Motorbikes motorcycles choosing the right one



Quiz Question.Off road motorcycles have fewer cylinders than their on road counterparts

** True/False **


Quiz Question.The larger the capacity of the motorcycle's engine the more powerful it will be.

** True/False **

Selecting the right Motorcycle to suit your needs, lifestyle and expectations

Sportbikes Capacity Rake angle
Cruisers Number of cylinders Weight
Big Trail Bikes Wheelbase Suspension
Motocross Seat height Pay load
Ergonomics Gear Box
   Torque and Horsepower

He bought the wrong Motorbike!

Recently a man I know retired at 52 years of age after selling his business for a large sum of money. He set about fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams - i.e. owning a red Ducati! No expense was spared in fulfilling his dream . . . he owned the sportbike exactly 2 weeks before selling it!!  He then bought a  tourer. 

Is this a poor reflection on the make or model? Not at all. What the bike delivered and what he expected were very different. Just because the motorcycle is well packaged does not automatically make it the right bike for you, your needs, lifestyle and expectations. Their are different types of motorbikes, each offering a different experience. Some motorcycles are so specialised as to offer no overlap with other types of bikes. It follows then that you need to identify exactly what you want from owning a motorcycle.

Imagine a perfect afternoon/weekend/ holiday on two wheels, the type of things you would like to do, the places you would like to go to, the speed you want to get there in, the amount of luggage you need to take and whether you will have a pillion passenger. Will you be combining your biking with any one of your other interests e.g. photography, camping, socialising, touring etc. Using this information and mind set you are ready to make your choice.

This would be a good time to ignore the writing/ranting of various road bike testers that work for Fast/Performance Bike magazines. They consider any bike that is not as fast as last year's World Superbike winner as a DOG. This is simply not true. Each bike is designed with a particular market in mind and to use the 'formula one' category as the only yardstick is ridiculous.

We will use Honda motorcycles as an example of your range of options



Example - Honda rangeWhat you wantThe motorcycle you should buy
honda_sport2.gif (5596 bytes)Power, maximum speed and adrenaline rush. Comfort for you and your passenger is not important. Distances per day usually under 200km on tar and no dirt roads please! Racing appearance with full fairings . Physically compact. Space for luggage is not important. Close ratio 6 speed gear box for maximum acceleration. Highly manoeuvrable, almost unstable.A Sportbike. Between 650cc and 1000cc. Purely designed for speed with a riding position, frame, adjustable suspension and fairings designed to minimise air resistance and weight. These bikes need to be ridden aggressively. The Honda Super Hawk is an example of a sport bike
honda_sport_touring2.gif (7665 bytes)Comfort for you and your passenger is a big factor. Want to travel greater distances. Physically big. Want to travel short distances on dirt road. Want room for luggage. Bigger, wrap around fairings to maximize comfort on long trips.A Tourer. Around 1000cc with a more up-right driving position. Decide how much performance you want against the distances you want to travel. Lean toward 'Sport Tourer' or 'Tourer' accordingly. The Honda ST1100 is an example of a sport tourer.
honda_cruiser2.gif (8726 bytes)When performance comes second to style. When individuality comes second to efficiency and practicality. When the grunty sound of the pipes, customisation, style and attitude are everything.   Physically big and heavy.  Some cruisers make excellent tourers as well while others do not. See dedicated Cruiser page for more.Cruiser. Between 650 and 1400cc with a relaxed laid back position. Decide on how much noise you are comfortable with. Take care that the weight is not too excessive. Budget for accessories and individualisation that may exceed the value of the bike. The Honda motorcycle Valkyrie is an example. 

Click here for more . . .

Custom built cruiser

That special style and attitude that comes from riding a one-of-a-kind, customised and accessorized motorcycle. Seldom need to carry a passenger.A Custom Cruiser. Either cannibalise an available model or build you own with off-the-shelf components. Ensure that the tail end is not too hard for the distances you want to travel. Most of these cruisers have big bore V twin engines which are low revving with a lot of torque.

Click here for more . . . 

honda_naked2.gif (7535 bytes)General purpose bike with a traditional appearance. Good value for money while still offering power and speed.  Easy DIY maintenance. Want tried and tested technology rather than the hi-tech stuff. Want the option of travelling distances on sand roads or touring (if fitted with an aftermarket fairing)A Standard motorbike with no fairings (naked). Between 750cc and 1200cc These bikes with a traditional look have one of two orientations i.e.
honda_off_road2.gif (8095 bytes)Country and city bike. The trip is more important than the speed. Want to explore on both tar and all tyres of  sand roads and well defined paths. Comfort is a factor, also room for luggage, camping gear etc. Big trail bikes are more like tourers while the smaller ones are more capable off road.Trail bike. Also called a dual sport or Enduro motorbike. Has a more up-right driving position. Choose your tyres to match either "mainly tar" or "mainly sand roads". Trail bikes come in two sizes i.e.
honda_MX2.gif (7392 bytes)Power and adrenaline off road, comfort is not a factor. Want to explore in rough, untamed conditions or participate in Motocross competitions (track). A bike that can be dropped without pieces breaking off.Motocross (MX) bike. Around 300cc and less. The only type of bike nowadays that may still use a two stroke engine to save on weight. Probably not street legal (flickers, stop lights, headlamp etc)

Nighthawk CB250 Standard

Economical commuter with a payload and power to spare. Want the option of travelling distances on sand roads. Standard street motorcycle. You will need to invest in some panniers, topbox or a back pack for your stuff. Around 400cc offers a good mix of economy and power.

Reflex 250

Stylish and economical commuter with convenient built-in storage. Easy to ride and light weight. Protection from the elements. A bike for town use only.A Scooter. The new generation of scooters between 250 and 650cc make excellent commuters. They are quick, trendy, light on petrol and have ample storage space under the saddle. Automatic gearboxes and a low centre of gravity make them easy to ride.
 You are under 18 years old!Although 125cc is your limit you can still choose between street bike, scooter, MX and cruiser type designs most of which just ooze style and attitude. Wish I had this choice at your age.

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When you have narrowed down the field in your search for a motorcycle you will probably come home with a hand full of brochures or notes. One thing is for certain - there will be tables and tables of numbers. Numbers you need to know something about right? (We do not want to choose our motorcycle based on the colour only now do we?!)

The right engine capacity for you

This can range between 50cc and 1800cc. Generally, bigger capacity means big power, big weight, big fuel bill and big bucks. 

Anything below 250cc is considered a small motorbike. Anything from 250cc to 650cc, mid range; 650cc to 1200cc is a big bike while anything bigger than that is a monster!

Bikes bigger than 300cc are not suited to radical off road conditions as they are too heavy.

Pillion passengers should not be accommodated on anything less than 500cc if distance is involved.

Screaming, nimble performance is found between 650cc and 1000cc

Comfortable long distance road touring is found between 900cc and 1200cc

Comfortable long distance off road trial riding is found at 600cc.

Anything bigger than 1400cc is all style and attitude and is only found in cruisers. In cruiser design, big engine capacity does not translate into huge power or acceleration.

For radical off road racing or travelling an off road bike of less than 400cc is needed. This is especially true the faster you want to go.

A cruiser style tourer with a V twin engine. Note the tank bank and the leather and studs panniers. The large bag at the rear attaches to a vertical steel frame bolted to the bike - convenient, but ensure that only the lightest of items is in the top half of the bag.

How many cylinders?

You have a choice. You can either have the "growl, grunt and thump" or you can have maximum performance - but you cannot have them both. Fewer cylinders sound great and are associated with biker attitude and popular cruiser culture. Fewer cylinders however limit the motorcycle's maximum rpm. This impacts performance, acceleration, horsepower and torque at the top end of the rev counter. At lower revs however there is little to choose between 2, 3 and 4 cylinders - in fact 2 cylinders delivers more torque at low revs.

The fewer the cylinders in the engine, the more the bike is suited to trails, off-road and MX conditions because of the need for more torque at low revs.

The more cylinders there are, the more the bike is suited to long distances on tar road due to the increased smoothness of the engine.

Vibrations generally decrease with an increase in the number of cylinders. Important for long distance touring.

Screaming, howling performance is more characteristic of a four cylinder motorcycle where the engine is able to rev up to 10000rpm and beyond. 

Seat height

Ensure that the seat height allows you to reach the ground comfortably with at least one foot flat on the road surface. This does not sound that important but it is when you are riding at slow speeds, in traffic, on uneven road surfaces or in confined places that you will appreciate its relevance. Most bikes can be lowered a little so speak to your dealer. 

Cruisers generally have lower seats around 70cm from the ground. The average bike is 80cm while the off road motorbikes are over 90cm in height

How rake angle affects handling

Some motorcycles, especially cruisers have an amazing straight line stability. It is easy to point them in the general direction and open up the throttle. They are not so easy however to whip around the sweeping bends of a mountain pass at high speeds.

Other motorbikes by comparison, especially sportbikes are easy to throw from one curve into the next. Their handling however it twitchy and they have to be "driven" even when the road is dead straight.

This nimble handling characteristic (or lack of it )is derived from the rake angle among other things.


From "Proficient Motorcycling" David L Hough.
Bowtie Press. (see bike schools page)

The greater the rake angle the greater the straight line stability. The less the angle the quicker the handling response. In extreme cases a damper has to be fitted to a sportbike where the handling is so unstable as to be a problem. (See wheelbase below for more)

Generally sportbikes have a rake of 24 degrees while cruisers are closer to 30 degrees.


Strongly related to handling and rake angle is the length of the wheelbase. This distance tells a lot about the intention of the bike designers as flickable, responsive handling deteriorates the longer the wheelbase becomes. Conversely put, the bikes straight line stability improves as the wheelbase gets longer.

Sportbikes have a wheelbase of between 135 and 145cm and naturally have the quickest handling characteristics. Sport tourer's wheelbases are between 146cm and 155cm. Dual sport (enduro bikes) are found in a narrow band between 147cm and 150cm. Big tourers and cruisers have similar wheelbase lengths of between 160 and 168cm and therefore display the greatest straight line stability.

Standard motorcycles  by definition have an a midrange wheelbase length of around 150cm.

In theory anyway a motorcycle with the same rake angle as another but with a shorter wheelbases will therefore be slightly more 'flickable' when it comes to riding those twisty canyon roads.

If you intend to travel long distances with a pillion passenger your motorbike should have a wheelbase of more than 150cm

Just how heavy?

The weight of a motorcycle is very important. For one thing it should not be so heavy that the rider cannot manoeuvre it in and out of confined spaces at the local shopping mall. The rider should also be able to pick it up should it fall over (and it will!!)

If you buy a bike approaching 220kg you will find that your wife/girlfriend will generally find it too heavy and will not want to learn to ride herself. The motorcycle will also be unsuitable for off road even if it has an off-road appearance.

Scooters are to be found at the bottom of the scale at 80kg. Most motorbikes fall in the 160 to 220kg range. Big bikes like cruisers and sport tourers can be anything from 220kg to 360kg.

Pay load (GVWR)

This refers to a bike's total weight carrying capacity i.e. rider, pillion passenger (if present) and gear. If you know that you will generally have a pillion passenger and perhaps camping gear, you will need to ensure that the motorcycle has the necessary permissible gross weight carrying capacity for your needs. Some 'big' bikes have a surprisingly low rating e.g. The Harley Davidson  FXSTD/1 Deuce and the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Drifter are both big cruisers. The HD can a take a payload of 200kg while the latter can only take 160kg


Compare the more upright ergonomics of this BMW R110RT to the Yamaha opposite. Note the higher rise of the handlebars relative to the seat, the shorter reach to the grips and the forward position of the footpegs. This results in the body weight being transferred to the butt. The full fairing displaces a lot of air thus protecting the rider from the wind blast.

ergbmw.gif (14868 bytes)


Suspension is a complex topic and varies greatly from bike to bike. 

Off road bikes have suspension systems with a lot of travel, maybe 27cm on the rear wheel. Street bikes have about 12cm of travel while some cruisers have very little offering a hard ride especially at the tail end.

Sportbikes have complex adjustable suspensions systems to match a variety of variables including tyre choice, weight of the rider and road surface.

More modern systems have a single adjustable monoshock at the rear while more conservative motorcycle designs have dual shocks with little or no adjustments possible.

Gear Boxes

Motorcycles designed for fast acceleration have 5 or 6 speed gear boxes with gear ratios closer together. This includes small Motocross bikes as well as sport bikes. These bikes have to be driven hard with frequent gear shifts.

Bikes designed for a more leisurely pace like tourers, cruisers and even dual sport bikes have a 5 speed box with the gears spaced further apart.

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Special protective gear

Depending on the bike you chose there is protective gear specifically designed for that type of bike. This is particularly true for sportbikes and off road racing.

Torque and horsepower?

Sport bikes have high revving engines in excess of 10000 rpm while cruisers, touring bikes and dual sport are low revving engines offering maximum torque around 5000rpm. A basic understanding of the difference between torque and horsepower is a good thing. Follow this link for more **Torque/Horsepower**

Long distance road touring

A trip of 1500km should be done on a quiet bike with at least three cylinders, an engine of around 1000cc or more, a large windshield, full fairing and a comfortable moulded saddle. The bike frame should offer lots of space for a top box, panniers and a tank bag. The exhaust system should not obstruct the bike's payload capabilities. The wheelbase should be more than 150cm if you intend to tour with a pillion passenger.

Generally the quieter the motorcycle is the more relaxing for the rider after hours and hours on the road.

The longer the travel is on the suspension, the more relaxed the driver when touring long distances.

For touring, an aftermarket moulded seat is often a necessity. The larger the seat is, the more comfort it offers.

The more one is exposed to the wind, the more tiring the trip becomes. Many bikes have optional wind shields and fairings that offer more protection.

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Big trail bikes

Motorbikes between 300cc and 650cc with single cylinder, four stroke engines are better described as trail bikes rather than off-road (also called thumpers)  They can easily handle sand roads, even well defined paths but are too heavy for very uneven rocky terrain that requires both speed and manoeuvrability. In short, they can handle anything that a general purpose 4 x 4 vehicle can when ridden by an experienced rider although deep water river crossing may be an exception to this. 

"Big trail bikes of more than 650cc are not trail bikes at all but tourers with a trail bike appearance."

This statement always causes some reaction from BMW 1100GS, 1150GS and 1200GS owners. It is true that well trained riders successfully ride difficult trails. Despite this, rallies like the Roof of Africa and the Paris to Dakar attract bikes of around 600 and not 1100cc. Careful reading of Ewan McGregors and Charlie Boormans much published round the world trip on BMW1150 Adventure bikes reveals that although the bikes were an excellent choice most of the time, they were too heavy when the roads ceased to be 'roads' and became 'trails'.

The off road event called the GS Challenge attracts large numbers of big GS owners. An unreasonably large amount of these riders however drop their bike (more than once) during this event.

Long distance travelers like Gideon van Oudtshoorn, Chris Scott, Nik Boseley and Simon Thomas all reveal in their own way that trail riding with bikes more than 600cc is not always the best choice.

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Modern sportbikes are a combination of high revving engines and lightweight construction. 

Bigger is not better! and sportbikes walk a middle road - usually four cylinders and less that 1000cc. This makes them smaller and lighter. They demand a crouched riding position to reduce wind resistance. Racing fairings and a small windshield further reduce drag and enable it slip through the air. Their lightweight frame and complex adjustable suspension are inherited directly from the race track.

Customisation is common but only to increase speed. The quest for ultimate performance brings sportbike riders together and biker clubs are a common phenomena. 


Cruiser riders want a complete motorcycle package that makes a big statement. This package excludes performance but focuses on an attitude and a lifestyle. The bike is an holistic work of art combining colour, sound, texture and flowing lines.

Genuine cruiser owners never ride a stock bike off the showroom floor but customise it into a unique fashion statement. Ironically the uniqueness is to be found in a very narrow band of icons e.g. skulls, flames, leather and chrome to name a few.

'Hi tech' is not part of the cruiser package with everything from biker apparel to brake technology being from an era when things were a lot more simple and down to earth. All of this compromises rider safety a little  but this is OK  . . . the cruiser rider is aware of this and rides accordingly? 

Because this is a complete lifestyle-package riders who own cruisers are very gregarious, even more so that sportbike owners.

See dedicated Cruiser page for more

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I would give you the sound of the pipes of this big American cruiser but that would destroy the download time! The rest is there from bandana to tassels.


Light weight bikes (80 - 95 kg) built for speed and manageability. For this reason the engine may well still be a two stroke although four strokes are now quite common. Engine sizes fall between 125cc and 600cc with the bigger engines being more trail and enduro bikes than true motocross. The bikes are single cylinder because of the need for lots of torque at low revs

Non essentials are dispensed with to keep the weight down and therefore kick starters are still the norm. Few are street legal. Everything about these bikes is high i.e. seat height and ground clearance. Wheel rims are large i.e. 21" on the front and suspension travel long e.g. 30cm on the rear and 27cm on the front to soak up the rough terrain.  Seats are small and uncomfortable as they are mainly ridden standing up or for short periods of time. 

Fuel tanks are very small at between 7 and 8 litres. 

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The ergonomics of this Yamaha YZ600R shows us why it is a sportbike i.e. the higher footpegs, the flatter seating position and the longer reach to the handlebars. The fairing is designed to smooth the bike and crouching rider through the air causing as little displacement as possible.

Standing on the footpegs to negotiate a bad piece of road is not really an option with this style of sportbike.

(Diagrams from the January 2001 Edition of "Motorcyclist")

ergyaha.gif (20611 bytes)


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