Small bikes are where the fun is
Phil Young says you don’t need to have a big bike to have fun, especially if you want to go on an off-road motorcycle adventure.
Steve Watkin was a small bike fanatic who recently left us, and according to Steve, “small bikes is where the fun is at”. He would turn up to a ride full of big bikes, on a Honda CG 125. I can remember thinking; “You have a full license… why?”. To be honest, I just couldn’t see the appeal of it but he would travel around on a bike that tops out at 60mph. I’m quite sure there are certain breeds of snail that go faster than that!! I just didn’t get it. Was Steve poor? Was this his winter hack??
In all honesty, I couldn’t understand why Steve, who was an intelligent man and had a full bike license for longer than I had been alive, would prefer a Honda CG 125 or even worse – his CUB 90! Maybe he was a training black cabbie and doing the knowledge. Why else would anyone that can afford a big bike, want to ride a 125?! There could only be one logical conclusion for it…
Steve was a cheapskate.
A short while later I came to realise this wasn’t the case and Steve was one of the bikers that knew the truth: small bikes are great fun.
In 2015 I went from a heavily modified monster of a bike – Yamaha R1, to a basic commuter YBR 125, initially as a cost-cutting exercise. I could no longer afford to run the 25mpg petrol drinking superbike.
Steve then introduced me to off-road riding – taking me on a few local green lanes with my YBR. This transformed my ideas on what great fun on a bike could be. In fact these days it’s my go-to pastime on bikes and my partner and I build entire trips around being off-road as much as possible.
Unfortunately, just four months after purchasing it, my YBR was stolen and I ended up going even more basic, with a 1997 Yamaha SR 125 my dad had lying around the garage. I converted into a bit of a hybrid using the wheels and suspension from a spares YBR I had still lying around and we appropriately named it Frank, short for Frankenstein.
In summer 2016, Sabrina and I decided to take two 125’s around Europe (I managed to convince her that a YBR would be better than her Z750!). For a month we travelled around and had the most amazing adventures. I think it was this trip that made us totally fall in love with small bikes for adventure riding.
They are by no means fast and this was highlighted when we entered Switzerland from Italy, it took us about 30 minutes to get to the top of the first 2200m high mountain pass. We spent the entire trip (or what it felt like) asking each other what was wrong with their bike and why it was so slow, but once you accept the fact that you aren’t going anywhere fast, you can start to enjoy what these small bikes can offer.
They are really light, which is excellent for on and off-road. They handle corners very well and require the smallest amount of rider input to steer. With a little 125 like Frank, you feel like you can go anywhere. If they fall over, you pick them up. If you get stuck somewhere, you lift the bike out or do a simple U-Turn. The slim tyre profile means that squaring off really isn’t noticed – you can take a tyre from new to the end of its life and it will still turn in with little effort.
The main benefits of using small bikes;
– They are CHEAP on fuel: 300 miles for £13 or so.
– They are super reliable. Being a single cylinder air-cooled engine, they are too simple to go wrong. When they do, you can usually fix it at the road side with a handful of tools.
– The weight of them makes them really good for off-road use.
Don’t be fooled into thinking they lack suspension, clearance or tyres… Frank saw off all the difficult lanes in the Lake District with ease. They tend to distribute their weight nicely and respond very well to changes in body position. I can’t imagine the torque and weight of a GS making it easy for anyone that doesn’t have Graham Jarvis levels of control, in anything more than a bit of gravel.
In December 2016, I came into some inheritance, enough to get myself a big bike again and be able to afford to ride it. Sabrina and I decided that only being able to overtake the HGV’s when going downhill was slightly crippling, so the decision was made to upgrade to the slightly bigger YBR 250.
At this point I realised… Steve Watkin had infected me. I could no longer see the point in big bikes, not for our needs anyway. Even though I could now afford one.
Summer 2017 saw us on Europe adventure #2, including the off-road heaven that is Portugal. I had always thought that the 250cc 4T is the best all-round engine size on road, which offers just enough power to make things interesting, but weighs only slightly more than a 125, retaining its nimbleness, both on and off road. Our 250’s return an average of 70ish mpg, top out at 85mph (indicated) and have a tank range of around 300 miles. For these reasons, I believe the YBR 250 is a perfect adventure bike and with a bit of skill, does not need any adaptions for off-road use, purely due to the size and weight.
There are some disadvantages, as with any bike. The smaller engine sizes typically don’t have large stator outputs. To be able to use my heated jacket and grips on a decent setting, I needed to wire in a switch to my lights. This means that in the colder months during the day, I’m often riding with my lights off to divert the power to the accessories. It would be nice to have 200 watts of usable auxiliary power. Of course, sometimes you just want to speed off into light speed when you see that open road but the 250 engine still has that power limit (which I guess isn’t a bad thing with the UK being as it is with speed cameras now).
The long and short of it is, small bikes are great for adventures.
You don’t NEED power for fun, to be able to carry luggage or to cruise at decent motorway speeds. You don’t NEED the weight of a heavy bike to stop you from being blown about, or to keep you stable on the motorway. In my experience, these are all small bike myths that are more ‘big bike-biker’ reservations than anything else.
I’ve had big bikes, I can totally see the attraction in them, but these days I’m with team Steve and can only echo what he used to say:
“Small bikes is where it’s at.”
Phil Young and his partner Sabrina are the people behind the 250 Adventures page on Facebook.
We are a bit obsessed with the idea that you don’t need an adventure bike to go on an off-road motorcycle adventure. Phil also gives his opinion in another article in the series: The Best Adventure Bike Is Probably Not An Adventure Bike.