If you’re new to biking or thinking about getting a motorbike, there’s a lot to take on and it can be confusing.
One of the best places to start is to work out what sort of bike makes you think “Yes, I want to be a biker.” Although you might not start off on the bike of your dreams, it gives you something to aim for.
Motorbikes come in all sorts of styles, but how to tell one from another? From expensive adventure bikes to scooters, we’ve created this comprehensive visual guide, which highlights the key strengths and weaknesses of each type of motorbike and some good examples and links to in-depth guides on each type of bike. Check it out.
Table of Contents
Mostly associated with the off-the-beaten-path, an adventure motorbike’s natural terrain is the unpaved road but is a sort of jack of all trades. Long travel suspension, higher seat and extensive luggage options make it an all-rounder for touring, sports or commuting. Whether it’s a weekend trip to the nearby mountains or a journey around the world, an adventure bike such as the BMW R1250GS can be your trustworthy companion on either paved roads or those challenging trails that take you out of your comfort zone.
Adventure bike examples: BMW R1250GS, KTM 790 Adventure, Triumph Tiger 800 XCX
The rider’s most likely to be seen: At their local biker cafe, dreaming of their next adventure.
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: An adventure bike helmet.
What started off as custom motorcycles stripped of all their superfluous bells and whistles was turned into a type of motorcycle all of its own. A minimalistic bike with all the mod-cons removed (or at least hidden on the modern bikes), to give a mean, back-to-basics look. Inspired by the cruiser but evolved into something better, Bobbers retain the classic lines combining them with a more bespoke-like appearance. It’s not a bike for two, but it certainly offers a rewarding ride to its owner.
Bobber examples: Triumph Bonneville Bobber, Indian Scout Bobber, Harley Davidson Street Bob
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Loitering at Warr’s in Chelsea
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A pair of rugged biker boots
Lightweight and powerful, such as the Yamaha XSR900 Abarth, the café racer is optimised for speed and handling rather than comfort. Retro bodywork recalling London’s early 1960s, this motorcycle type is known for its visual minimalism characterised by low-mounted handlebars, elongated fuel tank and prominent seat. A tuned engine and distinctive ergonomics ensure responsive handling at higher speeds. The perfect urban bike designed for fun quick rides over short distances.
Cafe Racer bike examples: Yamaha XSR900 Abarth, Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer, Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
The rider’s most likely to be seen: On their way to Brighton
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A retro leather motorcycle jacket
Styled after the American machines produced from the 1930s to early 60s, cruiser motorbikes are widely represented by classics like the Harley Davidson Deluxe or the Ducati X Diavel. Large displacement V-twin engines tuned for low-end torque are the norm of this category. A less demanding ride characterised by a reclined position, limited cornering, and lack of ground clearance define a cruiser’s iconic style. A perfect bike for those who want to enjoy the landscape while riding at low speeds.
Cruiser motorbike examples: Indian Scout, Harley Davidson Softail Deluxe, Yamaha XVS950
The rider’s most likely to be seen: On their driveway with a tube of Autosol in one hand and a rag in the other
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: An open face helmet
Maxi scooters don’t top the preference charts of riders in the UK but are truly popular throughout the rest of Europe due to their multiple advantages compared to traditional bikes. Models like the Yamaha T Max 530 offer cruiser comfort combined with a big engine, plenty of luggage space and an automatic gearbox for easy riding. Something most motorcycles cannot offer.
Maxi Scooter examples: Yamaha T-Max 530, Honda SH300, Peugeot Metropolis 400
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Carving through city-centre traffic
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: Nowhere near protective clothing
The off-road bike – or dirt bike as many may know it – is the evolution of the supermoto adapted for cross-country riding. A type of lightweight motorcycle with rugged tyres and suspensions, high ground clearance and sturdy bodywork. Raced on off-road tracks with a variety of obstacles, the motocross bike allows jumping at high speeds and climbs impossible up-hills. This type of bike, such as the Kawasaki KX250, is typically used for dirt race or freestyle off-road riding.
Motocross bike examples: Kawasaki KX450, Honda CRF450R, KTM 250SX
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Clearing a tabletop at your local MX track
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: Hardcore MX boots and a neck brace
Most naked bikes – smartly called roadsters – have started their life as range-toppers of the season. They’re versatile street motorcycles recognised by their upright riding position that’s half-way between the reclining cruiser and leaning sports bike. Standards rarely include fairings or windscreens, have higher handlebars and under-the-rider footpegs. Particularly suited for beginners due to their lower cost and moderate engine output. Fuelling most riders’ naked bike nostalgia, the Suzuki SV650 is a representative example admired for its quality, simplicity, and versatility.
Naked bike examples: Honda CB500F, Yamaha MT-07, Suzuki SV650, Triumph Speed Triple RS
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Out there in all weathers
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A waterproof motorcycle backpack
Focusing on smaller engine and maximised storage, scooters are excellent for commuting and tackling the urban traffic. A floorboard instead of footpegs, smaller wheels and often smooth lines are just some of the category’s characteristics. Often subject to less stringent licencing requirements, scooters are typically a rider’s first contact with the motorcycling world. Modern scooters, such as the Honda PCX125, may come with footpegs though and the chassis lines tend to blend with those of smaller motorcycles.
Scooter examples: Vespa GTS125, Honda PCX125, Scomadi TL125
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Riding along with their indicator flashing
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A cheap Leopard helmet
Sports tourers combine the attributes of a sports bike with those of a tourer in its traditional meaning, translating into a more comfortable ride for the pillion and a less extreme riding posture for the rider. It gives greater long-distance comfort, although not as great as a tourer, but is lighter and achieves higher speeds. The line between tourers and sports tourers is pretty much blurred nowadays. Yet, manufacturers still impress with bikes such as Ducati Supersport S and the like.
Superbike / Sportsbike
Sports bikes emphasize top speed and acceleration; they offer superb handling and excellent grip on paved roads, but heavily compromise on comfort and fuel economy. The lightweight frame houses a high-performance core. Chassis rigidity and structural integrity are some of the highlights, alongside efficient suspension and braking systems. Fairings often completely enclose the engine while windscreens protect from elements at high speeds. Improved ground clearance and centre of gravity enhance speed and provide greater rider support. Models like the Aprilia RSV4 RF are not the most renowned for riding comfort, but undeniably deliver ultra-exciting rides.
Superbike and sportsbike examples: Kawasaki ZX-10R, Aprilia RSV4 RF, Yamaha YZF-R6
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Heading up and down the Hartside Pass
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A race replica helmet
These mighty beasts come in road and racing variants that share many common factors. Rugged and mean, the supermoto adopts the traditional design elements of an adventure bike and transforms them for speed and performance. These bikes are optimised for extreme acceleration, unthinkable cornering, and mad braking. All-terrain tyres and a high seat complete the looks of bikes like the KTM 690 SMC R, one of the most representative examples of supermoto bikes.
Supermoto examples: KTM 690 SMC R, Husqvarna 701, Aprilia SX125
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Popping wheelies on a B-road
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: One-piece leathers and Adventure boots
Retro / Modern Classic
Modern classic motorbikes, often called retro, are stylish makeovers with a sporty naked heart. Sporting a classic single headlight and simpler clocks, these bikes impress with subtle colour schemes , stitched leather seats, and chromed round exhausts. Storage and wind protection are typically minimal, but each model tends to look like a traditional work of art. Such as the Triumph Bonneville T100, a true highlight of this fashionable motorbike type.
Retro motorbike examples: Triumph Thruxton R, Kawasaki Z900 RS, Moto Guzzi V7 Special
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Sipping a Latte at the local Biker cafe
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A Retro Leather Biker jacket
Specifically designed for long-haul riding, tourer motorbikes are known for their large displacement engines and large capacity fuel tanks. Fairings and windshields offer maximum protection from elements; a relaxed, upright position keeps both rider and pillion comfortable, and you can enjoy expansive luggage space. Originally referring to cruiser-style motorcycles with full-seat saddlebags, modern tourers have borrowed the more aggressive lines of sports bikes and often share many specs and features with the latter. The BMW R1250RT is a fine example renowned for its fluid ride and upped displacement capable of delivering the sense of freedom you’d expect from such a bike.
Touring bike examples: Honda Goldwing, BMW R1250RT, Yamaha Tracer 900GT
The rider’s most likely to be seen: In the queue at the Eurotunnel check-in
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: The same as what their pillion is
A versatile choice for road riders who’d like to tackle the off-road, this dual-purpose bike is made for recreational riding on and off the road. It keeps much of the looks of a motocross bike but has softer lines, as it’s not intended to be used in competitions. Most trail bikes come with road legal equipment including mirrors, indicators, and dual-purpose tyres. Smaller capacity engines like the one on the Honda CRF250L and top speeds of up to 80mph make trail bikes a great choice for dirt-road newbies.
Adventure bike examples: Honda CRF250L, KTM Freeride E-XC, Yamaha WR250F
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Nipping onto an A-road to get to the next trail
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: A Camelback rucksack and an old textile jacket.
Unlike their trail counterpart, the trial bikes are often not road legal and lack many essential elements of a motorcycle, such as the seat. They’re made for off-road competition testing of balance and precision rather than speed. A smaller engine, small fuel tank, and limited range are some of the main characteristics. Bikes like the Sherco ST300 Factory encompass what a trials bike should look and feel like. Smaller than the average off-road bike but still aggressive.
Adventure bike examples: Beta Evo 300, Sherco ST125, Montesa COTA 4RT 260
The rider’s most likely to be seen: Staring up at a big rock and looking perplexed
The rider’s most likely to be wearing: Lycra trousers tucked into well-worn off-road boots
Other motorcycle types
These days it’s hard to stereotype.
There are two and even three-wheelers that either stand alone in a category of one or they bridge two or more categories quite well. Below we’ve listed a few more categories and bikes that just don’t quite fit into the pigeonholes above.
These have been on the scene in some shape or form since the ’70s but the early technology only reinforced people’s preconceived ideas of how bad an automatic motorcycle would be. In fact it’s only in the past decade that the gearboxes and electronic advances have enabled engineers to produce decent automatic motorcycles.
Which then begs the question: if it’s a motorcycle with an automatic gearbox, isn’t it really a scooter?
Click here to check out our automatic motorcycles guide.
We’re not talking about Trikes here, although Trikes have a place. Modern three-wheelers feature two wheels at the front and one driven wheel at the rear. They lean like a motorbike but have the front end grip or a car.
They’re available in scooter or motorcycle formats (in fact there’s only one motorcycle, the Yamaha Niken) but countless scooters. If your other half is worried that a two-wheeler isn’t safe, you could always turn up on a three-wheeler instead..
The Niken is interesting as it bridges many categories. Is it a three-wheeler, a motorbike or a scooter? Is it a Tourer or a Naked bike? Only you can decide.
Click here for our Three-wheeled motorcycle and scooter guide.
Lots of people get mopeds and scooters confused. We wrote a guide on mopeds vs scooters, so you know the difference.
The word moped is a portmanteau of Motorbike and Pedals. They originated as a pedal bicycle with a small engine. You could ride the bicycle using the pedals or when the going got a bit tough (or you got a bit lazy) you could use the engine.
In France you’re allowed to ride a moped from 14 onwards. They have to have pedals and they can’t have an engine over 50cc.
Here is the UK (and the rest of Europe) we now commonly refer to a moped as a scooter with an engine under 50cc. So if you ask for a 125cc moped, you’ll get a 125cc scooter. In the UK you can ride a moped from 16 years old and at 17 you can graduate to a 125cc. Steady away now.
Is electric a classification or just a means of powering a motorcycle? At the moment electric bikes tend to be lumped into their own category, regardless of their off-road, racing or commuting pretentions.
As the technology develops, we’ll likely see motorbikes powered by electricity sitting in the same categories as traditional petrol-powered motorcycles.
It seems slightly patronising to lump all 125s into the same category, however, they’re almost all powered by a single-cylinder engine, producing around 10 to 15bhp.
Even though you can get 125cc Sportsbikes, they just don’t quite warrant going into the Sportsbike category, as they wouldn’t see which way a proper sportsbike like a Yamaha YZF-R6 or Kawasaki ZX-10R went. Infact, a 250cc scooter would probably beat a 125cc sportsbike around a go-kart track.
Despite their differing looks, you can make a good case that all 125cc bikes belong in a 125cc category.
Questions or Comments?
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