Four wheels to two: Car Online Editor Curtis Moldrich turns to bikes during coronavirus
Coronavirus has impacted lots of people in lots of ways, and right now – despite my background as a car journalist – I think a bike could be the perfect antidote to my pandemic-related troubles. And this isn’t *just* an excuse to hop onto something with a ludicrous power-to-weight ratio.
For me, public transport is out the question unless totally unavoidable, and while a car feels more isolated, a motorbike goes one better. It’s totally removed from the germ-carrying public and the passengers you quietly suspect of harbouring disease – a motorbike is the closest you can get to your own bubble.
Financially, the insurance and running-costs of a bike are significantly lower than a car for someone of my age (31) – and when combined with the uncertainty in various industries in 2020, I’d rather have as few overheads as possible. Getting a competitive insurance quote through MCN Compare will help to save even more.
Finally, I have a feeling riding will be a great form of relaxation, but ironically for the same reason my first few rides were so stressful. No car experience of mine so far has compared to my first few miles on a basic Honda CB125. The feeling of nakedness, speed but also total control left me wide-eyed – but importantly left no room in my mind for the usual stresses that have been building-up over the last few months. Think of it like a detoxing electric shock, a clear out of my thoughts, and you’re pretty much there.
Motorcycles have always been in the family, and growing up, various two-wheeled machines always occupied spaces in the garden, shed and garage – and sometimes all three. A CRM250, Bandit 600 (ridden to Morocco and back), Fireblade and GSX-R600 race bike; they’ve always been around – but I’ve never really had the desire to jump on one. That is until a few months ago, when everything seemed to take a nosedive.
So, for the reasons above – and also because MCN and Honda are letting me – I’ve decided to begin my bike journey at 31. Over the next few reports, I’ll explain what you’ll need to ride a bike in 2020, along with any buying advice and tips I collect along the way. And I’ll show my working, so you can see exactly how much I save compared to running a car.
The first step to riding comes in the form of the CBT, and like all things Coronavirus has made it that little bit harder. Before the pandemic, you could arrive and ride, renting your gear and bike on the day, but post-Corona you need to supply your own kit. That meant I had to buy a helmet, jacket, trousers, gloves and boots before my CBT day. And while the helmet is the sole legal requirement on that list, many riding schools – including the one I was to attend – reserve the right to turn you away if you don’t come with the above.
Still not totally sold on the ‘bike thing’ I decided to shop conservatively, looking for items that ticked all the safety boxes but still provided relatively good looks. My Shark Skwal 2 helmet cost a relatively cheap £200, but its matte black finish makes it look the part. Sure, it’s a bit bulky, but the fit and finish is reassuring, and there are also rechargeable lights all around for extra visibility.
The Furygan Atom vented jacket is equally sturdy. At £170, it’s one of the cheapest you can get – but crucially its hardwearing textile exterior and armour inserts mean it should fare well if things go a bit wrong. A removable lining means it’s warm enough – with a hoody – for winter, and several zippable vents should make it a comfortable wear in the hotter months. The fact it looks plain and unassuming is certainly a bonus.
Furygan’s Steed £160 trousers were equally good value; their thick denim material goes under the radar and the fit isn’t bad either– they’re close to what I’d wear when I’m not on the bike. Padding around the hips and knees is enough to boost my confidence, but not enough to be unwieldy.
Of course, Covid-19 even managed to complicate the buying process: stores were shut and unable to try things on, I ended up ordering online – which caused all the problems you’d expect. I picked gloves that were irritating over longer periods of time, and a helmet was a size too small initially. To make matters worse, the TCX District boots I went for felt far too big, and their smaller replacements were to arrive after my CBT.
Still, with almost all the gear, it was time to head down to the riding school to take my CBT.
Whenever you mention the CBT, people say two things: ‘it’s not a test’ and ‘look where you want to go’, but both those nuggets of wisdom evaporated early doors for me. Even during the equipment briefing – before I got on the Honda 125 – I was wondering how it’d go. The last time I’d even been on a bicycle, Rossi was winning championships – this wasn’t going to go well, was it?
Despite my worst fears, I was able to balance, pull away and steer, but my four-wheel experience seemed to slow my progress. Although I was told to keep the revs up, my car-driving instincts always stopped my right hand dialing them in – everything felt too rough, and too loud. This mental barrier, combined with my rusty balance, meant that my CBT would take place over 1.5 days as opposed to the usual one.
Of course, as soon as I was told I wasn’t going out on the road, things began to gel. As I began to unlearn my usual habits, the number of engine revs went up and so did my confidence. And that all translated to a big step up in the quality of my slow speed manoeuvres.
The next day, everything seemed to come together from the off and that meant I was going on the road. Initially it felt like being careering downhill in an office chair – totally unprotected – and 30mph felt like 70mph. I ended up sitting stiff and upright, my hands melded to the handlebars, my back fighting the bike at every turn.
Eventually, the whole process slowed, and I felt like I had more time to make observations, change gear, and generally enjoy the feel and freedom of a bike. Feeling far more confident and relieved, I ended the day with a CBT certificate in hand, with the first chapter of my biking career done.
Covid lockdown means it could be a while until my Mod 1, so I’m going to spend the time between now and then getting more accustomed to two-wheels, gaining confidence and generally loosening up.
The gap between my CBT and Mod 1 training was unusually long due to Covid, but in that time I’d done as much as I could to prepare. From using a helmet-mounted action camera to film my riding and spot mistakes, to buying cones and setting out my own assault course in the local car park, I was prepared. Still, that didn’t stop the nerves.
I’d asked around about the key differences between the Honda CB125R and the CB65OF I’d take my Mod 1 on, and weight was the thing that kept cropping up. Some said it was easier to balance but tipped in like a wheelbarrow, while others said the power and weight would take a while to get used to.
I had about two hours to think about all of this, as Honda’s Grafton riding school was over 100 miles from home. And even when I met my new instructor, Dougie, I still didn’t really know what to expect. After a brief chat about they key differences between a 125 and 650, it was time to jump on the Honda and take it for a brief spin.
Select first, build the revs and ease out the clutch. It’s all the same as the CB125R, and once on the move it felt reassuringly similar. Even when riding around the car park, I could feel the extra reserves of energy at my right wrist, but it was all manageable at least. Changing up and down was the same too, and at lower speeds I used the back brake and a handful of revs to conduct slower turns. If anything, this bike fit me better.
However, soon it was time to train for the Mod 1 proper, and that’s when things got harder. Essentially aimed at bike control, the Mod 1 is slaloms, U-turns, avoidance and pushing the bike. It’s done in a controlled environment, and you need to pass it before taking your Mod 2. On forums it was widely seen as the hardest of the two, as it’s the most unlike day-to-day riding: It’s super high pressure and even putting a foot down is instant failure.
On the bigger bike, the slalom – although identical to the one I’d set up in the car park – felt far more challenging, and it took me several goes to thread the 650 through it. U-turns were equally tough, and it felt like starting from scratch.
The worst bit, however, was pushing the bike. I was worried about tipping it away from me, so I ended up carrying it off balance and shouldering all the weight myself. Others could do it without a sweat, whereas I had essentially done a workout by the time the bike was in the right place. It had to be sorted, and fast.
But back to low-speed maneuvers. Dougie would shout what I was doing wrong, but I already knew; revs too low, head down, not turning the bars enough. All things that came from confidence, and things that would take a while to break down again. Only in this quick-paced course, time is one thing I didn’t really have.
Rather than building up a heap of disappointment and frustration, after a while Dougie, decided it was best to do some road riding. After all, it’d break up the day, prepare us for our Mod 2, and it’d almost certainly help with overall bike control anyway. Hopefully that would go a bit better…
Nothing really prepares me for riding a big bike on the road. Although just a CB650F, the bike underneath me feels like a rocket ship. A twist of the wrist, and my peripheral vision turns into a blur – a slight push on the handlebars and the Honda instantly carves out a closing line. There are cars and lorries around me, but on a larger more powerful machine I feel less like prey, and more like an apex predator.
It’s my fourth full day on the bike (sessions start at 8am in Milton Keynes and finish at 5pm) and by now Dougie, my instructor, has worked out exactly how I absorb and process information. Rather than the slow, ‘chipping-away’ approach that some people prefer, my mind likes a 45-minute burst with a 15-minute coffee break. It sounds like slacking, but it’s the most efficient way for me to learn.
My test is in just a few days’ time, and everything I’ve learnt so far is beginning to fall into place – and my confidence is snowballing. Roundabouts used to fill me with dread and my helmet full of shouting, but now they feel as routine and slow as they do in a car. No more worrying about gears, no more fumbling for the indicator.
My confidence was also buoyed by passing the Module 1 test – seemingly against all odds. Dougie was confident, but in all my previous training I’d never actually nailed everything together. Sometimes the U-turn was tough, other times the slalom; the only time I got chained everything together was in the test itself.
It’s probably worth skipping the two tests I failed and moving onto the successful one, isn’t it? The first fail was for a moment of insanity and a speed limit, and the next was rather harsh and involved an early indication. Finally, it all came together on a warm day, with the same instructor and the same test centre as the second attempt. There were hazards, of course, and nerves – but halfway through I began to enjoy the ride, and seriously looked forward to getting that all important certificate.
Job done, and upon returning home I jumped on a GSXR-125 loaner I’d been sent weeks before. I’d been told to avoid riding it until I’d past my Mod 2, but now I had a full licence and the ability to ride anything I wanted with two wheels. Small, sporty and light – the Suzuki is a world away from the Honda I learnt on – but it still managed to easily accommodate by 6’3 frame.
Cantered forward and with a screen to tuck into, it felt like riding a dingy rather than a ship. The difference in power is huge too; where the Honda seemed to have more power than I needed, the Suzuki needs a rinsing out of every bend just to keep the traffic a safe distance behind. It’s scary, but fun.
Watching the electronic rev-counter rise on night ride, and pushing my body weight forward, riding the Suzuki is everything I hoped a sports bike would be – albeit scaled down to a smaller 125 frame. It turns on a suggestion rather a clumsy shift of body weight, and even the budget brakes feel good too.
Better still, I seem to fit on it. After chatting with MCN’s online editor Gareth Evans, it seems the Suzuki has an aggressive, cramped riding position. It’s not at all tiring for me, so perhaps the R7 and Street Triple RS I’ve been eyeing up aren’t so unsuitable after all…
After hours of YouTube fly-bys, onboards and reviews, the new Triumph Trident 660 seemed to sit at the top of my list. On paper it was great; 660cc with more than enough power for my inexperienced right wrist, along with combined impressive tech, handsome retro looks and a three-cylinder soundtrack. Throw in more tech than you’d expect at this price and affordable insurance (including Triumph’s own) and the Trident is a great budget option.
After two weeks on test, I can understand why I’m seeing more and more of the budget triple on the road. While the looks aren’t totally up my street (I’m a sports bike fan, after all) everything else fit perfectly. The riding position wasn’t cramped for my 6’2-ish frame, and the Triumph felt like a featherweight scalpel compared to the Honda middleweight I learned on. Simply put, it seemed to turn far quicker and far more precisely than anything I’d ridden to date – forcing me to sharpen my skills.
In addition to the amazing sound (even stock) the Trident had just enough power for me, though seemed to dull its initial throttle response to make life even easier for noobies like me. Throw in a handful riding modes – switchable through the bikes’ TFT screen, and the Triumph was confidence inspiring whatever the conditions.
But the best bit? The overall quality of the thing. Even though the Trident is supposed to slot at the very bottom of the Hinckley range, it still felt incredibly solid, refined, and well put together. Whether it was the use of tech, the plastics used or the general paintjob, everything about Trident felt more expensive than its affordable tag.
Would I buy one? Almost. The Triumph delivered everything I’d want in a first bike with just two omissions: a lack of wind protection and a sporty-looking body. With the Sport Triple RR and the Tiger Sport 660 already revealed, here’s hoping Triumph will get round to making a budget 660 sport bike. In the meantime, it’s time to try something else out.
Written by, Curtis Moldrich, Car online Editor.
Edited by Sian Daly, MCN Compare content editor.
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