The Language We Use to Describe Motorcycles
It’s good to keep in mind that how we describe a “type” of motorcycle is in some cases as much about marketing as it is about function. Motorcycles, like much of the eras from which they originate, run from crude to elaborate. For riders at the turn of the 20th century there was no difference between a street or off road motorcycle. Riders went were they could or at least as far as their bikes would take them. These machines represented the highest technology of their day but choices remained limited.
Today, bikes are broken down by class and category. Motorcycles evolved, and like cars, so did their applications.
So to make sense of the language used to describe different types of bikes, this guide offers some core characteristics for each category.
Offroad bikes, often referred to as “dirt bikes,” are designed for durability and performance on uneven surfaces. Offroad bikes lack necessary equipment to ride on the streets. They are lighter machines that use longer suspensions and have higher ground clearances. Knobby tires and simple body work with no fairings are also earmarks of offroad bikes.
In the past, these were referred to as Standard because they represented your standard, no-frills street bike. These include upright pedal controls with handlebars that allow a rider to sit in an upright position. These do not include fairings or windscreens. Nakeds range in power and are good for all-around use.
In many ways, this is more of a marketing term to describe street legal bikes trimmed and tuned for going off road, hence the term “dual sport.”
The idea of dual sport is an old one, considering that in past eras motorcyclists might travel frequently over dirt roads or trails outside of urban areas.
Dual sport bikes might make use of motocross frames and engines with added hardware to make them street legal. And though these might perform well on dirt they might be uncomfortable on long trips. These types of bikes provide a balance between comfort, power, and durability, but manufactures have to make compromises, as the bike is not intended for a single style of riding. The frame might be lighter and power limited to meet the needs of offroad riding, for instance.
Manufacturers might approach dual sport bike development from a motocross perspective, adapting an off road bike model to meet the legal requirements for street riding. Other manufacturers might come from the other direction, designing a powerful and heavy street bike with off roading capabilities.
Manufactures use different language in describing dual sport motorcycles. Underneath this umbrella of “dual sport” there are a few subsets in the category. These include the following:
Enduro is more of a way of explaining the type of trial racing used for bikes that can travel on and off-road. These races use longer tracks that offer a mix of off road track with smaller portions of street riding. Typically, no portion of the track is repeated. Riders must meet time requirements on designated legs of the track. Racers face a variety of challenging terrains including narrow trails, waterways, deep-rutted trails and harsh weather. One of the oldest of these types of races is the International Six Days of Enduro Race.
Bikes used in enduro combine elements of a motocross bike with some specific conversions to meet machine and performance requirements. They combine the longer suspensions of a motocross machine with engines that are durable for longer travel. Larger gas tanks might also be added. Depending on the event, race organizers can specify additional or different types of parts used on the bike, such as a headlight, street-legal exhaust systems, or narrow handlebars for riding between trees and around other obstacles.
Riders ride in classes consisting of bikes with 2- or 4-stroke engines and anywhere between sizes 125 cc and 650 cc. Eligible bikes must meet class designations as well as other equipment requirements imposed by race organizers. Enduro machines are made for maneuverability and durability—both of which are essential in enduro racing.
Some manufacturers do use the term “enduro” to describe their dual sport motorcycles.
These bikes are big and they are heavy. Adventure touring bikes are basically street bikes with shorter suspensions, powerful motors, mixed tread types for street and offroad use. These bikes can carry gear and can weigh up to 500 pounds.
More of a sport bike trimmed for off road use, but probably more comfortable on the pavement than dirt. Adventure sport bikes are heavy and designed for accessory add-ons for travel. The size of these bikes can range up to 1200 cc and though suitable for service roads, they are not the best choice for trail riding.
Made for long distance travel, touring motorcycles use powerful motors and hefty weights to carry gear such as luggage. These types of bikes are feature-rich and include accessories, built in communication systems, and other technical add-ons.
Touring bikes also include fairings and a windshield with comfortable seats and large gas tanks.
Many larger metric and U.S. domestic manufacturers produce bikes for this market, such as Yamaha, Suzuki and Harley Davidson. One classic example of a touring motorcycle is the Honda Goldwing.
Cruiser bikes embody some of the earliest production bikes made. These bikes include custom and factory-made machines such as Harleys. Bikes in this class include a lower clearance and foot-forward pedals. The ergonomics of the rider’s sitting position might suffer for the sake of style. A lower seat height, reclining rider position, and forward controls make these bikes ideal for shorter distances, but might be inappropriate for longer distances resulting in rider fatigue. Sometimes cruisers are referred to as “bar hoppers” to describe their practical use as a short-distance machine.
Manufacturers might use custom handlebars, such as ape hangers, large and loud exhaust systems, and lots of chrome.
Using large air or liquid cooled v-twin engines that have lower torque simplifies acceleration with less shifting between gears.
The classic era of cruisers is considered to be bikes manufactured between 1930 and 1950 and include such iconic brands as Indian and Harley Davidson.
With an emphasis on performance, sport bikes are agile, powerful machines made for acceleration and handling.
Rider position is forward, with the center of gravity near the tank. Foot pegs are higher to create greater ground clearance when cornering and to allow a rider to tuck to improve the aerodynamics around the bike. The necessity of tucking also helps eliminate hand and wrist fatigue that might result from the forward ergonomics of sport bikes.
Sport bikes include fairings and windscreens to decrease drag. Larger tires grant more tire surface area on the road, providing increased lean angles on cornering.