THE CONTINENTAL TKC80: AN ODE TO A TITAN
By Paul Strubell of Dirt Orcas – 8/7/19
Can you remember the first time you considered mounting the Continental TKC80 on your adventure motorcycle? Depending on how long you’ve owned an adventure bike, you may remember when it was basically the only choice.
When BMW first started to carve out the modern “adventure motorcycle” market with the R1100gs in the late 90’s, there weren’t that many tire options to match the bikes capabilities. There were a number of mostly road oriented options that could be re-purposed to fit the GS, but if you really wanted to take your bike off-road and explore remote locations (like BMW’s marketing was suggesting you could) the only readily available option was the Continental TKC80.
By 2004, Ewan and Charley had begun Long Way Round. While many will remember the obvious impact that series had on the adventure bike market (KTM choose not to participate and the duo partnered with BMW), there was also another battle that was won. McGregor, Boorman, and the Long Way Team were backed by Continental Tire for their journey. A generation of viewers were seeing the TKC80’s in action as they traveled unpaved roads in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia (The Road of Bones). This was, for many, a true verification that the TKC80 was the best tire available for an adventure bike.
Fast forward to 2019 and the TKC80 still looms large in the adventure bike world. It’s presence as common as a freshly washed GS at your local Starbucks. Only now the TKC80 has many challengers for the championship belt.
As the adventure market has exploded, so have the number of companies who provide aftermarket accessories and parts. Depending on how you ride, there is most certainly a tire that will fit your needs. If you run a lot of street miles but you might have to take a gravel road to the campground, there is a tire for you. If you ride off-road most of the time, but occasionally need to ride the Interstate for a few days to get to the next mountain range, there is a tire for you. If you only ride off road, through the rockiest crags and muddiest trails, there is a tire for you.
The best adventure tire is the topic of much debate on the interwebs these days. There will always be people who want the counter culture option simply to be different. Those who prefer to align with the minority. There will always be those who seek cheaper options. There will always be those who prefer a tire that simply “lasts a long time” regardless of its performance. Still for most people, the choice is pretty clear. They have come to the conclusion that the Continental TKC80 is the answer. The tire with the fewest compromises. The tire that best suits their needs.
When selecting the appropriate tire for your adventure bike, I think most people are concerned with three main considerations; Looks, performance, and cost. If you want to deep dive molecular relationships, cogent bonds, or how global warming has negatively impacted rubber trees, there are probably other articles for you. This one here is an ode to a titan. Taking a minute to look back and reflect on the last few decades with the Continental TKC80 as our sidekick.
It’s been nearly twenty years since the adventure market blew up and in that time it is this author’s opinion that no tire has exceeded the excellence of the TKC80 in the looks department. When you slap a pair of new TKC80’s on your adventure bike, it simply looks correct. Are there other tires that offer a similar knobby look? Yes, but the aggressive bulky knobs on the TKC80 immediately tell the kind of story you want your bike to tell. One that says “This bike is ready for all types of adventures”. This opinion is regularly supported by some of the finest custom bike builders in the world. Builders rely heavily on the TKC80 when trying to adorn their custom bikes with an aura of ruggedness.
From a performance standpoint, I have always been a huge fan as well. Other companies have yet to find that street / off road performance balance that the TKC80 brings to the table. I recently installed a fresh set on my BMW F800gs before taking a trip to Colorado and Utah to tackle some of the best ADV riding in the state according to ADVPulse.com. The tires preformed exactly as expected. Gripping the pavement nicely as I leaned deep into the tight corners at Colorado National Monument on a quick sunset ride and also handling everything I could through at it as we rode the Kokopelli Trail, White Rim Road, and the Southern half of the Utah BDR. We hit dry soft sand, creek crossings, deep washes, slick mud, loose rocky two track, boulder filled 4×4 roads, and even a little bit of snow. The tires ate it up. Giving this modest rider a lot of confidence in some sticky situations. While many have tried, few have been able to perform the way the TKC80 does on the pavement and off.
When running the TKC80, the biggest difference I notice over a less off-road oriented tire is when you need to rely on just a little bit of tire to hold your line. Like when you need to ride up the side bank of a trail to get around a boulder blocking the path. You are utilizing just the outside edge of that tire as the ground under you slopes drastically. The TKC80 will grab that minimal amount of earth and propel you past the obstacle. While a lesser tire will lose traction and slip. The bike will soon be laying on its side, stuck between a rock and a roadside. The TKC80 brings a tacky, malleable feel off road. Giving the rider a slightly greater margin of error as you work your way down the trail. The tire with excellent traction keeps you in the game a little bit longer. Kind of like the way you have to be less exacting when you pick a line on a 250lbs dirt bike vs a 500lbs adventure bike.
The cost of a TKC80 is in the upper tier for adventure bike tires. As we have discussed, this is justified by their excellent visual and performance based attributes. There are cheaper tires that try to replicate the look and performance you get from the TKC80, but as with most things, you get exactly what you pay for. Continental Tire has been around since the late 1800’s. That kind of longstanding business acumen and industry strength is something to hang your hat on.
The TKC80 is a very well-reviewed tire. Based on user reviews from Amazon, Revzilla, and CycleGear it receives better than 4 out of 5 stars on each of those marketplaces. Still it is also a tire that puts performance above longevity. That buttery softness you feel as you smoothly glide over loose rocks translates to faster wear. People who run them on larger fully loaded adventure bikes often report as little as 2500 miles on the back tire and 5000 miles on the front. If you ride as much I do, that’s nearly four new sets of tires a year, and after you factor in installation and disposal fees, that becomes very costly. You want to spend your money on adventures not maintenance.
This also means that those planning an off road trip greater than 2500 miles have to consider extra sets of tires before you leave the driveway. Which means hauling them with you, researching/planning for potential dealers, or shipping them ahead.
On my F800gs I have managed to get a bit more life out of my TKC80’s. Typically getting nearly 5000 miles out of a rear tire and 7500 out of the front. Of course as you near the end of a tires useable life, you also have to make a tough choice. To either get the absolute most out of your rubber or switch them out a little prematurely to regain that premiere performance and eye popping look you had when the tires where brand new.
Two things are clear. One is that the Continental TKC80 has enjoyed a multiple decade run as the top choice for many adventure riders. The second is that the competition for the premiere adventure tire is closing in on Continentals title. Riders are reporting knobby adventure tires that are getting nearly 10,000 miles. Tires that rival the off road prowess of the TKC80, with aggressive styling, and offering a harder rubber compound that last longer.
Time will tell if the TKC80 will hold its belt for another ten years. To do so they will have to adjust with the times. For now it is still residing on Continentals mantle. They have had a long reign at the top and continue to be the best choice for many adventure riders. The TKC80 is simply a tire with a trusted pedigree.
With nearly 150 years of history and global brand recognition, I have no doubt Continental will continue to innovate and hold on to their adventure DNA.