250cc trail bikes were all the rage in the 1970s and early 80s, though seemed to have gone out of favour during the past 20 years. Alun Davies takes a trip down memory lane to North Wales to discover if Honda has made the perfect second bike for the adventure bike rider
In a line: Fun on-and off-road and the perfect excuse for regressing into a teenager
The Honda CRF250L – first blood
he first rays of sun had just put in an appearance as I pulled up at a roadside cafe on an early morning ride to Lake Vyrnwy in Mid Wales. Steaming hot mug of Nescafe in hand, I checked out the headlines on the morning newspapers and a wry smile spread across my face.
‘UK to Experience Blackouts’ screamed the headlines. On closer inspection the less sensational story in the small print reported the key facts from a recent study that forecast Britain was on course for an energy deficit within the next few years and the lights would go out. Quite apt, I thought, as my next task was to meet up with the Honda marketing team at a hotel on the shores of the Welsh lake and be introduced to the new Honda CRF 250 L.
The CRF 250 L is a single-cylinder trail bike the likes of which were all the rage in the 1970s and early 80s. In fact, the original Honda XL 250 – the first modern four-stroke trail bike – was launched in 1972, just a few years before the Heath Conservative Government declared the ‘Three-Day Work Order’, better known as the Three-Day Week, the last time the lights went out in the UK.
It’s often said that if you want to know what’s going to happen in the future then all you need do is look to the past. History repeating itself is a strikingly accurate phenomena, though as a species we’ve a built-in natural tendency to counter with ‘ah, but it’s different this time’.
Ah, but it is different this time; back then the case for owning a 250cc trail bike was boosted by the fact that there were plenty of lanes to ride legally and the average Janet Street-Porter groupie was still more interested in growing teeth than championing the rampant anti-motorcycle NIMBY rump of the ramblers. Also, and this is the biggie, learner riders could swing their leg over a 250cc from the off without having to jump through the administrative and bureaucratic Matrix nightmare known as CBT/Module1/Module2.
Just to veer off subject for a moment, this is a good point to promote the case for a grant-funded network of concealed bamboo spear trenches positioned at local blackberry picking hotspots with a view to thinning out the mass ranks of the ramblers.
Anyway, back on subject. As I rode on to the meeting my thoughts moved on to just what was Honda thinking reintroducing a style of bike that had had its glory days back in the time when green lanes were plenty and young learners could buy a proper 250cc bike?
If my recollection of the 70s and early 80s is still valid, then these 250cc machines were bought by young lads (me included) and became a defining part of our lives; we commuted on them, we played off road on them, we hung out on them, we’d use them for camping trips to the seaside, we’d ride to the girlfriend’s house, and occasionally, if she was a special one, let her climb aboard the pillion. They were and still are the first loves of our lives and one of the reasons why, over 30 years on, I still go weak at the knees for anything on two wheels.
But these days, young lads without a full licence are restricted to 125cc and thinking back, I can’t remember anyone over the age of 21 who owned a bike below 250cc. By the time you reached 21 you’d either moved onto a more powerful machine or given up on a two-wheeled affair.
As Lake Vyrnwy came into view, I was firmly of the opinion that, based on a historic perspective, there was no market for a 250cc trail bike. I mean, if the Honda was all it was cracked up to be, the only person I could imagine buying one would be the older guy with green lane aspirations on a trip down memory lane. You know, the sort of biker who could enjoy a Sunday outing with his mates without fear of ditching his brand-spanking 1000cc- plus adventure bike. On reflection, I know quite a few of them, including the one writing this feature. Maybe Honda could be onto something after all…
Back to the future
And so to the road ride. The tarmac and scenery around Lake Vyrnwy comes with that most dangerous combination of scenery you want to look at and bends you want to fling a bike around, plus there are plenty of kamikaze woolly backs searching for strips of elusive mid-road grass.
If you’re used to riding bikes with 100bhp then the first thing you learn about the Honda is that with only 23bhp on tap, momentum is everything, which means you need to ride it just like you rode those first trail bikes back in the 70s.
Yes, it’s a case of throttle permanently pinned, fast gear changes and picking the perfect corner line to stand a chance of overtaking the car creeping along in front.
Having been on press launches for far more powerful machines where the best words to describe the warp-speed road tests have been ‘thrilling’ and ‘scary’, the CRF 250 L experience could be summed up with ‘fun’ and ‘nostalgic’. Even with the throttle pinned I was lucky to see 80mph (I was about 17st at the time) while the lightest rider of the group claimed he’d seen a top end of 86mph.
Throw in any sort of hill, even a gentle, straight one on an A road, and it wouldn’t be long before a down change or two
was needed to keep the speed up and the lighter riders would creep past slapping their thighs and with a grin on their mugs. In a Snowdonian headwind, the compulsion to tuck my head down onto the bars and eek every last ounce of speed from the Honda was as strong as it was when I was 17.
I was so enjoying the day out on the CRF 250 L, indeed, for the first time in a very long time I was experiencing the sort of riding which kick started my lifelong passion and commitment to biking. This was fun and this was thrilling and in the most non-threatening way modern biking can be. No massive power on hand to tempt me into breaking the law and risk both licence and life.
The bikes, rather than riding ability, were the levellers which made the group ride so much of a ball, and better still we
were having all this fun within UK speed limits, something that would be impossible on a modern day big bore adventure bike. I’ve a mind to contact my old mates andurgethemalltoabuyaCRF250L, that’s how much I enjoyed it.
Having said all that, I’d still be unlikely to buy a CRF 250 L as my one and only bike. The lack of power and comfortable cruising speed just wouldn’t cut it for the type of long-distance touring I enjoy, nor would my partner thank me on the occasions she tags along as a pillion.
The following features almost seem incidental on this style of bike, especially as a road-going machine but, here we go: the brakes are adequate; the suspension is soft enough to soak up almost all bumps; the Dunlop trail tyres will give you the occasional sharp intake of breath if ridden at speed on wet roads; the handling gets a little squiffy when nudging 70mph and you’ll squeeze about 140 miles out of the 7.7l tank before you’ll need to fill her up. Overall, while the looks might suggest a peaky enduro performance this is a gentle, non-threatening motorcycle. And have I mentioned the fun factor…?
After a lunch stop at Betws y Coed we set off for the Mick Extance Off-Road Experience, which is set in stunning surround- ings at the foot of the Berwyn Mountains near Llangynog. Here we’d be testing the off-road capability of the CRF 250 L, following in the tracks of one of the UK’s most successful Dakar riders.
Which reminds me, the last time I rode in Mick’s tracks was four years ago up in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Southern Spain where I managed to fracture fingers, hand and a wrist pursuing the five-times Dakar finisher. Ironically, it was during the downtime recovering from the fall that I started to think about launching a new magazine called Adventure Bike Rider. Thank you, Mick.
Mick suggested we first spend time racing around a grass meadow to get a feel for the bike before heading into the hills, and once again, the gentle, forgiving nature of the CRF 250 L had us all performing like Dakar veterans. That may be overstating things a little but what it did show was that the bike is nimble and non- threatening, plus it seemed to crash well and was light enough to pick up without inducing a hernia.
Up in the hills we put the Honda through its paces on a combination of fast-paced graded forestry trails, rough, rocky single tracks, steep muddy ascents and descents and through a boggy section with ruts deep enough to start a coal mine – they were almost seat height.
The Honda took all that was thrown at it with ease and once again the gentleness of the power delivery and forgiving handling inspired a level of confidence and traction control a novice would never experience on a full on enduro machine.
The bike had performed well enough to convince me that it would do all I would ever need it to do and then we were treated to a performance from Mick and his equally talented son, blasting around a rough, rocky circuit at speeds I could only imagine doing 50m above the ground in a chopper. Phenomenal.
I have no doubts about the off-road ability of the Honda CRF 250 L, it’s more than capable of taking on the toughest green lanes in the UK plus the rocky mountain mule tracks and high dunes of Morocco should you have a mind too. Best of all though, it’s a very quiet bike, quiet enough for you to ride up behind Miss Street-Porter when they get those trenches in place.
I absolutely loved my day out on the Honda CRF 250 L. The road riding was fun and the off-road capabilities of this bike are more than enough for anything I intend to do on the rough stuff.
While I can’t ever foresee a time when I’d buy this bike as my one and only two-wheeled transport, what I can tell you is that if I were looking for a second bike to do the occasional commute to work, a convenient nip down to the shops and a tool to go weekend green laning with the boys then this would be it. The perfect second bike for the adventure bike rider.
MODEL: Honda CRF 250 L PRICE: £3,950 MPG: Honda quotes 90.4mpg RANGE: With a 7.7l tank and using Honda mpg figures you get a range of 150 miles (approx) POWER: 17KW at 8,500rpm TORQUE: 22Nm at 7000 TRANSMISSION: Six gears SEAT HIGHT: 875mm WEIGHT: 144kg Kerb weight WHEELS: 21-in front; 18-in rear spoked wheels BRAKES: Hydraulic disk 256mm 2 piston calliper front; hydraulic disk 220mm 1 piston calliper back
How Versatile is the Honda CRF 250 L…
AS A COMMUTER? If your commute involves travelling through a mainly urban environment then the CRF 250 L is spot on. If your daily run in to work involves any great distance or motorway riding then either change jobs or buy a different bike.
AS A WEEKEND TOURER? Mmm… This is not a machine you’d choose to go heading off up the M6 en route to the west coast of Scotland for a long weekend. However, if you had a week or so, maybe.
AS AN OFF-ROADER? The Honda is a fantastic green-lane machine. Very forgiving and with gentle characteristics for the novice and Sunday morning bimbler while also capable of taking on just about anything, at pace, in the hands of an expert.
AS A CONTINENTAL ROAD TOURER? You’re unlikely to buy this bike for its long-distance road touring characteristics, in fact you’d be considered slightly unhinged if long-distance road touring was your prime reason for purchase.
AS AN RTW OVERLANDER? If you’ve the time and the inclination to set off on a multi-year RTW expedition where speed is low on the list and exploring the Road of Bones, North African pistes and jungle trails of the Congo are near the top then the CRF 250 L could well be the perfect machine.
AS A PILLION CARRIER? Yes, you can fit someone on the back, but don’t expect them to want to go much further than the end of the street.