Motorbike vs Motorcycle – There’s One Small Difference

Although the two words ‘motorbike’ and ‘motorcycle’ are often used interchangeably, they are essentially different vehicles, not always the same thing, depending on which part of the world you’re in. Right off the bat, many don’t consider motorbikes and motorcycles to have any difference, but we’re going to get into the specifics so you can be absolutely sure of which word to use.

What’s the difference between a motorbike and a motorcycle?

A motorcycle and motorbike both refer to the same vehicle, but a motorbike is more aptly used for a lightweight motorcycle. In some parts of the world, the term ‘motorbike’ is far more commonly used, such as in the UK, Australia, and parts of Asia. In the United States, the word ‘motorcycle’ is mostly used.

What is a Motorbike?

A motorbike is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a small motorcycle.” or “light motorcycle”. In this case, we’re talking about motorcycles that typically have engines under 200cc and often don’t even have a gearbox. You would also call such vehicles ‘dirt bikes’ or ‘street bikes’. Some parts of the world use the word ‘moped’ when referring to a lighter motorbike without a gearbox.

Motorbikes are typically smaller than motorcycles, but this is not always the case. For example, certain models of Honda Goldwing have massive engines and lifts up to carry passengers; therefore, it’s technically a motorcycle despite its size. Other terms for motorbikes are mopeds, scooters, and motor scooters.

A few examples of these types of motorcycles are the Honda CBR300 and the Yamaha YZF-R3. In addition, many motorbike models have just one gear, which makes them cheaper to produce than other types of motorcycles. They’re also much easier to learn how to ride since there’s no need to learn the maneuvering of gears.

However, these differences are only technical and you can still refer to motorbikes with their umbrella term ‘motorcycles’.

Key differentiators:

  1. A motorbike can also be constructed using separate parts so that it can still function when some of the parts fail or become damaged, while a motorcycle cannot operate with any broken or missing parts.
  2. A motorbike rider would be much less likely to wear protective gear, although a helmet is recommended in most areas. This is because motorbikes, or ‘motor scooters’ go at significantly lower speeds than a motorcycle. For a point of comparison, average motorbikes/scooters can barely reach 60 mph as speed limits and are designed to be ridden at around 40mph speed.
  3. A motorbike can also refer to a two-wheeled vehicle that is powered by an engine but designed for off-road use on trails rather than on roads. This can be contrasted with a dirt bike, which is designed solely for off-road use.
  4. A motorbike may have any engine configuration such as parallel-twin, V-twin, single-cylinder, etc.

What is a Motorcycle?

Merriam-Webster defines a motorcycle as “a motor vehicle with two wheels and a strong frame that is propelled by a motor and that has certain steering mechanisms.” Clearly, this is a very broad definition and this language could apply to virtually any two-wheeler with a motor, scooter, or not! All motorbikes are considered motorcycles as well — so it’s easy to look at the two terms as correlated. ‘Motorcycle’ is an umbrella term, and motorbike is only one category underneath it.

If it has an engine with more power than 200cc and multiple gears: you’re probably looking at a motorcycle and not a motorbike. While motorbikes have many other terms, motorcycles generally refer to the same vehicle.

Motorcycles came into existence after motorbikes. The first motorcycles were built in the 1890s, and they remained uncommon until after World War II. Their design is more similar to bicycles than automobiles.

Key differentiators:

  1. Motorcycle engines are larger than the motors on motorbikes and have much more power and more hp (horsepower). They also have a manual transmission, which means riders need to learn how to operate the gearbox.
  2. A motorcycle can be further defined by the style of front suspension fitted. Most are characterized as Telescopic forks or Rear Monoshock suspension. Less common front suspension types are Earles Fork, Spring forks, and Girdraulic/Girder fork.
  3. A motorcycle is mostly ridden by someone wearing protective gear like an armored jacket, gloves, boots, or chaps, and most are fitted with a helmet. That’s because a motorcycle is usually capable of much higher speeds than a motorbike/scooter, and needs more protective gear than just a helmet.

Motorcycles are the language of choice predominantly in the United States, but you’ll see motorcycles being referred to as ‘bikes’ for short in other parts of the world (such as the UK). Even in the States, the term ‘bike’ is a casual way of referring to the same vehicle. This also explains why most people call motorcycle riders ‘bikers’.

Motorcycles are not connected in any way to bicycles, and the two are not interchangeable.

Can you call a motorcycle a bike?

You can easily refer to a motorcycle as a bike. In fact, a bike is one of the safer words amongst all the different terms, since it can mean any vehicle with two wheels (small engine or otherwise!). A ‘bike’ is a universal term, and also works perfectly well for someone riding a bicycle.

It’s rare to refer to someone riding two-wheeled vehicles as a ‘rider’ and the word ‘biker’ is the answer to most of these situations.

Are motorbikes safer than motorcycles?

Since the word motorbike (scooter) typically refers to a smaller vehicle with one gear — it can be safer than a motorcycle. This is because of the high speed that motorcycles are capable of, not to mention double the engine power of other vehicles. Lower speeds drastically reduce the chances of fatal accidents across the board.

However, the answer is not so straightforward. Since motorbikes (bikes for short), and small displacement motorcycles go at lower speeds, riders tend to ride with lesser protection. This means they typically wear half helmets and no protective gear for the body.

On the other hand, while motorcycles have a big difference in speed and range, bikers tend to be much better insured with protective gear, such as gloves, sunglasses, and jackets with structural boning that are impact resistant.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to predict what happens in an accident — but lower speeds and good protective gear go a long way in keeping you safe.

What are ‘Bikes’ in American English?

In the United States, bikes refer to the word ‘bicycle’. It’s common to shorten bicycle to ‘bike’and is usually used by children or professional cyclists. However, it’s totally acceptable to call your motorcycle a ‘bike’, and is treated as a casual term for the same thing.

What are ‘Motorcycles’ in the UK in British English?

In the UK, the term motorcycle is a formal version of the same thing. Motorbike and motorcycle aren’t confused and it’s easy to understand that they’re referring to the same vehicle, but a large majority of the biker demographic refers to them as motorbikes or simply ‘bikes’. Using the term motorcycle can sound either too old-fashioned, formal, or technical.

Motorcycle and Motorbike: A Conclusion

While there are differences in different parts of the world with the two words: the difference is not so much that you’d confuse anyone. Most people will realize that you’re referring to the same thing, and it’s unlikely you’ll face any real ridicule for using the wrong term. Still, it’s nice to know which word to use in which situation.

If you take away anything at all from this article, let it be this: motorcycle in the USA, motorbike in the UK.

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