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Picking a new dirt bike these days can be a bit harder than it was 30 years ago. More manufacturers offering more types of bikes, the selection can get a little overwhelming if you haven’t been keeping up with all the new stuff coming out, or even if you have.

Here I will try to explain, to the best of my ability, what the different types of bikes offer and why picking the right one could make all the difference. I have been in the industry for well over a decade and love riding my dirt bike, summer or winter. I will pass on what I have learned to try and help you make choosing a bike easier.

I will divide dirt bikes into five different categories and explain why they are, and what they excel at, Motocross (MX), Enduro, Cross Country, Trail and Dual Sport. At the end I will explain a common problem I have come across choosing between MX and Enduro bikes.

Motocross   (MX)

A bike built for the rider who wants to hit the track

Mx or motocross bikes are what most people think of when they think of a dirt bike. These bikes are built for the motocross track, jumps, corners, whoops, and checkered flags. The MX bike’s job is to get you around the track as fast as possible, so quick acceleration, stiff suspension, and light weight are the name of the game. Horsepower isn’t the only thing that makes for quick acceleration, quick revs, and gearing play a big part too. To help get quick revs, the flywheel weight is typically low, having less rotating mass helps the revs go quick to get to peak HP as quick as possible, the drawback is this makes the bike “flame out” (stall) easier, which on a track doesn’t really matter. The gearing is relying on the quick revs and a close ratio gearbox to deliver as much wheel speed as quickly as possible to get to max speed. The gearbox will have it’s internal gear ratios close, so you’re not in a particular gear very long while accelerating, quick gear shifts to match the quick revs, again, to get to peak HP as fast as possible.

Another thing that sets the MX bike apart from Enduro and other types of dirt bikes is the suspension setup. On the MX track you’ll be hitting large jumps and have hard landings, not to mention the whoops and the hard corners. The suspension is set pretty stiff on an MX bike for these reasons, it’s not set for comfort or traction at low speeds, it’s set to handle the abuse it gets on the track without bottoming out and getting back to proper ride height right away after a big hit.

Lightweight bikes make all this even better, the less weight there is to power, the more power there is to use, and the easier it is to suspend. Since you’re at a track, you don’t need silly things like lights, kickstands, large fuel tanks or skid plates. Not having these like other bikes reduces the weight quite a bit, but they can be handy when not at the track.

Examples of motocross bikes:
Honda CRF150/250/450 R
KTM SX line up
Gasgas MC lineup
Suzuki RMZ lineup


Setup for technical or casual trail riders.

Enduro Bikes are built for the woods, for single track, trails, and enduroey (yup made that word up) things like jumping logs, going over large rocks, climbing rocky hills, all while weaving through the tight trees.They keep the RMPs up while going slow, soak up bumps, logs, and rocks and harder stall during the slow technical parts. Other features include larger fuel tanks, headlight/tail light, kickstand, 18” rear wheel, trip meter and sometimes other accessories.

The gearbox has wide ratio gears allowing you to stay in gears longer so you’re not changing gears mid hill climb and can focus more on the terrain than the gears. A heavy flywheel weight makes for slower revving but on the flip side it helps keep the bike running at low RMPs, so it doesn’t flame out as easily, less stalls halfway over an obstacle. The sprockets are geared for low RPM torque, so while the bike is revving higher the wheels spin slower, compared to MX, giving the rider more control over the wheel speed in loose conditions. The suspension is softer than other bikes, this helps keep the tires in contact with the ground over obstacles like rocks, roots, and logs, if they ran the same stiff setup as the MX bikes it would bounce the bike all over the place losing contact with the ground, and losing traction.

Enduro bikes make use of larger fuel tanks for extended range out on the trails, sometimes getting 100km or more on a tank. Kickstands are handy as well, there’s not always a good tree to lean the bike up against, and there’s no need to haul around a stand. The headlight and tail light are legal requirements here in Alberta to ride on crown land(most of the trails), it’s not necessarily for riding at night but that happens sometimes when the day goes on longer than expected, making a headlight a life saver. The 18” rear wheel, as opposed to the 19” on a MX bike, gives more room for more rubber for more flex around obstacles providing more traction than that of a 19”. Sometimes Enduro bikes come with skid plates to deflect obstacles, radiator fans to keep the bike cool in low speed technical situations, or hand guards to protect the riders hands and levers, there are many other recommended accessories to consider when equipping an enduro bike to armor it. These add-ons may add a bit of weight to the bike, but it may save you from towing back a broken bike from an unfortunate drop.

Examples of Enduro bikes:
KTM XC-W lineup
Gasgas EC lineup

Cross Country

Kinda like a cross breed between MX and Enduro.

Cross Country bikes come in between MX and enduro, they’re like a fast woods bike. These bikes have an 18” rear, larger tank like the enduro, and a kickstand, but stiffer suspension, a closer ratio gearbox that's closer to the MX bike and no lights.

The mannerisms of the Cross Country dirt bike is a racey woods bike, great for those at higher skill levels that like to keep up the speed on the trails, or those that like to ride in the woods and hit the track casually. They’re like if someone were to buy an MX bike and make a good effort to turn it into a enduro, not quite the same as an enduro, but more manageable in the trees. The suspension is in between the two, soft enough to keep traction, but stiff enough to handle harder hits. The gearing can vary depending on bikes, but usually it’s a semi close ratio that’s closer to an MX bike for a bit snappier response. Large tank and kickstand comes equipped but the lights do not, keeping the weight down a bit.

Examples of Cross Country bikes:
GasGas EX lineup
KTM XC lineup
Honda RX bikes


Simple, easy, inexpensive, and reliable.

Trail bikes are an essential part of the dirt bike industry, they are where riders typically start, from the old Honda XR days they still ring true to that formula, basic, low maintenance, lower end components, unmatched reliability, and great price point. The trail bikes of today are typically air cooled, so no radiator to worry about and overheating isn;t usually a problem. You’ll see drum brakes on some, weaker suspension and no fancy features, but the price reflects that. Trail bikes are not meant to be on the track hitting jarge jumps, or barreling down the trails at breakneck speed, the power isn’t very high and the suspension doesn’t like that too much.

What they excel at though is teaching new riders how to ride, starting with little 50cc bikes and having a complete lineup for someone of almost any size, kids and adults alike. Many parents choose the Honda CRF50F for their kids first bike, and for good reason, they are easy to handle and hold their value amazingly well, then there’s a bunch more to choose from as they grow into the sport.

Examples of TRail bikes:
Honda CRF - F lineup
Suzuki DRZ lineup (excluding 400)

Dual Sport / Street Legal Dirt bike

Go anywhere, anytime!

Dual Sport bikes can be divided into two different types, Dual Sport and Street Legal Dirt bike. The true dual sport bike typically has either an older dirt bike engine from way back, or a street bike engine in a dirt bike frame. The Street legal dirt bike is a competition level dirt bike that happens to be street legal, usually tuned down a bit though.

The true dual sport is designed to handle many miles on the road having a maintenance schedule closer to that of a street bike, but lacks a little on the off road side of things, making it a great choice for back roads, fire roads, and more open trails, not as heavy as Adventure bikes, but much lighter.

Street legal dirt bikes are made from an existing enduro bike that has been tuned for a bit more open highway usage, but doesn’t lose much of it’s off-road prowess. These engines don’t like long highway rides like the dual sports, but excel when it gets time to get off road. Being much lighter, more powerful, stronger braking and much better suspended, they love the trails and most of what an enduro can do, but at the cost of highway comfort, range, and maintainance. Great for connecting trails, or if you live close to the trails.

Examples of Dual Sport bikes:
Suzuki DR650
Honda CRF250L
KTM 690 Enduro

Examples of Street Legal Dirt bikes:
KTM 350/500 EXC
Honda CRF450L

What size of bike should I get?

Well that depends on your skill level, and where you plan on riding. A novice rider on a 450 4 stroke isn’t usually a good idea. A smaller cc bike will be easier to handle and can be more fun to ride, but too small of a bike could be frustrating to advance on. 250cc four strokes will pull around a grown man almost anywhere they want to go, trails or track, KTM and Gasgas have 350 four strokes that seem to be a great balance from anyone, close to the power of a 450, but handles kinda like a 250, but these aren’t for everyone. I’ve seen many experienced riders go from a 450 down to a 250(4 stroke) or even a 150(2 stroke) and love it. But it will depend on you, your skills, throttle control, and where you plan on taking it.

2 Stroke or 4 Stroke?

20 years ago this question could make a huge difference on how much fun riding was, these days, with the reliability of 4 strokes going up and the predictability of 2 strokes getting better, it can come down to rider preference. I loved my 4 strokes, and still do, but I now have a 2 stroke, and I’m loving that too. Pick the right TYPE of bike, and that’ll make a much bigger difference than 2 or 4 strokes these days.

How to choose a dirt bike for a kid.

Did you know that statistically dirt bikes are safer than quads? It’s true! And they’re cooler too ;)

For the kids first bike, look at the trail bikes, something basic and air cooled, race bikes aren’t a good idea to start them learning throttle control and balance. Take the Honda CRF-F lineup. Starting at the CRF50F and going all the way to a CRF250F it just comes down to rider height really. These bikes aren’t boasting huge power so that shouldn’t be an issue.

For their first bike, no matter what age, we like to see them on the balls of their feet when standing the bike straight up, this gives a bit of room to grow, and still provides stability. A bike that is too short for a rider will be hard to learn the proper way to handle it, if their knees are above their hips when sitting on it, it’s too small. It will be hard to balance, and harder to turn properly than a bike that fits better.

The second bike they have will depend on their skill level and comfort of them and the parent.

Proper gear is a must, a helmet is obviously the most important, but PROPER dirt bike boots will be a close second. Proper boots will provide much better stability, and help prevent ankle injuries when they put their foot down. There are tons of other gear to strongly consider like chest protectors or pressure suits, knee guard, elbow guard, neck braces, pants, and gloves. Good gear will make a crash less painful and safer so when that happens, they usually brush off and get back on the bike right away.

MX vs. Enduro, and why they're different.

Over the years I have come across this question quite a bit;

"Why can’t I use a MX bike for riding trails?"

The answer is you can, but it doesn't work well. There’s a reason these companies spend so much one perfecting both styles and don’t just make one bike for all.

The answer is you can, but it doesn't work well. There’s a reason these companies spend so much one perfecting both styles and don’t just make one bike for all. Say you take an MX bike into the trails for a harder trail ride and come across a long rooty section, the stiff suspension will want to keep the bike at full stance as you go over the roots, making it bounce up deweighting or even lifting the tire from the ground, causing a loss in traction, and on loose rocks this will make it bounce all over possibly losing your line, putting you in a place you didn’t intend on being. With the bike going all over the place, you’ll be trying much harder than you need to to keep the bike going where you want it, and excessive fatigue sucks halfway through the day. The gearing can be a handful out there too, an MX bike is geared to get to top speed as quick as possible, on the loose trails this will cause a lot of unnecessary wheel spin, when the wheel spins, the traction goes out the window. This will be most apparent up a loose rocky hill climb, it’s all good until you start to lose RPMs and try to grab a lower gear, then the wheel spins, and the hill climb is over. At this time, the light flywheel weight comes into play as well making the bike stall right in the middle of a hill, and starting on a hill with a bike that wants to spin its tires doesn’t help. Whereas an enduro bike has a wide ratio gearbox possibly eliminating the need for a gear change in the first place, and a heavy flywheel weight helping the bike stay running at lower RPMs, and the more gradual throttle helping prevent wheel spin, all this helps keep traction and keeps the bike moving forward. Low Speed technical trails will show this off too, tring to cross an obstacle at low speed where you need to keep the wheel spin to a minimum, like a large rock in a tight corner. Also the 19” rear tire won’t flex around obstacles like the 18” with less pressure could. The small fuel tank sometimes only gets you 50km or so, depending on the ride, which may be enough, but you will eventually come across days where you’ll need more fuel. The lack of kickstand is only an inconvenience when stopping for breaks though. I know not everyone likes headlights on their bikes, but in Alberta they are a legal requirement when on public land. Getting pulled over because of this may not happen all that often, but with the price of tickets these days, it’s not worth it, and besides if you ride with that buddy who “knows exactly where he is” late in the day, a headlight can come in handy.

So in the end, if you’re a trail rider, having a purpose built bike makes a big difference at the end of the day, making life easier on the trail will help the motivation to go out and do it again, or try harder better trails.

Taking an enduro bike to the track isn’t the best idea either, the soft suspension is the main culprit of this. Being made for smaller bumps and lower speeds the suspension does not like landing large jumps, or hitting whoops at speed either, this could result in a bottom out and loss of controls, at speed. It will also be wollowy in the corners because of this, and the 18” rear tire. On a side note, having your kickstand come down mid air may be entertaining for some spectators, but won’t be fun for you.

This is where the Cross country comes in, it doesn’t excel at the track, but is much better suited than an enduro, and still being proficient in the trails for more experienced riders.

All that being said, as much as the right bike helps, the rider's skill is the most important part of riding, well, anything. A skilled rider can put almost any bike anywhere they like, and make it look easy, so seat time and training will be the best thing you can do to improve your riding skills and help make the most out of the bike you choose to ride.

Ride safe-ish, have fun!

Author: Seamus Willox


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