Choosing the Right Type of Motorcycle
What kind of rider are you?
Motorcycles come in all shapes and sizes, and the large variety of different models and manufacturers can make choosing the right bike confusing for new riders.
Here in North America, the most popular segments are sportbikes and cruisers, which is why many new riders gravitate toward one or the other. But let’s not forget the other types of motorcycles out there. There are dual-sports, tourers, standards and various combinations that fall somewhere in between. Each segment offers features designed for a specific purpose or need. Fortunately, manufacturers offer a range of models even within each genre to suit different levels of riding experience.
Not all types are appropriate for all riders however. A shorter rider may have no problem with a sportbikes’ ergonomics, for example, but may have a hard time perched on top of a dual-sport. That’s not to say riders should limit themselves from certain motorcycles because of physical considerations, but it’s something important to keep in mind.
Motorcycling is a lifestyle choice as much as a transportation choice, and different kinds of bikes lend themselves towards different experiences. If you’re considering buying a new motorcycle, you should ask yourself: what kind of rider are you?
The world flies by in a blur as you shift gears, hearing the purring of four cylinders change octaves beneath you. The road ahead of you carves a sweeping right-hand curve through the canyon, so you scrub off some speed and lean in, doing your best Jorge Lorenzo impression. You breeze through the apex, open up the throttle and pop back upright, ready and hungry for the next corner.
Light, nimble and powerful, sportbikes offer the highest levels of motorcycle performance. They’re built to excel when riding twisty roads or for attending track days at your local racing circuit. Sportbikes often come equipped with the latest technologies developed from the manufacturers’ racing programs, including selectable riding modes and traction control.
Sportbikes typically feature full, aerodynamically-shaped fairings, low-mounted handlebars and high footpegs, all designed to better get you from point A to point B in the least amount of time. But performance comes at the expense of comfort.
Tight rider ergonomics may make sportbikes uncomfortable for taller riders or those with past knee injuries trying to contort their legs to fit onto the footpegs. Those with frequent back problems will likewise find it uncomfortable leaning forward over the fuel tank to grasp the clip-on handlebars.
Not all sportbikes are high-speed, expensive crotch rockets designed for top-tier Superbike racers. For every Aprilia RSV4 Factory or BMW S1000RR there’s a Kawasaki Ninja 650 or a Honda CBR250R; versatile, easy-to-learn and affordable sportbikes designed for the street rather than the track.
Sportbikes are available in different engine displacements and performance levels. The smallest sportbikes typically have single-cylinder (like the CBR250R) or parallel-Twin engines like the Kawasaki Ninja 300. A step up are middleweight models such as the Suzuki SV650 or Kawasaki Ninja 650. And then there are the popular higher-performance middleweight such as the Yamaha YZF-R6 and Honda CBR600RR. Higher still is the literbike class with bikes like the Ducati 1199 Panigale and the BMW S1000RR. And if 160+ horsepower isn’t enough, there are even larger, more powerful sportbikes such as the 1340cc Suzuki Hayabusa and the 1441cc Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R. There is no shortage of different sportbike models out there, and it should not be difficult to find the right one for any rider.
Picture yourself rolling down the boulevard, the street lights reflecting off the immaculately painted fuel tank, an intimidating presence in black and chrome accompanied by the hearty roar of the exhaust pipe punctuated with the staccato rhythm of a V-Twin engine. If that sounds appealing, then maybe a cruiser is the right type of motorcycle for you.
Cruisers can range quite a bit in size, with models like the 234cc single-cylinder Honda Rebel representing the smaller end of the spectrum to the big three-cylinder Triumph Rocket III which displaces a whopping 2294cc – nearly 10 times the size of the Rebel’s engine. It isn’t difficult to find a cruiser offering the right size and power for riders of all skill levels.
Feet-forward positioning and relatively high handlebars mean cruisers can make incredibly comfortable rides, especially at low-to-mid speeds. The seats are typically lower than 28 inches from the ground, making cruisers excellent choices for shorter riders. On the other hand, cruisers can be quite heavy, so they may not be a good choice for smaller riders. Even a relatively small-sized cruiser like the Star V Star Custom claims a wet weight of 514 pounds, making it a difficult motorcycle to pick up in the case of a tip-over.
Both the aftermarket and manufacturers themselves offer a wide range of customizable accessories for cruisers, so even if two people own the same model, they can make their bikes look quite different. Harley-Davidson’s H-D1 for example offers a dizzying array of wheels, seats and graphics for customers to order their own personalized motorcycle straight from the factory.
Your passenger takes another swig from her water bottle before stowing it away in one of the hard pannier cases. The satellite radio plays a classic tune, a song you hadn’t heard since – well, since your last cross-country ride. You start the ignition and let the big torquey engine idle while you check your GPS one more time. If traffic patterns hold, you should reach the state line well before you need to find another rest stop. You glance over your shoulder and your passenger nods, ready to head off again. The open road beckons and you are more than ready to answer the call.
If you plan on taking frequent road trips and want something that can handle a long haul, tourers are an ideal option. Many tourers are based on cruiser platforms, with big engines offering plenty of torque while large fuel tanks allow for long trips between fill-ups. Large fairings provide better wind protection than those on other kinds of motorcycles, and in higher end tourers, are used to house amenities such as sound systems and GPS navigators. Seats are often wide and plush, comfortable to sit on for long periods of time.
Tourers come in many varieties, with their defining difference being levels of comfort and luxury rather than outright performance. At the top end of the spectrum are full-dressed touring models such as the Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide or the BMW K1600GTL with advanced audio systems and accessory outlets. Smaller baggers such as the Harley-Davidson Road King or the Honda Interstate are also more than capable of chewing up miles of asphalt, offering excellent touring capability without many extra bells and whistles.
Because of all these added features, tourers tend to be fairly large and cumbersome, and some riders find them to be a little too much motorcycle for everyday commuting or picking up milk from the grocery store. Even the lightest touring motorcycles can weigh in over 700 pounds while the larger luxury tourers such as the Honda Gold Wing or the Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide tip the scales at well over 900 pounds in full running order. The added weight is accompanied by added prices with full-dressed tourers costing more than many cars.
You told your buddies you had a couple of things to do before you left and that you’d meet them at the rest stop just across the state line. The truth is you didn’t want to take the same route they did. Sure, that way would have been shorter and would probably save you some time. But you wanted to take a slight detour and follow the highway along the water where the road curves more to follow the coastline. They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But where’s the fun in that?
If you like the idea of going on long trips on a tourer but still want the sporty performance of a sportbike, then sport-tourers might be a good compromise. sport-tourers may not be as comfortable as full tourers or as fast as a pure sportbike, but they fall somewhere in the middle making them good all-around options.
Where tourers are typically based on cruiser platforms, sport-tourers are usually based on sportbikes. Indeed, manufacturers often repurpose engines from previous generation sportbikes for their sport-tourers, with some tuning to sacrifice horsepower for more useable torque.
sport-tourers also tend to have larger fairings than sportbikes with an increased focus on weather protection rather than slippery aerodynamics. Sportbike ergonomics aren’t very good for longer trips, so sport-tourers offer a more comfortable, upright riding posture. A longer wheelbase mean sport-tourers aren’t as nimble as sportbikes but they are much more agile than full tourers.
The Kawasaki Concours 14 and the Yamaha FJR1300 are good examples of purpose-built sport-touring models offered by manufacturers, but the truth is many sportbikes and standards can be easily drafted into sport-touring duties with the addition of a windscreen and saddlebags.
Standing high up on your footpegs, you breathe the clean, natural air, free of the artificial smells of the city. Carefully navigating the rutted trail, you leave a cloud of dust in your wake like a two-wheeled terrestrial comet. You come to a stop on the crest of the hill and look around at the grand vista before you. Only a small percentage of the world is paved. Why limit your riding to the asphalt?
If you have a thirst for adventure that extends beyond paved surfaces and includes more natural terrain like dirt trails and mountain passes, then dual-sps may be the right choice for you.
Smaller displacement dual-sps are usually based on off-road models but with street-legal equipment such as lights, mirrors and license plates so they can be ridden on the street. These include models such as the Yamaha WR250R, Honda CRF250L and Suzuki DR-Z400S.
Whatever their size, dual-sps are designed for traveling off-road as well as on the street, so they include longer-travel suspension, engine guards, high fenders and knobby tires. Examples of larger dual-sps include the BMW R1200GS and the KTM 990 Adventure.
An important caveat about dual-sps is they tend to have very tall seat heights because of the longer suspension. This is to allow for more ground clearance – useful for uneven terrain. The higher seats may prove a challenge for riders shorter than 5 foot 6 inches, however.
You’re a no-nonsense individual. Let others have their trendy dual-sps that never set rubber off the tarmac, or super-fast sportbikes stuck idling in rush hour traffic. You don’t understand why anyone would want a radio on their motorcycle, let alone one that weighs nearly half a ton. No, you want something simple, efficient, comfortable and inexpensive: a pure motorcycle experience.
Standard motorcycles are more traditional in appearance than other types of motorcycles. Some people call standards “naked” bikes, but many standards still have a bit of a fairing, though the engines are typically left exposed. Footpegs are comfortably positioned below the seat, while the handlebars are high enough to reach without having to stretch forward too much.
Beginners may find standards make good starting bikes because of their versatility and low cost. Standards often cost less than other bikes and less expensive to maintain or repair. Standards come in different engine sizes and configurations, and usually offer moderate performance, though some higher-end standards offer sportbike-performance, just without the fairing and as high a price point.
Examples of standards include the Ducati Monster, the Yamaha FZ1 and the Aprilia Tuono V4 R.
How do you want to ride?
Choosing the right style of motorcycle is just part of the process, but it’s an important first step. Other factors will come into play including prices, dealership support and insurance costs, all of which will influence your buying decision. But those are external factors you may not have control over. How you want to ride, and the motorcycling lifestyle you want, is your decision alone.