Driving

The parts of a motorcycle and their functions explained [Infographic]

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Motorcycles are nimble road warriors that shuttle their drivers from Point A to Point B with speed and precision. These open-air performance machines inspire direct connections with the road. Riding a motorcycle can even make a driver feel like part of the landscape themselves. This bond makes motorcycles irresistible to long-haul travelers and everyday commuters alike.

The world’s first motorized bike hit the pavement over 150 years ago and many of the basic parts of a motorcycle still remain the same. A motorcycle needs an engine, a chassis, a transmission and a set of wheels to operate.

This guide illustrates the different parts of a motorcycle, showcases the preventative maintenance tips that could lower motorcycle insurance rates, and highlights crucial safety tips to remember whether you’re driving a motorcycle or riding as a passenger.

Read on to learn about the different parts of a motorcycle, or jump to our infographic with explanatory diagrams and history lessons, as well as motorcycle road trip suggestions with some of the most scenic routes in the US.

Anatomy of a motorcycle

To the average bystander, motorcycles may appear to be nothing more than bicycles with engines. In fact, motorcycles are complex, finely tuned machines with many mechanical parts.

There are several different kinds of motorcycles, and most of them share the same basic foundational design. Here are the five main categories of motorcycle types:

  1. Standard bikes: general use motorcycles with upright seating positions
  2. Cruisers:large bikes with vintage designs and low-slung profiles 
  3. Touring bikes: heavy bikes with large engines and luggage storage
  4. Sportbikes: lightweight motorcycles that prioritize performance
  5. Dirt bikes: lightweight motorcycles designed for offroad use

Any motorcycle you ride has an engine, a chassis, a transmission and a set of wheels. By changing the sizes and features of these components, you can customize your motorcycle to produce different performance and riding results.

Below, we break down these basic motorcycle parts and the roles they each play in making your bike function.

Engine

The beating heart of any motorcycle is its engine, even if the bike is an electric vehicle with a motor and battery. A common motorcycle classification is engine size, measured in cubic centimeters (cc). Higher cc engines are heavier and require more power to run.

In most cases, the engine mounts directly to the motorcycle’s frame. This keeps the motorcycle's center of gravity low while keeping the engine far enough away from the wheels and front fork. In non-electric bikes, the fuel tank is mounted over the engine, typically in a central location underneath the seat.

Chassis

The chassis is the skeletal structure of a motorcycle. Chassis construction includes several integral motorcycle parts that provide a base for the rest of the bike. The components that make up the chassis are the frame, the front fork and the suspension.

Front fork

Your motorcycle’s steering and handling are made possible by the front fork. The handlebars connect to fork tubes on either side of the front wheel that house hydraulic springs in the suspension; this tube connects to legs (called sliders) that attach to the front axle and control movement of the wheel.

Frame

Arguably the most important part of the chassis is the frame, the central element of the chassis upon which the rest of the motorcycle sits. It contains the connecting element for the front fork (called the head tube) that allows that piece to pivot. Aluminum or steel are common materials for motorcycle frame construction due to their strength and density.

Suspension

Keeping your motorcycle grounded and your ride smooth is the job of the suspension. Both front and rear suspension setups are common. In the front, hydraulic shocks connect to the fork and cushion impacts under the wheel. In the rear, a suspension connects the body to the axle.

Transmission

For power to flow from the engine through the drivetrain, a transmission is needed. The transmission is activated via the hand clutch when shifting gears, propelling the bike forward with torque produced by the engine. The most common motorcycle transmission setup is a sequential manual shifter that works with a foot pedal shifter. “Sequential manual” shifting means the rider manually shifts gears either up or down to the next sequential gear.

Other parts of the transmission that help your bike get going and stay moving include:

  • Ignition switch: a handlebar-mounted, key-operated switch that controls the flow of power to the rest of the motorcycle
  • Starter pedal: once the ignition switch is activated and power is released through the bike, this pedal allows the rider to start the bike
  • Foot shifter: allows the rider to shift gears up or down with a foot control that’s located near the footrests
  • Hand clutch: handlebar-located control that disconnects the clutch from the engine, allowing the rider to safely proceed with a gear shift

Wheels 

The wheels and tires on your motorcycle will significantly affect its capabilities and performance. Tire ratings exist for street use, high-speed riding, off-road adventures and more riding scenarios. The ratings differ based on the weight of the motorcycle they support and the surface the bike will drive over (loose dirt, city street or a track).
 
The wheels are also the mounting location for the front and rear brakes. The front brakes are larger in size than the rear brakes because of the extra force required to quickly stop the motorcycle’s front wheels and slow the bike’s speed. Both brakes are controlled by levers on the handlebars.

Instrument display

The display, or instrument cluster, is the central computer system on your motorcycle. This is where you can monitor your speed while riding, see your fuel level and keep an eye on any electronic add-ons your bike might have (like a GPS device or an engine temperature sensor).

Stay current on motorcycle maintenance

Regular upkeep is crucial if you want to keep your motorcycle running safely and efficiently. Maintenance checks can also alert you of any potential problems you’ll want to catch before you’re out on the open road.

Here are eight recommended tune-ups that you can perform yourself or ask a mechanic to conduct on your next visit to the shop:

  • Change the oil: You should change your oil often depending on your manufacturer’s recommended service intervals.
  • Check on tire wear: Low inflation or worn tire treads can cause dangerous riding conditions; check your tires weekly to monitor their condition.
  • Top off low fluid: Check fluids and top off low levels between maintenance trips maintain functionality and prevent costly repairs.
  • Test the battery: A dead battery can put a serious damper on your trip. Test your bike's battery before long rides to ensure it’s accepting a healthy charge.
  • Clean the air filter: A quick blast of compressed air can clean an air filter between long rides before you need a replacement.
  • Examine the fuel filter: Clogged fuel filters can cause problems with engine starting and acceleration, so be sure to check them often.
  • Lubricate the drive chain: After a ride, lubricating the motorcycle’s drive chain while it’s still warm allows the chain to absorb more oil.
  • Keep your bike covered: Cover your bike when it’s not in use — either by parking it in a covered space or using a weatherproof tarp.

Practice these motorcycle safety tips

Safety is crucial when riding a motorcycle since they leave you exposed to road hazards in ways that passenger cars and trucks do not. They lack airbags and windshields in most cases, and don’t feature rollover protections or reinforced bumpers to stabilize you in the event of a collision. Most lack seatbelts as well.

Even though motorcycles feature fewer safety features than most passenger cars, they’re not necessarily unsafe. Your safety rests in your hands as the rider, and it’s up to you to make sure every ride leads you safely to your destination, even when you encounter scary driving situations. Keep the following safety tips in mind before heading out on your next trip.

 

1. Choose a bike that matches your experience level

Some motorcycles are exceptionally powerful and quick, with a high power-to-weight ratio. A higher ratio means a quicker rate of acceleration and shorter braking distance that can surprise you if you’re used to riding a heavier bike or one with a lower ratio. You should only ride motorcycles that match your experience level to avoid dangerous riding situations.

 2. Wear a helmet every time you ride

A helmet with a face shield is an essential companion on every ride. Risk-taking is never a good idea on a bike, even if you’re only making a short trip. Head protection creates an added buffer between you and the road in the event of an accident. Look for a helmet that provides full protection for your chin and neck.

3. Use the proper protective gear — even if it’s hot out

Alabama is the only state where driving barefoot is illegal on a bike, but you shouldn’t ride without a set of heavy-duty boots wherever you live. Essential safety gear includes gloves and a jacket made with a durable material, like full-grain leather, waxed cotton or Kevlar.

4. Plan your rides in advance

Before you head out on a ride, you should plan ahead to note rest stops, alternate routes and covered shelters (for staying safe in severe weather). Some motorcycles are equipped with 5G and GPS to map your routes. Pre-plan your stopping points to schedule plenty of rest time so you can avoid drowsy or distracted driving at all costs.

5. Prepare a pre-ride checklist

Preparing a pre-ride checklist reduces the potential for maintenance issues to slow down your next ride. Check the health of your tires, spot-check lines for any fluid leaks, and test your headlights, tail lights and signal lamps. Doing so can bring an added sense of security along for the ride.

6. Regularly test your motorcycle’s basic functions

When you mount your bike, conduct a quick safety inspection to ensure several basic functions are operating smoothly. Try out the bike’s horn, adjust any mirrors, give the brakes a test and check the clutch and throttle while parked. You don’t want any of these to fail while you’re enjoying your ride.

7. Follow traffic laws and drive defensively

It’s always important to follow state and local regulations when riding your motorbike. Motorcycles are hard to see for other drivers, so exercise extreme caution around larger vehicles and busy intersections. The best way to keep yourself and others safe is to drive defensively.

8. Never drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Drunk driving is a bad choice with serious consequences for motorists. Whenever you operate any motor vehicle, including a motorcycle, you should never intake drugs or alcohol. Doing so can put your life and the lives of others on the road at risk.

Safety and maintenance are crucial for motorcycle ownership. Luckily, it’s not crucial to comprehend the physics of momentum or the chemistry of fuel injection. A few key parts of a motorcycle can teach you valuable lessons about safe riding. Knowing your bike can also help you decode what’s covered in your insurance policy.

As long as there are scenic driving routes, there will be motorcycles to explore them. A bike is a trustworthy road trip companion that offers a thrilling and rewarding driving experience. Regardless of your driving habits, comfort level or budget, you can find a motorcycle that fits your lifestyle.

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