What makes a good Learner motorbike?
Updated: Jan 17
What is a learner motorbike?
Simply put, a learner bike is a motorbike that meets certain legal criteria to be considered appropriate for motorcycle training. This can be at entry level stage or, later, in order to pass the test. This week in our blog we explore what makes a good learner bike. If you have passed your CBT and are thinking about your first bike this post will hopefully help you. If you haven't taken your CBT yet you can book it directly from this post, look for the link at the foot of the page.
In the old days, when I was a lad, things were simpler. You bought a 125cc bike, rode around on it for a bit after taking your CBT and once you passed your test, which involved going for something like a 45 minute ride with an examiner, you then bought your dream bike. Things were simpler, but definitely not safer. Yes nowadays there's more rigmarole and more hoops to jump through before your dream bike but there's a reason. And that reason is casualty figures. You see, in my day after passing the test on a 125cc bike you could jump straight onto a 1000cc sports bike and you don't need a genius to work out that going from 12hp to 130hp overnight could cause safety issues. This is why today we have a stepped licence progression and learners are limited by power output and age.
We have explored the UK motorcycle licence in two posts: How to start motorcycle training and Which motorcycle licence. In those previous posts we have explained the different power and age characteristics for each licence category.
Do I even need a learner bike?
One of the most common questions I am asked after a CBT course is whether it is better to just jump straight into the big bike training or whether it is better to buy a 125 and ride that around for a bit first. Some would just rather get on with the whole thing and pass the test as soon as is possible so they can buy their dream bike without messing around with a small bike.
My best advice is to buy a 125 as soon as possible after CBT so that you can maintain the momentum of learning in a practical sense, gain experience in live traffic scenarios so that there is less knowledge fade between CBT and DAS (Direct Access Scheme) on the big bikes. You cannot put a price on real time experience and sometimes, those that don't ride in the meantime can have to go through the process of having to re-learn forgotten techniques that they could have been fine tuning on the 125cc motorbike. Time is money and if your instructor is having to take a step back at DAS stage it will have an impact on your chances of success and therefore your expenditure.
If you have seen the film Forrest Gump, there's a scene where Forrest states: "...from that day on, if I was going somewhere, I was running!" I always make the recommendation to buy a simple, efficient learner bike and to ride, ride, ride. Basically, as soon as you complete CBT if you need to go anywhere, go by bike...and take the long way round! Need a pint of milk? Take the bike. Going to work? Go on your bike. To be honest with you, in London you don't need anything bigger than a 125 anyway. You and your bike should be inseparable! It will make things easier in the long run. Trust me, I'm an instructor!
Isn't it a waste of money?
Nope. Not in my opinion. You see, everyone needs a learner bike at some point and that means that you have a steady, stable marketplace out there ready and waiting for the moment when you decide to sell yours. You may lose a few quid but not as much as you would think.
125s tend to hold their value quite well, proportionately better than a big bike. If you bought a half decent 125 today for £1500 you'd be able to sell it next year for not much less, you may even get your money back. You cannot say that with other, bigger bikes. Some learner bikes are so sought after you even stand a chance to make money on it. Selling privately is a much better option than trading in at a dealership.
It also hones your buying/selling skills, a very useful thing believe me, you never stop learning. I have built a pretty good eye for a bike over the years and am pretty adept at spotting the right bike for the right price so I thought I'd share some of that with you. If you need any advice don't hesitate, give us a call or send us an email, we'll be more than happy to help.
What should I look for in a learner motorbike?
Let's come down to earth. Motorcycles are as much about the heart as they are the brain. But, let's be honest, for most people a 125cc is not going to be their dream bike. So don't make an investment of dream bike proportions on your first bike. Don't buy a shiny brand new 125 at a dealership.
Motorcycle dealers reading this may have just spat their tea out all over the screen and I apologise for that if you're now trying to drain the Earl Grey out of your keyboard. Learner riders are the future of motorcycling and motorcycle dealers want to entice them through the door to sell them a bike but learner riders are also the most difficult to capture and I may have just added to the problem. The thing is, why would you spend several thousand pounds on your first bike? This is a bike that you are buying for a very specific purpose. You are going to be using this machine as a vehicle
for getting from zero to a lot of experience. You will make mistakes with it. You will be clumsy, forgetful, you will ding it and drop it. You may even one day put the wrong fuel in it. You may even have a collision with it as you are most likely to do so in your first six months of riding. If you do all these things with your dream bike it'll break your heart, and it'll certainly damage your wallet. Think of this bike as a means to an end, the dream comes later, something we have hinted at in a recent social media post.
Look for a decently maintained, simple bike. You don't need to send a fortune. A couple of years ago I bought a 125 cc for me to ride with trainees during the CBT road ride. I wanted something comfortable, simple and reliable. I spent £400 and when I sold it nearly two years later I got back £600. It should be uncomplicated and easy to ride. something that will help you learn and that you don't have to fight with every day. Don't worry so much about the cosmetics. Whilst you don't want a rusted munter that's been scuffed to hell the odd mark or scratch shouldn't deter you. In fact, you're probably going to be adding a few scuffs yourself. Bikes in this category tend to have a few battle scars and they can wear them with pride.
There are some bikes that have built a tremendous reputation over the years for being "bullet proof". Reliable, sturdy, willing and that just go about their business without fuss. You may even have come across them in your own training. Bikes such as the Yamaha YBR 125, the Suzuki GN125 or Honda CG125 were the staple of training schools up and down the country for years with very good reason. They are excellent bikes to learn on and ride. Cheap and easy to maintain with unending supplies of spares because so many have been sold over the years. These bikes will outlast the cockroaches in a nuclear winter.
It is not a coincidence that the swathe of Chinese motorcycles that have swept into European markets over the last few years are re-workings of those very bikes, especially the engines, and for very good reason. They have proved themselves to be solid, reliable, sturdy, cheap to build and easy to maintain. Everything a dealer network wants.
But aren't Chinese bikes rubbish?
When bikes from China first arrived some ten to fifteen years ago they were unbelievably awful and the detrimental effect on their reputation is still hanging over them. Many of the bikes of that era were reverse engineered versions of those Japanese stalwarts above which were crudely put together, manufactured with poor quality steel and chrome and low quality electrical components.
The Chinese bike of today however is a different kettle of fish and it is not surprising that there are so many on our roads. There has to be a reason for that and it cannot just be the price. The fact is that over the last few years the manufacturers of these bikes have upped their game immeasurably. There has been input and expertise from Europe and Japan in the design, build and quality control aspect as well as the manufacturing processes. The same factories that produced the initial batches of low quality scrap are now producing some decent motorcycles.
Let's not get too excited though, there is a very good reason why there is such a marked difference in price between the Chinese product and its European or Japanese rival. For example if you look at the Honda Dax and the version produced by Skyteam you would be hard pushed to tell them apart but the Honda will cost you £3700 whilst the Skyteam version will be £1800.
Clearly if a manufacturer is able to sell their product for nearly £2000 less they haven't spent anywhere near as much to produce, develop, test, market, distribute and especially build it. Having said that, Skyteam motorcycles are extremely popular motorcycles in the UK and Europe especially in certain markets like the motorhome/camper sector. Their increasing popularity can only be as a result of not just a low price but also because the quality has improved.
Over the years I have known mechanics and workshops who used to joke that "If I can't pronounce it I won't work on it". The Chinese factories have shrewdly bought the rights to classic defunct European motorcycles such as Benelli, FB Mondial which are recognisable and pronounceable. Added to this, with the increased quality, those same scathing technicians are now beginning to accept them. And that is a good sign. A not such good sign for you as a customer is that with the increase in quality of the Chinese bikes their prices have begun expanding too. Look at badges such as Lexmoto, Sinnis etc and look at how their prices have changed over the years. We are having to pay more for them but they are also much better.
The other shrewd step from these manufacturers has ben the modern classic class, which used to be called retro. The market is awash with bikes that hark back to the golden age of motorcycling. Mutt, Mash, Brixton, Bullit...we've all seen these bikes with their 70s looks and flair with riders wearing Bellstaffs and Bell helmets. This is a sector that the mainstream manufacturers have abandoned at their cost.
Why would you spend £2800 on a new 2021 Honda CB125F? A bike that is frankly terrible. Honda have taken a great bike, which the previous version was, and turned it into a bland, low quality pastiche which is so obviously an end of the line parts bin special. It shows how difficult it is for a company like Honda to compete in a market where for roughly the same price a new rider could instead buy a Mash 70 125 for roughly the same price?
Don't expect the quality to be the same but, if you look after it your bike will be reliable, solid and will last. If you don't look after it, it doesn't matter if it's a premium product.
How do I spot a good 'un?
When you train with us, during your CBT course we will run through a series of simple checks to perform to make sure your bike is in a decent road worthy condition. You don't need to be a mechanic to perform these checks but they do help you to easily identify any serious problems that may affect your motorcycle. If you carry out the same checks when buying your first second hand motorcycle they will also help you to buy a much better standard of machine. Remember, you will be clumsy with this bike so it stands to reason that the seller will have been too.
If you're not so confident with this or don't know that much about bikes go to a dealer. You will pay more than from a private seller but there will also be the peace of mind of some form of warranty with the bike even if only for a short time.
Don't spend a fortune. £800-£1500 will buy a respectable, decent, useable bike which will be good enough to learn on. Try to buy with the head not the heart and don't be scared to haggle over the price. It is an understood element of the process. If you're not happy with something or there's some nagging doubt, walk away. Real money takes real effort to earn in the real world. There will be another bike out there. Listen to your instincts. Remember, if something seems too good to be true it usually is. Be suspicious but not paranoid.
Finally, stay grounded. Remember this is not the bike of your dreams. It is a means to an end, function over form is much more important than the other way round.
We hope you enjoyed the article. If you need any help or advice don't hesitate to contact us. And, if you've just bought your first bike, send us a pic! We love bike pics!
Next week we look at motorcycle helmets!
If you need to book your CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) course before you explore all the issues above for yourself, you can do so here:
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