Been thinking about getting into motorcycling? One of the first questions you’ll need to answer is what kind of motorcycle is right for you. Most people have a clear idea of what they want to ride, but if you’re undecided, here’s a primer on the primary types of two-wheelers.
For decades, most motorcycles fell into two primary camps: street bikes and dirt bikes. Many even looked somewhat the same. But around about 1982, bike makers began to tailor their bikes to different kinds of riding and the motorcycle world fractured into several specialized segments. That trend continues to evolve today. So which kind of bike sounds like the most fun to you? Keep in mind that some bikes fit in more than one (or two or three) categories.
Sportbikes are the speed machines of the motorcycle world. High-powered with sophisticated suspension systems and high-performance brakes, sportbikes are typically stuffed with the latest and greatest technology you can find on two wheels (or four). A common sentiment about sportbikes is that they are not comfortable unless you’re going over 100 mph, at which point they become very comfortable because they are in their element. While most sportbikes are not designed for distance riding, that hasn’t stopped many riders from adding some soft bags and a better seat so they can enjoy longer stretches of challenging roads or racetracks. Sportbikes are typically not the best choice for a beginner due to their hair-trigger nature and prodigious power, but a lower-powered, middle-weight sportbike or a “sportbike lite” might be a good choice to start with if this is the kind of bike you definitely want to ride.
Examples: Ducati Panigale, Honda CBR models, Kawasaki ZX series, Yamaha R1 or R6, Triumph Daytona, Suzuki GSX-R models, Aprilia RSV4
- Lots of power, great brakes, and adjustable suspension
- Actual racecar-levels of acceleration and top speed (depending on the bike)
- Stylish good looks with highest tech available
- Thrilling to ride fast — if you have the skills
- Typically not very comfortable for distance riding
- Can exceed most worldwide speed limits in first or second gear (of six gears)
- Requires a very high level of skill to ride competently
- Tickets (see second con)
Many beginning riders picture themselves cruising city streets on a powerful, low-slung machine. If that’s your dream, you should be shopping for a cruiser. Cruisers feature a low seat height, a torque-rich engine (typically a V-twin), a fat rear tire, lots of style, and, very often, a lot of chrome. Or not. Comfortable to ride, cruisers can also make for good touring bikes with the addition of saddlebags, a windscreen, and maybe a backrest for the passenger. Cruisers can be stripped down, bobbed, painted — a cruiser is what you make of it. A light- or medium-weight cruiser makes a good beginner bike because they are easier to handle at low speeds and have a more relaxed power output. Just don’t expect to win races against sportbikes — unless you buy a “power cruiser,” which is a cruiser with a more powerful engine and other performance upgrades … but probably not a great first choice for a beginner.
Examples: Any Harley-Davidson or Indian, Honda Shadow, Yamaha (Star), Kawasaki Vulcan, Ducati Diavel (pretty much every major bike maker has a few cruiser models in their lineup)
- Easy and comfortable to ride
- Typically simple to maintain
- Capable of touring if desired
- Not especially fast in terms of top speed
- Can be big and heavy
Dual-sport motorcycles are the Swiss army knife of the motorcycle world. Available in a wide range of sizes, dual-sports — or “ADV bikes” — are essentially a mind-meld of a dirt bike and a street bike. Typically, they have long-travel suspension (for riding off-road) coupled with a motor suitable for distance riding. Most dual-sport bikes are designed to be loaded up (loaded down?) with touring gear and ridden to the far corners of the earth. Depending on the model, they can also be great commuter bikes since they tend to be light, thin, highly maneuverable, great on gas, and capable of smoothing out pock-marked city streets. Plus, when the pavement runs out and a dirt trail is all that’s left, hey, no problem, keep riding. A dual-sport might be a good way to get started in riding, but be warned: They tend to be tall and tippy, so if you’re short, definitely make sure your toes touch before buying. If they don’t, ask about a lowering kit.
Examples: Honda Africa Twin, BMW G/S series, Kawasaki KLR models, KTM Adventure, Triumph Tiger, Yamaha Super Tenere, Suzuki V-Strom models
- Do anything, go anywhere capabilities
- Simple design, yet very tough
- You sit up high in traffic
- Tend to be tall
- Often stylistically challenged and industrial in design
- May seduce you into globe-spanning adventure rides, causing divorce, job loss, etc.
DRESSER (TOURING BIKE)
Some people get into motorcycling to scratch that travel itch in a way that a car or big RV just can’t. Still, a long-distance trip means you have to bring at least some stuff with you, and why not be comfortable on the ride? That’s what touring bikes — also known as “dressers” — are built for. How much you feel like gilding the lily is up to you, but there’s likely a touring bike out there to match your every need and want. Almost every major motorcycle maker has a fat touring rig in the lineup and many include features normally found in cars, like powerful audio systems, GPS navigation screens, heated seats, ABS brakes, electronic suspension, Bluetooth, rider/passenger intercoms, and lots of carrying capacity. They tend to be expensive off the showroom floor, so if you’re on a budget, check the used ads. There’s no shortage of well-cared-for touring bikes out there.
Examples: Honda Goldwing, Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic, Yamaha Venture, BMW K1600GT/L, Indian Roadmaster, Triumph Rocket III Touring
- Comfortable, powerful, and luxurious
- Built to last
- Can carry a lot of gear
- Some are quite beautiful
- Big and heavy
- Don’t expect sportbike handling or speed
What do you get when you mix the power, handling, and looks of a sportbike with the comfort, carrying capacity, and weather protection of a touring bike? A sport touring bike, of course. Sport-tourers usually have detachable hard luggage, aerodynamic fairings, windscreens and a lot of horsepower. You ride them sit-up style, like a sportbike, but with more comfort. Many feature shaft drive, ABS, GPS and a lot of other technology mixed in. If you want to get somewhere quickly in comfort, a sport touring bike is likely what you are after. You can ride a sport-tourer as a beginner but be aware they are often big, heavy and powerful.
Examples: Yamaha FJR1300, Honda ST1300, Kawasaki Concours, Ducati ST or Multistrada, Triumph Trophy
- Swift, comfortable, high-tech, good looking
- Can carry a lot of gear
- Lots of models to choose from
- Typically fairly heavy and good-sized
- Can be a ticket magnet if you’re not careful
What are scooters doing on this list? Scooters are definitely a type of motorcycle and a popular one at that, so don’t sell them short. Today, you can get scooters in sizes ranging from buzzing 50cc city machines to 650cc (or larger!) comfort wagons that can cross continents. Scooters are also one of the more stylish types of motorized conveyances and, as of late, are incorporating a lot of cutting-edge technology, like ABS and fuel injection. Plus, they usually feature an automatic transmission, so they make for a good beginner bike. If you live in a city and don’t think you’ll be doing a lot of long-distance riding, consider a modern, stylish scooter.
Examples: Any Vespa or Piaggio model, Honda Elite models, Yamaha Majesty/Vino, Aprilia models, any number of machines from makers like Kymco and Lifan
- Stylish, efficient, techie, and typically equipped with an automatic transmission
- Great on gas — some get over 90 mpg or run on electricity
- Underseat storage adds practicality
- Better weather protection than most motorcycles
- Certainly fun, but also not a full-fledged motorcycle
- Except for the largest models, typically not very fast
- Small wheels sometimes make for a twitchy ride
- Most are unable to do long-distance or freeway speeds
Before motorcycles became the specialized machines they are today, there were basically two kinds to choose from: street bikes and dirt bikes. Street bikes from every manufacturer were pretty similar in terms of riding position, equipment, frame design, features, and so forth, so going from one bike to another didn’t involve a lot of changes. During the 1970s, the Japanese bike makers’ offerings were all so similar they were labeled “Universal Japanese Motorcycles,” or UJMs. Today, we call a “regular old motorcycle” a standard. You’ve probably seen a lot of them, they look like … regular motorcycles. Today, buying a “new” standard style bike is difficult, but not impossible. As always, there are still a bunch for sale in the used market. Standards are the jack-of-all-trades of motorcycles. You can bop back and forth to work on them, load them up with gear for a long trip, even take them to a track day for some high-speed fun. For many riders, the standard motorcycle is just right for almost any kind of riding.
Examples: Honda CB1100, Kawasaki Versys, Triumph Bonneville, Yamaha SR400, Suzuki SV650, Harley-Davidson Sportster, Ducati Monster, pretty much any Japanese bike from 1970 to 1982
- Usually fairly inexpensive, especially used
- Competent performance for most kinds of riding
- Simple, practical styling
- Many accessories available to suit any style or purpose
- Simple style may not be everyone’s idea of beautiful
- Doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd
- Typically not loaded with the latest tech goodies
Want to get into riding motorcycles but terrified of dicing with traffic while on two wheels? Consider getting a dirt bike. Dirt bikes are not street legal and as the name implies, you ride them off-road. With long suspensions, small (but powerful) motors and lightweight, dirt bikes are their own brand of fun. Depending on where you live, it may be possible to do a lot of off-road riding by yourself or with others. Dirt bikes, also sometimes called motocross bikes, range in size from 80cc to 500cc for adults and of course, there are little bikes for kids. For many families, riding dirt bikes is a family activity, usually involving camping and fun times outdoors. If street riding sounds like too big a risk but you still want to ride, dirt biking is a great option but you may need a truck or trailer to get your bike to the ride site.
Examples: Honda CRF450, Yamaha YZF450, and so on. The Japanese motorcycle makers typically offer a wide range of dirt bike models from 50cc to 500cc and there are some Euro options as well.
- Inexpensive to buy
- Lots of fun
- No dealing with car traffic (because not street legal)
- Large community of riders and many places to ride
- Bikes are not street legal (see motard or dual-sport for that option)
- No passengers allowed on most bikes
- Pickup, RV or trailer required to get to places to ride
- Be prepared to get dirty
Like electric cars, electric motorcycles are still in the early stages of evolution, but they are catching up quickly to gas-powered bikes in terms of performance and quality. Riding range is still an issue, so for long trips, you’ll need to plan your stops to include recharging, which is going to take longer than gassing up. But for city riding, nothing really beats an electric bike. Quiet, smooth and very often powerful, an electric bike is the perfect city machine. At present, the up-front cost to buy an electric bike is typically more than an equivalent gas-powered machine, but remember, you never have to tune up the engine or buy a drop of gas. Electric bikes are also a good choice for beginners since most don’t require shifting, the power output is easier to control and they are typically not intimidating to ride.
Examples: All Zero models, Mission R or RS, BRD RedShift
- Never need to buy gas
- Very low maintenance
- Easy to ride and very quiet
- High-performance models available
- Range is still an issue
- Recharge time is something to consider
- High up-front cost
What’s a hyperbike? Take a sportbike, then take it to the next level. Or two. Most hyperbikes are 1,000cc or more and are tuned to make maximum power — sometimes close to 200 horsepower, which is an enormous amount for a motorcycle. They feature all the latest cutting-edge technology like traction control, ABS, slipper clutches, adjustable suspension, launch control, and more. Hyperbikes are not for beginners, they are for skilled riders seeking cutting-edge performance on the street and track. Essentially, they are race bikes with enough Department of Transportation-level stuff on them to be street legal. Moreover, they’re typically not very comfortable and not really designed for touring. And bring your wallet.
Examples: Ducati Panigale V4, Honda CBR1000RR SP, Yamaha R1, Suzuki GSX-R 1000, Kawasaki H2, Aprilia RSV4 Factory,
- Massively powerful with all the latest tech
- Thrilling to ride at high speed
- Rakish good looks
- Not very comfortable
- Very narrow focus on performance
- Definite ticket magnet
- Dangerous choice for beginners
What do you get when you take a dirt bike and add high-performance wheels, brakes, and tires from a sportbike? The basic recipe for a “motocross and standard,” or “motard.” Motards are dirt bikes for the street; they feature the lightweight, tall stance of a dirt bike with the grip and braking performance of a sportbike. Typically not hugely powerful, motards are crazy-good bikes in the city due to their weight and quick acceleration at lower speeds. While motards are not great for distance touring, that’s not to say it can’t be done.
Examples: KTM Duke series, Ducati HyperMotard, Suzuki DR400SM, whatever that guy down the block is building in his garage
- Thin, light, fast, and maneuverable
- Great brakes and good on gas
- Huge fun to ride
- Usually affordable
- Not very comfortable for touring/distance riding
- Tall stance may be difficult for short riders
- Cops probably won’t appreciate you doing monster wheelies past the police station
Way back when, motorcycle makers typically included some small models with 50cc to 70cc motors. These were known as “minibikes.” Amazingly, many of these diminutive machines were actually street legal. But back in the Jurassic period of motorcycling, there was also a lot less traffic, so they didn’t seem like the death wish we would view them as today. Even still, no one was riding them to work back then. Most ended up on farms or in the garage as play bikes for the kids, which was a much better mission for them anyway. Today, minimotos like the Honda Monkey bikes and others are fun classics (if you can find one that hasn’t been abused to near death), but there’s also been a rebirth of sorts of this idea, headed up by Honda with their 125cc Grom (yes, Grom) minibike. However, the Grom and its chief rival, the Kawasaki Z125 Pro, are slightly scaled-up versions of those early bikes thanks to disc brakes, fuel injection, and other modern updates. And, surprise, Honda has just re-upped the Monkey as well, but with 125ccs of power this time around. They’re still small and still not freeway legal — but they’re still a blast to ride. Plus, they typically get close to 100 miles on one gallon of gas; with a two-gallon tank, you’re good to go for a week or better. Just wear a really, really brightly colored helmet.
Examples: Honda Monkey, Honda Grom, Kawasaki Z125 Pro
- Thoroughly modern
- Crazy good MPG
- Total hoot to ride
- Cheap to insure
- You’re smaller and even less visible than on a bigger bike
- Not freeway legal so no touring option
- Not gonna win any races (unless you join the minibike racing league)
- Prepare for some ridicule/ego bruising
What do you do with that glossy, plastic-covered sportbike after a minor crash that mucks up all that spendy bodywork? Strip off the mangled panels, add some dirtbike handlebars, and, voila, a streetfighter is born. What began as a low-cost way to get a wrecked sportbike back on the road turned into a cottage industry, with streetfighters taking shape in garages and small shops around the world. With some attention to detail and imagination, a streetfighter can be a major personal style statement. Since they’re basically sportbikes with a more comfortable riding setup, they’re a total gas to ride. So far, Ducati is pretty much the only major manufacturer to build a streetfighter from scratch (and guess what, it’s called the Streetfighter), but other makers are getting in on the game with their own spin on the theme. If you don’t plan on building your own, there are options.
Examples: Ducati Streetfighter, Triumph Street Triple series, Aprilia Tuono, whatever is being built after hours at the little motorcycle shop in your town
- Sportbike power with more standard-style comfort and control
- May cost less to insure than a sportbike
- Endless options to customize and personalize
- Sportbike levels of power can get beginners in trouble
- Overwhelming urge to loft wheelies at every opportunity
- Stripped-down style not for everyone
Used to be, the chopper was the sole province of garage builders and outlaw bikers. But after the turn of the 21st century, builders like Indian Larry, Jesse James, and the crew at Orange County Choppers took things to another level of refinement and artistry. Suddenly, choppers were popping up everywhere as a fashion statement and status symbol. It’s strange how things like that happen, but if you’ve ever wanted a chopper, you have a lot of choices now, including from major manufacturers. After the custom craze died off, many very expensive hand-built choppers hit the used market at deep, deep discounts and you can still find good deals today. Just be aware of the cons listed below.
Examples: Honda Fury, Harley-Davidson Breakout, Star (Yamaha) Raider, Orange County Choppers, Jesse James choppers
- Most hand-built choppers are truly unique
- Bike makers like Honda and Kawasaki now offer decent mass-produced choppers
- Unlimited personalization and customization potential
- Powerful engines
- Expect to get a lot of attention
- Can be expensive
- Not that easy to ride in town due to long wheelbase
- Can be uncomfortable, especially if it’s a hardtail chopper
- Expect to get a lot of attention
Basically, a bobber is a regular motorcycle with all the unnecessary (in the opinion of the owner) parts removed and maybe a few styling cues added in. Stuff that tends to get ditched includes fenders, side panels, instruments, windscreens, and anything mandated by the government. A seat for two may get “bobbed” into a seat for one and ugly bits like turn signals may be replaced with similarly functional but more stylish items. Bobbers mirror choppers in their infinite diversity, but one key difference is a bobber typically retains its basic utility and geometry, so it’s still practical to ride every day. Just be sure to get a stylish jacket, boots, gloves, and helmet to match your ultra-hip ride.
Examples: Harley-Davidson Street Bob, Triumph Bobber Classic, any number of bikes coming from local shops or private builders
- Retains basic functionality of the original motorcycle
- You and some friends could probably pull off a bobber conversion
- Great canvas for your personal style statement
- Most any bike can be given the bobber treatment
- Low barrier to entry (most customizers opt for common used bikes)
- Clipped or missing fenders not fun in the rain
- Picky cops might ticket you for any non-DOT lighting gear
- May go out of style at any moment
A bagger is a lighter-duty touring bike, similar to a dresser but with less gear. It may have a smaller windscreen/fairing, smaller side case, and fewer luxury touches than a full-blown touring bike, but that’s the idea. Comfortable but more minimalist, baggers are great for that weekend getaway or rally road trip. Lately, baggers have been picking up some perks — like decent audio systems and navigation — while maintaining their sleeker profile. A bagger is a great way to go if you want to do some distance and keep closer to the minimalist tradition of travel by bike. Many cruisers can easily become baggers by adding some saddlebags or cases and a removable windscreen.
Examples: Harley-Davidson CVO Street Glide, Honda FB6, Indian Chief Vintage
- Less weight, better handling than a full-blown tourer
- Cases and windscreens often detach to slim the bike down even more
- Less expensive than a full-boat touring bike
- Gear can be easily added to increase comfort and capacity
- Still quite a bit of bike, not a great beginner choice
- Not inexpensive
- Big and heavy when loaded up
For many motorcycle riders, the old bikes are still the best bikes. If you like the classic profile of a vintage bike, consider getting one. “Vintage” is defined by whoever is talking about it and varies widely. Some bikes, mainly Japanese bikes, are considered vintage if they are 20 years old or older. For others, it’s a time period: the 1970s, Post-WWII, pre-war, and so on. If you want a vintage bike you can ride every day with little worry, you might want to look into a vintage Japanese model. If you are good with tools and don’t plan to commute each day on your vintage bike, consider a British, Italian, or German marque. Of course, with some dedication, you can certainly ride them each day. Just watch for oil leaks.
Examples: Honda CB750, Triumph Bonneville, Norton Commando, BSA Gold Star, Pre-1980s Ducati, Pre-1970 Harley-Davidson (search Craigslist, Cycle Trader, or eBay using the word “vintage”)
- Old-school style never seems to go out of style
- Parts widely available online for many vintage bikes
- Your riding friends probably won’t have the same bike
- You get to experience what it was like to ride “back then”
- Good excuse to wear cool retro riding gear
- Can be maintenance-intensive
- Old-tech brakes require planning stops ahead if not upgraded
- Depending on the model, parts and repairs can be a challenge or expensive
- Typically not nearly as fast as modern bikes
- Retro riding gear may not be your thing
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, most Japanese manufacturers were unable to compete with the large-displacement machines made by the then-current (read: British, American, and Euro) bike makers, so they staked out the ground below the top tier and made bikes in the 100cc to 300cc range. While burly biker types avoided these machines like the plague, new riders flocked to them, greatly (and literally) boosting the stock of the nascent Asian bike industry. As time went on, the 300-class bikes just got better and better until machines like Honda’s legendary 305 Super Hawk were actually performance threats to the larger (650cc and up) machines from the established (and slow to change) manufacturers. Eventually, the Japanese brands, led by Honda, would scale up and take on the competition — and nearly wipe out both the British and American motorcycle industries. But, in the process, the 300-class bikes disappeared as the larger and more powerful machines were designed and took over the market.
However, in the last few years — due in part to Euro emissions regulations, displacement and license tariffs, and other factors — 300cc machines have made a sudden comeback. While past 250cc “beginner bikes” have typically been small, slow, of middling quality, and quickly sold off as their owners leveled up to bigger bikes, the new crop of 300-class machines (which can have engines closing in on the 400cc mark) are adult-sized, loaded with tech, comfortable to ride most any distance, and cheap to buy and insure. Bikes like the Yamaha R3, BMW 3T, Kawasaki VERSYS-X, and a growing number of other entries are some of the most fun-to-ride machines on the market. And while the older 250cc starter bikes could barely get out of their own way, the bump to 300cc’s (or more) gives these machines enough power to play on the freeway without panic, while their light weight also makes them the sharpest of scalpels in city traffic. For many new riders, 300 is the new magic number.
Examples: Yamaha R3, BMW 3T, Kawasaki VERSYS-X, Honda CBR300, KTM Duke 390
- Typically inexpensive to purchase/finance and insure
- Adult-sized riding experience
- Surprisingly techie, often including ABS and fuel injection
- Lightweight, not too fast, but still fun to ride
- Still a little buzzy at freeway speeds or better
- Heavier/bigger riders may need a bit more poke or size
- Top-shelf models can get a bit spendy
Like the 300-class machines above, scramblers are another idea whose time has come back around. Back in the 1960 and 1970s (again), bike makers hit upon the idea of taking their (usually Japanese) street bikes and making them a bit more capable in the dirt. This usually meant swapping out the street tires for more aggressive “off-road” style rubber, fitting a “high-mount” exhaust and (sometimes but not always) adding a bit more wheel travel in the suspension system. The rest of the “street bike” remained. The result was a class of bikes called scramblers, which worked great on the street but could also be ridden down a dirt or gravel road with at least some confidence. In rural areas with farms and such, they were especially popular. Eventually, more dirt-focused machines, then dual-sport bikes, put an end to the scrambler phase, but it’s back now and better — and bigger — than ever.
Triumph got the “new” scrambler scene going again when (just like back in the day) they slightly modified their neo-classic Bonneville street machine with a quite lovely high-mount exhaust system, some dirt-worthy tires and a bit more bounce. They even called it a Street Scrambler. Hipsters and new riders snapped them up, and with good reason: This new breed of scrambler, with bigger engines and better build quality, afforded a much wider ability to travel, especially if the route included dirt or gravel roads. Plus, they don’t look like the angular, more purpose-built dual-sport machines; in fact, they hew much closer to the “classic” look of their inspirational bikes. Now, Ducati has joined the fray as well with a spread of Scrambler models that even includes some 1100cc variants that could take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. While scramblers are not the purpose-built off-road machines that dual-sport bikes are, you can bet that riders are kitting them up for epic adventures. Want more of a do-it-all bike that can get dirty and still looks cool? A scrambler might be just the ticket.
Examples: Ducati Scrambler line, Triumph Street Scrambler, Yamaha SCR950, BMW RnineT Scrambler, Moto Guzzi V7 II Stornello
- Expanded abilities and equipment for light off-road riding
- More stylish than most dual-sport bikes
- Comfortable “regular” riding position
- Typically flat seat leaves room for two
- Highly customizable
- Street performance slightly handicapped
- Not as off-road capable in stock form as a dedicated dual-sport
- Tall seat may limit options for shorter riders
- Possible job loss due to world-circling riding adventures
Article originally published December 16, 2014.
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