Been thinking about getting into motorcycling? Hey, who isn’t these days? 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.
Sport bike: Sport bikes are the speed machines of the motorcycle world. High-powered with sophisticated suspension systems and high-performance brakes, sport bikes typically are stuffed with the latest and greatest technology you can find on two wheels (or four). A common sentiment about sport bikes 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 sport bikes are not designed for distance riding, that hasn’t stopped many riders from adding some soft bags and a better seat so they can ride to distant stretches of challenging roads or racetracks. Sport bikes are typically not the best choice for a beginner due to their hair-trigger nature and prodigious power, but a lower-powered, middle-weight sport bike or a “sport bike lite” might be a good choice to start with if this is the kind of bike you definitely want to ride.
Examples: Ducati Pinagale, Honda CBR models, Kawasaki ZX series, Yamaha R1 or R6, Triumph Daytona, Suzuki GSX-R models, Aprilia RSV4 to name just a few.
• Lots of power, great brakes, adjustable suspension
• Actual racecar levels of acceleration and top speed (depending on the bike)
• Stylish good looks, 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 1st or 2nd gear (of 6 gears)
• Requires a very high level of skill to ride competently
• Tickets (see 2nd Con point)
Cruiser: Many beginning riders picture themselves cruising city streets on a glistening, low-slung machine and 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. 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, have amazing paint jobs or a rattle-can finish – 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 sport bikes.
Examples: Any Harley-Davidson, Victory or Indian. Also, pretty much every major bike maker has a few cruiser models in their lineup.
• Easy to ride, comfortable
• Typically simple to maintain
• Capable of touring if desired
• Not especially fast in terms of top speed
• Can be big and heavy
Dual Sport: 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 then 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 able to smooth 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: BMW GS series, Kawasaki KLR models, Honda XR650L, KTM Adventure, Triumph Tiger, Yamaha Super Tenere, Suzuki V-Strom models
• Do anything, go anywhere capabilities
• Simple design, very tough
• You sit up high in traffic
• Tend to be tall
• Often stylistically challenged/industrial in design
• May seduce you into globe-spanning adventure rides, causing divorce, etc.
Scooters: What are scooters doing on this list? Scooters are 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 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/Piaggo model, Honda Elite models, Yamaha Majesty/Vino, Aprilia models, any number of machines from Asian scooter makers like Kymco, Lifan, etc.
• Stylish, efficient, techy, automatic transmission
• Great on gas – some get over 90mpg 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
• Except for the larger models, most are not able to do long distance/freeway speeds
Electric Motorcycle: 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: Brammo Enertia and Empulse, Zero models, Mission R or RS, BRD RedShift
• Never need to buy gas
• Very low maintenance
• Easy to ride, quiet
• High-performance models available
• Range still an issue
• Recharge time
• High up-front cost
Sport tourer: What do you get when you mix the power, handling and looks of a sport bike 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 sport bike, 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 tour bike is likely what you are after. You can ride a sport tour bike as a beginner but be aware they are often big, heavy and powerful.
Examples: Yamaha FJR1300, Honda ST1300, Kawasaki Concours, Suzuki V-Strom 1000, Ducati ST or Multistrada, Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200T, Triumph Trophy, Aprilia Caponord.
• 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
Hyperbike: What’s a hyperbike? Take a sport bike, and then take it to the next level. Or two. Most hyperbikes are 1000cc 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. Moreover, they’re typically not very comfortable and not really designed for touring. And bring your wallet.
Examples: Ducati Pinagale 1199S or R, Honda CBR1000RR SP, Yamaha R1, Suzuki GSX-R 1000, Aprilia RSV4 Factory,
• Massively powerful, 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
Motard: What do you get when you take a dirt bike and add high-performance wheels, brakes and tires from a sport bike? The basic recipe for a “motard.” Motards are dirt bikes for the street and feature the light weight and tall stance of a dirt bike with the grip and braking performance of a sport bike. Typically not hugely powerful, motards are crazy-good bikes in the city due to their light weight and quick acceleration at lower speeds. They are also tall so not necessarily a good beginner bike if you’re not also tall. While Motards are not great for distance touring, that’s not to say it can’t be done.
Examples: Ducati HyperMotard, Suzuki DR400SM, KTM Duke series, whatever that guy down the block is building in his garage
• Thin, light, maneuverable
• Great brakes, good on gas
• Huge fun to ride
• Usually affordable
• Not very comfortable for touring/distance riding
• Cops probably won’t appreciate you doing monster wheelies past the police station
Streetfighter: What do you do with that glossy, plastic-covered sportbike after a minor crash that mucks up all that bodywork? Strip off the mangled panels, add some dirtbike handlebars and viola, a “streetfighter.” What began as a low-cost way to get a wrecked sport bike back on the road turned into a cottage industry, with streetfighters taking shape in garages and in small shops around the world. With some attention to detail and imagination, a streetfighter can be a major personal style statement and since they’re basically sportbikes with a more comfortable riding setup, they’re a total gas to ride as well. 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. So 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
Dresser/Touring bike: Some people get into motorcycling to scratch that travel itch in way 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, right? 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, including 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, etc.
• Comfortable, powerful, luxurious
• Built to last
• Can carry a lot of gear
• Some are quite beautiful
• Big and heavy
• Don’t expect sportbike handling or speed
Chopper: 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 Low Rider, 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/customization potential
• 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
Bobber: 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 removed 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, any number of bikes coming from local shops or private builders (check Craigslist).
• 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 use 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
Bagger: A bagger is lighter-duty touring bike, similar to a dresser but with less gear. It may have a smaller windscreen/fairing, smaller side cases 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. And lately, baggers have been picking up some perks, like decent audio systems and navigation, while maintaining their sleeker profile. 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/cases and a removeable windscreen.
Examples: Harley-Davidson Street Glide, Honda FB6, Victory Cross Country series, 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
Standard: 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 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 old motorcycles. But today, buying a “new” standard style bike is difficult, but not impossible. And 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, 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
Dirt bike: 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 light weight, 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.
• Inexpensive to buy
• Lots of fun
• No dealing with car traffic
• 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
Vintage: 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/repairs can be a challenge or expensive
• Typically not nearly as fast as modern bikes
• Retro riding gear may not be your thing
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