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3rd September 2007

Riding Classic Trail Bikes - Part 1
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Old bikes are often cheap bikes, which means you don't worry if they get a bit muddy. Armed with a Honda and two Suzukis from 1981, David Towers tells a tale of three trail bikes...

Dickens wrote about 'A far, far better thing…..' and while he meant it about an Anglo/French tragedy, I feel the sentiment is sound when referring to riding a motorcycle off-road, as opposed to on. And if he'd ever given it a try, then I'm sure he would have agreed!

I've been riding bikes for the thick end of thirty years and apart from a solitary off-road experiment (involving a six-cylinder Honda and a large sand-pit - not a happy union) I have never tried the pleasures of gettin' down an' dirty! This all changed a scant few months ago. And it really is 'A far, far better thing.' Although it's not all sunshine and roses, as I can attest, sat here as I am, nursing my swollen elbow and bruised gluteus maximus. Arnica really is good stuff!

It all began with the chance of a profit….

Quite a good profit actually, A Honda XL600R was offered to me at what can best be described as an 'advantageous price'. Jolly good, thought I, a-spending we will go. Said Honda was acquired and my visions of profit vanished about thirty minutes later. I don't mean there was anything wrong with the bike, no, far from it; it was much better than I remembered. No, my friend Steve happened along: 'I've always wanted that thing' he said.

Indeed 'it is a far, far better….'

So, like the mug I am, I sold it to him for the same amount that I had spent in so recent past. Bugger! Better thing, indeed. Definitely a Sidney Carton moment I feel.

Mirrors? Indicatros? Pass me that spanner... 1981 Honda XL600R

So, Steve, intrepid rider of things American, became the eleventh owner of a 1981 XL600R, in red, faded red, and a sort of whitey red. The whitey red was a HUGE Ascerbis plastic petrol tank, which had faded due to the strong sunshine in the Spanish (getting quite continental this) countryside from whence it had so recently come.

An original, second-hand and correctly red petrol tank was purchased through the good offices of our collective friends at eBay, for the princely (or rather, aristocratically) sum of sixteen Euros from Germany. (Note to self; if I can work Belgium and Portugal into this tale, I should be on for a grant from the EU)

'You've got to get one mate!' Hmmm, did look like fun - but funds due to the above related Carton moment, were a little depleted. Never mind, I could bask in the warm glow of a doing a friend a favour. Yeah, it sucks doesn't it - he's having all the fun and I'm nursing a sick wallet (I spent the imaginary profit BEFORE I'd got it - whoops!) 'Better thing'. Indeed!

Mr Fox however (good egg, and perpetual burner of two-stroke), due in no small part to his continued excellence in his chosen field was not so fiscally challenged - and following the 'call to arms' of our mutual mate Steve, went out and bought a Suzuki TS250ER of similar (1981) vintage.

Anyone who thinks that such a bike will not fit into the back of a two door Saab, should think again - we went quite a distance down the M5 with the little horror hanging out of the tailgate.

And typically of Mr Fox, it was a little gem! Red in hue, low in mileage, good in condition. Once more, I was rueing my rash decision to sell that bloody Honda - good trail-bikes, at affordable prices were in short supply. It really was a far, far better thing…

I really fancied a Greeves, funny front end and all, but… I considered a Triumph, but for the money I could afford it would be a decrepit Tiger Cub with two gears missing and seriously misaligned front-end. Not promising! A D1 Bantam briefly flirted across my computer screen, but the escalating price moved it to the realms of my own be-heading if I spent that sort of money!

Random TS Suzuki Stuff on

Finally, my good friends at the Italian (another country closer!) motorcycle centre came up trumps - 'Yeah, cheap trial bike' spoke Alex. 'You can have that DR400 over there for £350 - any good to you?' Blimey, no sooner were the words out of his lips than I was riffling through my wife's handbag for the money!

Who buys a white trailbike? 1981 Suzuki DR400 (although actually, it's a mutant GN400...)

Yet another 1981 heap. Actually, apart from a lack of rear wheel and a bit of basic re-assembly, it was rather nice. For two years they had searched for a rear wheel to replace the very broken hub in the one they had - but the time had not been wasted. Oh no indeed, it had been re-painted, powder-coated, fitted with new shocks etc. So if I could learn to ride everywhere in a 'stoppie' attitude, I was on to a winner!

Four brief days later, a chap called into the Italian MC Centre, offering them a wheel for the DR. Like the gentlemen they are, they passed his details to me… I didn't think Alex had ever read Dickens, let alone taken it so to heart!

It was a far, far better thing that he did…. (Personally I'd have chopped the bloke into little pieces and buried him out the back - anyone with that bad a sense of timing, doesn't deserve to live…)

And so finally, faithful reader, we have our trio - D'artagnon (not that I'm confusing novels or anything!), Dick Dastardly, and Mutley. The DR is definitely Mutley, but at least it's not red - no, a very fetching shade of white. Oh, and it's not really a DR - no it was originally a GN400, a custom styled road bike, very modified with all sorts of bits and pieces from Suzuki's off-road bike ranges. Who was it that said 'bitza's no longer exist?' Never mind, looks the part and certainly goes well enough.

And so to the roads, or rather the green lanes. Steve can always be relied upon to read a map properly and so it proved. There is a route from Newton Abbot to Totnes (a distance via metalled roads of about nine miles) that uses about 500 yards of roadway, and the rest, totally legal green-lanes. It all looked so simple on the map…

Oh dear god. I swear that first Saturday afternoon that I was praying for that blessed guillotine to fall - I would have gladly traded places with Charles Darney if he would have ridden the bloody thing and let me walk. Four hours it took us to get to Totnes. And about 29 miles. I was, it's fair to say, pooped.

'I was, it's fair to say, pooped'

But what an absolute riot. I think I was more knackered 'cos I'd spent so much time rolling around on the floor laughing. Steve seriously expected us to traverse a thousand yard lane, no wider than a horse's hind quarters, with an average gradient of one in four, stepped in slate slabs, running with water, and mud everywhere it wasn't actually a river, did he? Yes, he certainly did.

That was the third lane we attacked. The first two had just lulled us into a false sense of security. Doddle this green laning lark, we collectively thought. The first two, looking back were as difficult a trial as a posh houses' gravelled drive - except there was the occasional puddle for that authentic off-roader look.

About half way up the Eiger, I stalled, for the ninth time. The incline looked bloody near vertical, there was an XL slithering backwards towards me with its engine roaring, and wheel spinning, a manic collection of limbs appeared to be riding it - badly. I laughed so much it hurt.

Then I couldn't re-start the bloody thing - come back little button, I miss you so. At least I wasn't alone in that, Steve couldn't persuade the XL to start either. Foxxy of course, two-stroke. Piece of cake. Jammy!

Steve and I pushed and pulled each other's bikes, supported each other while we tried to start the bloody things, shouted encouragement to each other, egging us on to greater efforts (not that we had a lot of choice - it was just as daunting to try and go back), and finally, by sheer will-power, perseverance, and perspiration, we got to the top - and collapsed. Mr Fox of course had just sailed serenely up. Proper trials tyres his bike has, and loads of low down gentle power. No wheel spin, no drama; just steady progress.

Both Steve and I hated him at that moment, with a passion that even Dickens couldn't have portrayed.

Eventually three little old blokes (three passable representations of middle age blokes had originally set out) staggered into the Riverside Café. Coffee and a bag of Ready Salted had never tasted so good. Or been so needed. Dehydration can be very dangerous you know and I for one had a tiny micro-climate inside my jacket. Was it a rain forest? It certainly smelt like it.

The parrot wasn't happy either!

You wouldn't do this with a councours BSA B40.


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