Dirt Bike Riders and Street Bike Riders

Differences Between Dirt Bike Riders and Street Bike Riders

It’s amazing how something as simple in concept as the motorcycle can be developed, massaged, improved, and altered into so many sub-categories, most of them unknown and of little interest to people who do not ride.

If you’ve not had the chance, a ride on a Harley Sportster of almost any vintage will be demonstrative of the original simplicity. For sure, there are many reasons to criticize the Sportster compared to other motorcycles of similar size and price.  Little power, barely adequate brakes, handling that is best not pushed, and standard foot pegs designed to punish your ankles every time you stop and put a foot down.

And yet… when you ride one you’ll understand the primordial motorcycle ooze from which the Sportster sprang. The earliest bikes were essentially bicycles with a motor of some sort bolted into the middle of the frame.  When you ride a Sportster, your initial sneer of elitism will soon give way, if your mind is cracked open at least a tad, to a realization of the beauty of simplicity.

The Sportster as one of the most honest motorcycles made today. It is what it is and does not try to be anything else. The essential early elements of a motorcycle are a frame you could design yourself on a piece of paper, an air-cooled engine in the middle, a transmission that feels and shifts like a farm tractor from back when farm equipment had manual transmissions with heavy gears, and basic instruments.  The Sportster, ridden as its designers intended, is a charming bike. Multiple inefficiencies and iron age technology are soon overwhelmed by the fun you’re having riding it. Which is exactly the point. 

What a tangled web of choices we’ve wrought from such basic beginnings.

Before dividing into street and dirt classifications, let’s enjoy a short detour to cover the differences between “bikers” and “motorcyclists.”

“Bikers” are almost always riding a V-twin motorcycle, It is either a Harley or one of a great many other brands trying to carve out a piece of marketing pie by creating a motorcycle that looks and rides like a Harley. One of these may be better in almost every measurable way than a Harley except one. It is not a Harley.  For a surprising number of people, that is the only issue.

Bikers usually dress to impress in a fearful way. Lots of black leather, lots of black everything else, and often a collection of sayings on decals on the bike and helmet (if a helmet is worn), broadcasting messages that span a gamut of inappropriateness from mildly out there to “if you do not find this offensive you must lack the ability to read.”

Like all other motorcycle genres, there’s less to this book than meets the eye. After all, the fabled “1%ers” of the 1960’s never got close to being an actual one percent of the motorcycle population. Almost all “bikers” you will meet are in fact friendly and warm people. 

Besides, there is some method to their masquerade. Whenever I see a person look at me on my motorcycle with fear in their eyes, I thank the “bikers” who created this reaction, which is almost completely unfounded.  Anyone who is afraid of me or what I might do is going to pay attention and stay as far away from my motorcycle as possible. I regret the false assumptions and the fear, but I cherish the increased safety. 

In my 20’s I was on a quest to educate the world about the true nature of motorcyclists, but I gave up on this quixotic quest decades ago.

“Motorcyclists,” on the other hand, can be seen riding anything and everything.  They tend to be more concerned with how they look to themselves than how they look to others. Like bikers, they are striving for a certain look, and that look is determined by the sub-category they wish to be seen as occupying. This may be based on reality but, like bikers, the result is often quite a bit removed. Which gets us to dirt bike riders vs. street bike riders.

Back in the day, (insert yawn as the old coot takes off again) dirt bikes were designed to be ridden in the dirt – imagine? Street bikes were ridden on the street.

This all changed about thirty years ago when the dirt began to disappear. As a child I played in a huge dirt and grass field (weeds, actually) down the block from our house in Buffalo, New York.  How many empty lots are there within 5 blocks of where you live now?  As an increasing rarity of empty spaces collided with a fear of lawsuits, dirt riding areas disappeared, and the cost of a “dirt” bike came to include the expense and hassle of a pick-up truck to carry it increasingly long distance to get to where the dirt could be found.

Then came the rise of the “dual-sport” motorcycle, led by BMW. The dual sport motorcycle has a license plate but is also capable in the dirt, saving you $30,000 or so because you no longer need to own a pick-up truck.

Now you have street bikes and dual sport bikes ridden most of the time on the same roads, and the friendly (mostly) jibes and insults fly back and forth among them.  Bikers ignore all of this, of course.

Although the rivalry is friendly, street bike people and dirt bike people often assume that those who do not ride the “correct” type of bike are not able to. This is a casual way of self-asserting superiority, and fairly harmless.

I choose not to ride dirt bikes, and this was a bit of a problem when I worked for dealerships that sold dirt bikes. Pretty easy to work around, as I could attend dirt events on a street bike. Since I also usually brought door prizes for the event it was all copasetic.  I also could schedule evening seminars on all manner of dirt bike techniques and gear, without the requirement that I actually listen to them.

Many friends made in those days continue to make comments that I should try dirt bikes because I’d love them if I did, or make snarky comments about my limited manliness because I don’t. 

What cannot be accepted is that I have ridden dirt bikes and can ride them.  Not with anywhere near the level of experience and confidence I bring to a  ride on pretty much any street bike, but I can do OK. 

The part that does not sell is that I simply do not like to ride dirt bikes. I wonder if it is the same for people who love only dirt bikes. Can they not convince others that they can ride street bikes but do not like to do so?

Each side can make compelling arguments. Street bikes bring with them a world inhabited by mechanical creatures that weigh one to three tons, driven by people whose attention is often directed elsewhere. In a confrontation between a 500 pound bike with two wheels and a 6,000 pound SUV with four wheels – the bike loses. Every time.  Street bikes must deal with speed limits.  And pedestrians. And gravel and dogs and horse manure and wet leaves where you were not expecting them.  For some, the street can be confining. You cannot go fast enough anywhere, even illegally, for a modern large sport bike to be approaching its limits. There are lots of reasons to not like riding on the street.

Dirt bikes are – dirty.  There are bumps and holes and obstacles of all sorts. Falling down is a fairly frequent and expected experience.  When I was a reasonably competent water ski enthusiast in high school I knew that if I was not falling down a few times a day I was not trying hard enough. Same with hockey.  However, I was not able to make that leap with dirt bikes. I don’t like falling down.  When you have a mechanical issue on a dirt bike (the odds go up because you’re throwing it on the ground from time to time), you may be far away from mechanical assistance and it might be a long push back to civilization. The bike gets dirty and you get dirty.  A paucity of gas stations may be an issue. Injuries are usually quite a bit less severe than after a street bike mishap, but can occur much farther from help, And they seem to occur far more often. There are lots of reasons to not like riding in the dirt.

Beyond that, I find many similarities in the two sides that might not appear obvious.

Appearance:  Motorcyclists like to look the part, whatever it may be.

Sport bike riders tend to dress to look like they are about to enter a road race (I did this for years), a drag race, or a stunt show.  Almost none of them are about to do any of these things.  There is no real harm in this, as long as the rider has some competence. You are simply a “poser.”  Don’t fret – it’s OK!  If you’re not a competent rider and do not know it, then you’re probably a “squid,” which may or may not be an acronym for “Surely Quicker Until I Die.”   Not good.

Favorite story. A number of years ago I was returning to the dealership after some event. I had on my best “poser” gear. Astride a Triumph Sprint in glistening British Racing Green, I wore my full Vanson leather’s suit, race gloves, black boots, and an Arai helmet in yellow.  Quite the ensemble. Waiting at a traffic light, I could tell the gaggle of early 20’s females in the car next to me were discussing – me.  I thought it would be fun to crank up the tinted visor on the helmet to reveal the actual age of the man they were discussing, but as the light changed I changed my mind. I was afraid the screams of horror would cause the driver to cause an incident!

Sport touring riders like to look like they’re about to take off on a cross-country trip at any second. Expensive textile riding suits and GPS and telephone technology are on display. Most of these bikes never leave the state.

Heavy duty tourers have outfits that vary depending on the brand and model of motorcycle.  This can be confusing to the newbie, but attendance at any event will make it clear. The Harley tourers dress differently than the Gold Wing aficionados.

This is where it can get weird. When the Gold Wing and the hundreds of enthusiast clubs for it first became popular 40 years and more ago, the riders of these bikes wanted to separate themselves from the hard-ass “biker” image. To do so, they mounted stuffed bears and other animals to the back of their bikes. All of them. OK, I can see that. Then they went further.  To get away from the black leather engineer boot style, they went for tennis shoes and white socks, because it is “friendlier.”  Many still do.   Tennis shoes and white cotton socks on a motorcycle that weighs 800 pounds is just not a good idea. And then when it rains…

Dual sport riders bend their attire toward an image of an imminent entry in a 5,000 mile rally in the dunes.  Most of them never ride further than the nearest coffee shop, which is where the phrase “Starbucks Adventure riders” originates.

There is no harm in any of this. Most of the farkles added to machine and body to create one’s personal image of choice also enhance comfort and safety, so no harm, no foul. Motorcyclists (and bikers) may be chasing an image of reality they will never attain, but it’s all part of the fun.

Let’s say you’re an “outlier;” a motorcyclist who wants to ride a bike for the approval received from the eyes of the great masses.  Based on experience, this is simple. You want to purchase a Harley V-Rod Night Rod.


I once rode one of these to a charity golf tournament, where it would be the prize in the unlikely event someone aced a hole in one on the specified hole.  This bike, with its high-tech water cooled V-twin engine, is not really a “biker” machine. It is also not a sport bike. It is designed to look like a drag bike with forward pegs. Relatively forward bars give you a riding posture that emulates a large “C.”

As I rode it away from the dealership the handling was so weird I determined that the front tire was almost flat. Back to the shop, where my favorite technician checked both tires and confirmed their correct inflation.

At speeds above 30mph it started to feel almost normal, but the skinny front tire and massive rear made cornering – interesting. As I rode up the freeway in black jeans and boots, black jacket, black gloves, and black helmet with tinted visor, I received more thumbs up gestures and smiles from drivers in cars than any bike before or since. By a lot.  People admired my Kawasaki ZX 12R, or appreciated the exotic nature of the Muzzy Raptor I owned for a bit, or the beauty of a ZRX or Harley Road King, or even the over the top nature of a Thunder Mountain chopper.  But of the over 500 bikes I’ve ridden, nothing has come close to the approval this bike received from others, even though it was a severely compromised design. If I thought the handling was awful at low speeds on pavement, a more heightened experience awaited – riding it across wet grass at the golf course.

You can also have fun by riding the “wrong” bike for the “wrong” purpose. On my 4,000 mile ride to Minneapolis and back last summer I received many comments on the order of “You’re riding that?”  Many people could not see a “naked” Triumph Speed Triple as a sport touring bike.  People from time to time express confusion when talking with a man of my advanced years riding a Speed Triple, which has the carefully marketed image of a “hooligan” bike for your tear-abouts. Kind of a compliment, in a way.

We all want to look good.  No harm in that.

In short, whether on a street bike or a dirt bike, we’re all doing pretty much the same thing. 

We just don’t admit it very often.


Copyright, 2014         David Preston


About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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