Opinion: Starting small

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 is what Mark’s Honda C50 looked like, though the front licence plate was not required – it tended to slice people up in collisions. It wasn’t officially a moped because its foot pegs were fixed, but it was 49 cc and so legal to ride for a British 16-year-old with no street cred.

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.

Mark, way back when, living the good life on his CJ250T somewhere in Wales.

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.

You’ve got to admit, small bikes have come a long way. The Kawasaki Z125 Pro might have helped Mark keep that girlfriend. Maybe.

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.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Starting small”

  1. There is a significantly higher percentage of serious or fatal accidents (StatsCan) for riders under 25 years old when compared to other age brackets.
    There is, unfortunately, no statitstics at statscan for size of motorcycle involved in serious or fatal accidents.

    Logic/anecdotes/experience would suggest that faster bikes increase the chance of serious or fatal accidents, however without the data – it’s speculation.
    One very interesting statistic to consider is the percentage of Drivers under the age of 25 – compared to other age brackets, we again see a significantly higher percentage of serious or fatal accidents and here’s the important part: we see very much the same percentages when comparing all motor vehicles with motorcycles.
    Keep in mind, the data does not parse for vehicle specifics such as size, power, weight, etc – it reports on type only (ie: 4 wheel or 2 wheel motorized conveyance).

    Obviously we can say with some authority that age defines risk, all else is speculation since the data is not broken down further.

    I reviewed statscan data to either prove or disprove that the demographic of older riders returning to motorcycling have a higher accident rate than other age brackets.
    This proved to be untrue – the data did not support this hypothesis – there is no significant difference between age brackets once you enter the 30+ brackets.

    1. I haven’t looked at the StatsCan data. However, a couple of years ago, I examined the data on motorcycle statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. The data there highlighted four key findings. 1) The danger and risk lies primarily in purchasing large displacement bikes (over 500cc) even accounting for the number of bikes sold. 2) The most common risk factor involved in fatal motorcycle accidents is “speeding”. 3) Not wearing a helmet and 4) alcohol consumption are also major contributing factors to motorcycle fatalities in the data.

      Keep in mind the word “risk” is used here. There could by many explanations for these findings, including but not limited to…..It may be that people who buy bigger bikes are just more likely to want to go fast. Or that people who buy larger bikes are more likely to be less attentive or careless. It could be that many larger displacement bikes are heavier and handle and brake more poorly (making it more difficult to avoid an accident – thus increasing risk). Or it could mean that people who ride bigger bikes are more likely to not wear a helmet, or are more likely to consume alcohol before riding. Or it could mean that people who buy bigger bikes are more likely to put more miles on them and that this increases their risk of a fatal accident. Who knows? But the bottom line is that the evidence from the NHTSA suggests that among other things, bigger bikes (over 500cc) increase one’s risk of being involved in a fatal accident.

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