Motorcycles were once just a bicycle with an engine bolted to it. But look at them now. There's so many different styles of motorcycles out there, knowing what's what can get confusing. While by no means all-inclusive, here's a guide to some of the most common styles you'll come across.

Cruiser

Cruisers are the quintessential American motorcycle. They are typically long and wide machines, with frames and bodies that sit low to the ground. Most cruisers sport classic styling and large fenders without much bodywork and tend to shine with plenty of chrome. There are more than a few radical, modern designs that have rolled off factory lines over the years, and blacked-out cruisers with more understated and aggressive looking matte and textured paint finishes are becoming increasingly common.

Popularized by Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle in the early days of motorcycling, V-Twin engines are most commonly found in cruisers, but Parallel Twins, Triples, and even a few sporting Inline-Fours and V-Fours exist.

Despite their reputation, don’t make the mistake of thinking all cruisers are heavy, lumbering laid back bikes. Cruisers tend to deliver a ton of arm-ripping low-end torque, and there are plenty that place an emphasis on performance and handling, hence the sport, muscle, and power cruisers you’ll find peppered throughout the category.

American brands like Harley-Davidson, Indian, and the now defunct Victory dominate the cruiser market, but Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha, and even Triumph and Ducati have all thrown their hats into the ring with cruiser models which have met with varying levels of success over the years.

Cruisers sport open and relaxed ergonomics with a low seat that places the rider more “in” the motorcycle than on top of it. Foot controls, either pegs or floorboards, are usually positioned far forward on the frame, so the riders’ legs are stretched out in front, but there are a few smaller and performance cruisers with more centrally-positioned mid-controls. Handlebar styling ranges from beach bars that are wide and swept back toward the rider to the classic “fists in the wind” ape hangers and everything in between.

Examples

Harley-Davidson Softails, Dynas, and (some) Sportsters, Indian Chief, Ducati Diavel, Honda Shadow, Kawasaki Vulcan, Suzuki Boulevard, Yamaha V-Star, Triumph Speedmaster.

Bagger/Touring

Also known as full dressers, baggers/touring bikes are close cousins of cruisers, having been born from brands (especially Harley) by adding durable hard saddlebags to motorcycles to make them more suitable for longer trips. Later on, to further enhance riding comfort and functionality, fork and frame mounted fairings started to replace windshields. Large comfortable seats and amenities like backrests for rider and passenger, passenger armrests, Bluetooth enabled audio and navigation systems, and even cupholders have become fairly commonplace on touring bikes.

Large displacement V-Twin engines are the most common engine you’ll see, especially among American brands, but Honda’s Goldwing is notable for its flat horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder and later 6-cylinder engine, and BMW even makes a bagger with an enormous Inline-6.

Examples

BMW K1600B, Harley-Davidson Street Glide, Indian Challenger, Honda Goldwing, Kawasaki Vaquero, Suzuki Boulevard C90T, Yamaha Star Venture/Eluder.

Sport

Sport bikes, aka crotch rockets, supersports, or hypersports, place an emphasis on speed, handling, and performance. There’s a huge variety of sport bikes available, from lightweight, beginner-friendly machines, to supercharged animals that are literally the fastest motorcycles in the world. With their emphasis on speed, sport bikes are clad in lightweight plastic, fiberglass, or even carbon fiber fairings and bodywork to improve aerodynamics.

The most common engine in sport bikes has to be the Inline-Four, but you can find examples of everything, from small displacement single-cylinder designs to larger Parallel and V-twins, Triples, and V-Fours. Though there have been several forays into the genre by American companies, including Harley and their Buell division, American companies have never quite been able to crack the sport bike code, leaving European and Japanese manufacturers to dominate the genre.

Not known for being the most comfortable bikes around, the performance-oriented nature of sport bikes demands tight rider ergonomics. Handlebars are low, clamped directly to the top of the triple trees or the fork. Seats are flat and scooped out of the frame of the bike. Rearset footpegs are positioned fairly high to allow for plenty of lean angle and are positioned behind the rider’s hips, leading to a compact, aggressive, hunched forward riding position.

Examples

Aprillia RSV4, BMW S1000RR, Ducati Panigale, Honda CBR models, Kawasaki Ninja, Suzuki GSXR, Yamaha R1, Triumph Daytona.

Sport Touring

Born from a desire to make sport bikes comfortable, practical, and versatile for long distance riding, sport tourers provide a mix of sport bike performance and handling with friendlier ergonomics, cushier suspension, better luggage options, and improved passenger comfort.

They look a lot like ordinary sport bikes, but their taller handlebars, cushier seats, taller windscreens, and hard luggage are usually obvious giveaways.

Like sport bikes, Inline-Four engines are common, but large Boxer Twins, V-Twins, and others make their way into the genre. While still capable of tremendous speed, they have a more upright riding position than their full-fledged sport bike cousins, so you can chew up the miles without feeling like you were thrown from a fourth story window after a full day of riding.

Examples

BMW R1250RT, Honda VFR, Kawasaki Concours, KTM SuperDuke 1290 GT, Triumph Sprint GT, Yamaha FJR and Tracer.

Standard/Naked

Providing a mix of performance and relaxed comfort, the standard/naked style is a particularly varied style of motorcycle. Stylistically, the group can be sub-divided between the “standards” which feature more classic styling (round headlights, teardrop tanks, and maybe even a dash of chrome or spoked wheels), and the “nakeds” (and more recently “hypernakeds”) which are essentially stripped-down sport bikes that often have their engines tuned for better manners on the street, their fairings removed and taller handlebars with risers bolted on in place of clip-on bars.

Engine configurations run the gamut from single-cylinders to big Inline-Fours and everything in between.

Standards and nakeds are marked by upright and comfortable ergonomics. Handlebars are fairly wide with a bit of a rise, placing the rider’s arms in a relaxed, neutral position. Foot controls are positioned to be in line with the rider’s hips, with a slight bend to the knees.

Examples

Aprilia Tuono, BMW RnineT, Ducati Monster, Harley-Davidson Sportster (with mid-controls and taller rear suspension, like the Roadster), Honda CB, Indian FTR1200, Kawasaki Z, KTM Duke/Super Duke, Moto Guzzi V7, Royal Enfield Bullet, Suzuki SV650, Triumph Bonneville, Yamaha FZ/MT/XSR.

Dirt

The classic off-road bike seen on TV in motocross and supercross competitions as well as on hills, dunes, and forest trails everywhere, dirt bikes are made to be light, durable, and agile (for sick jumps and wheelies). They feature a slim, narrow chassis with a relatively short wheelbase, wide handlebars for maximum leverage, and large spoked wheels outfitted with knobby off-road tires on long-traveling suspension.
Bodywork is generally minimal, just enough to protect the important bits of the bike and show off a bit of branding, race livery, or custom graphics tailored to the rider. Since they're intended for off-road use, they don't typically have lights and mirrors to make them legal for use on the street, but parts and kits do exist to convert most dirt bikes into street legal dual-sport or supermoto machines.


Dirt bikes almost exclusively feature single-cylinder, two- or four-stroke engines in a wide variety of sizes,

Examples

Honda CRF, Kawasaki KX, KTM SX, Suzuki RM, Yamaha YZ.

Dual-Sport/Adventure-Touring

An offshoot of off-road motorcycles, dual sport/adventure-touring motorcycles are bikes designed for both on- and off-road use. Thanks to their gobs of suspension travel and ground clearance, these bikes are typically very tall. They eschew trendy styling in favor of rugged, utilitarian looks. These bikes generally have substantial fenders and mudguards, hand guards, tall windscreens, crash and brush guards, skid plates, and so on to protect the bike and rider from the road and terrain. They generally have bigger tanks for better range, too, and come with mirrors and license plate holders so they're legal on the street.

Tall wide handlebars provide comfort over long distances and plenty of leverage in rough terrain. Pegs are positioned below the knees for comfort and to accommodate the rider needing to stand up to absorb bumps and impacts.

Examples

BMW R 1250 GS, Ducati Multistrada, Honda Africa Twin, Kawasaki Versys and KLR, Royal Enfield Himalayan, Suzuki V-Strom, Yamaha Tenere.

Bobber

The bobber style of motorcycle originated after WWII when riders started removing every part  deemed too heavy, ugly, or otherwise unessential. The goal was to make the bikes lighter for racing, with the added benefit of making them minimal and sleeker. Bobbers became a cornerstone of the hot rod subculture in the '50s and '60s, as motorcycle drag racing, lake bed racing, flat track, and mud racing boomed.

Bobbers are commonly characterized by low and wide handlebars (though some opt for ape hangers), a low seat, and having as many “extra” parts as possible removed, cut down, or replaced with a smaller version of that component. Fenders, lights, mirrors, side panels, even suspension components and brakes end up on the axed list. Ergonomics vary, but a low-slung, aggressive, hunched riding position is pretty common. Comfort is an afterthought to weight reduction and speed.

The bobber movement was biggest in the U.S. among Harley and Indian riders, so American V-Twins are the most common, even among modern bobbers. But there are plenty of British, European, and Japanese bobbers out there, too, since any bike that can benefit from weight reduction can make for a solid bobber.

Examples

Originally bobbers were entirely custom jobs, but a handful of factory-built bobbers exist. To purists, these are blasphemous, not true bobbers, but they satisfy the criteria of stripping a bike down largely to its essentials. The Harley-Davidson Iron 883, Indian Scout Bobber, Triumph Bonneville Bobber, and Yamaha Bolt are all examples of current factory bobbers.

Chopper

Choppers are custom motorcycles that emerged in the late 1950’s that take the stripped-down modifications seen on bobbers to a more radical extreme. Chopper builders modify the motorcycles' frame and geometry to make the bike longer. Outstretched front forks, tall handlebars, low seats (often with tall backs for the rider and/or passenger), small gas tanks, and tall sissy bars are typical features. Many choppers take customization levels even further than just chopping and stretching an otherwise relatively stock machine with extravagantly intricate paint jobs, metal work, engraving, and other custom fabrication that pushes them into the realm of being rideable art.

Like bobbers, choppers took off first among Harley and Indian owners, making the American V-Twin the typical platform for customization. Parallel Twin-powered Triumph choppers were popular in the 1960s, and two- and four-cylinder Japanese bikes also rose in popularity thanks to their ubiquity and low cost.

Examples

The best choppers, and only ones worth talking about, are custom-built bikes. Anything that rolls off an assembly line with the “chopper” label is just a cruiser with long forks.

The motorcycles ridden by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the film Easy Rider are some of the most well-known examples of classic choppers. There's also the famous work of West Coast Choppers and Orange County Choppers representing more modern chopper design.

Café Racer

Not content to let the Americans have all the fun, the British and Europeans also jumped into the “take things off to make the bike faster” game by crafting café racer motorcycles. Café bikes are similar to bobbers and choppers in that a number of unessential components are removed to make the bike faster, but with a different goal in mind. Café racers, as the name implies, were set up to quickly travel short distances, essentially from one café to the next, as riders dared to go ton-up (break the 100 mph barrier).

The motorcycles used for café racers were mostly culled from “standard” motorcycles and were smaller machines than those used by Americans for choppers and bobbers. Predominantly Triumphs, Nortons, or a hybrid of the two which utilized Triumph’s superior engine in Norton’s more advanced Featherbed frame, known as a “Triton.” In modern times, everything from Japanese standards to Harley Sportsters, and even a Goldwing or two, have been used as platforms to build café racers.

Café racers are distinguished by their minimalist bodywork, low clip-on handlebars, rearset foot controls, and narrow flat seat that usually has a small cowl or hump where the passenger seat would be.

Examples

The original café racers are custom bikes, but there are many past and present factory designs. BMW R nineT Racer, Ducati Scrambler Café Racer, Moto Guzzi V7 Racer, Royal Enfield Continental GT, Triumph Thruxton.