Get up to Speed on Motorcycle Slang with Our Comprehensive Dictionary

motorcycle in sunset light

Welcome to The Manual’s unofficial dictionary for motorcycle slang. This glossary was comprised to teach the language of the road created by those who roam on two wheels. Learning the lingo — like all challenges that come with improvement — might prove to bring you greater enjoyment in your riding experience. Robert M. Pirsig captures this idea deftly in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he writes, “It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.”

Like any specialty, motorcycling has its own vocabulary. If you don’t know your tiddlers from your MotoGP, this ever-expanding cheat sheet of terminology will have you sounding like a seasoned rider in no time. Before you get started, make sure you have a motorcycle and it’s tuned up for the season. Then learn to talk the talk.

A

ADV: Short for “adventure,” ADV means both a kind of bike and a kind of riding. ADV bikes can be ridden on and off road and are often called “dual sport bikes” or “adventure bikes.” A ride on such a bike is often called an “ADV ride” and there are countless ADV groups, websites, clubs, etc. Usage: “Check out my new KLR 650. I can’t wait to take it on that epic ADV ride this summer.”

AMA: American Motorcyclist Association. This enormous riding organization puts on races, rallies, and more each year. It also lobbies politicians on behalf of riders and offer services like roadside assistance. Some riders love the AMA, some don’t. It’s your call on the value of joining.

Airfence: Back in the day, racers could expect to slide into a tire barrier when they crashed in a corner at the track. Guess what? Tires aren’t that soft and many riders got injured. Enter Airfence, an airbag system for racetracks. When a rider hits an Airfence, it rapidly deflates, absorbing the energy of the crash and lessening the chances of injury. Usage: “Did you see Bob’s crash? Good thing there was some Airfence in that corner; he walked away.”

Ape hangers/”Apes”: Very tall handlebars typically found on cruisers.

Apex: In a car or truck, you go around a corner. On a bike (especially when racing), you look for the apex of a corner, or the point closest to the curb/shoulder between the entry and exit of a corner. “Hitting the apex” correctly helps carry speed through a corner. It’s also quite fun to do.

ATGATT (“AT-GAT”): Riders who crash and grind off large parts of their skin while sliding down the road have failed at following the ATGATT rule. Which is to say, if you want to avoid skin grafts, traumatic brain injury, broken ankles, and myriad other injuries sustained in a crash, you should be wearing All The Gear, All The Time.

B

Bike: An acceptable term for most any motorcycle, which is also often called a ride, sled, beast, the old lady, sweetheart, my precious, That Broken Down Old Piece of … and so on. Usage: “Sweet bike. How long have you owned it?”

Big Twin: Any large displacement Harley-Davidson. Sorry, Sportsters and Street models don’t count.

Biker: Be careful with this term. In general, it means someone who rides a motorcycle, but in the sphere of those who actually ride motorcycles, it more precisely means someone who is in a motorcycle club or gang. A Hell’s Angel is a Biker, but your Uncle Bob who toots around on his Harley Sportster on the weekends isn’t. He’s a rider or motorcyclist. Bikers don’t mind being called “bikers,” that’s what they are, but they generally don’t like to be called “motorcyclists.” But motorcyclists (non-bikers) may take umbrage to being called a “biker.” Got it? There will be a quiz later. See also: rider, one-percenter, motorcyclist.

‘Busa: Nickname for the iconic Suzuki Hayabusa sport bike. Pronounced either “Bee-you-saw” or “Boo-saw” depending on whom you are talking to. Usage: “I used to pilot F-18s, so in order to get the same thrill, I’m gonna get a ‘Busa.”

Bobber: Bobbers are/were bikes that have been customized in a certain way. Typical features include a stripped-down look, no front fender, low handlebars, a solo seat, and very spare instrumentation (if any). You can turn most any bike into a bobber with enough time, money, and tools. The name comes from the early practice of trimming, or “bobbing,” the fenders and seat on a bike to the bare minimum. From there, the minimalist aesthetic just kind of took over. Now, some bike makers actually sell production bobbers.

Bonnie: General nickname for a Triumph Bonneville, an iconic motorcycle from Britain, not that widow down the street hassling you for a ride (or more). Usage: “I’ll meet you at the pool hall for some darts in a couple of hours. Weather looks good so I’m gonna ride the Bonnie the long way.”

Bonneville: This time we’re talking about a place, not a bike, except to say that the Triumph Bonneville motorcycle is named after the place. That place is the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where riders and drivers take their machines to find out just exactly how fast they can go. Just call it “Bonneville” and other riders will know what you’re talking about. It’s also known as “The Salt.” Usage: “Bob has his turbocharged Vespa ready for Bonneville. He may even get a class speed record.”

Bullet bike: This is an outsider’s term for a sport bike, often used by media and non-riders to get attention. Usage: “I’m gonna go get some speeding tickets and maybe crash my bullet bike,” said no sport bike rider, ever.

C

Café racer: Back in the day in jolly olde England, riders known as Rockers would modify their bikes for speed (of course) with lower handlebars, rear-set footpegs, loud pipes, and more, riding quickly from nightspot to nightspot — usually a café — to show off and pick up girls was part of the scene. Bet I can beat ya there! Thus, the café racer. Today, modifying vintage bikes into “café racers” is a popular trend. (See also: The Ton)

Cage/Cager: Motorcycle slang (usually derogatory) for a car and the driver. Usage: “Some idiot cager on his phone nearly ran me off the road.”

Carb/Carbs: No, not a plate full of pasta. This refers to “carburetors,” which mixed fuel and air together for decades before fuel injection arrived. They are finicky, inefficient and prone to clogging, which is why they aren’t used much anymore. Some smaller bikes and dirt bikes still come with them, but probably not for long. See also: petcock

CB: Slang for an old Honda, not CB radio, so avoid the confusion. Most vintage Hondas models start with CB, as in CB750, CB550, CBX, CB1100F, and so on (and on and on and on). Many current Hondas still start with CB, but in general, it means “generic old Honda.” Usage: “I’d like to do a cool bobber project so I’m looking for an old CB.”

CB750: The most iconic of all Honda models and a game changer for the overall motorcycling industry. Introduced in 1969 after it was developed by Honda as a race bike, the CB750 featured the first mass-produced transverse inline-four engine on a motorcycle, a front disc brake (almost unheard of at the time), big power, reliability, and refinement that made high-performance bikes from Britain, America, and Europe suddenly look like oil-soaked relics of a bygone era. Subsequently, the Honda CB750 and its mechanical spawn are roundly pointed to as the death knell of the British heavyweight motorcycle industry and it nearly killed off Harley-Davidson as well. All modern inline-four-powered sportbikes can trace their DNA to the CB750. Honda made a zillion CB750s over the years and many still ply roadways today in various forms. However, the early years —especially those from 1969 — are very coveted, very expensive collector bikes, although you can still ride them with confidence.

Choke: The carburetor “choke” disappeared from cars long ago (along with carburetors), but it’s still pretty common on motorcycles. If your bike has carburetors, it’s got a choke somewhere, and you’re going to need it when starting up your bike if the engine is cold. A choke does just that: it chokes off the air going into the engine so it has more gas in the mixture, easing starting and cold running. Modern bikes with fuel injection just do this automatically after you push the starter button. Chokes are variable, so some bikes need “full choke” to start or maybe just a smidge if it’s a hot day. If your bike has one, you’ll learn to use it as a matter of course.

CC/CI/displacement: In general, motorcycle engines are much smaller than car engines (although, lately, the gap is narrowing). For bikes made in Asia and Europe, engine size (“displacement”) is expressed in “cc,” or cubic centimeters. If you know about cars, you’re familiar with things like a “3.6 liter V6.” In motorcycle terms, that would be a 3,600cc V6. In general, motorcycles range from 50cc at the smallest to 1,800cc or so at the largest. Of course, there are exceptions (example: Triumph makes a line of bikes with 2,300cc engines). Alternatively, U.S. bike makers Harley-Davidson and Indian (owned by Polaris) measure their motors in cubic inches (ci). A typical Harley motor can range from 53ci to 110ci depending on the model. Indian uses an 111ci engine. That converts to a range of 883cc to 1,819cc. Generally, anything under 500cc is considered a “lightweight” bike, while anything over 1000cc is a pretty big rig. Between them are “middleweight” bikes, usually 600, 700, 750, 800, or 900cc, although there’s no steadfast rule or size guide.

CL: “CL” usually refers to Craigslist, the international marketplace of motorcycles (and much else). While sites like Ebay and Cycle Trader used to be the go-to places to find a used bike, Craiglist is now the place to sift for that dream bike, rare part, or used gear. Usage: “I don’t know anyone selling a vintage bike so you might want to check CL.”

Chopper: Any cruiser bike with extended forks, really. There’s no specific criteria for what makes a chopper, but typical ingredients include extended forks, a stretched gas tank, fat rear tire, V-twin engine with loud pipes, and perhaps a custom paint job, although a chopper may have some, all, or none of those aspects. Usually, there are some long forks holding the front wheel and a lot of noise, so that’s pretty much a dead giveaway.

Cog/cogs: Slang for the gears in the transmission. Usage: “Check out my new Harley. It’s got that new 103 engine and six cogs in the box.”

Countersteering: If you have never ridden a motorcycle, it may shock you to learn that the best way to make a motorcycle turn while it’s in motion is exactly opposite of what you would expect. Countersteering is the technique of pushing on a handlebar in the direction you want to go. If you try to “turn” the bars in the desired direction, you’ll go the opposite way (and typically, right into whatever you are trying to steer around — a common rookie mistake). That’s just how the physics work on a motorcycle. You actually do the same thing on a bicycle, you just don’t recognize it because the effect is very slight. Find some open space, pedal your bicycles as fast as you can, then coast while steering with just one finger on each handlebar. Now push very, very lightly on the right handlebar. You’ll go to the right, not the left. Congratulations, you are now consciously countersteering. But do be careful, as it takes a while to get used to it.

D

DILLIGAF: You may see this most often as a sticker on a helmet, bike, or even as a tattoo. It’s an acronym for Does It Look Like I Give A F*ck. It’s pronounced “dill-eh-gaff,” or pretty much like what it looks like. Usage: Sport bike guy says, “Dude, check out my ‘Busa!” Leathered-up biker replies, “Dilligaf?”

Dresser: Slang for “touring bike,” not the place where you keep your undies in your bedroom. Back when motorcycles pretty much all looked the same, some riders added on windscreens or saddlebags for more comfort and carrying capacity. Bike makers took note and started making such things factory options, allowing buyers to “dress up” their bikes. Thus, the “dresser” was born. Today, bikes like the Honda Goldwing and Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic are the ultimate examples of a dressed-up touring bike and include things like heated seats, powerful stereos, intercoms, navigation, powered windscreens, cruise control, and more. Usage: “This sport bike is just too uncomfortable so I think I’ll trade it in on a dresser.”

Dual front disc brakes: If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle or are new to the sport, you may have noticed that some motorcycles have two disc brake rotors on the front wheel. Why? Quite simply, more braking power. Also, the two discs split up the braking forces so any slight “pull” from the braking mechanism is offset. However, brakes are heavy (and expensive), so many bikes with less performance potential or lower prices have just one front disc brake. With the advent of better brake systems and anti-lock baking systems (ABS), most bikes stop just fine with one disc up front. However, top-tier performance bikes or very heavy bikes will usually have a pair of rotors.

Dual Sport: A relatively new type of motorcycle that is a purpose-made combination of a street bike and dirt bike and can be legally ridden both on public roads or off road/on dirt. Dual sport motorcycles are also known as “adventure bikes” (see also: ADV ). Dual sport bikes can be bone-simple (Honda XR650L, etc.) or extremely high-tech (BMW GS1200 Adventure, Ducati Multistrada) and there are lots of them to choose from. They are an evolution of early “enduro” (see also: enduro) bikes, which were basically street bikes with knobby tires and different exhaust pipes. But after BMW introduced the more purpose-built GS1000 and Kawasaki offered the KLR650, both in the 1980s, the dual sport niche has grown to become a major part of the riding experience. Many riders feel dual sport bikes are both the most practical and toughest kind of motorcycle and often take them on epic rides. See also: Long Way ‘Round and Jupiter’s Travels.

Duck/Duc: Nickname for Ducati (“doo-caw-tee” or “doo-cat-ee,” depending on who you ask), the Italian maker of some of the most expensive, powerful, sweet-handling, and beautiful motorcycles in the world.  Usage: “I’ll meet you and George Clooney at the racquet club in a few hours. I’m going to go wring out the Duck while the weather is good.”

E

Enduro: An older term that has largely been replaced by “dual-sport” but is still used by older riders when referring to street-legal dirtbikes or enduro (pronounced “endure-oh”) racing, which is where the term originated. Vintage dirtbikes that are street legal are generally known as enduros. Usage: “Check out this cool old Honda CL350 enduro I found at the swap meet.”

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