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Big Trips On A Small Bike: Part 1

Post Received 16 January 2020

By Mark Noel

Probably, like most fans of this website, I have been a keen motorcyclist all my life from the day I passed the test age 17 on my dad's Yamaha 50. Since then there have been a succession of machines in an endless search for the 'perfect steed' on which to explore the world and my personal limits. After the Yam there was a BSA C15 which took me on a journey with the International Motorcyclist's Tour Club, a group which continues to foster travel by bike since its foundation in 1932. That tour took us over mountain passes in the Alps and through beautiful scenery in France, Austria and Switzerland, and planted the dream which has endured ever since for gentle perambulations by motorcycle. The I.M.T.C. group were mostly on big bikes, but on my modest steed I shared each day's riding with another teen aboard an equally modest Triumph Tiger Cub. We plodded along at the blistering pace of 30-40 m.p.h., slowing to a jog up every mountain pass. However, despite the sneers, we were always the first to arrive at campsites at day's end because the 'big boys' had simply raced between kerbside cafés to unload testosterone and to prove which of their machines was best.

After this first trip to the 'Incontinent' I decided that more were to follow but next time on a more powerful machine. To my astonishment my father located a Norton 650SS in the neighbouring village which for a 19 year old was like going supersonic aboard Sputnik 1. To be honest I never came to terms with a performance which seemed faster than my brain, and then there was the noise - glorious yes, but which triggered tinnitus that has lasted to this day. There were no ear plugs back then.

The Norton was fitted with a set of glossy Craven panniers and we set off to cross the Incontinent en route to Yugoslavia, which was reached in only 5 days. The aim was to go further south but the sweltering heat and boiling hot engine dissuaded me, plus a nagging ignition fault courtesy of Mr Lucas, 'Prince of Darkness'. This was eventually traced to a dicky spade connector which had been crimped over the PVC insulation, rather than the copper, a problem that was hidden beneath the shrink sleeve. Lesson 1: solder every bullet or spade connector to improve reliability in preparation for your big trip.

After this trip my Norton was sold because there was nowhere to store it while I was at university. Graduation brought about the change from short to long trousers, long to short hair, plus a salaried job and thus funds to acquire another motorised velocipede. Yes, there have been quite a few since then because, like most of you dear readers, we pursue the dream of the 'Ideal Motorcycle' - ideal in the sense that it fulfils your own preferences and ambitions, whether they be for sporty flair, cafe posing, bird pulling, track days or in my case leisurely touring. Shall I list them? It all began with a MK 1 Moto Guzzi Le Mans (cool looks but painful and scary to ride), a Brough Superior SS80 (horrible in every respect), a Moto Guzzi California cruiser (Italian flair and guaranteed back ache), an India Enfield Bullet 500 distinguished by the worst gearbox I have ever experienced, vague handling and vibration that provided a non-surgical alternative to a vasectomy. Next we have another Moto Guzzi, this time their cool V7 Special acquired about 5 years ago, with the drop-dead looks that only Italians can create, and with a silky motor and great handling. That machine came close to fulfilling the dream but like most Italian makes there was an design fault: the battery went flat after only 10 days standing because the whining computer remained on sucking milliamps, constantly wondering "does he want a tagliatelli or a carbonara?". Since then the complexity of fuel injection has always been a no-no for me when considering a bike for trips to more remote places where there will be no electronic technicians in the bush with laptops and diagnostic tools to solve any problems. No, I need a bike that has a container for petrol that drains under gravity into a mechanical device that mixes propellant with air that then is ignited by a spark triggered by a battery and coil and a points breaker. OK, I'll accept a sensor and transistor to call the spark but no more trickery please that cannot be understood and fixed with sticks and stones by the roadside in Matabeleland.

You will have noticed that this list does not include any bikes made further east that Italy, and certainly none from the Orient. However, this was all about to change when my wife caught the bug and decided to attempt her C.B.T. to qualify as a motorcyclist and add yet another hazard to the UK's roads. She bought a near-new Suzuki GN125, passed the test with flying colours, but then decided to stick to riding pillion rather than continue solo. A wise move and the police were able to remove all the warning signs and sandbags from Britain's roads. The little GN languished in the garage for several years, not dropping any oil much to my astonishment, until the choice had to be made whether to sell it on to some spotty teenager or to ride and make use of the thing.

From the start I had resisted the urge to ride a Japanese motorcycle; after all the foot pedals were on the wrong side and there was no long lever thing to start the engine. Also, how could you be sure that there was any oil in the motor without evidence from a slick on the garage floor? This was to be my first foray on a bike produced in a factory where the workers ate noodles, never went on strike and where their output was measured in zillions, not tens per week as was the case in Britain. My first ride on the GN was a revelation: similar power to the old BSA C15 but with a fraction of the weight, no vibration, slick handling and gearchange, and a funny red button thing that somehow started the engine. I was hooked and very happy to ride it a bit further and even to start eating noodles!

So where next? Scotland beckoned, actually being within sight of our present home on the Isle of Man, and with only a ferry ride via the Steam Racket in order to reach Cumbria. I loaded up with camping gear and bags of prunes to keep me going, then pottered north from Heysham towards Glasgow on the M6. Even with turbo boost engaged my speed peaked at about 50 mph and the motorway experience on such a small bike was intimidating. Nevertheless, after camping one night we made it to Oban, thence by ferry over to Mull. Riding here was a more relaxed experience and I enjoyed a pleasant week meeting the highland cattle and the friendly midges who visited the capsite every night. Be warned, however, the roads thereabouts are narrow with gravel along the centre and to the sides which requires concentration when piloting your route along the narrow tarmac ribbon.

The small clean and tidy GN125 has a little light luggage and positioned in front of a highland cow on Mull

To my astonishment the GN consumed no oil over the 600 miles, the battery held its charge and the engine sprung into life each morning when the red button thingy was pressed. This got me thinking: how far could I go on this modest projectile? Perhaps as far East or North at it would go. But first a little more preparation would be needed both to the bike and to my vocabulary so that I could converse with them forrin people who inhabit the Incontinent.

Share your experiences on BAT - click here.

Big Trips On A Small Bike: Part 1 Mark has quite an exotic history of powered 2 wheeled velocipedes when a humble 125 crosses his path. Reluctantly he takes it for a little spin to see what it's like.
Big Trips On A Small Bike: Part 2 Mark rather enjoyed his Highland trip on the Suzuki 125, so why not go just a little bit further this time? Maybe dip a toe into Europe?
Big Trips On A Small Bike: Part 3 After a 4 year rest (blimey) Mark decides the GN125 could do with another ride out. But where to go? North. Way North. Way way way North.

Reader's Comments

Upt'North said :-
Thanks Mark, nice read.
I can't even start to think what it's like to take a C15 over the Alps, it could have been a first....and last.
I remember the GN125 fondly, I had the same model in the (I think) late eighties, maybe early 90's and used it to commute on. Never let me down and I seem to remember selling it for a profit.
Ren we need a poll, which Battie visitors have been to Mull, I'm guessing all of us.
Keep it coming.
22/01/2020 09:05:02 UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
Yes I daresay Mark's writing is regrettably better than my own. Not to worry, I can't be good at EVERYTHING!

Considering how much time I've spent exploring Scotland, considering just how much I love the Highlands, I personally have yet to set foot or indeed tyre onto Mull. So no, not all of us.
22/01/2020 09:38:38 UTC
Jim said :-
I've done Mull twice, one weekend with the vets rugby team that I can't remember much about for some reason. The other on two wheels, sadly powered only by me (considerably less than one horsepower). Ended up on Iona, which was lovely, but I was so knackered I didn't really appreciate it. Mull is wonderful after heavy rain, the place comes alive with dancing water. Intending to return with more horsepower at Easter.
22/01/2020 11:16:48 UTC
Borsuk said :-
Been to Mull in the eighties for hillwalking.

2nd January, high winds, minimal visibility, sub zero temperatures, we got about 200 ft from the summit of Ben More but couldn`t go the last bit due to the rocks being glazed with ice. When we got back to where the tent was it took the best part of an hour to find it as it was under 2 ft of snow.
When we eventually decided to bail it took 3 hours to dig the car out of the snow.
A great time was had by all.
22/01/2020 12:16:24 UTC
nab301 said :-
Some interesting bikes and trips there , I can empathise with the Modern Guzzi , I had an earlier Breva with the same draining the battery problem . Apparently it's ok though , it's mentioned in the owners manual , either disconnect the battery or keep it on charge .
I also own an India Enfield and while they are primitive , luckily I don't think mine is as bad as yours was although the modern 125 I also own would probably out run it in comfort terms over the course of a day...
29/01/2020 09:52:52 UTC

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