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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Summer Blues

August 8th, 2017

I’ve been riding a lot, but I haven’t been writing a lot. It’s definitely not been due to a lack of things to say; but time’s played a part. I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my kid, and Summer’s been pretty fun outside of problems with my bĂȘte noir, the Pittsburgh weather.

I’ve ridden a lot of bikes; more Ducatis, some Yamahas, and a Suzuki, so that’s a target crossed off this year (I wanted to get a lot more demo rides in).

I’ve also made some more riding friends and been out on group rides a few times, and bike nights have been a blast.

I have also, truth be told, experienced a little fatigue towards riding, although everytime I hop on the Ninja I’m invigorated. I think it’s some irritation toward the lack of any real bike culture here, so riding becomes a little close to tedium at times, and tedium is a very efficient passion killer.

I’ll write some more about this, I need to think carefully about how I word it as I may come off as a little harsh.

We will see.

Be Paranoid

If you think they’re out to kill you, it’s because they behave as if they are.
Crane Truck McFuckface was hiding in this tunnel
The tunnel monster is real

Riding to work this morning on my dual sport, I negotiated this blind corner and came upon a stationary utility truck (the type with the dorsally-mounted crane) head-on smack in the middle of the road.

My guess is that the driver did this to allow the crane to clear the tunnel ceiling. Be that as it may, it was poor judgement as the this tunnel has a blind entry on both sides:

Blind entry to tunnel in both directions
Blind entrance, both ends

I’m assuming the driver had his window down, heard me, and stopped. There were no lights, no flag man, nothing. Had I been riding more aggressively than was prudent, had I been on my sport bike, this might have been a little hairy; you can see it is an appealing pair of corners; that’s why I ride this little road in the first place.

Ride safe, folks.

The Perfume Road

Spring riding.

April 28th, 2017.

Late Spring’s a glorious time to ride. The sun comes out, mornings are cool and bright, and the olefactory system gets bombarded with a range of pleasant distractions. It’s still cool enough that the asphalt doesn’t get heated to the extent your senses are overpowered by hot tar and exhaust fumes.Cut grass,petrol, and the pleasant cocktail of plants in bloom.

Most of all, there’s a short period when people’s windows come down, before they start surrending to the heat, closing their houses and cars up, and resorting to the air conditioner. You pass houses where breakfast is cooking, fresh laundry is carrying on the cool breeze, and nobody looks in a hurry.

Somewhere in front, perfume escapes through a car window, for miles and miles. It’s hypnotic.

A Place, A Time

Kiski Junction Railroad, Pennsylvania, June 26th 2016.

I’d taken my family to ride this little railroad just the week before. On the road down I’d noted the last few miles would make a good bike ride, and so one week later I took my Ninja 300 there.

It was a boiling hot day, but a curiosity is how it’s the details of the bike’s life that stay with me: That chain was on its last legs, and had a tight spot I just could not massage out. The rear sprocket would soon be gone too, but the greatest recollection of all was the valve adjustment. just a few days later over the July 4th weekend, I tackled the valves. The diminutive Ninja had about 8000 miles on it; the recommended check was 7600; conventional wisdom on the Kawasaki Ninja 300 forum was to leave it to 15000, I did not want to leave it to chance.

It actually turned out to be a long undertaking, and the exhaust valves were indeed out of spec. I got the job done, and the bike still runs today. It remains the most complex thing I’ve done mechanically.

The joy of bike ownership, learning to do things you never thought you could.

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.