Motorcycle Categories Explained!
What’s the difference between a Sports Bike and Sports Tourer? How does a Cruiser compare to a Standard motorcycle? What on earth is an Adventure bike anyways? Here’s your complete guide to motorcycle categories so you’ll never be in the dark again.
Frustrated with the constraints of modern life, a grizzled adventurer sets out to explore the hinterlands, unsupported, on this most rugged of machines. Years later, now sporting a beard, the ADV rider emerges from the wilderness equipped with the wisdom of the road. All you need to do the same is to write BMW a very large check, then add a little more for some own-brand riding gear.
It turns out that riding a really, really heavy bike off-road is actually really, really hard. It also turns out that — despite the advertising — really, really heavy, really, really complicated bikes are quite fragile, requiring the most expensive gasoline, routine fettling by specially trained mechanics, thousands of dollars in aftermarket protection parts and a long and dedicated approach to learning the specific riding skills necessary. It also turns out that most people are buying ADV bikes for that rugged, bearded image, not to actually take them to far away places. Knowing that all the motorcycle companies these days make big ADV bikes that are actually just tall tourers. Muster the courage to actually take one onto the dirt and you’ll be shocked at just how poorly they perform. You see JUMPS and SLIDES and ACTION in all the promotional material, but the reality is that it’s incredibly hard just to ride one down a dirt trail at walking pace. Good luck.
Want to actually explore far away places? You’ll want something as light, simple and common as possible. That way it’ll be easy to ride and easy to pick up when you drop it; easy to fix and unlikely to need much work; and you’ll actually be able to find parts and tires and gas for it in Timbuktu. Large-capacity dual sports from the Japanese manufacturers haven’t received many updates in 20 years, but that’s a good thing — parts are common, they’re dead simple and most mechanics already have experience with them. Fit a large fuel tank, fix the ergonomics and you’re good to go, often for a fraction of the price of so-called “Adventure” bikes.
So why do we rate ADV bikes so highly and ride them so often? The reality is that — on the road at least — they’re versatile, comfortable machines that are equally at home carrying a passenger, carving a mountain road or putting in huge miles on the open highway. What makes them uniquely good at all that is that they do one thing most other motorcycles forget: they’re comfortable.
“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
“What’ve you got?”
Oh, that most iconic image of motorcycling. It’s as tangible a part of American culture as the cowboy, but unlike getting around by horse, it’s now available with Low Monthly Payments ™.
In pursuit of some ideal motorcycle look from the past and subjective “character,” all objective standards of motorcycle performance go out the window. And we’re not just talking about speed. Like using brakes to slow down? The raked-out front forks that define the cruiser look work against you, meaning the front wheel locks up long before meaningful decelerative force can be achieved. Like comfort? Placing your legs way out to the front means you can’t put any weight on them, directing all your pounds and every single little bump through your spine. Like to ride around in confident ease? The immense weight exaggerates all the other problems created by the cruiser archetype, limiting performance, increasing braking distances, ruining handling and making this type of motorcycle very hard to ride, even at the fairly limited speeds that they’re capable of. But none of that matters, because this is all about buying into a lifestyle, one in which very serious men spend a lot of time with other very serious men while wearing leather chaps.
There are more kinds of motorcycles than cruisers and sportbikes. Want to recapture the simple ease and the classic good looks of the past? How about a nice retro standard like a Triumph Bonneville; it’s actually what Marlon Brando rode in “The Wild One.” Want character and history? Moto Guzzis have been handmade in the same factory in Northern Italy since 1921, are equipped with simple, air-cooled v-twins, but also manage actual performance, braking, handling, comfort, and safety rivaling that of modern machines. No chaps required.
A dirt bike with a license plate! You can commute on weekdays, taking advantage of the light weight, narrow proportions and tall riding position to destroy traffic, then ride to the trails on the weekend and carve up some dirt.
Actually, this is one category that totally lives up to its promise. Some dual sports are a little more street oriented, some a little more dirt-focused. Just be honest with yourself about what kind of riding you plan to do and buy accordingly. Want the best of both worlds? The second set of wheels allows you to go all road safety with one and dirt performance with the other. Also be aware of the maintenance requirements of some of the faster machines; most KTMs and such are incredible to ride but have maintenance intervals measured in tens of hours, not thousands of miles.
And you can have all this versatile awesomeness for cheaper than you might think. The Honda CRF250L is just $4,500 and costs pennies to run. Ride it to work, ride it to trails, take it camping, whatever you want, it’ll do it.
All the speed, handling and fun of a sports bike in a package you can live with day-to-day. Ride thousands of miles to a fun road or track, then have a blast once you’re there.
As Baby Boomers aged out of sports bikes, the manufacturers spent most of the last decade transforming this once-practical class into an expensive farce in one extreme and, as spending power reached unprecedented levels last decade, an outrageous, high-speed horsepower war in another extreme. Bikes like the VFR1200, Hayabusa, ZX-14, Concours 14, K1600GT etc etc etc are long ways from the honest capability offered by sports tourers of yore like the VFR800 or Ducati ST2.
What you want is capability only slightly blunted by comfort and practicality, combined with styling that’s simple more…mature than tribal ghost flame skulls. It turns out you can have a genuinely track-capable, totally awesome sport bike that just-so-happens to be all-day comfortable in the form of the Honda CBR600RR. They may not advertise it that way, but it’s the closest thing to the original sport tourer image that’s out there. Want a little more practicality at the expense of razor sharp handling? The Kawasaki Ninja 1000 has a powerful motor, upright seating position, adequate pillion accommodation, hard luggage and a huge fairing, all at a fairly reasonable price.
The fastest vehicles on the road aren’t $200,000 Ferraris, they’re $15,000 sports bikes. Pretty much anyone with a decent job can afford to buy one. Bad ass, bro.
Race-bred machines require racer-like skill to operate competently. The vast majority of sports bikes are bought by young men with…inadequacy issues, no experience and are promptly crashed. Want to look like Marc Marquez or maybe just be capable of impressing a girl with how fast you can go? Then you need to invest a lifetime practicing, working your way up the ranks and just getting better before you’re ready to ride even a 600, much less a 1,000. Sports Bikes are called that for a reason, riding them is a sport. Were you a starting quarterback for an NFL team the first time you played football? Don’t expect to be able to operate a fast motorcycle until you invest an equal amount of time and practice into becoming a two-wheeled athlete.
Just like any sport, practice makes perfect. You didn’t learn to play football by going up against professional linebackers, so don’t try and learn to ride a sports bike by starting on something that’ll do 200mph. Bikes like the Honda CBR250R, CBR500R and Kawasaki Ninja 300 are specifically designed as tools to help you practice and develop skills. Once you’ve mastered one of them, move up to something like a Kawasaki Ninja 650 or Yamaha FZ6R. Take classes, read books, do track days and, years down the road, when you’re ready, move up to a 600. Take more classes, read more books, do more track days and, years down the road, when you’re ready, move up to a liter bike. Once you’ve done that, you’ll realize that on-paper numbers are irrelevant and what you really want is a Triumph Daytona 675 R, probably the best handling bike out right now.
Did you know that motorcycles actually make far more practical personal transportation than a car? Lower prices, lower running costs, greater fuel economy, easy parking and they neither contribute to congestion nor make you sit in traffic. Of course, to achieve that practicality, you need a nice practical motorcycle. One that’s comfortable and easy to ride and light and simple and capable. That’s the standard motorcycle.
The problem is, most standards just aren’t that sexy. Walk into a Suzuki showroom, and which bike are you immediately drawn to, the SFV650 or GSX-R600? Standards also often sacrifice much mechanical specification in order to achieve low prices. Suspension, brakes and motors don’t tend to be as good as other, fancier types of motorcycle.
The Honda CB500F starts at just $5,500 (ABS is $500 more, spend the money) and gives you all the bike you’ll ever need. At 71mpg, it’s cheap to run too, something further emphasized by the fitment of reasonable size tires and an engine with low maintenance requirements. Buy one and never drive a car ever again.
Never had tacos in Mexico? Fresh Fish in Nova Scotia and still have a state or two to check off before you can claim all 50? Hit the open road and ride for days, weeks, months or even the rest of your life.
Big touring bikes are great at doing the distance. Once you’re out on the open road, nothing is more comfortable, allowing you to sit back, turn on the stereo, enjoy a sandwich and just take in the sights. The problem is, all those luxury features, huge engines and hard luggage make them unwieldy anywhere that isn’t Route 66. Using one every day would be like driving a Winnebago to work.
You really can’t match the long-distance comfort of something like the Honda Gold Wing or BMW K1600GTL. Smaller Sport Tourers like Yamaha FJR1300 get close, but a passenger is never going to fall asleep on the back of one. Most people that own a Gold Wing, also own something smaller that they ride day-to-day or several bikes, giving them the ability to choose whether they want to hit a trail, a city, a track or yes, the open road.