Monkey Bikes: Possibly fun but ultimately pointless machines which only exist because of Japan’s peculiar fascination with miniaturisation. Too slow to go on the motorway, too small to use in town without a thief carrying it off the second you park. Too silly to make practical transport (imagine arriving for a job interview on one). Way overpriced. Crap.
hat’s what I thought about “monkey”, the enthusiast’s catch-all term for the whole pursuit – as in “I love monkey” or “I’ve been into monkey for years, me.” So it made perfect sense for me to be the one to ride a monkey – as I will now refer to them – to Belgium. Why Belgium? Because for some reason, Belgium has a massive monkey following.
Monkey meetings here can attract hundreds of riders. Monkey meetings there can attract thousands. Dax Team Brugge (DTB) claims to be “one of the biggest clubs in Belgium” and has rallies virtually every weekend. Despite taking its name from Honda’s fantastically unlikely-looking Dax, the club welcomes owners of all monkey bikes.
Not that this information is accessible to the uninitiated. To find out, I had to delve into the world of Monkey website forums, where users have names like Chineasy Rider. First I considered UK meetings. I discovered there’s one in Kent in September called Monkey Spunk. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea. Don’t try to find details with a Google search. At length, by signing up and mingling with the other monkey fanciers on www.monkeyrun.co.uk, I learned of the Belgium scene and made a contact who emailed me some meeting details. The place: a service station just outside Bruges. The time: Midday on Saturday.
There are many considerations when choosing a monkey for an international trip. Do I want to be extremely uncomfortable or left with a permanent splay-legged gait? How important is it that I ever reach any useful destination? A bewildering choice of machines, all with ridiculous names, doesn’t help. There are Honda Gorillas, Apes, Daxes (so named because they look like a daschund) and a million Chinese copies.
I went for a Honda Monkey 50 with an 88cc big-bore because (a) it’s the archetypal bike of the genre, (b) it looked relatively comfortable and (c) it’s what I was offered by Monkey Bike UK.
Day one: monkey see, monkey do
I was surprised to wake up feeling nervous on the day of the trip. Earlier that week my monkey contact had emailed warning the rally would be cancelled if it rained and suggesting I call him that morning to check. All very well, except I was leaving the day before to get there in time. And anyway, my channel tunnel ticket was booked. All week the forecast had been glorious sunshine for Friday and Sunday but possible showers on Saturday. I’d emailed back on Wednesday night to ask if it was still on. He hadn’t replied.
I put on my kit, strapped my bag to the monkey’s handy luggage rack and wheeled it out of my living room, where I’d parked the night before. I’d spent a while deciding whether to wear my open or full-face helmet for the trip. Open seemed to go with the bike. In the end I’d gone for full-face and dark visor. A strange look from the neighbour, who was leaving his house as I wheeled the monkey out of mine, and I realised why. I wanted to be anonymous.
From where I live in north London to Bruges is only about 150 miles. But how far away something is depends on how you’re getting there. I was facing a number of handicaps. For one I had to avoid motorways – officially the bike was still 50cc and therefore not allowed. For another thing I had a one-gallon tank and no fuel gauge.
In fact the bike has barely any equipment. You get a speedometer (in kmh) and a neutral light and you count yourself lucky, sir. If you want to know whether your indicators are on, look at them. They’re just by your knees. By fitting my Garmin Nuvi 550 scooter sat nav, I’d created the best equipped Honda Monkey in the world.
Despite it all, I like this bike as soon as I get on it. There’s something inexplicably fun and endearing about the fact it’s so small. It actually feels quite fast in town, bumbling along with my backside about 18 inches from the ground, making a meal of every bump.
And it wheelies. It’s not fast away from lights. But the low gearing (it only has three), my luggage and the fact the wheels are about one inch apart mean the front pops up if I pull away with anything except the greatest care. I learn this the hard way by almost flipping it, feet flailing off the pegs, while pedestrians and two other motorcyclists look on. It’s not a good look.
Through central London, as traffic grows heavier, I increasingly feel more vulnerable than I would on a normal motorbike. Gone are the curious gazes from car drivers. Now I’m just slightly smaller thing in the way.
Kent is altogether better. The sat nav guides me through a mix of A, B and twisty unclassified roads. Flat out I reach high 40s but shown a hill I can only do 35. But it’s comfortable thanks to that amply seat and amazingly not too cramped – and the sun is out. It makes a nice change to see country rather than motorway. The monkey is beginning to make some sense. And it continues to until about a million hours later when I realise I’m still only half way to Dover.
After four hours – about twice as long as usual – and one fuel stop I finally get there to be greeted by a smirking man at customs who orders me into an inspection lane.
“We won’t keep you a long,” a young woman in the inspection lane says. “We just want to do a check for explosives.”
Then three other inspectors all emerge from the booth and make comments like “It’s so diddy.” They let me go without making any checks that I‘m aware of. I’m under the distinct impression they stopped me for a laugh. Encounters like this characterise my trip. At every stop people smile at the monkey bike and ask about it if they can. At every junction I’m aware of people looking and pointing from car windows. Other motorcyclists nod approvingly.
All of which has the effect of putting me in a good mood. On a normal bike I’d be belting down the motorway by now, focussing on reaching my destination and seeing only traffic and road signs. This way I buz through sunny little French towns and villages apparently cheering up the locals along the way. For a while I even think that if you had the time this would be the ideal way to tour.
I change my mind somewhere in Belgium. I’ve been riding forever. The roads have become much bumpier and I’ve realised no amount of seat padding can compensate for suspension which doesn’t really work. Everywhere looks the same. I feel like the people in Blair Witch who walked for days to end up where they started. I realise motorways were built for a reason.
But when I finally arrive in Bruges’ Grote Markt, with its quaint medieval architecture, the pains and irritations of the journey are forgotten. It’s 7pm. I’d left my home at 8.40am. Not such a long time in the saddle after all. It seems extraordinary that this small thing has brought me here. I want people to notice. Sadly in Bruges monkey bikes are as common as shoes. So I park next to a Dax and go for beer and mussels.
Day two: barrel of monkeys
Mid-day at a service station just outside Bruges. I feel like I’ve gate-crashed a Belgian youth club. There are a couple of hundred monkey bikes and riders crammed into the forecourt with more still arriving. Many are teenagers. I strongly suspect I am the only one over 35. My contact in the monkey world is here, having brought his bike in a van from 50 miles away. “You’ve really ridden from England?” he says.
The machines are a spectacle. Every one seems to be unique. There are disc brakes, upside-down forks, extended swing-arms, billet aluminium yokes, stainless one-of exhausts, LED lights, flat-tracker seats, extended swing-arms to stop bikes being flipped by tuned and re-bored 175cc engines and immaculate paint jobs replicating larger machines or just looking cool. It’s like being at a show.
Soon I have to leave. I have five hours till my channel crossing, 70 miles away. But it’s another beautiful day for a long ride and I genuinely really enjoy my 40mph winding tour through sunny little continental villages. At least I do for the first two hours.
Another three hours after that, when I finally get to Calais, I succumb to the feeling that I’m nearly back on UK soil and therefore nearly home. On a proper bike this might be a valid notion. On an 88cc monkey it’s a delusion. I’m only half-way with a four-hour ride still ahead of me. It turns out to be the most gruelling stage of the trip. It’s colder, has started to rain and I’m knackered. The miles seem to stretch out ahead of me like a continental plate. My bum aches. The sat nav mounting has worked lose and at every bump it ends up facing the ground but I’m too tired to fix it.
When I eventually get home I don’t have the strength to get the monkey back up the stairs to my front door so I chain it up outside. I slump in an armchair. The last time I felt like this I’d ridden from Gibraltar to London in two days. Riding a monkey bike has temporarily lost all appeal.
But I have to say that, actually, I’ve really enjoyed the trip. And I still think that if you can live with only travelling 100-odd miles a day, this would be a great way to tour. In fact I honestly think it would be a fantastic way to go around the world. If you had six months to do it.
Honda Z50 Monkey
Price: £2,710 inc. £360 big-bore kit. Fuel injection has pushed latest version to £4,000.
Engine: Air-cooled four-stroke single, re-bored from 49cc to 88cc. Four-speed manual gearbox.
Power: 6bhp (2.5bhp without big-bore)
Weight: 58kg (dry)
Seat Height: 66cm
Fuel Capacity: 4.5 Litres
Words: Steve Farrell