My New Bike: CBR125R

I chose my new bike today at Castle Motorcycles, Castleford. Here she is:

Pic of my bike

Pic of my bike

Now, I’m not going to bang on about this particular bike and how it’s the best bike in the world and all that…yet. First, I thought I’d share some of the decision-making process that I’ve been through over the last three weeks. I’m hoping that my experience might be of some use to others getting into motorcycling, or returning to it, and choosing a learner-legal 125. It might be of particular interest to other old fogies and mid-life-critical ex-bikers like myself, but if you’re a teenager and have an open mind, you might just learn something too, you never know. 😉

I have about a decade’s experience of riding bikes. First I had a Honda SS 50, which I used to commute on from the north side of Leeds to school in Pudsey when I was 17, about 12 miles away. Then I traded it in for a Honda CB 125 when we moved to Harrogate, about twice as far from school, and my dad thought that the journey would have been pushing it for a moped.

I continued to ride my trusty CB when I went to college in Oxford, and rode back home on it in the holidays up the A and B roads – ah, that lovely old Fosse Way, I must do that journey again soon for nostalgia’s sake. I sold the Honda when I was strapped for cash several years later, and regretted it bitterly. Some time later I got my third and last bike, a Suzuki GP100, which was ridiculously fast compared to the larger displacement Honda, being a 2-stroke.

And that points to one of the first considerations: 2- or 4-stroke? Two-stroke bikes are generally quite a bit faster, both in terms of their top speed and particularly in their acceleration, but they have a higher-pitched sound, and you have to mix 2-stroke oil (either in the tank or, for more modern bikes, by filling a separate 2-stroke oil reservoir every now and then). This gives them the distinctive smell and the pall of bluish smoke, which some like, others hate, and which we should all wean ourselves off anyway for environmental reasons. Manufacturers are still making 2-stroke machines, but they’re becoming rare for consumer bikes, keeping their status in the sports market. As well as these differences, 2-strokes run hotter and take more careful maintenance, making them more trouble, more expensive to maintain and fix, and much easier to burn out. My GP100 died a death when I rode the 600 miles or so from Oxford to Inverness and beyond – which would probably be a bit of a strain even for a larger engine.

In contrast, 4-strokes, pretty much what everyone has in their cars, are more resilient, quieter, with a lower-pitched rumble that’s more pleasing to everyone except race fans. Racing should be relegated to the race track, so if your bike is for road use, just forget 2-strokes. If you need more poke for occasional racing in the appropriate place, or for off-road sports, maybe a 2-stroke will suit you. They’re a hell of a lot of fun even in the smaller end of the market. Four-strokes are fun, but it’s a more sedate kind of fun.

Two-strokes often have a narrow power band in the rev range, and require more gear changes to keep using the full power. Four-strokes tend to deliver power more evenly over the rev range.

There’s a relatively new 4-stroke 125 engine with four valves instead of two, in a few models these days, including the Derbi Mulhacen, and this has a little more oomph without losing the benefits of 4-stroke technology, but I’m not sure quite how much difference it makes, and they’re not particularly cheap.

The Derbi Mulhacen was on my shopping list last week: there was one for sale, the Cafe version, 14 miles away and I went to try it out in the shop’s carpark (although the oil light came on after about 30 seconds and the guy said we should stop). I fell in love with the Mulhacen as soon as I saw it. It’s a gorgeous bike. Unfortunately, it was sold while I was considering my decision, but I don’t mind. I’m not absolutely sure that it is “learner legal”, since it is quoted as producing 15 bhp (brake horsepower), and strictly speaking the limit for learners is 14.6 (or, in new money, 11 kW). Also, I’m not sure I trusted the seller completely, as he told me that I, as a mature learner, could ride more powerful bikes than the 11 kW limit while I was learning, which I have failed to find mentioned on the Government website, but which conveniently would include the bike he was trying to shift. Strictly speaking, he was right – I could ride faster bikes while I learned – but only accompanied by an instructor on another bike, and in radio contact, but he failed to add that little qualification. Also, I saw the power statistic for this bike stated wrongly at, where they say it puts out 20 horsepower, and I queried how his Mulhacen could be advertised as learner legal, and he didn’t correct that massive overstatement of its power either. Cheers Baz. If that’s your real name (LOL).

Seriously, of course, you have to double check your information and take your time, unless you are absolutely sure you want a certain model and there aren’t many about.

Anyway… I can’t continue without demonstrating just how gorgeous this bike is:

Derbi Mulacen Cafe 125

Derbi Mulacen Cafe 125

See? Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t imagine you could park one of these in the middle of town without a lot of admiring looks from passers by.

One of the things that attracted me to this bike, appart from its looks and the 20, er, 15 bhp (still more than most 125s), was the ground clearance. I’m a bit obsessive about choosing my purchases when they’re anything more important than a biro. I make a mental list of the features I want (and don’t want) and check each option against it, and one of my wishes was for some decent ground clearance. The wish-list is informed by my intended use, and I hoped to find a bike that would cope with some moderately difficult terrain. I hesitate to say “off-road”, because everyone immediately tells me that nothing I suggest will cope with “offroading” (including, bizarrely, the XR 125 L), because they imagine I mean racing round a dirt track doing crazy jumps or wading through swamps, crossing the Sahara, or riding up a vertical rock face, when what I mean is just that I’d like my bike to cope with getting off the tarmac and onto rocky or muddy tracks, particularly those that cross the moors and wind their way into the hills.

Honda XR 125 L

Honda XR 125 L

So what in hell am I doing with a CBR, a race-style bike? That would seem to be the least favourable choice for getting into the wilderness. Well, to some extent I had to compromise – I had to limit the kind of terrain I tackle, and I had to consider other uses – but the CBR’s ground clearance isn’t actually as bad as I thought even with the lower fairing; plus, I might consider removing it when I set off for a bit of wild camping in the hills, and without it there’s a lot more room underneath. The exhaust pipe is then exposed, and there’s no protective belly-pan as some of the offroad bikes have, so care will be needed, but I’m interested in getting from A to B, not how quickly I get there.

The other considerations are that the vast majority of the riding I do will be on tarmac, and I don’t want to have the disadvantages of something like the XR. In particular, I wanted to minimise the problem of 125s (especially 4-strokes) being underpowered. See, I might be working this little thing quite hard, carrying camping gear and riding most of the day, or I might be wanting to commute or have a nice long Sunday ride into the country with no luggage at all, but keep up with the traffic on A roads. Reading the reviews, my list of possible bikes shrank a lot on the number of niggles about not having a decent speed. The CBR isn’t a fast bike, of course, and there are complaints that when you hit a headwind or a big hill you slow down a lot, but the CBR seems to be one of the fastest 4-stroke 125s around. The quoted power output is 13 bhp. Many user reviews (the believable ones) report it cruising on the flat at 70 quite easily.

In contrast, the XR is quoted as about 11, and many of the reviews say the acceleration up to about 40 mph is fantastic, but after that it’s a bit of a struggle, and many report it topping out at a cruising speed of around 55 or 60. Then again, this is a bike that has big knobbly tyres, and you don’t want to be cornering too fast. There’s little in the way of fairing to speak of, certainly nothing that will reduce aerodynamic drag, and it’s an upright seating position, with a higher seat and wide handlebars, so of course you’re going to find high speeds hard work compared to something that takes its design from a racing machine and is fully faired, a small, light bike with a low saddle and lowish, narrow bars. Aerodynamic drag is the biggest factor limiting speed for any given power, and it increases as the square of the speed. This means that the drag at 60 mph is four times the drag at 30. The weight of a bike is of less importance to top speed, except it will affect you on hills a bit. Generally, it will reduce the acceleration, and increase the stopping distance also, but a heavier bike should reach about the same top speed given more time. Don’t start me on Newton’s Second Law of Motion again, for fks sake.

The same sort of concern made me reject the Suzuki RV 125 Van-Van…

Suzuki RV 125 Van Van

Suzuki RV 125 Van Van

The van-van seems like one of those bikes that generates a fan club. I love them, although I haven’t ridden or even sat on one. I think they look cool, especially from the back due to that enormous tyre, the width of the thing and the lazy riding position. People look comfortable and unhurried riding around on these bikes with a bunch of luggage, two up, in their greasy old leathers and open-face helmets, and you could ride one across a beach, but they won’t cope with much serious off-road stuff because they’re quite heavy, and they don’t cope that well “on road” either, due to being seriously underpowered (according to the majority of reviews I read).

Many of the riders are more mature (as I am), and many of them cite this lack of speed as a positive thing. I saw reviews more than once saying that the RV quite possibly saved the rider’s life by being rather slow. Others praise the RVs stately passage from a more aesthetic perspective. I’m not so sure. The safety aspect of having an underpowered bike – this argument presumably resting on the fact that you will fall off at slower speeds, or not fall off at all – is offset by the increased danger from being constantly passed by other motorists when on main roads, and undermined also by an argument for self discipline and safety awareness that we should all apply anyway. If you’re riding at a safe speed, you’re riding at a safe speed. If your bike is capable of doing no more, or ten times that speed, it makes little difference to what is a safe speed in those circumstances. Almost the opposite applies, in fact: if your bike is an underpowered lump and you’re going too fast round a corner, you’re in more danger than doing the same on a bike designed to lean more and grip more.

Having said that, CBR 125 owners should be warned that their bike, while it looks like a racing machine, hasn’t got limitless grip, and the stock tyres are one of the least praised aspects, so don’t push it. I’m all for riding (or driving a car) well within safety margins, not somewhere around or just inside them. There are other ways to get thrills, and driving fast on the public highway is not a legitimate one; simple as that. I have to admit to pushing the envelope a lot in my younger days, especially when I found that power band on my 2-stroke Suzuki, but I had to stop and give myself a stiff talking to, because I wasn’t going to survive intact much longer doing what I was doing on it. Personally, I think that a lot of that madcap driving is compensation for not being satisfied in other areas of life – certainly that was so in my case then. It was like, deep down, I wanted to crash, or didn’t care enough about myself. Now I care big time. I want to keep all my faculties and my life, and I enjoy improving my riding skills along the lines of the advanced rider, not the fast rider.

Finally, I should briefly mention the Honda CBF 125, and the worthy workhorse of a bike that it has replaced, the CG 125. Yesterday, when I went to Castle Motors, I spent the last hour or so of this three-week-long research trying to decide between the CBR (600 miles in the ownership of Honda UK, 57-reg, a few minor scratches, £1895) and a brand new CBF (£2020)…and still getting on the XR as well a couple more times and wondering…wondering…dirt tracks…?…

The CBF would have to be brand new; it’s just been launched very recently. I’m a bit of a miles-per-gallon freak, too, and this would probably be the most economical production 125 anyone has ever made. It’s supposed to be moderately quick, although I have doubts about how it would compare to a CBR, and I think it’s only about 11 bhp, but Honda boast fuel economy of 120 mpg. It would be fine for a bit of light touring, perhaps. I even had to admit that in the flesh it isn’t quite as horrifically ugly as I thought, although straight from the side I hate that pointy little fairing below the level of the headlight with the overstated flame-like version of the Honda wing logo. I sat on it and it was comfortable. The bars were somewhere between the wide XR’s and the racing CBR’s, just bog-standard.

And that’s the problem. I’m not a complete slave to being sensible. I didn’t want to come home with a bike that I don’t really like the look of, just because I might get another 20 miles out of a gallon of petrol…although I might be kicking myself in a year if petrol is twice the price it is now and CBFs are worth more than they were new. However, it was partly a sensible decision, in that that eventuality is a bit of a long shot. Although it was only a hundred quid more, any new bike loses several hundred the moment you sign the documents. The CBR was, I think, a snip, and I haggled very unconvincingly, but got another £50 off, and then 15% off a jacket and boots while I was there. I have to say the salespeople at Castle Motorcycles were great, helpful without being pushy, friendly without being patronising, and I got the feeling that they could be trusted. Thanks again guys. They’re a Honda dealership, which makes me feel more confident, too.

There’s a load of other options out there, and I haven’t mentioned the Derbi Cross City I was thinking about, or the Derbi Terra Adventure, which would probably be my dream 125 if money were no object, but the reliability of Honda bikes is probably second to none (although occasionally a lemon gets through quality control), and it’s worth remembering that if you choose a popular model, or even just a popular make, parts are likely to be cheap and easy to come by, and servicing might be cheaper too.

I should take delivery of my CBR next week. I still have moments of doubt about my choice, but it can’t be too far wrong, and it’s under warranty for a bit yet, as well as having AA cover, and at the end of the day it’s a learner. I might get something bigger in a few months.

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