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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The CSC TT250: Smiles per Gallon

The CSC TT250 review. The background to my decision to get a TT250 is here.

I’d put on around one-thousand miles on the CSC TT250 as the first green spots started to emerge on the the Pennsylvania woodlands. The bike held up well over Winter, and between the endless rain and salt, winter is a harsh environment for machinery. I’d gambled on the TT250 being a dependable winter warrior, and thus far it has done well. It’s surely a sign that I often choose to ride the bike on my commute over my Ninja 300.

The Good

The TT250 is a well-made bike. The finish is excellent; the frame shows little aggravation from the ravages of winter, though I was decidely liberal with my application of anti-corrosion ACF-50 spray. Some fasteners inevitably dulled, but this is no different from my Kawasaki (which I rode through last winter) and generally speaking I am pleasantly surprised how durable this bike is.

Cold and wet: The TT250 in Winter commuting duty
Cold and wet, a typical morning commute for the TT250.
TT250 Engine after a typical winter commute
The warpaint of a typical winter commute

The engine, an air-cooled 229cc single, is absolutely superb. There’s only around sixteen horses, and about 18nm of torque at 5.5k rpm, but there’s more to it than the numbers. The power band is sweet, and considering it’s a relatively unsophisticated single, it’s very smooth. Western Pennsylvania is not short of hills, and the engine deals with everything with little complaint. I average about 55-60mpg, but this figure has increased over engine break-in, and includes my commute which is terrible for fuel economy.

Once I got my carburetor dialed in (I fitted an aftermarket Mikuni VM26 clone, commonly available on Ebay) the engine started with little hesitation in temperatures right down to 17F. The stock carb was satisfactory, if a little hard-starting when cold, propably due to lean jetting, and by ‘cold’ I mean less than 40F. I chose an aftermarket carb to allow more adjustment should I fit an exhaust system, and the carbs are as cheap as chips. Tuning them is a pain in the arse, but there’s plenty of help at Chinariders if you get stuck.

Stock gearing is 17/50, which isn’t too bad, but if you’re riding mainly on the street I would pick 17/47, which is less hectic at 55mph. Apropos of top speed, you could take this bike on the freeway, but I wouldn’t, unless traffic truly moved around 50-60mph. It’s superb as a back road basher, and absolutely devours city pavement. CSC offer a 49 tooth rear sprocket as an option, and I did actually purchase one, but after researching the forum and the ever useful Gearing Commander site, I went with fitting a 47.

The five-speed gearbox is smooth and precise, but you must ensure you allow the gear lever the full range of movement – that was new to me and before I got used to it I suffered the occasional missed shift.

The TT250's engine
229cc of fun

The tyres are seemingly generic dual-purpose ‘knobblies’. Conventional wisdom says you should get rid of them and fit some rubber from one of the big brands that you trust.

Don’t.

They are quite simply fantastic road tyres, within the performance envelope of the bike. I have ridden these on soaking wet roads, on gravel and salt, on roads with a film of mud on them, and they have been absolutely marvelous. I have taken them on mud and grass, and they’ve been wonderful, confidence-building tyres every step of the way. When the weather is crap, I will take the TT250 because I know I can trust those tyres. By comparison, my lightweight sportbike with Michelin Pilot Street 4 has excellent traction wet or dry, but as soon as the road surface has any artefacts like gravel or mud, it’s terrifying; see this gif as an example of what mud and a wet road can do:

Looking at the wear rate, I’m not sure I’ll get much more than 2000 miles out of the rear, but I think that is reasonable for a general-purpose tyre that will do asphalt and any off-road riding the bike is capable of.

tt250 after some off-roading 1
tt250 after some off-roading 2
The TT250 after some fun on a muddy forest trail.

The TT250 is exceedingly comfortable in stock form; I’m 6’3″ and around 210lbs, and the rider triangle is pretty much perfect for me. I didn’t realise how cramped I am on my Ninja until I started riding the TT250 frequently. The stock seat is very comfy. I haven’t ridden the bike that far, but on many weekends I’ll routinely spend a couple of hours riding pretty hard, with no discomfort.

Handling is superb; really very, very good. It feels at times like a giant mountain bike. It’s very easy to hold a line, and turn-in is sharp, perhaps not surprising on a bike so light. Off road (I am by no means experienced here) the light weight and easy manners translate into a stable, well-mannered platform. The bike encourages you to have fun, and this really is the strength of a dual sport. On some back roads and see an open trail, or a gravel road? What about that nasty looking back road? Go check it out. It’s great.

Here’s some video of me riding the TT250 on its second day in my possession around the wet roads near home:

The Bad.

I’ll say up front these are minor gripes, but it would be remiss not to mention them, lest people think I’m taking money from CSC (I wouldn’t do that of course. Though if they wanted to, I’d accept an RX3…:D )

The brakes are well put-together. You get steel-braided lines (I don’t even have those on my Ninja!) and lever feel is firm, but if you’re giving them a workout (for example: aggresive riding on downhill twisties) and it’s a hot day, they can fade pretty quickly. Not an issue if you’ve trained yourself to use both brakes, but if you’re heavy on the front brake only (like a prototypical supersport rider), they’ll fade. They do recover rapidly. Of course, all bikes will do this to a degree, but it’s more pronounced on my TT250 for sure. My front rotor has also had a little runout from day one, and I think I will be replacing it soon as I believe it’s getting worse.

TT250 rear brake assembly
The brake system is well made, but don’t expect to be able to push it like a sportbike without some fade

The clutch isn’t great. I have probably been a little spoilt by the Ninja 300’s clutch, which is just superb. The TT250’s clutch is durable enough, and I suspect it’s a consequence of uprating the clutch to cope with the 229cc’s higher torque (the original CG was 125cc) but once the engine is up to temp, it can be a grabby, snatchy affair until you get used to it. I struggled for a while to get the lever adjustment right and actually ordered a replacement clutch cable, as I wasn’t certain mine hadn’t prematurely stretched too much. In fact, the adjustment is very particular and in my case is better done with the engine warmed; setting it while cold will result in very slight drag once the engine is warm.

These issues won’t present themselves most rides, but if you’re in stop-go traffic on a warm day, the clutch pack’s tight packaging and air-cooled character of the motor will begin to make themselves known. Get used to fighting a little bit to get neutral, and I’d recommend 15w40 synthetic (once you’re past break-in) if you’re running the bike in a city during summer.

The Ugly.

Everything here is a function of where I live, and the fact that I ride my bikes whatever the weather. Except ice and snow. Sometimes even then. I’m British, after all, and we’re a bit daft like that.

The wheels look great, but the spokes aren’t stainless and it’s a fight to keep the weather off them. At some point I will probably replace them with stainless spokes (the rims seem fine), of course, this will cost, but it’s a function of the climate here, and I need something that will take the weather a little better. I don’t think this will be an issue for any owners that aren’t in the rust belt and ride all year round.

I did strip one of the sprocket carrier bolt holes when swapping the sprocket out; I suspect this was because they were very tight from the factory. It was a straightforward repair, but I’ve read of a couple of other instances of this on the Chinariders forum. The bolts are hard, M10x1.25 steel and the hub is pretty soft; I think studs might have been a better choice. Still, if you potter about with bikes, this isn’t unknown by any means.

Also – and this is by no means an uncommon problem on most OEM fitment using steel pipes – the stock exhaust header is looking worse for wear, and I will probably replace it soon with a stainless system, but this is a largely cosmetic concern.

Is it worth it?

Unreservedly. You really can’t go wrong, and I’m looking forward to many more adventures on the bike, especially now the good weather is here. Put it another way, I’m strongly considering an RX3 Cyclone as my next bike, possibly as a replacement for the Ninja. That’s my faith in the company’s product.

Spring has sprung…

The weather did not get the memo, however.
Fuck freezing temperatures
Bollocks

It’s just for a couple of days, and it’s not actually been too bad. I took the Ninja out yesterday for the commute and the bike felt really good. I’ve been fighting surface rust on the chain for weeks on the Ninja, largely because the expensive new cover I bought fits tightly due to the taught elastic and tends to wick moisture up around the bottom 3-4 inches. Next year I’m going to store it over winter and just use the TT250, as that’s one of the main reasons I bought it.

Speaking of which, I have a few ambitions for the Chinabike, as I’ve got an aftermarket carb working really well on it. In no particular order:

  • An aftermarket exhaust system. The stock one is doing the standard OEM cheap job of oxidising heavily around the downpipe, I really want some stainless steel on there. You can get a decent one for about USD 120. I will have to find someone to drill out the flange and make a bracket though; I lack the necessary workspace at home.
  • Stainless spokes for the rear wheel, which will also mean a truing stand and some other bits.

The bike has survived winter pretty well, however the exhaust header and rear spokes (and it is just the rear) are determined to return to nature, so I’ll deep clean them for now, but spending a couple of hundred bucks on a more permanent solution sounds better than constantly trying to clean them up.

The weekend is looking good for a long ride; it will be the first since October.

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!