The city commute is a daily marathon of torturous endurance, but has Honda’s new CB125F got the measure of its higher – and lower–priced urban rivals?
Three abreast on the start line of the London Marathon and the tension is building, anticipation for the race ahead nibbling at the edges of my nerves, I can almost hear my heartbeat tapping out its rhythm on my eardrums. Everything snaps into focus at the sound of the starter’s klaxon, and a glance at my fellow competitors reveals the same steely determination to go the distance, to cross the finish line first. But this isn’t the marathon, and that klaxon was just an irate Londoner leaning on his horn, royally displeased at our decision to line up three 125cc commuters across a Greenwich road in the middle of rush-hour.
This is not a race. Well, not officially, but the aim is to try and beat the fastest time from last week’s marathon on this globally diverse trio of 125s, representing Austria (via India), Japan (via China), and Taiwan (via the local docks). The only stipulation is we must ride as we normally would — no silly speeding, elbow bashing or blocking manoeuvres allowed.
As the revs build and spindly clutch levers slip from our fingers, we’re suddenly away, mingling with the endless ebb and flow of London’s streets. I get the holeshot on the Honda, leading only half the pack as a Kymco-mounted Steve disappears into the background like he’s forgotten where second gear is. As we reconvene at the first of what will be many red lights, it turns out that the gearbox really was the problem: “It won’t go in to second, it just keeps hitting neutral!” shouts Steve over the cacophony of diesel cabs that surround us like ants to a dropped Jelly Bean.
The lights change and we’re away again, minus a floundering Kymco, which continues to stalk us a junction or two behind, never quite keeping in the same cycle of traffic light GPs. Greenwich is behind us now as we carve through the early rush-hour traffic, and the realisation dawns that I’m not really thinking about the bike. Riders of bigger beasts might scoff at a quarter of a litre dragging them through the melee, but the ease of use, the natural speed at which you feel instantly at home, makes these urban tigers utterly effortless. This familiarity means comfort and confidence abound, and that your eye is on the traffic and kamikaze pedestrians, not the switchgear.
A fast-changing set of lights results in a bit of exuberant braking as commuters pile into the street, uncaring that the approaching traffic hasn’t stopped yet. The CB’s rear wheel locks under my size elevens — there’s no ABS on the budget Honda — and suddenly the prospect of performing crowd pleasing skids at every opportunity has entered the game. The pricey KTM is the only ABS-equipped bike here, and at £1500 more than the Honda you’d expect it to have something extra.
Before we can properly settle into our stride we’re thrown our first curve ball — a closed road due to the discovery of an unexploded World War II bomb. Steve pleads with us to let him ride the Kymco into it, but we’ve got a marathon to finish. The Honda and Kymco spoil us with acres of steering lock, making child’s play of the U-turn, but Andy struggles to deal with the KTM’s limited lock in our narrow side-street about-face.
But our detour sees us clattering down cobbled back streets, and Andy moves to the front, completely confident that KTM’s ABS and more refined suspension will keep him safe over the slippery and uneven surface.
It’s the only time the CB feels outclassed, while it further highlights the Kymco’s budget cuts. The back brake works fine but the front doesn’t; a decent squeeze of the lever is rewarded by the fork diving with a wooden deadness of feel, and only the slightest deceleration. Never has so much effort had to be put into stopping a 125 — even my drum-braked 1981 Yamaha DT125 hauled up easier.
Turning east towards Canary Wharf we get chance to open the bikes up as traffic eases and speed limits increase. The Honda may be basic but its sweet motor hums along with a confidence that convinces you it’ll take being thrashed every single day of its life, and still come back for more. On the rare occasions when Steve can find second gear he can keep up fine — the Honda and the Kymco sharing similar performance from their separated-at-birth air-cooled singles. The KTM makes more power, but it’s not enough to see it gap the others on anything other than a clear road. All three get to 30mph in a brisk fashion, easily able to keep rush-hour traffic at bay.
As we slide between the monoliths of Canary Wharf we’re stopped by security staff who tell us not to take photos in the area, before swabbing our brake levers with what look like Specsavers cleaning cloths, checking for bomb-making residue, apparently.
We buzz away from the security station in the cool shadows of the densely-packed skyscrapers that stop the sun from reaching the ground. Our little 125s feel conspicuously cheap amidst such conspicuous wealth.
A quick time check reveals that we’re one hour 23 minutes into the challenge, and there’s only six miles left as we head west along the banks of the Thames. Andy thinks we have time to stop for a quick drink and toilet break — I’m not convinced and suggest that he just does a Paula Radcliffe, but he pulls in anyway at the next petrol station.
The traffic is like treacle, oozing at a glacial pace along Embankment. We can’t yet see Big Ben, with tourist coaches littering our way forward and death-wish cyclists darting through tiny gaps in a flash of hi-vis. The Honda surprises time after time at just how small a gap it can fit through — it almost feels as narrow as a push bike, making riding in tight city traffic like this fun. But however well we think we’re doing, London regulars with less care for their bar-ends and knees battle their way around us, mostly on scooters. When Steve pauses for a particularly tight gap, a scooterist uses him as a set of buffers and simply piles into the back of him, thankfully without any damage.
The traffic relents at Parliament Square, gas and gears piling on with verve as we arc round towards Buckingham Palace. A mid-corner bump upsets both the Honda and Kymco on their almost laughably skinny tyres and twig-thin forks, and Andy scythes past again on the Duke with noticeably more confidence.
Just a few more corners separate us from the finish line, and as we turn into the Mall there’s a disappointing lack of pageantry to mark our heroism.
It took us a slightly shocking two hours 34 minutes — including the diversion, overzealous Canary Wharf security and Andy’s porcelain-watering pit-stop. Almost exactly 30 minutes slower than the Elite Men’s winner Eliud Kipchoge managed, at a superhuman 2:04.42.
We may have lost, but the bikes were the perfect companions for such a hectic journey; fun, agile and incredibly easy to ride, with just enough power to keep ahead of the traffic. If I was faced with a journey such as this everyday, a 125 commuter would be top of the list.
‘The CB goes the distance’
The Honda CB wins the urban commuting race. It doesn’t have the big bike style of the KTM, but its slimness meant it was the easiest to duck below mirrors and dodge round cyclists. The KTM’s slight power advantage is not enough to overcome the Honda’s agility.
The KTM Duke really comes into its own on faster roads where it can stretch its legs and pull away from the other two. It handles incredibly well, too. The seating position is more sporty than comfortable, and the seat is hard. Plus you can’t ignore the £1500 price differential.
That leaves the Kymco CK-1 at the bottom of the pile, and at £500 less than the Honda it’s not really surprising. The engines may feel similar, but the build quality, braking performance and gearbox glitch don’t encourage making the cash saving.