Motorcycling was a lot easier to understand 50 years ago. All road bikes looked liked motorcycles drawn by a five-year old, off-road bikes were the same but with knobbly tyres, learner bikes were the same but smaller, and sidecar outfits were the same but with a small caravan attached by tent poles. Nowadays it’s all rather more complicated.
So, if you’re just dipping your toe into this wondrous world – a very warm welcome, by the way – here are the main categories of motorcycle explained.
Styled to look as though they could head to Kathmandu without bothering with roads, these are biking’s equivalent of the Range Rover. But here’s the irony: they’re fantastic road bikes, but are actually pretty frightening off road because they’re so heavy. Most owners wisely never venture onto dirt and instead enjoy the comfy riding position, superb weather protection and supple suspension on tarmac. Adventure bikes tend to be tall machines with big engines – the best-seller is BMW’s 1254cc R1250GS – but there are smaller versions, such as the Suzuki V-Strom 250.
Perfect example: BMW R1250GS
Tell-tale signs: Towering seat height, beak, rider wearing textiles
If you can picture a Harley-Davidson, you know what a cruiser is – long, low and with a relaxed V-twin engine (ie it’s got two cylinders arranged in a V). Though they can thunder away from traffic lights faster than almost any sportscar, cruisers are not about outright performance. Instead, they’re designed to look cool while chugging lazily along. Most are Harleys, but plenty of other manufacturers have at least one in their range.
Perfect example: Harley Fat Boy
Tell-tale signs: Low seat, dazzling chrome, rider wearing open face helmet
The descendants of proper motorbikes like your grandad rode – no fancy fairings, just two wheels and an engine. You sit relatively upright, so they’re comfortable, but are designed to be agile too – very different to a cruiser. They’re fun to hustle round bends. Some are absurdly fast, essentially full-bore sportsbikes without the fairings, but most are fantastic beginner and intermediate bikes. The lack of fairings makes them cheaper too.
Perfect example: Yamaha MT-07
Tell-tale signs: No fairing, exposed engine, rider wearing jeans and jacket
These are known as race replicas for good reason – they’re road-going versions of race bikes, complete with full fairings, firm suspension and highly tuned engines. The upside of all this is their performance in perfect conditions: it’s stupendous. No bike is faster round a racetrack. The downside is their riding position, which puts lots of weight on your wrists and cramps your legs – not great for long journeys or pootling round town. Though most big manufacturers have a sportsbike as their flagship, there are plenty of beginner-friendly smaller-capacity versions.
Perfect example: Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade
Tell-tale signs: Full fairing, lots of Rs, rider wearing race leathers
Big, sumptuous and covered in luggage; if you want to rack up big miles on holiday with a passenger, you need a tourer. Well, that’s not quite true because lots of bikes can tour, but a tourer makes it so damn easy. A good tourer will make cruising all day at 85mph feel utterly effortless (cruisers, on the other hand, don’t like that at all – they’re happier at 60), and they usually have all the latest gizmos such as stereos, heated seats and central locking for the luggage. They are, unsurprisingly, expensive.
Perfect example: BMW R1250RT
Tell-tale signs: Vast fairing, vast luggage, rider and pillion wearing intercom
The lovechild of a sportsbike that got jiggy with a tourer. Sports tourers are lighter and more nimble than tourers, but considerably more comfortable than sportsbikes. They’re a compromise, but a good one, and used to be very popular. However, adventure bikes are even more comfortable, only marginally less capable round corners, and – crucially – give the impression the rider might be heading off on a daring global adventure. Consequently, there aren’t so many sports tourers about these days.
Perfect example: Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX
Tell-tale signs: Fairing, sporty look, rider wearing black leathers
If you want to commute across town during the week and ride local trails at the weekend, a dual sport (or dual purpose) is just the job – it’s a road-legal bike that’s excellent off road. Unlike adventure bikes, most of which are road bikes with off-road styling, dual sports are proper off-road bikes adapted for the road. Consequently, they’re light (almost half the weight of a big adventure bike) wear tyres that can grip in mud, and have big bump-friendly front wheels. The downside of the off-road potential is they lack a few road-based skills – they tend to be too slow and uncomfortable for long journeys and the knobbly tyres can be sketchy round tarmac corners, especially in the wet.
Perfect example: Honda CRF450L
Telltale signs: No fairing, plastered in mud, rider wearing goggles
An old motorcycle. The question is, how old is old? There’s no exact definition but for most riders anything made before 1980 is definitely a classic. As you go back in time there are subsets – a veteran motorcycle is one made before 1915, for example, and a vintage bike is anything pre-1975 (according to the Vintage Motorcycle Club, though Americans will call anything vintage). Bikes made between 1980 and 1995 can be modern classics, depending how they’re regarded. So an acclaimed bike like a 1992 Honda Fireblade is a nailed-on modern classic, but a similarly old Suzuki GS500 is not.
Perfect example: 1969 Triumph Bonneville T120
Telltale signs: No fairing, lots of chrome, rider carrying spanners
These are designed specifically to go off-road – no compromises, and not legal on the road. They’re light, accelerate hard, have sophisticated suspension and knobbly tyres. Most are competition bikes, built for motocross racing (short laps with challenging, often manmade, obstacles), enduro racing (longer laps of natural obstacles) or trials (get over obstacles without putting your feet down). A few bikes are bought for off-road leisure riding, though as they’re not road legal you’re limited where you can go.
Perfect example: KTM 450 SX-F
Telltale signs: No fairing, sky-high saddle, rider wearing lairy pyjamas
At last, an easy one – scooters haven’t changed much since the 1947 Vespa. If it’s got small wheels, a floorboard for your feet and an automatic gearbox, it’s a scooter. They’re great city transport, with decent weather protection, loads of storage under the saddle and no gears or clutch to worry about – you just twist and go. Several manufacturers sell bigger versions – maxi scooters – that can hit far higher speeds and handle motorway travel.
Perfect example: Honda PCX125
Telltale signs: Small wheels, footboards, rider in shirt sleeves
Technically, a moped is a motorcycle with pedals, but these days it’s used to refer to any bike with an engine smaller than 50cc. If you’re 16, you can ride a moped on L plates once you’ve passed your CBT (Compulsory Basic Training). If you passed your car driving test before Feb 2001 you can ride a moped with no further training or tests. Mopeds are restricted to 30mph, so they’re not great for long distances, but they’re economical, great in town and get you on the motorcycle ladder.
Perfect example: Mash Roadstar 50
Telltale signs: Titchy (50cc) engine, motorcycle looks, rider holding throttle to the stop
When someone has significantly changed the look of a motorcycle on purpose (as opposed to crashing it into a Fiesta), it has been customised, and is called a custom. Some are works of art (really; they’re in art galleries), some are astonishing feats of engineering, and some are abominations. These days there are distinct styles of custom, each with their own rules and fans. Choppers have kicked out forks and no rear suspension, trackers look like dirt track racers, cafe racers look like 1950s sports bikes, bobbers have as much as possible removed or cut down, and street fighters are sportsbikes with high bars and the fairings removed (lots are initiated by altercations with Fiestas, or hedges…)
Perfect example: Harley chopper
Telltale signs: Looks unique, lots of machined parts, rider glowing with pride