First published in Slipstream, October 2021
In 2009 Nathan Millward spent nine months riding a Honda CT110 all the way from Sydney, Australia to London, England. This ridiculous adventure is documented in book form, and clearly set Nathan on a career path of adventure motorcycling, specifically of the low-speed, lower-power, and low-cost variety. But now, he’s making that world available to everyone.
We live in a world where mainstream manufacturers’ marketing departments work overtime to convince us that we can barely make it to the shops without a fully-loaded £18,000 150bhp Adventure-Tourer. In contrast, Nathan’s approach is truly a breath of fresh air. What’s more, Nathan now runs guided tours of North Devon from his new base at Dorothy’s Speed Shop, named after the diminutive little Honda that carried him all the way home from Australia. Having confirmed that my own V-Strom 650 was wholly unsuited to life much beyond light gravel roads and keen to add a lightweight on/off-road machine to my collection, Nathan’s “A2 Adventure Test Days” presented a unique opportunity to test seven different motorcycles from his collection while exploring the rugged beauty and muddy lanes of Exmoor national park.
It’s never ideal to start a motorcycle adventure on four wheels, but the truly appalling weather forecast for the 5-hour journey down to Ifracombe combined with the desire to at least begin our off-roading adventure in dry gear made it the sensible choice. The fact that motorcycles would’ve required multiple fuel stops en route in the midst of a ridiculous fuel shortage at UK petrol stations made the decision all that much easier. The car managed the same 50mpg with four people as it would have with just one, so for once motorcycles wouldn’t even have been the more efficient solution!
After a good night’s sleep we were introduced to Nathan and his menagerie. The day would be largely road-based, as most UK green-laning adventures usually are, but a couple of muddy and rutted lanes would be laid on to allow us to test the bikes in more slippery circumstances. This was ideal, as unlike in the United States where off-road enthusiasts often throw their un-plated bikes in the back of pickup trucks for the multi-hour drives to the trailhead, here in the UK we have to string short green-lane sections together with the Queen’s highway. A bike that can’t handle a bit of greasy, wet tarmac in between the muddy bits simply won’t work for most people.
The bad news began right away – one of the bikes we were scheduled to take on our seven-person expedition was broken. Nathan’s BMW G310GS was suffering from electrical issues and was out of commission while it was being investigated under warranty. Given the brand’s self-promoted image as the world’s leader in all-road travel bikes, breaking down with electrical issues before the trip even began didn’t instil confidence. Nathan advised us that the bike was perfectly capable on light roads, but wouldn’t be his first choice in any case, so none of us mourned the absence too greatly.
In its place, and a UK-first, was something far more interesting: Honda’s not-officially-available-in-the-UK CT125, the successor to Nathan’s own legendary CT110. Essentially a reworked version of the relatively new Honda Cub 125, it was launched to great acclaim and rapturous reception in both Asia and North America last year. Exceptionally light-weight, with an engaging semi-automatic four-speed gearbox, massive luggage rack, and even a snorkel for river crossings, the CT seemed absolutely perfect as a low-speed trail crawler. With both feet flat on the ground, the complete opposite of the traditional sky-high seat height of most off-road motorcycles, the little Malaysian grey-import Honda was sure to inspire great confidence in slippery conditions.
Also joining us from the Japanese manufacturer were a pair of their best-selling enduro motorcycles, so-classed because of their balance between off-road function and on-road capability. The Honda CRF250 Rally and CRF300 Rally both gain a little weight compared to their stripped-down ‘L’ variants, but also feature larger fuel tanks, wider seats, and a useful front fairing and windshield to make longer trips in inclement weather more palatable. The newer 300cc version supplanted its less powerful predecessor just a year ago, gaining even more fuel capacity while somehow weighing a useful 4 kilograms less. With used prices of the 250 versions still hyper-inflated due to apparently perennial demand there would be few reasons to consider the older model over its new 300cc replacement. No, the reason the 250 Rally was of interest to most of our party was because Nathan had fitted his example with lowered suspension, theoretically making it a less intimidating machine to approach for those of shorter stature.
KTM joined the A2 adventure party a couple of years ago by wrapping its 390cc Duke/RC engine in a slightly more adventure-y chassis and bodywork. That being said, early press reactions were of disappointment; the classically off-road focused Austrians having inexplicably opted for road-based wheels, tyres, and suspension to a bike that weighed far more than any serious off-roader would ever tolerate (around 172kg at the kerb). It was clearly a fashion-first machine, rather than a serious all-road contender in the vein of its larger 790/890 Adventure lines. Nathan’s reckoned it was more capable than it looked, despite the fact that his example was still shod with the road-biased tyres it left the factory with.
Worlds away in design terms, but manufactured in the same country as the Indian-made KTM was my old nemesis, the Royal Enfield Himalayan. I reviewed this bike when it first launched to much fanfare and enthusiasm from the world’s motorcycling press. The promise was strong: low-tech mechanicals and minimal gadgets paired with off-road-spec wheels and tyres. The reasonable 15 litre fuel-tank even sported a set of front-mounted pannier rails capable of carrying additional luggage in addition to the rear racks, all of which should have made for a genuine do-anything and go-anywhere bike.
The Indians have to deal with far worse road infrastructure and weather conditions than we in the UK can even imagine; if Royal Enfield had built a machine that could handle the Himalayan mountains, then a few muddy green lanes or the occasional eastern-European road trip should have been a piece of cake. Instead, both bikes featured in my review suffered serious mechanical failures within the first hour. Even with the low asking price taken into consideration I was unable to look upon the model favourably. It would be interesting to see if Nathan could change my mind.
An interesting addition was another Honda: the commuter-spec CB500X. The 500cc parallel-twin was the only multi-cylinder engine in the group and was also by far the heaviest. But here Honda’s modest intent had been subverted by an expensive Rally Raid kit, replacing the cast wheels and basic suspension with entirely new hardware designed for serious off-road work. A Scorpion exhaust and chunky off-road tyres added both visual and aural appeal to the package, intended to offer an alternative to larger 650-900cc adventure bikes. Despite this, weight would be the enemy here, the chunky CB500X tipping the scales at a portly 195kg.
Rounding out our selection was our host’s own CCM GP450, a 450cc single-cylinder adventure bike made by the UK-based Clews Competition Machines. Discontinued a few years ago when the supply of Rotax/BMW engines dried up, it is a rare machine that many of us present on the day already had experience with. My still brother owns one, its combination of truly light weight and 20-litre fuel capacity making it an astonishingly capable on- and off-road machine. He’s chased down and conquered Yamaha WR250’s in truly harrowing off-road conditions, then trundled home on the motorway with a pillion in relative comfort. It’s a bike with no real equal on the market today, so I would be interested to get some more seat time for myself.
Our full-day ride was less than 80 miles, but it felt like far more. Everyone had ample opportunity to sample every bike as often as they liked, with stops every 20 minutes to allow for us all to swap thoughts and keys. My personal predilection for small-engined motorcycles meant that I immediately gravitated towards the semi-automatic CT125 and spent the majority of my first stint learning how to rev-match my gear changes on the widely-spaced four-speed ‘box. Despite its small size, it featured a wide, comfortable seat and well-placed handlebars, though admittedly placed too low to be viable for a standing position. The throttle was smooth, take-up from the automatic clutch was faultless, and once I’d gotten used to the sketchy-feeling knobbly tyres, was an awful lot of fun.
At the end of the day, it was the bike that two of us voted as our favourite, with its utterly charming aesthetic and genuinely entertaining ride, but alas Honda UK has confirmed that it has no plans to officially offer the bike in the UK. Nathan reckons the manufacturer has been burnt by the lower-than-expected sales of the retro-styled Cub 125, a bike it expected to sell thousands of, and is worried that it would be another well-received but low-selling model. I’m not entirely sure that they’re wrong, either. Both myself and my friend agreed that you could probably have almost as much fun on an MSX125 (Grom in other markets) as, despite the aesthetic, the CT is very much a road bike.
It became very wayward in mud, especially, and deep ruts and potholes quickly exhausted the limited suspension travel and ground clearance. The four-speed gearbox and low-powered air-cooled engine meant that none of us managed to break 55mph at any point during the day, and the soft suspension and twitchy handling meant that it felt very unstable at those speeds. Getting one imported isn’t difficult, with UK-based companies happy to hand you a fully-registered and UK-plated bike fresh out of a container from Thailand, but the gearshift is inverted and the speedometer is in Kilometers per Hour. It’s possible that more knobbly tyres would help in the dirt but then you’d pay for it on tarmac. And pay you will – at time of writing, imported versions were around £4,500, more than 30% higher than you’d pay for, let’s be honest, a more sensible, faster, and more efficient Honda PCX.
Two bikes none of us rated highly as genuine trail bike propositions were the KTM 390 Adventure and the Honda CB500X. Both are much larger, heavier bikes with 19″ rather than 21″ front wheels, and both engines are clearly designed for high-rev performance rather than low-rev torque. The Honda sounds great with its 270-degree firing interval and honestly felt a lot like a less powerful V-Strom 650 to ride. The Rally Raid suspension was fantastic, doing an excellent job of providing both feel and control, and the riding position works relatively well for both seating and standing positions, helped by the chunky off-road footpegs. The KTM sings at revs and carves bends confidently on its road-biased tyres, though the cheap ByBre brakes are wooden and lack feel. The engine shudders and bucks if you let the revs drop, no doubt a side-effect of the aggressive tuning necessary to get a full 47bhp out of just 390cc of displacement. The KTM also suffered an intermittent electric fault throughout the day, occasionally leaving the hazard lights stuck on for no discernable reason.
The CCM GP450 divided opinion. The more experienced off-road riders thought it was great, though hot-starting issues and a flickering rear tail-light meant that even Nathan admitted it wasn’t a bike he’d want to take too far from a breakdown truck. I found it genuinely frightening off-road, its aggressive steering geometry making it handle much more like my V-Strom both on and off the tarmac. This makes for a better road bike, a necessity with a full 50bhp and genuine 80mph capability, but also meant that the front wheel was far more willing to follow ruts and be knocked aside by stones than some of the other bikes. With time and practice I daresay you could ride around it, but it wasn’t the most welcoming machine for a relative off-road novice.
Receiving both universal derision and acclaim were the Honda CRF250/300 Rally twins. The critical factor was the lowered suspension on the 250, which due to mechanical limitations was lowered further in the rear than the front. This meant that it wallowed and swayed on the road, sitting low like a cruiser. Off-road performance wasn’t affected as much, but it made for an uncomfortable on-road experience. The 300, however, was voted the bike that the group would be most likely to actually buy with their own money.
Less obviously charming than the CT125, perhaps, but the Rally was clearly the more practical and usable choice. It made the off-road sections easy while handling as well as any knobbly-tyre-equipped motorcycle can on wet, leaf-strewn tarmac. The updated dashboard provides all the information you need in a clear and easy-to-read fashion and even boasted a 100mpg average fuel consumption throughout the day. The ultra-soft suspension meant that the bike compressed down to a comfortable seat height as soon as it was tipped off the sidestand, and the switchable ABS system provided everyone with the confidence to make the most of the surprisingly-powerful front brakes. 8,000-mile service intervals mean that long-distance adventures don’t need to be interrupted by oil changes, never mind top-end rebuilds. It’s all very, very Honda.
But honestly, that wasn’t much of a surprise. The reviews, the on-paper specs, the high standard of fit and finish from the established Japanese manufacturer meant that the CRF300 Rally was always expected to be the winner. The wildcard, and the one that surprised us all the most, was the slightly rough-and-ready Royal Enfield Himalayan. First of all, it’s hilarious to me that two glaring issues from my original consideration remain unresolved, years later. The digital components of the dashboard are still unreadable due to condensation behind the glass (apparently they all do that, sir) and the front brake is still so bad that many of the group genuinely thought it was broken. When one of the people making that complaint regularly rides a 2009 T100 Triumph Bonneville, a bike with some of the worst front brakes I’ve experienced, you know things are serious.
India has a very humid climate, so I really can’t understand how the condensation issue hasn’t been spotted and resolved. And the brakes make absolutely no sense. The rear braking system, lower-spec on paper, somehow has bite and power aplenty. Both use the same braided steel hoses and are presumably from the same manufacturer, so I can only assume that either a different pad material (wood? Hard plastic?) has been used on the front, or that the front master cylinder is completely the wrong ratio. I honestly don’t know what Royal Enfield’s test riders are playing at. The internet suggests more aggressive pads are barely an improvement but it’s just about the only option you have, short of some serious custom work.
As before, a close look at the welds and materials confirms that this is a cheap bike in every sense of the word, but not cheap enough when a CRF300L isn’t that much more expensive. The Royal Enfield also much heavier, the steel frame and low-tech components adding up quickly, and just half the power of the similarly-sized KTM engine. That being said, it plugs along just fine, the gear change is smooth and the clutch light. It handles more like a road bike than the CRF300 does, and in a startling turn of events, was actually superior on the muddy green lanes we tested it on. Some quirk of the geometry meant that it refused to be led by ruts or rocks, staying on-course and following the rider’s inputs doggedly no matter what.
The rear wheel never tried to come around in the mud, and while deeper potholes and bumps are best avoided due to the relatively meagre ground clearance this also means that paddling over rougher terrain will be eminently doable. Nathan has ridden one all the way across the USA with nothing but a steering head bearing failure (apparently another very common fault) and was happy to vouch for its touring performance, provided you stay off the faster highways.
Let me be clear: I could never buy a Himalayan brand new; the build quality and obvious design flaws would be unforgivable to me, regardless of the price. I find the lack of care and attention to detail almost…offensive. But as a used proposition? Now that’s another story. Prices for used Himalayans are currently just as inflated as those of Honda CRFs of all stripes, so bargain hunters will be left empty-handed. But were I to find one for, say, half the price, the warranty having resolved the initial issues years earlier, I might be a lot more forgiving. Scratches and creeping rust on welds don’t matter if you’re intending on driving the thing head-long into a British winter’s worth of green-laning. If anything, such pre-existing flaws would stop you from worrying or getting too precious about it the way you might with a shiny new Honda. I could fix the brakes, install some good tyres, throw on a duffel bag and hit the trails without a care in the world.
And that, honestly, is where the story should end. A fantastic time was had by all, and we all made it back home warm and dry with not so much as a snapped clutch lever. But follow the thread of light-weight adventure motorcycles far enough and you eventually end up in a completely different segment entirely: that of the electric mountain bike. An interesting discussion was had on the drive home, largely reinforcing something I’d been pondering for a while.
Few motorcyclists are going to run such a trail bike as their only motorcycle. They’re too compromised on the road, and the knobbly tyres you want for the muddy trails are deadly in cold or wet conditions. So your trail bike is necessarily going to be a second (or third, or fourth) bike, used only when you’re heading out to try and string together a sequence of poorly-labelled Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATS). You’ll either lose days poring over ordinance survey maps and cross-referencing them with the local council’s records to confirm seasonal closures before heading out, or you’ll need to join the Trail Rider’s Fellowship and tag along on one of their organised group rides. You can’t just go riding around in any random forest or moorland – that’s properly illegal here in the UK, and will see you arrested and your bike crushed if caught. You’ve got to find special roads that, while still being technically roads, simply lack paving or are so covered in mud and gravel that they provide an off-road-like riding experience.
If you want to explore such lanes further away from your home, you’re going to have to travel on main roads to get there, which won’t be much fun on something designed for walking-pace rock-climbing. The latest trend of ~700cc lightweight adventure bikes (Tenere 700, KTM 790/890 Adventure) all aim to make that initial tarmac trek more enjoyable, ensuring that your off-road machine remains a genuine one-bike-garage proposition. But despite their best efforts they’re still kinda heavy for serious off-road riding and are still deeply compromised on-road. There’s a reason why 99% of Adventure Bikes in the UK never get muddy. You could do what the Americans do, stick to riding in designated off-road parks (what few we have in the UK) and transport your dedicated dirt bike in a van or truck, but that’s a hell of an investment just for a couple weekends a year. Better to just rent one when you get there, surely?
An electric mountain bike, on the other hand, can fit on a bike rack or even inside the average hatchback car. You can legally ride it pretty much anywhere – up moor, down dale, through forests, along tow paths and canals, and even along the very same green lanes as your petrol-powered brethren. What’s more, you can use it to cycle to the shops or to work, are allowed in cycle lanes in cities and parks, and no-one bats an eye if you trundle along the odd bit of pavement. The electric assistance will carry you further than you’re likely to want to go in a day, and provides the extra power to conquer surprise hills and lug an overnight bag if you want to get adventurous. You’re even allowed to carry them onto trains at no extra charge!
I’m not the first person to suggest that the future of dirt bikes might actually be electrically-assisted mountain bikes. Some have even speculated that motorcycling might not survive the end of the internal combustion engine at all, and that powered two-wheelers will return to their simpler, more modest origins as part of the transition. I hope they’re wrong, as I can’t cover 500 miles in a day on a bicycle, no matter how big the battery is. But I’m struggling to make the case for a trail bike here in the UK, at least for my needs.
Electric bicycles can get very expensive very quickly, with fully-kitted-out examples easily approaching £10,000. You could get a lot of motorcycle for that, goes the refrain. But if you already own a touring-capable motorcycle for distance or road work and are looking for something to take you to places motorcycles aren’t allowed to go, I’m not sure an enduro or trail bike is actually what you need…