Riding a motorcycle is second-nature to some, while for others, it presents a bit of a learning curve. But whether you have experience on two wheels or not, you will need to familiarize yourself with the bike you plan to ride daily.
Different motorcycle sizes, weights, styles, and controls affect the way you balance, steer, and accelerate. Especially if you plan to buy a bike, you must know about each option. Of course, not every bike falls into a single category, which makes it even more confusing. We’ll break it down for you here.
While there’s no universal guideline for motorcycle types, street bikes are the basic on-road variety. As the name suggests, street bikes are best for paved roads and city streets. At the same time, other motorcycles may technically be street bikes but include additional features standard in other categories.
Some sources list cruisers and sport bikes as variations of street motorcycles, for example. Any bike that isn’t strictly a dirtbike might be termed a “street” motorcycle in some publications.
On a street motorcycle, you sit nearly upright, which can be helpful for beginners. Examples of street bikes include a Honda Nighthawk (the CB line) or a Suzuki SV650. Remember that there are huge variations in what constitutes a street bike, and this category bleeds into many others.
Standard bikes are another upright-style motorcycle. These are sometimes known as Roadsters or naked bikes. The position of the handlebars and footpegs is usually comfortable for beginning riders, so a standard bike could be a good fit if you’re starting out. At the same time, a lot of standard bikes don’t have an overwhelming amount of horsepower, a plus for newbies.
The “naked” part of standard bikes refers to the absence of a fairing or windscreen. Some bikes might have small fairings or tiny windshields, though. For the most part, no one really makes a true standard bike anymore, though some have come close. The Ducati Monster 696, for example, is a naked bike. The conveniently named Roadster from Harley is another clear example.
Cruisers have an iconic look and are often the type of bike people imagine when they hear someone say they ride motorcycles. Cruisers are typically lower to the ground, and therefore ideal for people of shorter stature. For that reason, some cruiser models can be good for beginners, too.
You may not want to ride this type of bike for extended periods, though, as the hands-up position can be a bit unwieldy. Plus, without a fairing or windscreen, you would have a hard time dealing with freeway-speed wind. Some models do have fairings, however, which shows the crossover between the different styles.
Both Harley-Davidson and Indian make cruisers with classic styling and a bit of a reclined position.
Forward Control Cruiser
A forward control cruiser is the same as a cruiser, except for footpegs (and the brake pedal and shift peg) are farther forward. The jury is out on whether riding with forward or standard controls is better, and it all comes down to personal preference. However, for beginners, a standard configuration is probably preferable.
Some bikes come with forward controls by default, so you should keep that in mind if you’re shopping around. But many riders also modify their controls in the shop, too.
As the name suggests, a power cruiser is simply a cruiser with a bit more juice. These bikes have higher horsepower plus more features and enhanced styling. You’ll also notice similar features when comparing power cruisers and sportbikes, a reminder that there’s a ton of crossover in each category.
An example of a power cruiser is the Ducati Diavel, a beefy-looking bike that is upgraded beyond entry-level. Other power cruisers include the Triumph Rocket and Moto Guzzi Audace. Of course, these upgrades come with a cost, and you can expect brands like Ducati and Moto Guzzi to cost a pretty penny.
Choppers are a well-known type of motorcycle because of reality shows like West Coast Choppers. These raw-looking bikes are actually cruisers but are “chopped” down. You probably won’t find choppers for sale on any dealers’ lots, though, since they’re usually custom jobs.
And while a chopper might look like a good time, these don’t always handle the best, and the gas mileage will likely be awful. Still, the look is unique, which draws many riders to these super-modified bikes. You will need deep pockets to complete a chop job, though.
Harley-Davidson Softails are the closest to the chopper look, but for a more modified motorcycle, you’ll have to start chopping on your own.
Bobbers are a subtype of chopper that is similarly stripped down. You can chop down any factory bike, removing elements mostly from the rear, and lower the overall weight of the bike. The term “bob” comes from the shortened rear end of the bike, usually a minimized fender.
These specialized project bikes aren’t for everyone. Unless you know how to weld, you probably won’t want to plan on modifications to an existing motorcycle. The good news is that some manufacturers do make bobbers, no cutting required.
You can choose from a Triumph Bonneville Bobber, the Indian Scout Bobber, or even a Moto Guzzi V9 Bobber.
A touring bike (AKA bagger or dresser) is made for long hauls. From freeway to highway, a touring bike has your comfort (and that of your passenger) in mind.
Most touring bikes have cushy seats for both the rider and passenger, plenty of storage (hence the term bagger) in saddlebags (often hard-sided), and a massive fairing to cut the wind. The most common and recognizable touring bike is the Honda Gold Wing, though.
Other touring bikes include the BMW R 1250 RT and the Triumph Trophy.
Sportbikes get their name from their athletic look, but many motorcycle enthusiasts refer to them as “crotch rockets.” It’s easy to see why; your riding position is a bit different on a sportbike versus a street cycle.
With a sportbike, the focus is on aerodynamics and handling. And while plenty of beginning riders think they look cool trying out a Kawasaki Ninja, sport bikes are better suited to more experienced riders.
You need to have an excellent balance and feel comfortable on the bike. You’ll be leaning heavily into turns and grabbing the throttle often. For new riders, that’s a recipe for disaster. Therefore, only more experienced motorcyclists should try out a Yamaha R6 or Kawasaki Ninja.
Streetfighter motorcycles are a variation of a sportbike that’s akin to the chopper form of a cruiser. Streetfighters can come out of factories (or be modified) without fairings, with higher handlebars, and other customizations.
Imagine a sportbike with less fiberglass, and that’s about what you can expect from a streetfighter. This might be a good bike for you if you’re interested in speed, know what you’re doing, and plan on doing wheelies or other stunts (hopefully safely).
Streetfighters from the factory include the Ducati Streetfighter and Triumph Street Triple R.
Sport Touring Motorcycle
Sport touring bikes combine the best of sporty styling with the accommodations you need for long trips with a passenger (or without). You probably won’t want to venture off-road on one of these, but they can take you just about anywhere else.
A great example of a sport touring bike is the Yamaha Tracer 900 GT. Its 900 model is a sportbike style, but the GT adds touring features like side case mounts and adjustable seat positions.
BMW also makes a sport-touring bike, the BMW R 1100 RS, that has room for a passenger and their stuff without sacrificing horsepower. Brands like BMW can get pricey, especially when you factor in road-ready features like seat warmers.
Dual Sport Motorcycles
Dual-sport motorcycles are for both on- and off-road situations. They usually have some limitations, such as not being able to handle serious dirtbike terrain, but can manage decently on gravel and dirt. High seat heights (sorry, shorter stature folks) make these bikes better for long-legged types.
A great example of a dual sport bike is the BMW R 1200 GS, or, really, any of their GS models. These bikes are totally street legal but have tires with better grip, sporty styling, and have higher centers of gravity. Another dual-sport bike is the Suzuki DR 650 S, though it has much sportier styling that resembles a dirtbike.
Some dual-sport bikes are also called enduros, and they can look like motocross cycles, too. Read on for details on those subcategories.
Odds are, unless you’re a professional racer, you won’t need a supermoto bike. Still, they’re worth noting as a subcategory of dual sportbikes. These models are for racing on tracks, roads, and motocross arenas. Essentially, a supermoto bike is a dual-sport bike with modifications. Namely different tires and rims.
Husqvarna makes a 701 Supermoto, and Yamaha has the WR250X—in case you want to start racing on a variety of track types. Expect to shell out for these, however.
Dirtbikes, AKA offroad motorcycles, are in their own category. These bikes often lack headlights, turn signals, and the other “fancy” features that on-road riders need. Translation? These bikes are lightweight and ready to handle a variety of road conditions, from dirt to mud to gravel and sand.
Instead of road-friendly accessories, you have nubby tires, superior suspension, and plenty of get-up-and-go. Almost every brand makes a dirtbike, and they come in all sizes. Honda has a CRF 450 R, Yamaha has a YZ 250 F, and Kawasaki a KX 250 F. Most dirt bikes are relatively affordable, and you don’t need a special license to ride one off-road.
Motocross motorcycles are dirtbikes that are upgraded for on-track racing in motocross events. Motocross bikes range from 50 to 500 cc, and they’re built for short races. The gas tanks don’t hold much, the suspension is insane, and they allow competitors to do freestyle tricks easily since they’re lightweight.
Mainstream motorcycle brands make motocross bikes, but some smaller names are up there in the ranks, too. There’s the KTM 150 SX, a few by Honda, and smaller models like the Yamaha PW50 that are ideal for pint-sized competitors.
If you’re investing in a motocross or dirt bike, remember that you’ll need to transport them to events and off-road locations since they’re not street legal. That means you’ll need our post on how to tow your motorcycle the right way.
Enduro bikes are specialized motorcycles for a specific type of race. Enduro races cover long courses (typically across states) with varying terrain. Events last days, sometimes nearly a week, and can be grueling.
Therefore, enduro bikes are more comfortable than typical dirtbikes. They lack some on-road features, though, but do have a horn and lights since riders often cross public roads during the competition. BMW has an enduro bike, the BMW HP2, and KTM has its 690 Enduro. You’ll have to save up for one of these motorcycles (and train for your race).
Rally bikes are a subset of an enduro bike, except that they are better prepared for traveling longer distances. On a rally bike, you’ll find a larger fuel tank, and sizes range between 450 ccs and 750 ccs. Since rallies can often involve riding through desert landscapes, these bikes have to be off-road ready and street legal.
You probably won’t need a rally bike unless you’re planning to compete in a rally raid. But in addition to a motorcycle, you will also need spare tires and waterproof gear to keep you warm and reasonably dry. Check out our post on the best motorcycle rain gear for your new bike.
BMW has competed in (and won) rallies before, namely the Paris-Dakar rally, and they have a specialized bike for such events. The BMW R 1200 GS Rallye has everything you would need to win a desert rally.
KTM’s 690 Enduro R is comparable but technically falls into the enduro category, too. The company’s KTM 790 Adventure R is another crossover-type that fits in multiple categories.
Snow bikes are specialized motorcycles with tracks rather than traditional wheels. Whether you’re a fan of dirtbike riding or skiing (or both), you might be intrigued by a snow bike.
Timbersled (now owned by Polaris) makes a snow bike (the ARO 120) that can shred snow-covered hills with ease. Some riders convert their dirt bikes into snow bikes, too, so that’s another option if you’re itching for some fresh powder under your tires (or treads). Many manufacturers sell kits, which involve replacing both tires with specialized treads and a “foot” attached to your fork.
An underbone motorcycle is a smaller, scooter-looking type of motorcycle with a few key differences. Underbones use a step-through frame and footpegs instead of floorboards (like traditional scooters). The original underbone was the Honda Super Cub bike, but these days, you can find the modern Honda Wave 120, the Modenas Kriss 120, and Yamaha 125z Underbone bikes on the market.
The bikes are economical and often found in Asian countries where traffic makes driving a car a pain. This could be a good option for students or those who don’t feel ready for a “big” bike yet.
Scooters are like a distant cousin of standard motorcycles. Their engines are usually a lot smaller, they’re very quiet, and they are a bit bulkier. At the same time, they have some more storage space than you’d find on a traditional motorcycle. A scooter typically has an automatic engine, which can be easier to manage for beginners. The wheels are also smaller than your average bike.
Tons of companies make scooters, including Honda (from the Ruckus to the PCX150), Kawasaki (J300), and Yamaha (XMAX, Zuma, and Alpha, to name a few).
A moped more closely resembles a bicycle than a motorcycle. At the same time, a moped has some of the same features as a scooter. The engines are typically small, use a bicycle drivetrain, and can involve both engine power and some assistance from the rider.
Mopeds are typically affordable, but they haven’t been as popular in modern times as they were in the ’80s. Still, they’re an efficient mode of transportation in many countries and can be fun (and easy) to ride.
One perk with mopeds—AKA “motorcycled bicycles” per the DMV—is that you don’t need a specialized license to ride one if it’s a rental or another short-term arrangement. Otherwise, you need an M1 for any motorcycle or scooter ridden on public roads.
Old-school mopeds included the Motobecane (a French bike) or Moby, which was cool in the ’70s. In Europe, riders were treated to bikes like the Honda Hobbit PA 50.
Utility bikes exist for a range of specialized uses. From highway patrol and other law enforcement officer bikes like the BMW R 1100, Harley FLP-1, or Kawasaki KZ 1000 to a derny for pacing bicycle races, you can find a bike for every application. Even pizza delivery drivers can have specialized bikes with areas to store pizzas, sides, and beverages while zipping through the streets.
Of course, pizza delivery personnel don’t need the same performance, handling, and speed as the types of bikes law enforcement or military officers require. Like every other category of motorcycle, there’s a range of specs, sizing, costs, and comfort levels with utility bikes.