Choosing the Right Type of Motorcycle

So you've decided to buy a motorcycle and hit the open road. Before you do, you should consider the number of different bike options out there.

Motorcycles come in all shapes and sizes, and offer different advantages or disadvantages based on things like how, when, and why you want to ride and your level of experience.

Before You Buy: Experience Level

Your experience level is one of the biggest factors to have in mind when determining which type of bike you should purchase.

More experienced riders may feel comfortable on a broader range of motorcycles or have developed a particular preference over time.

If you're new to riding, however, you may want to stick to a bike that is or has:

  • Lighter weight.
    • This will help make steering, balancing, accelerating, and braking easier during your learning curve.
  • Lower seat height.
    • This will let you plant both feet on the ground when stopping, which may be more reassuring for novice riders.
  • Anti-lock Braking System (ABS).
    • This feature will make it easier to stop more quickly and safely.
  • Cheaper.
    • You're much more likely to drop the bike in the beginning phases of riding.
  • “Non-Specialized".
    • Instead of picking the fastest sport bike or the biggest cruiser, choose something that does everything well to start out.

It's also a good idea to always ride within your skill level, rather than trying to compete with more experienced motorcyclists. Pick a bike that will allow you to best do that.

Types of Motorcycles

While there is no universal agreement on how many types of motorcycles there are—or which factors should be used to differentiate the bikes—in general, there can be considered at least 4 broad categories:

Within those categories are specific motorcycle types, which include:

  • Cruisers.
  • Sport bikes.
  • Touring bikes.
  • Standard motorcycles.
  • Dirt bikes.

Finding the “right" motorcycle means finding the right motorcycle for you, so make sure to consider the unique features of each option before deciding which bike to buy.

Street Bikes

When it comes to “street" bikes, it's all in the name. These motorcycles were designed specifically to be ridden on a street; more specifically, a paved road.

While there are a variety of body types in this umbrella category, street bikes typically have:

  • Smooth tires.
  • Light tread patterns.

Below are types of bikes within the “street bike" category.

Standard Motorcycles

These machines are also referred to as “naked bikes" because they offer very few of the bells and whistles now being incorporated into more specialized motorcycles. They are general-purpose street bikes.

Standards typically do NOT include:

  • Fairings (protective shells covering the frame of a bike, which reduce air drag).
  • Windscreens.

Their rider setup will also put you in an upright and more natural sitting position.

In general, due to their barebones approach, standard motorcycles are lower cost and are highly recommended for new riders.

Touring Bikes

Again, the name of this motorcycle category suggests their strong suit. Touring bikes are better equipped for long-distance rides.

In general, compared to other bikes, a touring motorcycle will have:

  • Larger engines.
  • Fairings and screens designed for weather and wind protection.
  • Higher-capacity fuel tanks.
  • More space to store luggage.

Due to their accommodations for distance riding, touring bikes are often the biggest and heaviest type of motorcycle available. They also tend to have more comfortable seats that keep you in a more natural sitting position.

While a touring bike may not be the top choice for a new rider—especially if you're not planning on taking your bike long distances—they may easier to handle than a cruiser and safer for a beginner than a sport bike.

Sport Touring Bikes

A sub-category of touring motorcycles, these bikes represent a hybrid. In general, they tend to be a sportier, smaller version of a touring bike, and may also:

  • Have more luggage capacity than a sport bike.
  • Weigh less than a touring bike.
  • Have different types of engines, suspensions, and brakes than a touring bike.
  • Handle turns and curves differently than a touring bike.

Still, the distinctive line between a sport touring bike and a touring bike is often blurry, and many motorcycle insurance companies will categorize different makes of these bikes differently.

Sport Bikes

When you see a sleek, compact motorcycle rocket past you on the highway, it's most likely a sport bike. These machines were built for the thrill of speed, and, compared to other types of motorcycle, typically have:

  • High-performance engines.
  • Lightweight body frames.
  • Better braking systems and suspension.
  • Easier handling.
  • More aerodynamic fairings and windscreens.
  • Higher foot pegs and longer reach to hand controls.
    • This forces you to lean forward when riding and also shifts the bike's center of gravity forward.

The concentration on power and speed often results in sport bikes having less fuel efficiency than other types of motorcycles.

And despite the screen, you'll have to lean forward into the wind, making riding these bikes a generally more tiring experience. The longer reach to controls will also cause more weight to be put on your arms and wrists when riding, especially at lower speeds.

While lightweight and easy braking and handling may make these bikes appealing to beginners, the adaptations for higher speeds may make them a more dangerous choice than other types of bikes.

Cruiser Motorcycles

Cruiser motorcycles—also called “choppers"—are frequently produced by high-profile manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and are often custom bikes.

Still, they are generally similar in terms of riding position, with a rider's:

  • Feet stretched out forward.
  • Hands placed high, about shoulder height.
  • Back upright or, more often, slightly reclined.

While you typically don't need to shift as frequently with a cruiser to accelerate or maintain control, their riding position makes them more uncomfortable for longer trips.

Lack of ground clearance also makes a cruiser motorcycle harder to handle around curves. Overall, they are not typically recommended for new motorcycle riders.

Off-Road Bikes

Also referred to as “dirt bikes," off-road bikes were made for rougher terrain than pavement and come ready to handle different surfaces like dirt, sand, and grass.

They also allow you to more easily jump and slide on your bike.

In general, compared to street bikes, these motorcycles have:

  • Lighter weight.
  • More rugged/simplified construction.
  • Thicker, knobbier tire treads.
  • Better suspension.

If you're new to motorcycling in general, you should proceed with caution when riding a dirt bike, especially in bumpier or less friendly terrain.

Dual-Purpose Bikes

These machines are a hybrid of street and off-road motorcycles. While they're equipped for recreational trail riding, they also have added features to make the bike street-legal and available for paved road driving, such as:

  • Horns.
  • Headlights.
  • Turn signals.
  • Side-view mirrors.

Still, compared to a traditional street bike, a dual-purpose machine will typically have:

  • A taller seat.
  • A higher center of gravity.
  • Better suspension.

Dual-purpose motorcycles' similarity to street bikes generally makes them a good choice for riders who want to start exploring off-road activities.

Adventure Motorcycles

These are more specialized bikes for a specialized purpose: riding long distances both on and off the road.

Essentially, an adventure motorcycle is a touring version of a dual-purpose bike, and, similarly to touring motorcycles, they are often:

  • Larger in size.
  • Heavier.

When applied to the road, these attributes may make adventure bikes easier or more comfortable to ride; however, they also make it more difficult for the bike to go off-road or make jumps or slides.

If you're interested in an adventure motorcycle, you should also be wary of:

  • Gas prices.
    • Adventure bikes typically need higher-grade gasoline.
  • Maintenance concerns.
    • If you are buying the bike for the purpose of riding long distances on it, you'll want one with easily fixed and replaceable parts. Some adventure bikes have very specialized components, making them harder to fix just anywhere.

Scooters & Mopeds

In general, a scooter or moped will be easier for conducting day-to-day activities when you're riding around town, but are not recommended for the highway. They usually have all-enclosing bodywork and, compared to motorcycles, are typically:

  • Smaller (both body and wheel size).
  • Quieter (due to smaller engines).
  • Not as fast.
  • Have more built-in storage space.

Many scooters also have automatic clutches, making them easier to ride and good vehicles on which to learn how to ride a motorcycle.

Choosing Your Perfect Bike

Once you've made the decision to purchase a motorcycle, you can apply the above criteria to make sure you walk away with the bike of your dreams. To review in short:

  • Assess and be honest with yourself about your experience level.
  • From there, think about the reasons why you're buying a motorcycle.
  • Take into account the types of roads and terrain on which you'll use the bike.
  • As always, make sure it's within your budget!

Follow these rules, and you'll be hitting the open roads with the wind in your hair in no time.

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