In an age where motorcycle insiders moan about the lack of industry growth, off-road bikes still sell pretty well. People aren’t buying supersports, but they’re buying dirt bikes.
But a quick scan of the Internet reveals a baffling spectrum of off-road machines available, ranging from pint-sized bikes for kids to mega-tourers that are supposed to handle off-road work, even though they look better-suited to a Gold Wing rally than a motocross track. How’s the uninformed buyer to know what’s what? We’ve put together the following highly factual guide, to help you navigate the confusing world of off-road motorcycles.
Honda CRF50, Yamaha TTR50 — most minibikes are 49 cc machines that parents buy for their kids, so they can live out their vicarious dreams of becoming a pro motocrosser. This is a dangerous move, because one of two things happens. Sometimes, the kid decides video games are more interesting, which means you’ve wasted a lot of money on a dirt bike they don’t use. Or sometimes the kid falls madly in love with motorcycles, which means you’ve got to buy them a 70 as soon as they outgrow the 50, and a 110 once they outgrow the 70, and so on …
You need a minibike if: You’re five years old, and you have a big yard, and parents who make good money.
Pitbikes are small off-road motorcycles that are used to ride around the pit areas at motorcycle races. They first gained popularity at motocross events, but you see them at roadracing tracks too, and in some places, people even race them. They’re almost always small-capacity, often in the 125 cc range, small in size, and these days they’re often made by Chinese manufacturers. The dodgy dirt bikes you see for sale in pop-up ads? Many of those are Chinese pit bikes.
You need a pitbike if: You’re a 12-year-old kid whose clueless parents finally give in and buy you a dirt bike … for $499, off a sketchy website.
Once upon a time, motocross was just basic dirtbikes racing around fairly flat tracks. Then, as bikes got faster, organizers got worried and put in jumps to slow things down. Except that didn’t make anything safer, as racers just decided to start smashing the jumps at high speed. Now, motocross is one of the most extreme spectacles of the motorsports world, and the bike design reflects that, with long-travel suspension to handle the rigours of landing massive jumps, and close-range transmissions to make sure you’re always putting out max braps, because how can you defy gravity otherwise?
Motocross bikes used to always have two-stroke engines, as they make a lot of noise, and that’s what’s most important to the average MXer. Now, thanks to Al Gore, they have high-revving four-stroke engines instead, which are almost as fast and require three times as much maintenance. Isn’t the progression of technology grand?
You need a motocross bike if: You’ve decided that land-based moto-hoonery isn’t enough to keep you happy. What you really want is to sail through the skies aboard a 450 cc dirt bike, preferably while performing a heel-clicker or a Superman.
Enduro riding, or woods riding, is much more respectable than motocross, a real gentleman’s sport. While MX bikes are made to rip around a short track, enduro bikes are built for more extended riding, for long distances through the woods or other off-road trails, instead of riding in a bumpy circle with the throttle pinned. As a result, enduro bikes have less suspension travel than motocross bikes, but can handle a wider variety of terrain. They’re easier to ride in tight single-track trails, as the engines have wide-range transmissions that aren’t screaming to pitch you off if you botch a downshift.
Despite the civilized and highly intelligent nature of the enduro scene, some nutters still have to prove themselves, and that’s how we ended up with Hard Enduro, which is pretty much the same idea, except with the added barrier of impossibility. Hard Enduro events pit riders against terrain like abandoned mines, or partially decommissioned minefields, and usually have a low completion rate.
You need an enduro bike if: You just want to ride trails, and the idea of blasting through the air on a motocross bike is unappealing.
The idea of rally raid racing is to string together checkpoints over long distances, often hundreds of kilometres, and then add a big transit stage at the beginning or end of the day — and then do it all over again the next day, and the day after that. At the end of the race, whoever’s made it through the entire series of checkpoints in the least amount of time, and without dying of thirst, wins. The world’s most famous rally raid race is the Dakar, although other events like the ECO Race are becoming much more popular, as they aren’t run by arrogant Parisians.
Rally raid races typically aren’t on tight terrain like enduro events. They usually take place in the desert, where there are fewer hippies to complain about the noise. As a result, the bikes have much more bodywork than most dirtbikes, with full fairings keeping wind off the rider and providing mounting points for navigation instruments. There’s also a lot more fuel capacity, along with an emergency onboard water supply.
In the past, manufacturers raced big-bore machines, even litrebikes, in rally raid events. Now, you mostly see 450 cc machines, as organizers create boring restrictions to keep budgets down. If you want a rally raid bike, you can buy one directly from KTM and Yamaha’s French subsidiary, but otherwise you’ve got to find a specialized company making them, as they are highly customized, or build your own.
You need a rally raid bike if: You’ve got a couple of hundred thousand bucks laying around that you don’t know what to do with, and you decide to spend it on entering the Dakar Rally.
Trials riding lacks the adrenaline-pumping thrill of enduro or motocross racing; it’s more about traveling through really tight trails, or even urban wastelands, with an emphasis on balance and control over speed. It’s sort of like parkour, but with motorcycles. Trials bikes are highly specialized for their sport, with long-travel suspension, a motor with a very immediate power curve, and a seat that’s impossibly low to sit on, to discourage any thoughts of taking a break while riding. Talented trials riders (Toni Bou, Dougie Lampkin) are lots of fun to watch on YouTube, despite the lack of screaming speed. Untalented trials riders are no fun at all to watch, as it’s basically a goof doing donuts on a dirt bike.
You need a trials bike if: You want to get better at motorcycling without smashing your body to bits. Seriously, many of the sport’s top riders, including CSBK champ Jordan Szoke, ride trials as a way to work on balance and control. Just don’t expect anyone to watch your YouTube videos, if you suck at it.
Want to ride your motorcycle on the dirt, but also on the street? That’s where dual sport motorcycles come in. Most dual sport bikes are in the 200-650 cc range, and look a lot like dirt bikes, but with some street-legal equipment bolted on (proper DOT headlight, turn signals, licence plate).
There’s a lot of compromise on dual sport bikes: 21-inch front wheels mean they don’t turn quickly on the street, and all the extra pieces necessary for highway legality mean they’re fairly porky when compared to true dirt bikes. As a result, dual sport riders are constantly moaning about wanting machines that work better off-road, but are more comfortable on the street. Dirt-only riders make fun of dual sport bikes for being too heavy and mildly gutless, and street-only riders make fun of them for having the same ergonomics as a sawhorse. Dual sport motorcycles do work well on your stereotypical potholed Canadian back road, but aren’t much fun at highway speed.
You need a dual sport if: If you always wondered what’s down those gravel roads you’re passing on your street rides, or if your local DOT is years behind on its frost heave repair program.
Adventure bikes were invented to combine long-distance travel capability with moderate offroad utility. BMW pretty much started this class by introducing the R80 G/S in 1980. Back then, you were allowed to run these behemoths in desert racing events, and the early G/S was a fairly spartan machine — you didn’t need a lot of extras for bashing sand dunes.
Modern adventure bikes barely resemble that initial stripped-down airhead, as they’re now covered in plastic bodywork and crash bars, and can cost as much as a small car. The stereotype is that while these bikes have more power than ever, with traction control/wheelie control/onboard navigation/oversized fuel tank to keep you motoring through the desert at mad speed, the reality is that most of these bikes never make it far past city limits.
You need an adventure touring bike if: You’re tired of riding your expensive cruiser to Starbucks, and you need to change it up, but you think a stretched Hayabusa would be too gauche.