In some respects, motorcycles are like power tools: there are dozens of manufacturers building them and almost too many different kinds to even count, but each one is designed to be best at a specific job. Unlike power tools, though, motorcycles can stir the soul — and take you on adventures that you'll never forget.
If you’re new to the two-wheeled world or thinking about diving in, though, the myriad types of bikes out there can be confusing. It can help to know the difference between sport and sport-touring, what separates a café racer from a scrambler — and to understand that the term ‘naked’ can take on a whole new meaning in some contexts.
So to help sort through all those terms, we’ve put together this handy guide to several different common types of motorcycles you should know.
Standard motorcycles are some of the most common types of bikes on the road. What makes them so popular is their easy-going ergonomics. The fairly upright riding position with semi-forward-set footpegs doesn’t force the rider to ride with outstretched legs or cramped arms like on other types of bike.
You’ll also hear ‘sport standard’ thrown around; all that means is a standard-type motorcycle with added performance courtesy of power or handling upgrades.
Café Racer and Scrambler Motorcycles
Café racers and scramblers can also slot in under the “standard” banner. Café racers tend to have a more aggressive, forward-leaning seating position, while scramblers look more akin to dirt bikes — but at their cores, both are specialized standard bikes.
You can look at café racers as more of a hot rod, or an old-school road bike with a healthy amount of racing flair poured on. Scramblers go in the opposite direction and take on an off-road spirit — they’re still recognizable as a standard motorcycle, but with longer suspension travel, spoke wheels and dirt bike-like handlebars, they showcase a dirt-loving personality.
Adventure touring (also known as “ADV”) motorcycles are some of the most capable bikes for both on- and off-road riding. They’re just at home cruising down the highway as they are on a fire trail. The long-travel suspension, high seat height and high handlebar position are perfect for both all-day comfort and for standing up in the saddle for better control when the road gets rough.
For longer hauls, some modern ADVs have also adopted cruiser style creature comforts; heated grips and seats, radio and GPS systems definitely come in handy when you want to see how far your bike can actually go.
Whereas café racers start life as standard motorcycles and are then modded for performance, sport motorcycles (also called “sport bikes” or “sportbikes”) are purpose-built, with speed, agility and cornering at front of mind from the first concept sketch. Higher seats, lower handlebars and rear-set footpegs characterize sport bikes as some of the most aggressive bikes to roll off factory floors. They can come with engines of any size or configuration, but the basic idea of a sport bike is to bring technology, research and development from the track to the street.
Sport bikes also tend to boast higher horsepower and torque numbers than most motorcycles, and usually incorporate lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber — all in the pursuit of performance. Smaller-engined sport bikes can be new-rider-friendly, but to get the most out of higher-end halo bikes, it takes a mountain of skill honed over years of riding.
Touring motorcycles are some of the largest bikes on the road, but they don’t carry extra heft just for heft’s sake. Combining rear-set handlebars, forward-set foot pegs and a relaxed riding position behind larger front fairings to break up the wind, they provide a comfortable ride that’s great for covering long distances.
Luxuries on modern touring bikes don’t stop at the La-Z-Boy ergonomics either. Bikes like the Honda Gold Wing offer heated seats and handlebars, satellite radio, GPS and Apple CarPlay. Cargo space is another characteristic touring bikes have an abundance of, as well. You can’t exactly pack for the whole family, but there should be more than enough cargo space for you and a possible passenger.
Sport Touring Motorcycles
In name alone, sport touring style motorcycles sound like a perfect balance between the two previous categories, but it’s fair to say the category leans more towards sport. More often than not, sport touring motorcycles draw influence from sport bikes. They feature tighter fairings and more aggressive performance than the average bike, but are tuned to be much softer and more tolerable over long distances than their sportier cousins.
Sport touring motorcycles can look like sport bikes at first glance, but their raised handlebars, forward footpegs, sculpted fairings and larger windshields and panniers turn up the endurance factor. If you want comfort on a long ride but still like to drag a knee on your favorite canyon road, a sport touring bike is the compromise you’re looking for.
Most of what you need to know about a cruiser motorcycle is right there in the name — it’s built for cruising, either around town or down the highway. Traditionally, cruisers have low seats, semi-forward footpegs and handlebars positioned for rider comfort. However, the cruiser-style motorcycle packs a whole spectrum to itself. From laid-back riding positions with high handlebars and low seats to forward-set footpegs and handlebars that stretch the rider out for a more aggressive stance, you can find an infinite number of variations of the cruiser. But generally speaking, its silhouette is unmistakable.
Enduro and Dual-Sport Motorcycles
As far as on-road motorcycles go, dual-sports and enduros are the closest you’ll get to street-legal dirt bikes designed for everyday use. Where an ADV’s size might hinder its ability to tackle tight trails or make it a hassle to pick back up if you go down, dual-sports and enduros don’t weigh much more than their dirt bike cousins. In the hands of a good rider, a dual-sport or enduro can easily keep up with a dirt bike on twisty, long and rut-ridden single tracks.
While the off-road-on-road style of the bike lends itself to rough riding, the typically-narrow seat of one of these bikes is awful for long-distance rides. Unless you have a more powerful engine under you, the lack of fairings, windshield and low weight can make these svelte off-roaders a headache on highways.