In Pictures: A Guide to Motorcycles. BMW... In Pictures: A Guide to Motorcycles. BMW

Motorcycles fire the imagination. Some people immediately envision the open road. Others conjure pictures of wildly customized choppers ridden by leather-clad ne’er-do-wells. Younger readers might picture motocross or X-Games style competitions. Evil Knievel comes to mind, as does Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Worrying types visualize hospital beds and long recovery periods after the inevitable fall. Regardless of where your mind takes you, the reality is that the world of motorcycles is not exclusively the domain of daredevils, hoodlums, and hippies.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are more than 5.3 million motorcycles registered in the US. Yes, there are plenty of normal, sane people riding on a regular basis. Of this total, tens of thousands ride to work every day. Mortality statistics show that just a few thousand riders die in accidents every year. While grim, statistics also show you're more likely to be killed as a pedestrian than as the pilot of a motorcycle.


Armed with facts that throw a wet blanket over common misperceptions about motorcycles, here's the reality of modern motorcycling. We call it our 2010 Guide to Motorcycles.

Pick Your Bike

American Sylvester Roper may have invented the first motorcycle in the 1860s. Riding on two wheels, his two-cylinder contraption was powered by steam. Credit for the first gasoline motorcycle goes to auto pioneer Gottlieb Daimler of Daimler-Benz fame. His gasoline-powered two-wheeler first ran in 1885, the same year he created the world's first gasoline automobile.

Over 100 years later, there are more than a dozen major motorcycle manufacturers selling more than 100 different models in the US. Boutique manufacturers triple these figures. Generally speaking, these builders produce street bikes that fall into six broad categories:

Cruisers
Touring
Sport
Dual-purpose
Standard

Crossovers

In terms of power, engines come in a variety of configurations. The simplest are one-cylinder arrangements. There are also two-, three-, four-, six- and even eight-cylinder engines that are either water- or air-cooled. Transmissions have five or six gears that send power to the rear wheel via a traditional chain, a toothed belt, or a driveshaft (similar to a car). Some bikes offer "automatic" transmissions, including those that function as a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Nearly all bikes use powerful disc brakes, and some feature anti-lock braking and stability control systems. Honda even offers one model with an optional air bag.

Here’s how the various types of motorcycles stack up:

Bike Operation 101

Today, nearly all bikes feature the following simplified controls:

Right-hand twist-grip throttle
Right-hand front-wheel brake
Right-foot rear-wheel brake pedal
Left-hand transmission clutch lever
Left-foot transmission gearshift lever
Compared to an automobile with a steering wheel, two floor pedals, and an automatic transmission, motorcycle controls might seem intimidating. But remember, millions of riders have safely mastered these controls.If you have ever watched an episode of Orange County Choppers, it should be clear that people of all intelligence levels are capable of safely piloting motorcycles.

Cruisers

With a laid-back, feet-forward, and arms-out seating position, cruisers are what many people equate with “motorcycle.” These bikes attract buyers based on their cool "biker" styling. Cruiser sub-types include choppers (with long front forks), bobbers (with a shortened or removed rear fender), and hard-tails (with no rear suspension).

Cruisers are powered by many different sizes of engines, starting around 250cc and topping out well over 100 cubic inches (1600cc). (Some boutique manufacturers have even been known to stuff V8’s in their bikes.) The smaller bikes are lighter (around 300-pounds) but the heavier bikes can weigh more than double that. The big bikes can be difficult for some riders to maneuver and keep upright.

Touring

Easily identifiable by their large fairings (the body work surrounding the handlebars and front lights) and saddle bags, touring bikes are motorcycling marathon runners.

Tall windshields protect riders from the blasting air stream. Long wheelbases help deliver a smooth ride. Big engines (most are over 700cc and can have as many as six cylinders) lope easily along at highway speeds. Large seats keep riders comfy during long rides.

Sport

Adrenalin junkies love sport bikes. These bikes are compact, completely enveloped in aerodynamic plastic bodywork, have engines that sound like angry wasps, and require their pilots to ride in a nearly fetal position. They're all about doing everything fast. Very fast. The quickest production sport bikes are capable of 190-mph-plus and can accelerate from 0-100 mph in under three seconds.

Perhaps because they offer Ferrari-beating performance for the cost of a well-used economy car, a majority of motorcycle accidents occur on sport bikes piloted by male riders ages 16-23 years. Engines are sized from 250cc up to 1600ccs, with horsepower figures totaling more than 190 on the most powerful examples.

Many sub-groups exist within the sport bike category. There are muscle bikes, naked sport bikes, and barely street-legal race-ready bikes.

Dual-Purpose

For millions of boys (and some girls), learning to ride a dirt bike was a rite of passage. These off-road only bikes are commonly used for racing, in events like motocross. But there are versions of dirt bikes that are also street legal. For those who want the go-anywhere capabilities of a dirt bike that can also be ridden on the road, manufacturers offer these dual-purpose motorcycles.

These bikes feature knobby, off-road style wheels, long-travel suspension, and purposeful looks that are the direct result of their immense capabilities.

Standard

If you happen to live where the weather is predominantly pleasant, motorcycles can be a practical and economical way to commute. Especially when fuel prices spike, getting 60+ miles per gallon makes sense. In states like California where lane-splitting (riding in the same lane next to a car) is legal, commuting on a bike can also substantially reduce the time it takes to get to work, as a motorcylist can just breeze by stopped traffic.

Back in the late 1950’s, Honda got a foothold in the U.S. motorcycle market with the economical and easy to ride Super Cub. Tens of thousands were sold and used as basic transportation. Contemporary no-frills bikes are characterized by their traditional designs and economical engines. If you value economy over performance and style, look to this category of bike.

Crossovers

The automotive market is not the only place where crossover products are being introduced. Some manufacturers are introducing scooters that are more like motorcycles, motorcycles that are more like scooters, and truly innovative vehicles that occupy new geography somewhere between motorcycles and automobiles (some even have three wheels).

Ready To Ride?

Motorcyclists have never had access to more or better machinery, and if you do your homework, there's a bike out there for you. While it's tradition in many states for bikers to acknowledge one another with a wave, we'll forgive you if you don't want to take one hand off the bar your first summer out.

Click here to see our recommendations for motorcycles for each of the six categories listed above.

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