How Motorcycles Work

Motorcycle Types

Examples of touring motorcycles (left) and cruisers (right)

­Motorcycles come in many different styles, each offering design and performance characteristics to accommodate specific riding conditions. Let's take a look at the common categories of motorcycles.

Street Bikes

Street motorcycles come with all of the necessary equipment to be street-ready. They have lights, mirrors, a horn and a muffler. Their tires have a tread pattern that provides good traction on both wet and dry roads. Street motorcycles generally come in two forms -- touring motorcycles and cruisers. Touring motorcycles are specially designed for long-distance travel. Their most distinctive features are fairings, aerodynamic wind guards that wrap around the headlight to enhance styling and reduce drag. Touring bikes also come with other long-distance amenities, such as saddlebags and a comfortable passenger seat. Cruisers, which typically have no fairings, offer a more laid-back look. They are built with swept-back handlebars, low seats, and casual riding positions with forward-set footpegs.


2005 Yamaha FZ6, a "naked bike"
Photo courtesy Darrin Gatewood


Sportbikes are designed to handle well at high speeds and on winding roads. They offer multi-cylinder engines to produce more power, aluminum alloy frames, stiff suspensions to improve handling, high-grip tires and powerful brakes. Instead of sitting up straight, sportbike riders lean forward over the gas tank to reduce wind resistance.

"Naked Bikes"

Naked bikes offer the performance of sportbikes without the aesthetics. In most cases, they are stripped of any unnecessary bodywork. Because they're often the product of bike customizers who want a "road warrior" appearance, naked bikes are also called streetfighters, especially in Europe.

1978 Suzuki GS550, a typical UJM
Photo courtesy Mike Le Pard, Total Motorcycle


Also known as standards, traditionals look and handle like an archetypical model known as the Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM), built primarily in the 1970s. The UJM was an all-purpose, do-everything bike, and today's standards offer the same versatility and straightforward design.

Off-road Bikes

Off-road motorcycles include both motocross bikes and dirt bikes -- machines designed to handle jumps, bumps and other obstacles found on closed racing courses or woodland trails. Off-road motorcycles have narrower, lighter frames, increased ground clearance and advanced suspension systems. They also have a kick-starter to reduce weight and tires with a knobby tread pattern for increased traction. Because off-road bikes usually don't come standard with lights, mirrors, a horn or a muffler, they aren't street-legal.

Motocross bikes in action.
Photo courtesy R. Beaty, MorgueFile


Dual-purpose bikes, also known as dual-sports, are street-legal motorcycles that offer some off-road capabilities. Like dirt bikes, dual-purpose machines are lightweight and durable. Like standards, they offer great versatility for newcomers and long-time riders alike. The dual-purpose motorcycle falls somewhere in between a dirt bike and a street motorcycle. For example, dual-purpose bikes feature specialized tires that work on both dirt and pavement.

Next, we'll explore the history of motorcycles.