is a specialized skill to do it properly on a wheel that is very far out of true. To rebuild a whole wheel-set requires an experienced expert.
Spoked wheels are not unbreakable
One of the main advantages of spoked wheels is that they are durable. That doesn’t mean they can’t fail catastrophically. Gavin Chapman was involved in a serious crash in Queensland, Australia, when the front wheel of his 2016 BMW R 1200 GS collapsed. Another rider reported 10 loose spokes a few thousand miles after a tire change on his 4-month old BMW R 1200 GS.
Apparently BMW issued an “international service campaign” to ensure spoke tension is inspected during routine maintenance at authorized dealerships.
Punctures and blowouts
Spoked wheels require tube-type tires due to the drilled holes in the rim where the spokes are attached. As a result of having to run tube-type tires, a puncture would mean removing the wheel and repairing or replacing the inner tube. Tubeless tires can simply be plugged from the outside and is much easier to do next to the road.
Another risk with tubes is the possibility of a blowout at speed. If a tube gets hot due to friction (for instance when it is run at a too low pressure) it can burst and lose all the air instantaneously. This could result in an uncontrollable bike. Tubeless tires are much less prone to a sudden loss off pressure due to there being only one hole where air can escape.
Spoked wheels lack stability at high speeds
The flexibility of spoked rims that aid in absorbing bumps and impacts, results in reduced stability at very high speeds. At the national speed limit, this should not be an issue unless your spokes are very poorly maintained.
Spoked wheels are difficult to clean
If you are a pain when it comes to keeping your adventure bike clean, then spoked wheels will keep you busy. It can be difficult to get in behind each spoke and tedious if you want to polish each one. Yes, it seems trivial, but neglecting your spokes that are exposed the wet roads and muddy tracks may cause rust and fading that is hard to restore.
Heavier than magnesium and carbon fiber
Here we go again with the weight debate. While spoked rims are lighter than some cast alloy wheels, they are heavier than expensive magnesium or carbon fiber wheels. You save weight with your wallet.
It can be tricky to connect a pump hose
Some gas station pump nozzles can be difficult to fit onto the valve stem on spoked wheels. This hurdle is usually easily overcome by rolling the wheel until the valve is most accessible and then threading the pump nozzle through the spokes at the widest part, and from the opposite edge of the rim. This will allow for a straight fit onto the valve. Definitely not a reason to ruin the look of your adventure bike with cast one-piece wheels!
Tubeless Spoked Wheels on Adventure Bikes
One of the big disadvantages of wire-spoked wheels on dual sport and adventure bikes is the need for inner tubes. Tubeless tires are less prone to punctures and if they do get a hole, it is easily fixed on the side of the road with a tire repair kit like this one from Amazon.
In order to fit tubeless tires to spoked adventure bike rims, bike manufactures have come up with a genius solution. Tubeless rims. In order to make the rim airtight, no holes can be drilled to fit the spokes. Instead, they are mounted on the inside of the hub and span tangentially towards the outside of the rims.
Adventure bikes that feature tubeless wire-spoked wheels include the BMW R 1250 GS, KTM 1290 Super Adventure R and the Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports model. Yahama’s Super Ténéré has a different solution. A flange with drilled holes are welded to the inside of the rim so that the spokes can run to the outside of the hub.
One-piece Cast Alloy Motorcycle Wheels
In the 1970’s various motorcycle manufacturers started fitting one-piece cast alloy wheels to their new models. Cast wheels are usually manufactured from aluminum-alloy, but some light-weight wheels are made from magnesium or carbon fiber.
Advantages of Cast Alloy Wheels on an Adventure Bike
Cast wheels can take tubeless tires
One of the main benefits of cast alloys is that you are able to fit tubeless tires. There is only one hole to seal where the valve stem goes through the rim. Tubeless tires are safer due to the lowered risk of a blowout and it can be fixed more easily. Unfortunately, dual sport bikes with spoked rims are the ones risking more punctures by going off road.
Cast wheels can be made more cheaply
The manufacturing process of cast wheels are mostly automated which means hundreds of wheels can be made in a single production run. This is the main reason why almost all motorcycle manufacturers switched over to cast wheels during the 70’s and 80’s. Spoked wheels are much more labor intensive as each spoke needs to be threaded by hand and the tension set. This means that cast wheels made from aluminum are cheaper than spoked wheels.
One-piece wheels are rigid
Cast wheels are much more rigid than wire spoked wheels which mean they can transfer power to the road more efficiently and are more stable at very high speeds. That is why you’ll never see super bikes with spoked wheels.
Cast wheels stay true
There are no adjustments that can be made to one-piece cast wheels and therefore they always stay true. This means they stay perfectly round and you do not have to maintain or service them.
Cast wheels allow for different designs
The design options on cast wheels are endless. Not only can they be made to be more aerodynamic for speeds beyond 200 mph, but they can be design to fit the look of any motorcycle.
Cast wheels can also be painted in any color you like with different finishes (glossy or matte) to fit your style.
Wider tires can be fit to cast wheels
Cast alloys can be designed to accept much wider tires than wire-spoked wheels that are limited to the angle of the spokes. This is particularly useful for rear tires of super bikes and large cruisers.
Cast alloys can be made lighter
If weight really is a big concern, alloys can be manufactured from carbon fiber to make it as light as possible.
Disadvantages of Cast Alloy Wheels on an Adventure Bike
A damaged cast wheel can be a show stopper
If a cast alloy wheel hits a pothole or a ditch it can crack or break due to being rigid and brittle (depending on the material). If a cast wheel is damaged, there is often nothing you can do to repair it on the side of the road. Some damage may be repairable by a machine shop, but in many cases it will mean a replacement wheel.
Cast wheels are less flexible
Alloys are less flexible and don’t absorb the impact of obstacles and an uneven roads as well as spoked wheels. This can be uncomfortable at best, or cause damaged to other part of the bike at worst.
Cast wheels can go out of balance when hit
If a cast wheel is hit by a rock or a curb, the dent or mark could cause it to go out of balance. This will cause vibration which cannot be removed by tightening a spoke. It will have to be repaired or the wheel needs to be balanced if it is not too severe.
They don’t look as hardcore off road
This is important. If you spend so much on looking cool with all the other gear and accessories on your new adventure bike, it will be a shame to be laughed at for rocking up on cast alloys. A bike with cast alloys doesn’t look like an adventure bike.
To make your bike look even cooler, you have to check out this post of the top 24 adventure bike accessories you can buy.
Spoked vs Cast Wheels on an Adventure Bike: Does it Matter?
I’d say it does. The advantages of spoked wheels are plenty and if you can afford a bike with tubeless spoked wheels you’ve got the best of both worlds.
That said, I’ve ridden a Chinese delivery bike with cheap cast wheels and tube type tires (the worst of both worlds) for 9 630 miles through Africa without any problems.
While we did stick mostly to tar roads, they were often strewn with potholes and other debris. We also rode the gnarly road through the Chalbi Desert in Northern Kenya which consisted of more than a hundred miles of fist-sized volcanic rocks. We suffered no damaged to the wheels nor the bikes.
Dual sport or adventure bike riding will always remain a compromise. The bike needs to perform on tarmac and in the dirt. Cast allows may be preferable on the highways, while spokes have the advantage on the gravel byways. Tubeless wire-spoked wheels get as close to the perfect balance, but in the end it is the rider that will determine where the bike will go.
Be flexible and understand the limitations of your machine and its wheels, and you will be just fine. Enjoy the ride!