Much like cars, there are many different types of motorcycles.
This guide will give you some idea of what’s what.
As with all “guides” this is based on my personal opinion which is mostly in line with “normal” motorcyclists, but as always, where undefined terms are used, there will be some discussion as to if a certain bike is this or that style. Things that help define the different style of bikes are: rider position, hand position, engine size and engine power delivery.
Conversation is encouraged. If you want to argue, please go elsewhere. 🙂
sports bike, super sports bike, cruiser, sports bike, cruiser, sports bike?, Adventure bike, cruiser
Motorcycles have been around since 1867, when Ernest Michaux put an industrial engine on one of his Velocipedes, which is a cool word used for a bike-cycle (vs a bike, which is what I personally call motorcycles). Here’s a very interesting video on the history of motorcycles and will expose you to a lot of the types of bike’s I’ll mention below. Just for a quick list I’ll be explaining:
Traditional types of bikes:
Cruiser (heavyweight cruiser)
Baggers (a subset of cruisers)
Crotch rockets (Sport bikes if you prefer)
Naked BIkes (don’t worry it’s PG and Safe to read at work),
Dual Sports (Enduros, Supermotos)
Scooters (not really a motorcycle!)
Trikes, Tadpoles and others
Types of motorcycles
The first group of bikes I’ll review is what is probably the most plentiful types of motorcycles. They are also the oldest types of bikes.
Cruiser: Harley Davidson. Their most common type of bike is a cruiser. Just saying the name should put the general idea in peoples heads. Cruisers have a seating position that is “feet-forward”, ahead of the rider. The handle bars are wide and high, usually. There are heavy cruisers and lightweight cruisers and they can range in engine displacement from over 1818 cc (cubic centimeters), (111 CI – cubic inches), to as low as 125cc. As their name implies, cruisers are used for driving long distances in relative comfort.
This is a stereotypical Harley “Cruiser” 1989 Harley Davidson Softail Custom. This is a pretty generic crusier. It has a large seat. The foot pegs are in front of the rider. It has mini ape hanger handle bars. The rider sits in a slightly reclined position. This is me, 2010, I think. Don’t judge too much!
What is a bagger?
Touring bikes, often called baggers are a subset of cruisers that I think deserve a separate mention. They have their own magazine, which is enough for me. Also they generally add a few things over a basic cruiser. Basically a larger front fairing and the cargo bags. These bags can be hard (plastic or metal), or soft (leather).
This is a “custom” Bagger. It has a larger front tire and the rear is lower than a “normal” bagger. See the hard bags on the rear. Also it has a large front faring.
What is a bobber?
Bobbers are another subset of cruisers. They were probably the first type of custom bike. The story goes that the style was started by WWII vets returning and having the need for speed. The frames generally remain unmodified, because modifying a frame is expensive and time consuming. The rest of the bike has been modified to be lighter, more nimble, faster and “cooler” than the stock bike. The name bobber references the rear fender of these bikes which has been “bobbed” which means shortened (Think bobcat, short tail!). These bikes almost exclusively have solo seats. These were made by young guys from older bikes to be cool. They also often remove any excess parts such as long air cleaners, replacing them with pod filters, turn signals, instead opting for hand signals, and as mentioned large seats and fenders. I would liken bobbers to the rat rods or traditional rods of the car world.Like a rat rod, go is before show!
Bobcat, bobber. same thing, more or less. You probably shouldn’t try to ride a bobcat. Just a thought.
This is a Bobber. This one doesn’t have a rear fender, but you can tell it’s a bobber pretty easily. It has the straight across handle bars and a solo seat.
The rust surface finish, few mufflers on the exhaust headers and Punisher spray painted in the grill are clues that this car is all about fun and is a rat rod
What is a chopper motorcycle?
Choppers are another type of custom bike built from cruisers. The one requirement for a chopper is that the front forks are extended or raked. This gives the chopper the long and low appearance. On older bikes perhaps extended forks were only used, as it was difficult to change the rake, but more recent choppers feature a more aggressive rake. This brings the engine closer to the ground. Compare the distance between the bottom of the engine and the ground on this classic chopper (from Easy Rider the movie) and a modern chopper. Choppers also can go a few ways with the handle bars, either very high (ape hangers) or some form of shorter and wider. They often have wider rear tires. Choppers are really more for style than performance. The long front forks make them hard to maneuver, except in straight line performance where they do perform decent because of their, usually large engine, and wide rear tires. I would like choppers to customs of the car world, they are about style.
Classic Chopper. Notice angle and distance between the bottom of the engine and the ground. Also note the large “ape-hanger” handle bars.
A modern chopper. Notice how close the engine is to the ground (and that it’s parallel to the ground. Also notice the swept back handle cars .
This custom is identifies by it’s lack of billet rims and clean paint.
The next group of bikes are based on performance. As such I am calling the Speed-type bikes.
What is a café racer?
The “café” in café racer refers to the guys who built them to race bar to bar in Britain in the 1960’s and 70’s, bars being called café by our friends across the pond. Café Racers are similar to bobbers in that they are generally stripped down versions of production bikes. They are also generally solo rider bikes. The seating position is where bobbers and cafe racers diverge from each other. Café racers often have clubman bars or clip-on handlebars vs. the straight across bars of a bobber. Clip on handle bars are bars where each handle is clipped directly to the front suspension forks. This is as opposed to normal bars which are one piece and bolted on to the top of the forks. Your feet are below or behind you on a café racer vs. in front of you on a bobber. Café racers are traditionally built from 1960’s and 70’s British bikes, Norton’s, Triumph’s and BSA’s. But in the last 10 years there has been a huge resurgence in popularity of café racers. They are now being built out of just about every motorcycle imaginable. 1980’s Japanese motorcycles are a popular platform for modern café racers because of their cheap purchase priced and relative reliability.
Yamaha Cafe racer. Notice the clip on handle bars. The seating position under the rider and the solo seat parallel to the ground.
What is a crotch rocket?
There are a few types of bikes that fall under a the term crotch rocket. The first is a sports bike, and although I personally don’t often use the term crotch rocket for these some people do. These are bikes that aren’t as extreme as a supersport we’ll discuss next. I would call a Suzuki SV650 (2 cylinders) or a Kawasaki Ninja 300 a sports bike. They are made for performance but they don’t usually have clip on handlebars, instead opting for a little more upright seating position. This makes them slightly more comfortable than a supersport (see below) Your feet can be below or just slightly behind you. They generally have good performance compared to a cruiser bike in terms of speed and cornering.
Suzuki SV650, This is a sports bike because it has less horsepower (about 65 h vs 100 hp of a supersport) and a slightly more upright seating position. Compared to super sport bikes, sport bikes also have less fairings. compart to the GSXR 600 below.
A supersport bike is a step up from a sport bike. They are a bike that is basically a (very slightly) detuned race bike. When referring to crotch rockets, I generally exclusively use the term to mean supersport bikes. They are an evolution of the cafe racer. The seating position on cafe racers and supersports bikes is basically the same. It is a very aggressive stance, which is dictated by the clip on handlebars and your foot position below or behind you. This provides good aerodynamics and handling. The aerodynamics are accentuated by a fairing, usually more faring than a sports bike will have. The engines are 600-1400 cubic centimeters and these days usually over 100 horsepower. They have very high redlines for their engines, up to 16500 RPM for some 600’s and a little less for the larger 1300 and 1400 cc engines. They almost exclusively have inline 4 cylinder engines.
Supersport (what I call a crotch rocket almost exclusively) 2008 GSXR 600. notice the fairing and clip on handle bars.
What is a naked bike? What is a street fighter bike? (don’t worry it’s PG and Safe to read at work)
Naked bikes are an evolution of a supersport bike, and to confuse you more they can also be called street fighters (sounds cooler to me). Why would you modify a good supersport bike you ask? Good question. Naked bikes are usually built when a supersport is wrecked, which happens pretty often given that most people who ride them have more money than brains, and since rockets are cheap speed that sure doesn’t equal much brains. (I own a rocket, take that as you will.) The fairings are removed (because they are scratched or broken) and a less aggressive seating position is desired so often motocross style handlebars are added. The fairings being removed reduces the bikes aerodynamics but this is ok as most naked bikes are more than powerful enough compared to the skill of their riders, just being honest.
This is your typical Streetfighter/naked bike
That was a joke obviously, although that’s how a lot of them start. Below is a picture of a streetfigher a friend built in college. Compare the street fighter to the stock bike below it. (It’s not the exact same bike, but same model, obviously Frankie’s started out black, not red)
My friend, Frankie’s, Street fighter. Built out of a wrecked Honda F3 600. Originally a super sport crotch rocket. It’s a naked bike/street fighter because the faring are all removed, Covering the front of the bike, the sides of the engine, and the rear under tail faring. A new front headlight was added. Rear view mirrors were removed. The stock clip-ons were retained but were swapped, side to side. They come with a downward angle so this flattened them out, giving a more upright rider position.
A stock F3 Honda 600 for comparison to Frankie’s street fighter above.
On Road/ Off Road bikes.
Up until now, we have looked at bikes that are best used on pavement. Now we’ll look at a few bikes that are good both on and off the paved road.
What is an Adventure bike?
Adventure bikes are similar to baggers and touring bikes in that they are meant to travel. But they will take you down the road and then back into the mountains, across the desert or through the stream. They are probably the most versatile bike around. They should be very easy to spot by their larger size, upright riding position and general utilitarian appearance.
What is a dirt bike?
A dirt bike is not actually an on road bike, but it’s the basis for a few so I thought I should mention it. Basically a dirt bike is a motorcycle that’s meant to be ridden off road, through ponds, over jumps, in mud, sand, snow. They have a lot of suspension travel and are lighter than most on road motorcycles. They also have “knobbies”, tires with a lot of tread for digging your way through, mud, sand and dirt.
Hare scramble I raced my dirt bike in. It’s a 2 stroke! Honda 125 cc
What is a Dual sport? What is an Enduro?
These are all bikes based on dirtbikes. An Enduro or endurance race is a long off road race. This is where the term Enduro stems from. So technically an enduro is an offroad bike but many people use the term for street legal dirt bikes also. Another term for these is a dual sport. The dual referring to on and off road use. These bikes generally have very little modification from the dirtbikes they are based off. Maybe slightly less knobby tires to give a little better street ride. They also have turn signals and headlights, required for street use. Other than that, these are generally the same as their off road counterparts.
What is a Supermoto?
A supermoto is also a slightly modified dirt bike. Like a dual sport, it has the parts to make it street legal. They are based off a race series called supermoto, thus giving them the name.The main difference between an Enduro and a Supermoto is the tires. Supermotos have smooth street tires. See the pictures below of a Yamaha WR250 street and dirtbike. Not much different!
2012 WR250 dirtbike
WR250 Supermoto. See the street tires and exhaust, headlights and turn signals.
Scooters (not really a motorcycle!)
I only take a second to mention scooters and mopeds because they are also 2 wheeled machines. They are much more utilitarian than motorcycles in that they are generally used for short in town trips. They also have a step-through design where your feet are in front of you. Usually, they are limited to something between 35 and 45 mph but there are scooters that will do upwards of 65 mph. Like most things, you’ll know one when you see one. 850 cc Aprilia v-twin 76hp, still a scooter?
A scooter, notice the frame with your feet
Trikes, Tadpoles, and other things:
There are also many bikes that have 3 wheels. Some have 2 in the back like a traditional trike. Some have 2 in the front like the new Polaris Slingshot or a Campagna T-Rex. Someone called these Tadpoles once due to their resemblance to one with a wide front and skinny back. I thought that was pretty dang funny. Do these count as motorcycles? Who knows, but I felt obligated to give them a quick shout out for the heck of it.
Tadople. Slingshot. T-rex? I see a resemblance!
Campagna Tadpole? (Actually a Campagna T-rex)
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So after all that, what is your favorite type of motorcycle?
What type hadn’t you heard of before?
What type do you own?
What will be your next one?
Which bikes did I miss?
What kind of bike to you think this Harley Sportster below is?
Harley XR1200 race bike
After this nice article about classifying bikes I will confuse you thoroughly by giving you a bike that almost defies definition. It is based off a Harley Sportster so is it a cruiser? It has clip on handle bars and behind the rider seat position so is it a crotch rocket? Is it a cafe racer? Who knows. All I know is I think it’s sweet! What do you think it is?
I’ll see you on the road
available, just ask!