Cape Town - "Should I go for the sleek and sexy sport bike, the rugged, macho adventure bike or the practical, economical scooter?"
Though not always an easy question to answer, the choice is an important one because the level of specialisation in today’s bike designs means that certain types of bikes can make you riding experience some-what unpleasant if they are used for a purpose other than what they were designed for.
There is no fixed categorisation for motorcycles, and some readers may not agree with the categories below. However, going by design features and purpose, we can divide street-legal bikes into six broad categories, each with a number of sub-categories.
There is a bit of overlap as well, since some bikes are hard to put into a specific category.
However, for this article we’ll keep it simple by focusing on the main ones, with examples of bikes that typify each of them:
1. Sport bikes
Example: Ducati 1299 Panigale
Arguably at the top of the food chain with their extreme performance and handling, sport bikes are the supercars of the motorcyle world. Their designs emphasize performance, handling, grip and braking over comfort, practicality and economy.
Design elements that make a sport bike what it is include a comparatively high performance engine, lightweight frame, high performance brake pads and multi-piston calipers, and large, vented brake disks.
They usually feature advanced, highly adjustable suspensions and extensive aerodynamic fairings.
Perhaps the most telling feature of a sport bike is its forward-canted seating position to enable the rider to crouch behind the fairing to minimise drag and lower the centre of gravity. A typical example is the Ducati 1299 Panigale – it accelerates like a cannonball and sticks to the road like a magnet, but is not a practical every-day mount.
2. Standard bikes
Example: Yamaha MT09
These are the workhorses of the bike world. They are general-purpose machines that have been designed to be comfortable and practical. Hallmarks of a standard bike include no or minimal fairings and and upright seating position – footpegs are below the rider and handlebars are high enough to not force the rider to reach far forward, placing the shoulders above the hips in a more natural position.
Some bikes in this category have performance and handling levels that approach those of sport bikes, achieved by using (often previous-generation) sport bike engines that are usually de-tuned to increase torque at lower engine revolutions at a cost of high-end performance, which makes them more suitable to everyday use.
A good example is the Yamaha MT09 we tested in 2015 – a practical, everyday bike that is outrageous fun to ride.
3. Dual-sport bikes
Example: BMW GS 1200 Adventure
'Dualies' are true multi-purpose machines, equally at home on and off the road. These bikes are typified by their rugged appearance, tall stance, high ground clearance, long-travel suspension and torque-biased engines. Adventure bikes, which are extremely popular in the South African market, are bigger and heavier than pure off-road machines, and some models offer touring capabilities that come close to that of dedicated touring bikes.
The off-road capabilities of dual-sport bikes differ greatly, with some being well-suited to cross-country riding while others are limited to soft (gravel) roads. A good example with which to illustrate the versatility of bikes in this category is the BMW GS 1200 Adventure, renowned for its combination of long-distance comfort and off-road prowess.
4. Touring bikes
Example: BMW K 1600 GTL
Bikes that are designed exclusively for touring emphasise comfort and luggage space over other design considerations. Tourers are usually big, heavy machines with extensive fairings and luxury trimmings such as built-in high-end sound systems, adjustable air vents and in some cases even air conditioners.
They also provide ample, comfortable pillion passenger seating to make two-up long-distance riding almost as comfortable as a luxury car.
The so-called full-dress tourers are fully-faired and offer removable panniers and top boxers that will easily accommodate two people’s weekend luggage. The BMW K 1600 GTL is an example of a top-of-the-range tourer – big and heavy, but bristling with luxuries such as bespoke audio and satellite navigation, and comfortable enough to cross continents with.
Example: Harley-Davidson Softail Slim S
Cruisers are the linear descendants of the choppers that emerged shortly after the Second World War, when returning US soldiers began to modify standard bikes to make them more suitable to the United States’ long and mostly straight roads.
These machines typically feature raked front forks for greater stability, and tall handlebars for a slightly backward-canted seating position. Cruisers often have very limited ground clearance, which makes them unsuitable for twisty roads, and short-travel rear suspensions, often offset by high-profile rear tyres for added comfort.
Cruiser manufacturers (and buyers) seem to favour high-torque V-twin motors with engine capacities that approach (and in some cases surpass) two litres. A prime example of a cruiser is the Harley-Davidson Softail Slim S we recently tested, a 1.8L retro-styled brute that accelerates like a steam locomotive and fairly oozes attitude.
Example: Yamaha T-Max 530
Scooters are easily recognised by their enclosed, step-through bodies, made possible by underbone frames (frames which have no spar or fuel tank between the base of the seat base the headstock). This design allows scooters not only to have a low floor suitable for a rider wearing a dress, but also a convenient cubbyhole on the headstock. Scooters often have additional under-seat luggage capacity as well.
Most modern scooters have constantly variable transmissions (CVTs), which make them easier to ride by disposing of the need to operate a clutch and change gears. They can range in engine size from 50 cm³ to 850 cm³ and can offer surprising levels of performance and handling, as we have found in our test of the Yamaha T-Max 530.
As we’ve mentioned at the start of the article, all bikes don’t fit neatly into specific niches. As a result, many of the main categories can be further sub-divided. Check back for our follow-up articles we will look at some of the categories individually, and explore their sub-categories to explain the differences between (for example) superbikes, supersports and sport tourers.