All Engines Great and Small

You Always Want What You Don’t Have

I spend all of my riding time on small bore bikes, by US standards. My Ninja 300 at 296cc and the CSC TT250 weighing in at 229cc.

The Ninja will – realistically – pull to about 75mph easily, above which there’s a tardy roll-on to about a top speed of 105, with my 210lbs astride it, at least. The TT250 will achieve 55-60 with nearly linear acceleration. The gearing limits it, with the engine turning almost 7000 rpm. It is possible to gear down via losing a couple of teeth on the rear sprocket, but I do not want to lose any more pull as it is about perfect for the hilly terrain here.

Both are easily quick enough for the street and back roads, but the TT250 isn’t really suited for superslab, at least not allowing for a safety margin.

If you take a 300 on a group ride and you have a lot of seat time on it, you’ll have no problem keeping up, assuming you’re not blasting down an expressway. On a technical road it’s a giant killer. It’s light, stops fairly well thanks to docile brakes and strong engine-braking, and turns in sharply. At around 18ft.lbs peak torque, you can pull silly amounts of throttle and it won’t get out of shape. In short, it’s easy to ride quickly. Get used to people telling you they’re surprised how fast it runs in a pack. It’s a truism that few riders (here, at least) have experienced the limits of their bikes, so they’re surprised how quick a ‘learner bike’ can run in familiar hands. They’ve just not spent enough time on one.

Ninja 300 territory

The TT250 is an absolute blast on tight, nasty roads with a poor surface, thanks to generous suspension travel. A very driveable engine with modest torque, it delivers power a lot more evenly than the piquey 300, but obviously there’s less of it. The bike’s turn-in is very rapid (it’s light at 320 lbs.) and it feels glued to the road thanks to relatively soft tyres. You can easily imagine why Dual Sports are such popular street bikes, not to mention their street-tyred derivative, the SuperMoto.

The downsides? Going uphill. Street bikes in the >500cc class will climb a hill while maintaining good acceleration. My 300 is okay as long as you keep the revs high. The TT250 really doesn’t like it; again my weight doesn’t help and maintaining some kind of fitness would help matters a lot. Aerodynamic drag, which squares with speed, is another. I’m 6’3″, and make a nice sail while sitting on the bike. Tucking low on the Ninja, stomach on the tank, makes a huge difference and I can’t reach the bike’s top speed without it. Running tight roads uphill is often easier in the TT250 due to the engine’s much wider torque characteristics, and short gearing. On a group ride, riders on torquey bikes will typically eat your lunch when accelerating out of tight uphill corners.

My recreational riding on Western PA’s fantastic roads is at a speed regime that is squarely within the 300’s performance envelope. Interestingly, this also goes for everyone I ride with, and that includes someone with a Superduke 1290. I too want a bigger bike sometime soon, and I’ve spent this year riding a few. So why, if all of my needs are met?

Well, they’re not. More power is more fun, and it’s also another thing to master. It’s why we ride, right? There’s more. With larger bikes come bigger tyres, typically better suspension, and stronger brakes. These usually bring a step in performance too. There is a specific scenario any small-bore rider is familiar with – and that’s overtaking. This is a most fraught area when you’re new to riding, as you don’t have enough power exactly where you need it, that is around 50-60mph with a small time window to get around a car. Overtaking is a reality when you’re on an aggressive ride; it’s a necessity. You have to learn to do it and you must know exactly what your bike will do. When in a group you need to exercise highly-disciplined judgement as everyone else will typically have a lot more power available, and they will use it to pass where you cannot.

There is also the matter of work. There’s a fine line between rider engagement and simply being busy, and on a long country ride at spirited speeds, you can be regularly at full throttle while constantly, constanty rowing through the gears. It adds up over a day. Being able to use a fraction of a bike’s performance to run at a pace your comfortable with makes a difference to your fatigue level. The 1000cc class bikes I’ve ridden have been an interesting change in workload. They are by no means ‘easier’ to ride, but they can be less work due to simply having far more performance available in a given situation.

A friend of mine finally sold her pre-gen Ninja 250 last year, and bought a rather handsome Yamaha FZ6R. She’s an excellent rider, and one of the things she was emphatic about was how relaxed it was on the highway, in terms of comfort and smoothness, so she arrived at the twisties with no stress. These things start to matter to you, after a while.

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Emerging From Winter.

My CSC TT250 wears the typical makeup of my winter commute; the usual mixture of water and mud, baked onto the engine casing just after I arrived home.

The TT250 has been an absolute champ, an I’ve done most of my winter commuting on it. Next year I think I’ll store the Ninja 300 in the bad months as I barely used it.

I will make the time to do a more thorough review of the TT250, I just haven’t had much spare between work and virtually continuous family sickness…

Eastern Promise

Part One

As winter got underway, I started to consider whether I should get a second car. My reasoning was it would cut the mileage on the family Toyota (I don’t use the bike on snow or ice days, I might be British, but I’m not that crazy) and would limit inconvenience to the family when I had to take it for the day. Secondly, I wanted to take the strain off my Ninja 300, which was clocking up nearly one-thousand hard commuter miles a month at peak use. I really didn’t enjoy how much work it was in winter time; it isn’t the easiest bike to keep the weather off, and it’s surprisingly heavy on consumables like tyres and brake pads. Maintenance could be stressful if there were delays due to parts, my incompetence, or visits to the shop. It could really disrupt my transport arrangements, not to mention piss off my ever-supportive wife when I have the car for days on end.

I quickly dismissed the idea. I didn’t want to pay for another one; I could scarcely afford something decent, anything I could afford would become a maintenance money-pit (been there) and I would resent the thing for the majority of the year when I wouldn’t be using it and it would be sitting in the car park eating money.

I’d thought about a second bike, and reckoned I could make it work as long as it met some criteria:

  • It had to be cheap to purchase and run.
  • Simple to maintain and clean, the former more important than the latter.
  • Suitable for the rough winter pavement conditions present in Western Pennsylvania.

I’d been reading a lot about the various offerings from China, with the knowledge that you get what you pay for, and an awareness of the strong prejudice toward Chinese kit, but I’d been impressed by the commitment of CSC Motorcycles in California. They’ve built something of a reputation for selecting good bikes from Zongshen (a giant Chinese manufacturing concern) and applying some American customer service know-how with the proviso that the owner is part of the process (no dealer network, you wrench the bike with support from CSC). I’d been through a lot of wrenching with my Ninja, including the hell of shimming the valves, so I reckoned I could handle it with enough support and reading. CSC’s best-known offering nowadays is the RX3 Cyclone, a 250cc adventure bike which has carved out a market that was practically non-existent in the US.

However, the RX3 was not in my plans. It was a out of my budget (although clearly outstanding value) and a little too similar to my Ninjette in terms of my needs. I would probably replace my Ninja with something like an RX3, not supplement it.

No, I was looking at something like a dual sport. I liked the utility of it, and the fact that I could take it on some trails if the mood caught me, plus it would easily handle some bad back roads I had purposefully avoided beating the Ninja up on. Enter the CSC TT250

Here’s the TT250 as described by CSC:

The CSC TT250 dual sport motorcycle is rewriting the definition of affordable quarter-liter enduro riding! Featuring a digital speedometer (new for 2017), counterbalanced air-cooled engine and 5-speed transmission, the TT250 was identified by Motorcycle.com magazine as the best motorcycle value in the US! The lightweight TT250 has 18-inch rear and 21-inch front wire wheels, knobby tires, hydraulic front and rear disk brakes, inverted forks, adjustable suspension front and rear, a 300-watt alternator, handlebar-switch-controlled underseat accessory outlets, and more. The TT250 is perfect for riding around town or around the world on both paved and unpaved roads. When coupled with CSC’s free Service Manual and online maintenance tutorials, the simple-to-maintain and highly reliable TT250 is a great motorcycle!

I had actually toyed with buying a TT250 not long after they were released much earlier in the year, just for the hell of it, perhaps as a gateway drug into a different kind of riding. I hadn’t considered it would make a really good second bike in its own right.

I pulled the trigger one Saturday night over a few beers, and went for a great end-of-year deal. I’d considered waiting, but I didn’t know when CSC would get the 2017 consignment, and if they would have any issues – the 2016 model was now a known quantity. The snags had been worked out (minor things like the occasional wrong countershaft sprocket, or the odometer being in KM). Plus, it was nearly Christmas and my birthday, so screw it. Retail therapy.

One week later on a chilly December morning, a truck turns up outside and deposits a tidy-looking crate in a parking space I’d set aside for the purpose. I eagerly got to work hacking into the cardboard and freed the bike rolling it around to my patio. The bike ships ready to roll, with a small amount of petrol (I assume from a test engine-firing and drive) and a crank case full of 10w30 engine oil. You only need to attach the mirrors.

The CSC TT250
The CSC TT250, in the fastest colour.

First impressions? Build quality is good. I would happily say the fit and finish is as good as my Thai-manufactured Kawasaki. It looks the business. No loose fasteners, and the bike had been prepped properly. I wasn’t sure about the tyres, they had the look of ‘just good-enough no-name OEM rubber’ to me, but I’d soon learn that things aren’t always what they seem.

Was there any China showing? Not really. Some of the plastics like the muffler guard and the fork covers appear a little shiny and cheap, but they are sturdy. A couple of design details are telling,- the rear brake master cylinder and pedal assembly is a bit clumsy, the shift lever is long and ungainly-looking, and some welds though solid enough look a little rough to my untrained eye. Generally though. this is a well put-together bike. The hand controls and switchgear are well made; the levers have no slop or play, and the throttle action is superb. The engine looks gorgeous with its smooth black finish.

As ever, paperwork is the boring part, and a nice lady at CSC does the hard work for you and sends you everything you need to make registering the bike as painless as your state’s bureaucracy allows. I hadn’t done this before, and I ended up going through a tag notary, sucking up the fairly high fee as the cost of getting it done quickly. I got my plates same day, and was ready to ride. More of that in part two!