If you’ve had the chance to read our interview with Trevor Dech, chief instructor at Too Cool Motorcycle School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, (and if you haven’t, we highly recommend reading it because he gives a lot of great tips) you’ll remember his answer to what a good beginner bike is. He didn’t define it as “this model, that model, and those models, and that’s it.” Instead, he defined it as a three-step process.
The first step of that process is “Finding your niche.” Now, some of us know from the very start what kind of motorcycle we want, and are going through the training process and getting our licenses/endorsements to be able to ride that bike. Many others, however, might have an idea of what they want but find a different style of motorcycle much more enjoyable for them after training.
That is what we are going to be investigating today—what some might call the styles of motorcycles, and others will call niches. Since Trevor used the word niche, that’s what we’re going to use as well.
What Even Defines a Motorcycle Niche?
In the most basic sense, a motorcycle’s layout, riding position, and intended use defines the niche it belongs to. The basic niches are cruisers, sport bikes, dual sports, and standards, but you’ve also got various specialized sub-classes like hypernakeds, suspersports, baggers, and more. Choosing one really depends on what you are planning to do with your motorcycle—a commuter might prefer a standard seating position, while a weekend canyon carver might be looking for something sportier.
As Trevor said in the interview, the most important part of finding your niche is to find a bike you feel comfortable on. It may not be one you had considered, and it may not even be in the same niche that you thought you were going for. Personally, I’m a shining example of this as I was aiming for an ADV bike right out of the gate, but now I ride a Kawasaki Ninja 650, a sport tourer that isn’t even in the ADV niche.
As recommended, after you’ve done your training course but before you buy your bike, visit a dealership or motorcycle show and swing a leg over some models. You may have been aiming for a supersport but find a relaxed, mid-peg sport cruiser more to your liking, or you might have wanted a cruiser but ended up with an ADV because you can see the road better and it’s super comfortable. Basically, butt-on-seat is the best way to determine what niche works for you.
However, since you can never have too much information, we’ve put together a list of the most common niches, and what each of them can offer you!
Options, Opinions, & Recommendations for Motorcycle Styles
By far the most popular style of bike in North America, cruisers offer a moderately relaxed riding position, with the handlebars often at or just below shoulder height. Your feet rest on pegs or floorboards, and these can be located anywhere from a mid-mount location to all the way forward, at the front of the bike frame. Quite often, the seat (or saddle, in cruiser parlance) is quite plush and comfortable, meant for you to sit on it for hours on end as you “cruise” down the highway—hence the name.
Within the cruiser niche, there are quite a few different styles, including sport cruisers, baggers, and continental cruisers (also known as touring cruisers) just to name a few. The brands you will find here often are Indian and Harley-Davidson, with some models from the Big Four Japanese manufacturers and a few offerings from Europe and the UK.
The biggest thing about finding a beginner bike in the cruiser segment is to not go too big, too powerful, too soon. That is why we have a curated and constantly-updated list of the best cruisers for newer riders, where you will find everything from a Honda Rebel 500 to a Harley-Davidson Iron 883. If your heart is set on the initials H-D, then we also have a recommended list of beginner-friendly Harley’s for you.
In general, you will find that beginner cruisers, even those for larger riders, will either be powered by parallel-twin engines or smaller V-twins and have torque rated at around 50 lbs-ft or lower. This allows for you to get used to the torquey nature of this style of bike without potentially spinning up the rear tire while moving off or during corners. As a note, keep in mind that most cruisers are also very heavy compared to other niches.
If ever there was a field of motorcycles that could challenge cruisers on how many sub-styles of bike fall under it, it is the sport niche. Within this niche you will regularly find parallel-twin or inline-four engines, although one of the most classic beginner bikes of all does carry a sport-tuned V-twin in its frame.
You will also find every riding position here, from the classic standard riding position to fully leaned forwards with rear and raised pegs and low-slung clip-on handlebars.
One of the best things about sport bikes is that they work very well in the city. They are more agile than most other bikes, and crucially are lighter than many other styles of motorcycle, making them perfect for 90 degree turns in a city center, or for keeping a stable turn as you ride up the on-ramp to the freeway.
In other words, they can be some of the best commuter motorcycles you can buy. The other reason they make perfect city bikes is that unlike the larger styles, such as cruisers and some ADV bikes, you can usually fit two sport bikes into a regular sized car parking space. That’s great for people who ride to work together.
A great starting place to find your bike in this niche is to go through our list of sport bikes made for new riders. Any of the bikes on that list are great starting points and can lead you down many of the paths that exist in sport bikes, from 600cc supersports and 1,000cc superbikes, to sport tourers like the Suzuki SV650.
This niche is a bit difficult to truly define in terms of bike style, but is easier to define in terms of how you sit. Put simply, if you want to sit upright, as if on a normal kitchen chair, with your hands on handlebars that are anywhere from your waist to your chest in height, and have your feet on mid-mount pegs, these are the bikes for you. Many of the neo-retro motorcycles out there are ridden standard, and even some nakeds are more standard than sport oriented.
There are a few manufacturers out there that pride themselves on making really comfortable, easy-to-ride standards, such as Triumph with their Speed Twin and Bonneville T100 models, Royal Enfield with the Bullet 500 and Interceptor 650 (INT650), and Kawasaki with their W800 retro bike. One of the biggest features about the standard style of bike is that next to the cruisers, it has some of the most comfortable seats—often plush, stitched leather or soft but resilient cloth over foam.
Fitting into this niche as well are the hilariously fun Honda minimoto bikes, as well as the ultimate classic—the Super Cub 125 ABS. The Honda GROM, the Honda Navi, and the Honda Monkey are all single cylinder, inexpensive runabout bikes that can get moving at a pretty decent clip but aren’t out and out freeway cruisers. These bikes are more for the fun of the ride, for learning, and in some cases, for being the primary bikes of shorter or lighter riders, because they are so new-rider friendly.
There are realistically only a few bikes to avoid as a beginner in the standard style, such as the more powerful “scrambler” style of standards, as well as the “speed” series of standard bikes from Triumph. Don’t get us wrong, they are astonishingly fun bikes to ride, but we recommend that you get a season or two under your belt before making the move up to the bigger, faster bikes. Here’s a list of the best small motorcycles for beginners in 2022, which includes more than a couple of standard models.
Adventure/ADV & Dual Sport
The fourth and final niche that exists out there is the adventure style motorcycle, often shortened to ADV, and its half-brother, the dual sport. The huge draw in this niche is that no matter whether you lean more towards the street side of things or the off-road side of things, these bikes can handle it all. They are the most adaptable and capable of all bike styles, and the much heavier ADV bikes in particular will often come with brush guards, engine cages, and handguards. That’s because off-road capable bikes are expected to be dumped, picked up, shaken off, and then ridden some more.
They also have stronger subframes, beefier spoked rims, solid mounting points using larger fasteners for luggage, engine bash plates, and radiator guards to keep the bike in one piece while running in the harshest of off-road environments. ADVs and dual sports aren’t indestructible, though.
Seasoned adventure riders don’t rely on those lightweight, from-the-factory protective parts. The stock guards are too thin and the crash bars usually bend too easily when the bikes fall over regularly. Luckily, many aftermarket companies (like Camel ADV, Hepco & Becker, and SW Motech) can provide more robust parts to take their place.
A prudent beginner will budget to buy better protection before seriously venturing off pavement. The extra guards are expensive, but they cost less than replacing damaged radiators, fairings/plastics, and engine cases.
ADV is a highly recommended niche if you want a comfortable ride on the road, because when it comes down to it, ADV bikes most often are enhanced versions of existing road-only models. For example;
A Kawasaki Versys 300X is a relative of the Ninja 300
The suspension for these ADV bikes is enhanced, has longer than average travel, and smoother modulation; it can soak up even the worst pothole or speed bump usually without adverse effects.
Our resident ADV expert, Jim, has three recommendations for great beginner bikes, from all over the ADV spectrum. The first is the Royal Enfield Himalayan, which may sound a bit like the runt of the litter when you learn it has “only” 24 HP and 20-odd lbs-ft of torque, but it still gets the job done.
The air-cooled engine in the little bike has been affectionately dubbed “the tractor,” because no matter what you do, it seems to be able to pull the bike over, up, and around everything. It also follows the principle of keeping things stupidly simple, and is the kind of bike you can fix with basic tools and a few choice words.
If you’re looking for the peppiest beginner adventure bike, Jim recommends the KTM 390 Adventure, a small ADV with a big heart. With nearly twice the power of the Himalayan, the 390cc single engine likes to be revved up, and will get your pulse racing.
It’s surprisingly capable off-road for a bike equipped with solid rims, and often impresses experienced ADV riders with its fully adjustable front and rear suspension, technology package, high power-to-weight ratio, and overall ability to ride anywhere. It has enough torque for crawling and scrambling, but it is also controllable, and KTM is one of the most respected brands in all of off-road motorcycles.
For those wanting to go on a road tour but not looking specifically for a touring motorcycle, the Suzuki V-Strom 650 is Jim’s recommendation. This 650 is the smaller brother to Suzuki’s V-Strom 1050. The “Wee-Strom” is notably heavier than the KTM 390 adventure and Royal Enfield Himalayan, making it more of a handful when riding off-road. The upside to that extra weight is better stability, wind protection, and comfort on the highway during longer trips.
Using the same immensely beginner friendly V-twin found in the SV650, power and torque here are in perfect balance, with enough to get you going at freeway speeds and maintain it without issue while also not getting you into too much trouble. On top of that, the V-Strom is one of the most popular, affordable ADV bikes out there, has a gigantic fan base, and an immense accessories catalog from both Suzuki and V-Strom specialist companies.
If the full, full-fat, big ADV bike isn’t your style, there are always dual-sports that can handle highway riding adequately while having a big advantage off-road compared to ADV motorcycles, thanks to their lower weight and longer travel suspension. Dual sports are basically dirt bikes that are road legal, and there are so many options in this niche that the best way to find “your bike” is to literally go to a dealership and sit on as many as you can until you find it.
Tall seats abound in this class to get greater ground clearance and suspension travel, but there are many capable dual sports available with lower seat heights as well. The Yamaha TW200 and XT250 are two such examples.
Dual sport bikes are perfect inner-city transportation too, since slower, technical riding in the urban jungle is so similar to riding in the actual jungle.
Jim does have a recommendation: the Honda CRF300 L Rally. It’s a perfect beginner’s dual sport other than the tall seat height. This Honda is totally at home in the dirt, has ABS, and offers better than average wind protection compared to other dual sport bikes for riding on roads. If you can’t find a 300 Rally due to its great popularity, the older CRF250L Rally is more common in the used market.