Types of Motorcycles Explained
Back in the 20th Century, we didn’t put much effort into categorizing the motorcycles we saw.
Things were simple – that Harley-Davidson Softail is a cruiser, that Honda CB900F is a sportbike, and that Suzuki DR-Z400S is a dual-sport. Simple.
However, over the past 20 years, things various types of motorcycles blended, taking on new names such as adventure or urban bikes.
We get asked about motorcycle categories and definitions constantly, so to make things easier, we have put together the Ultimate Guide to Moto Genres.
Let us know if we missed anything.
Standard motorcycles have neutral ergonomics, with the grips/seat/peg relationship putting the rider in an upright or only slightly leaned forward position. There won't be a fairing, and comfort gets a nod over performance. The suspension will likely have minimal adjustments, and the motor will have a friendly power delivery.
Example: Yamaha XSR700
While many cruisers have a vintage appeal, retro motorcycles are very much meant to evoke a particular type of motorcycle from the past. They have tank, seat, and fender shapes from periods generally ranging from the 1950s to the ’80s, plus period-evocative paint. The motors may match the style of the air-cooling and pushrod-actuated valves era, or they can be modern motors with liquid cooling and a DOHC valvetrain that mimic the look from those days.
Cruisers are traditional motorcycles that have torquey motors, relaxed frame geometry, a low seat height, short-travel suspension, and usually a comfortable seating position. The cruiser genre is a wide one, with footpegs placed anywhere from the standard position to as far forward on the motorcycle as possible. Handlebars may be narrow and low, or high and wide, or anything in between. The seats can be luxurious or minimal. The hallmark of a cruiser is that form is more important than function, and cruisers are designed to catch the eye of the passersby.
Example: Suzuki Boulevard M50
This is a style that goes in and out of favor, with the last big chopper push in the 2000s. A chopper will have extended front forks with plenty of rake and lots of trail. Typically a custom genre, there have been factory choppers offered to the public. A high-neck chopper emphasizes the height of the steering head and is defined by the Captain America chopper in Easy Rider.
Example: Easy Rider Hydra-Glides
A subset of cruiser and retro motorcycles, a bobber is a motorcycle for the minimalist. A bobber motorcycle will differentiate itself with abbreviated fenders, small seats (often solo), and a small fuel tank. Although the original bobbers were built for speed, modern bobbers are a styling exercise rather than a way to go fast. Reflecting that, the suspension is typically short and rarely offering adjustability other than spring-preload in the rear. Narrow bars are also common on bobbers.
Example: Triumph Bobber Black
This traditional style was born in England, combining retro themes with sport performance. Not nearly as assertive in motor performance as modern sportbikes, and often with twin shocks for the heritage look, the café racer can have a fairly aggressive seating position in homage to the original café racers at the Ace Cafe in London.
Example: Triumph Street Cup
With aspects of dual-sport and retro motorcycles, scramblers promise off-road performance, but are more street-focused than dual-sport motorcycles. Where dual-sport motorcycles are built from an off-road platform, scramblers are street motorcycles reconfigured for off-road capability. To make a standard into a scrambler, look for upswept exhaust pipes, wider handlebars, and knobbier ADV-style tires.
Example: Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
Motorcycles that are focused for use on city streets are considered urban motorcycles. Many successful urban motorcycles are not equipped for freeway speeds and, instead, focus on the job at hand—doing battle with four-wheelers in tight quarters and lots of traffic. Narrow and light are two attributes to look for in urban motorcycles, along with upright ergonomics so the rider can survey the scene.
Example: BMW R nineT Urban G/S
This is an extremely broad category on a genre that is still in its infancy. Electric motorcycles range from tiny off-road motorcycles for children to high-priced superbikes. In-between you’ll find dual-sport and sportbikes as popular platforms for electric motorcycles. Without any doubt, this is a genre that will be experience huge growth in the 2020s.
Example: Harley-Davidson LiveWire
A somewhat rare style these days, this is a motorcycle that patterns itself after dragster motorcycles. Look for a wide rear tire—typically 240mm—and a long wheelbase to reduce wheels during hard acceleration. Footrests and handlebars are typically forward, even though dragsters have rearset footpegs. Pro street motors have plenty of horsepower and torque for high-speed straight-line runs; riding in the twisties is best avoided.
Example: Harley-Davidson Softail Breakout
With a relatively comfortable upright seating position, sport bikes are performance-oriented motorcycles. A small fairing may be included, though not necessarily, and the suspension is often adjustable. Sport motorcycles can be used to describe a wide variety of performance motorcycles; for this list, we have broken the category down a bit. Sport bikes also work well for commuting, as they have the handling and small size to work their way through traffic effectively, while not putting the rider in an ergonomic position that is overly fatiguing.
Example: KTM 1290 Super Duke
These are dedicated high-performance motorcycles in the 600cc range or below. They will usually have clip-ons and track-ready fairings. The seat will be minimal and the footpegs high and rearward for extra cornering clearance. Generally, the suspension will be fully adjustable and of high quality. Although you will see people riding them around town or commuting, these motorcycles work best in the canyons and at a racetrack.
Example: Yamaha YZF-R6
The pinnacle of performance, superbikes are the street-going versions of what you’ll see in World Superbike or MotoAmerica Superbike racing. Usually four-cylinder liter-class motorcycles, superbikes are the highest performance motorcycles you can buy. They have extreme riding positions that are ideal for racing, and the suspension is of the highest quality. The motors are extremely powerful, putting out around 200 horsepower. With modifications, the superbike you buy can be used for racing.
Example: Ducati Panigale V4
These high-horsepower motorcycles value high speeds over everything. They will all knock up against the 300 km/h top-speed limit the manufacturers voluntarily adhere to, and will get there quickly. Hyperbikes have large displacement motors, or can be supercharged to derive their power. Suspension units are top-rate to control the power delivered. Typically long and stable rather than nimble, hyperbikes are those who enjoy the rush of speed in a straight line.
Example: Kawasaki Ninja H2 SX SE
Originally, a streetfighter was a supersport or superbike that had been crashed and rehabilitated for aggressive riding. The early streetfighter motorcycles had the fairing removed and likely had other damage to the motorcycle. Later, streetfighter motorcycles from manufacturers means that the motorcycle is based on a supersport or superbike. A streetfighter won’t have a fairing, and may have taller bars than a supersport or superbike would have.
Example: Triumph Street Triple R
In its purest sense, take a motocrosser and put on 17-inch high-performance street tires and you have a supermoto motorcycle. However, street-going versions have chassis that come from the world of enduro and dual-sport motorcycles, as well as purpose-built supermoto models. Supermoto motorcycles are narrow, tall, and light, with a highly responsive chassis and motor.
Example: Husqvarna 701 Supermoto
Designed for long-distance and multi-day rides, touring motorcycles are differentiated by sizeable fairings, large fuel tanks, cavernous panniers and a top box, luxurious seating (for one or two), floorboards or wide footpegs, and powerful torquey motors. Touring motorcycles can have a relaxed cruiser-style seating, or an upright seating position. Highly customizable, accouterments such as sophisticated infotainment systems with GPS, CB, and smartphone compatibility. Soft suspension keeps the rider comfortable, and power delivery is restrained to reduce fatigue.
Example: Honda Gold Wing
Combining the attributes of a touring motorcycle and an urban motorcycle, a bagger sits low to the ground and has side cases only, eschewing the top case. A fairing is used for wind protection, as well as a place to house a sound system. Baggers focus on straight line performance and often have high-performance engine modifications so they can rocket off the line when the light turns green.
Example: Harley-Davidson CVO Street Glide
As the name indicates, this is a mix of the sport and touring motorcycle genres. These motorcycles are generally performance-oriented sport bikes with more comfortable upright ergonomics, a fairing, panniers, and softer adjustable suspension. This allows the rider to go on long trips, though at a fast pace rather than ride in a leisurely manner. While heavier than sport bikes, they are lighter than full touring motorcycles, and accouterments for passengers are more spartan than on touring rigs.
Example: BMW R 1250 RT
Ranging in size from 300cc to 1290cc, adventure (ADV) motorcycles are street-legal machines capable of long-distance rides in remote locales. Large fuel tanks are a hallmark of ADV motorcycles, as they allow the rider to ride extensively in areas lacking fueling stations. The suspension is shorter than a pure off-road bike, but sometimes even more sophisticated with semi-active electronic damping adjustment. The most dirt-oriented ADV motorcycles use 21-/18-inch wheel combinations, though 19/17 combos are more common. For primarily street use, some light-duty ADV motorcycles have 17-inch wheels at both ends. Seat heights are taller than the average street motorcycle, though not nearly as tall as off-road-only motorcycles. Adventure motorcycles also have fairings to protect the rider on long-distance high-speed on-pavement excursions. The ability to mount panniers is typical of ADV motorcycles.
Example: KTM 790 Adventure R
Dual sport motorcycles are street legal dirt bikes. The range of the dirt-to-street ratio can range from heavily dirt, to street-oriented. The most aggressive dual sport motorcycles are virtually off-road racers with the minimum changes need for street legality. Other dual sport motorcycles are designed for light duty off-road, as well as being suited for commuting and urban riding. Fully adjustable long-travel suspension tall seats are common on off-road oriented dual sport bikes, while the street-friendly dual-sport motorcycles have shorter suspension travel and lower seats.
Example: Beta 350 RR-S
Enduro motorcycles are off-road machines with lights, and are generally not designed to be street legal. They are used for enduro competition, such as the International Six Days Enduro and the AMA National Enduro Championship Series. They are tuned for more manageable performance than a motocross motorcycle, and have an 18-inch rear tire with a higher profile to help prevent pinch flats. Like motocross motorcycles, enduro motorcycles have high-end suspension units, tuned softer for single-track competition. Two-strokes are popular, as they are lighter and more maneuverable in tight conditions, though four-strokes also have a strong following.
Example: Husqvarna TE-150
Lacking lights, an off-road motorcycle is for racing a wide variety of dirt course events, such as the hare scrambles, hare-and-hound, extreme competitions, and Endurocross. They have motocross-style chassis and suspension, with engines tuned between a supercross and enduro racebike. They often have wide-ratio transmissions, as the courses can range from single-track to wide-open desert terrain. Two-strokes and four-strokes are both popular with off-road racers.
Example: Yamaha YZ250FX
These are motorcycle built specifically for racing on a motocross or supercross track. They are purely competition motorcycles with fully adjustable long-travel suspension, a 21-inch front wheel and 19-inch rear wheel shod with knobby tires. Seat heights are high, as is the performance of the motor. While most motocross racebikes use four-stroke engines, there are two-stroke motocrossers available from Husqvarna, KTM, TM, and Yamaha. Youth models are also available, and they primarily use two-stroke engines.
Example: Kawasaki KX450
With shorter minimally adjustable suspension travel, lower seat heights, and more manageable power delivery, trail bikes are for casual off-road riders. In addition to models with full-size 21- and 18-inch wheels, there are also many models with smaller wheels, shorter-travel suspension, lower seat height, and less-powerful motors for smaller adults and youngsters. These motorcycles have a considerably lower price tag than other off-road motorcycles. Most trail bikes are air-cooled four-strokes, though there are some two-stroke models from smaller companies around the world.
Example: Honda CRF250F
If you have seen Toni Bou videos on YouTube and Facebook, you have seen an observed trials motorcycle. Although trials is a niche sport with boutique brands in Spain and Italy building the motorcycles, Honda does sell a trials bike in the United States under the Montesa name. Trials bikes have no seats, shorter travel suspension, torquey motors, a modest top speed, and specialty block-pattern tires. They are built specifically for trials competition where you attempt to ride an obstacle course at low-speed without touching down with your foot.
Example: Gas Gas TXT GP Trials Bike