My first powered bike was a 49 cc scooter. I fell off it the same afternoon I bought it, taking a corner too fast on a country lane and ending up in the ditch. I was 15 – too young to ride legally on the road – and so it had to be a country lane, where there was less chance of running into cops.
I fell off that bike every day for the next week as I figured out how to control it. It was very simple to ride, just a step-through Honda C50 Cub with three automatic gears, but it was good for almost 100 km/h and that’s why I kept falling off, because I rode everywhere at almost 100 km/h. Once I turned 16 and was old enough to ride it on the road, I’d developed enough experience to control it in traffic. I got pretty confident and went everywhere. I even took a motorcycle safety course and earned my “moped proficiency” badge, but not until after I smashed it into the side of a car that was running a red light, on the way home from the course. I was riding it at, you guessed it, almost 100 km/h.
This was in England, where I was born and where a 16-year-old could only ride a moped or 49 cc scooter, so I bought a cool moped and dreamed of turning 17. Cool, because it was a Honda SS50 with a disc front brake and five gears; not cool because it topped out at 45 km/h. The next summer, with a month to go before my birthday, I bought a brand-new Honda CJ250T and arranged to collect it on the day itself. Four days beforehand, I locked up the front brake on my moped in the rain and slid right under a double-decker bus, which was parked and taking on passengers. I had to yell at the passengers on the sidewalk to not let the bus drive away while I crawled out and dragged the bike out, then I had to hide the bike so my parents wouldn’t see the damage and forbid me to have the 250.
That Honda CJ250T could hit 140 km/h with the wind behind it and this was just amazing. I rode everywhere at 140 km/h, whenever the wind was behind me. Three weeks after getting it, I asked a girl out and she accepted and I was in such a good mood, I rode flat out into a roundabout, looking forward to the swoop and sweep of the entrance and exit at speed. The crappy stock tires lost grip and I slid right over the roundabout, smashing the headlight, denting the tank and breaking the indicators. I fixed up the bike with duct tape and told my parents it had fallen over in the parking lot. The girl refused to ride on the bike when she found out the truth, and the relationship was doomed.
There’s a point to this story, which is that if I’d learned to ride in Canada, I’d probably have started out on a CB350 or 400 and my teenage bravado on the more powerful bike would have got me killed. I survived those first weeks by riding only on empty roads on a relatively slow bike, and the first year by riding a motorcycle with a comparatively small engine. I thought I was King of the Road and that 140 km/h was the speed of light, but I learned gradually, by experience, and got away with it.
Now I’m a dad, and when my son was old enough, I bought him a 100 cc Honda dirt bike so that he could learn to ride in fields and on gravel roads, away from traffic. He loved it, though he fell over a few times in that first year. No harm was done and he gained a lot of experience, which included both ability and confidence. If and when he does get a street motorcycle for himself, I hope he’ll have a head start.
This is a big reason why we’re supporters of small bikes at CMG, like the Kawasaki Z125 Pro and Honda Grom – because everybody starts somewhere, and there’s no disgrace at all in starting with something small enough to be manageable. We also support grass roots racing like the Kawasaki Ninja 300 series for exactly the same reason. Yes, it’s dangerous and yes, you can hurt yourself or worse, but the bikes are lighter and considerably more manageable. Riding can be enough of a handful for a novice, who doesn’t yet have automatic instincts and reactions, that a new rider needs all the help that’s available.
None of this, however, means that a small bike can’t be fun and good looking. I wish I’d had a bike like the Z125 Pro when I was starting out. I’d probably have never slid over the roundabout and who knows, maybe the girl would have stuck around too.