There are three basic categories of street motorcycles: full dress or touring bikes, cruisers and sport bikes. Though some bike designs tend to bridge the gaps between these categories, most motorcycles fall easily into one of the three groups.
Full dress motorcycles are so-named because of their extra equipment to make long rides or touring more convenient. They have hard-shell trunks on either side of the back fender, full fairings, windshields and a dashboard. They also typically come with in-dash audio equipment, often including GPS. The passenger seat on a touring bike has a high rounded back with armrests. These heavy bikes have advanced suspension and rubber motor mounts that smooth out the road and make long hauls a pleasure. The Road King by Harley Davidson and Honda's Gold Wing are two examples of full dress motorcycles.
Though touring bikes are beautiful, the motorcycles most closely associated with the legendary biker image are cruisers, which include customized choppers. A chopper has a "chopped" frame with the front fork extended and raked beyond the standard stock cruiser. Ridden into infamy by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 1969's Easy Rider, chopper motorcycles are designed primarily for hedonistic pleasure rather than long-distance traveling. The posture assumed on these motorcycles, with their laid back seats and forward foot controls, lends itself to kicking back and taking your time, with plenty of attitude riding out ahead. Choppers are hot once again, even enjoying the success of a television show, Orange Country Choppers, featuring new custom motorcycles built every week from the frame up.
Cruisers and choppers are synonymous with cool and virtually all Japanese manufacturers have invested in the legend started by Harley Davidson with cruisers of their own. Honda's Shadow Aero, Kawasaki's Vulcan and Suzuki's Volusia are a few examples.
Cruisers and choppers —- particularly Harleys -- are also the motorcycles most often customized. Many owners can easily invest over US$30,000 for everything from eye-blinding chrome to custom engines and airbrush paint jobs. Harley Davidson Softails, Springers, Wide Glides, Shoveleads, Panheads and Knuckleheads are all classic cruisers.
If cruising isn't your style -- but racing is -- you'll be interested in sport bikes, also called café racers. These bikes have a sitting posture that puts the rider's feet beneath him or her, rather than out front. The rider leans forward over the gas tank with head and shoulders to grasp small, straight handlebars designed for quick, exacting turns. This posture is perfect for taking curves at high speeds, leaning the bike and maintaining tight control. Sports bikes are perfect for playing in the mountains, flying down lonesome, winding country roads, or even zipping around town. However, they are not designed for comfort on long, steady treks, where the front-leaning posture puts strain on the lower back. Sports bikes come in a wide range of models and prices. The Honda Interceptor and Ducati Supersport are two examples of sports bikes.
Off road motorcycles include dirt bikes designed with tall frames and high tailpipes that won't bottom out. These motorcycles have knobby tires and lack street gear or license plates. Instead they are issued yearly green stickers by the Department of Motor Vehicles, allowing owners to ride in off-road parks. They have either two stroke or four stroke engines and are illegal to ride in the street.
A hybrid dirt bike, known as an enduro, has a headlight and license plate and is street legal. Stock tires are called combination tires and look like "dull" knobby tires. Unfortunately, these tires don't have much traction in the street or in the dirt. Enduros are not as popular as dirt bikes or street motorcycles, but can be useful for those who live in rural areas or farmland surrounded by dirt roads.
Other off road motorcycles include the four-wheeled ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) or quad racer. Its three-wheeled predecessor was discontinued in 1988.
In the U.S. there is a mandatory helmet law for riding motorcycles in most states. In some states the law is age or insurance-dependent. Check local laws before riding to be safe.