The Honda Cub: Small Bike Big Adventures
Who says you need a big bike to have an adventure? Definitely not the Kiwi on a Cub! Matthew Helliwell talks us through his mad adventures on a £320, 1989 Honda C90 from Land’s End to Jon o’ Groats, the winter Elephant Rally, Trans European Trail and even to Africa!
How it all started…
Motorcycle travel for me is all about sitting back and taking more in. And a Honda Cub is the perfect bike for this. Grab a small bike, give yourself a little bit of extra time, hit the backroads and the adventures will just unfold in front of you.
I got to this conclusion after spending years riding round the world on micro breaks and fly and ride bike trips and realized the best adventures were always on small bikes in developing countries. So, to put this theory to the test, I bought a Honda Cub and headed for Europe…
READ MORE: The Fly and Ride Guide
The bike is a 1989 Honda C90 called Tiki that I bought for a jaw dropping £320. Well, I call it Tiki but my mates call it Trigger’s broom because I like to rebuild it every weekend in the lounge… no kids or TV and an understanding girlfriend is the key to good prep!
I’ve owned it for seven years and have racked up 30,000 miles riding through the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Netherlands, Spain and Morocco.
People think you can’t go fast on a sub-100cc single, but this Cub can fly at a whopping 60mph… provided it’s downhill, you’re flat on the bars and heavily overloaded with a tail wind and a full moon.
Small bike prep
I love prepping the bike for adventure. And sometimes I even start 12 months in advance.
Some of it is easy: I just chuck throwover bags with a Lomo 40L dry hold bag on the back. Spares fit in the palm of my hand, maintenance is pretty much just chain oil and my tool kit consists of one hammer.
The tricky bit about preparing a Cub compared to a bigger bike is weight. Weight is the biggest problem because any kind of weight is noticed. So, you really have to pack ultra-light, simple and central. If you absolutely have to, you can take one luxury item – like a cut down toothbrush.
Land’s End to John o’ Groats, 1,800 miles
Back in 2017, Nathan Millward put a call out on social media about joining him and his bike Dorothy (a Honda CT110 post bike that he rode from Sydney to London) on a ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.
This is really where it all started. Meeting like-minded people eager for an adventure, burning up back roads and helping each other in brake down situations got me into this.
People had pulled bikes out of barns! There was an 80cc 2-stroke that bounced more than a bouncy castle brimming with 51 kids, a 3-wheeled scooter that was carrying more luggage than a Kardashian sherpa and a C90 with more racks than a corner shop in South Peckham.
We rode in packs tearing up the landscape at an eye watering 40mph without a care in the world. All thoughts of work and debt disappeared – replaced by constant petrol stations and fag breaks with the odd optimistic thought of “I might actually make it to the top”.
Our first LEJOG ride took eight days to complete, but only two days to get back down again as I decided slipstreaming trucks on motorways was a good idea… trust me, it wasn’t.
Friendships were cast in stone and new adventures rose from the pints of larger… I was sold.
Elephant Rally, 2,000 miles
The friendship bond was so strong that my new friend Ginger (Jason Bourne) and I made plans to ride across the frozen and Arctic European plains to reach the famous Elephant Rally in Germany.
If you’re wondering what the Elephant Rally is, it’s basically a mad gathering of even madder individuals in freezing temperatures – think Mad Max meets October Fest on bikes.
It was an incredible experience where we went from shivering in the fresh snow to being sat next to a roaring fire, fed freshly cooked steaks and washing them down with small barrels of beer (kindly poured down one’s throat) and touched off with good snuff.
After a few days of watching sidecars blast around the quarry pits carrying up to 15 passengers, drinking red wine out of 20L jerry cans and watching the white snow turn brown, we decided to pack up our overloaded steeds and explore Europe. How big could it be?
READ MORE: The Ultimate Winter Riding Gear Guide
Austria was only 20 miles away: easy. Czech Republic wasn’t very far and it’d be a shame not to go to Poland and nab some cheap fags.
So, off we blasted, pinlocks held steady with sellotape and 5 litres of extra fuel strapped to the bikes. We were explorers and explore we did!
We got a few thumbs up in the white wilderness… and we also got a lot of head shaking too. To be fair, it was -14C. And come to think of it, Ginger often pulled his boots off and hung them on radiators in petrol stations while slurping hot coffee – that probably didn’t help.
In total, it took us three days to reach the Elephant Rally and two weeks before we got home again. We spent the entire trip on B roads and only touched a motorway once! That was proper fun, on overloaded bikes doing 42.3mph in misty rain and snow… not sure how we survived it to be honest!
READ MORE: Europe Destination Guides
Cubs go to Africa!
We had conquered the UK, beaten Europe in winter and now it was time for sand and sun. Morocco, here we come!
This mad trip consisted of three weeks riding 3,500 miles on underpowered 30 year old steeds with best mates to Africa. What’s not to love?
Well, I guess the fact that 14 months of prep flew out of the window on day one as the Cub ground to a halt 30 miles short of Portsmouth’s port…
But most importantly, we got there and got that ultimate boyband photo of the bikes in dunes basking in the Saharan sun.
Trans European Trail
The Trans European Trail (TET) is a trail riding 51,000km GPX route from the edge of Africa to the Arctic Circle and now includes the UK too.
And this is where our bikes really fitted in. We rode the trails from Dover to Plymouth on the Great southern and Western routes. Our Destination was the Armchair Festival in Plymouth and doing it solely via trails was going to be a real challenge.
Apparently, there were rumours that our underpowered motorcycles were not up to the task and that our bikes should only be used for delivering pizzas and spicy chicken! But this is what drives you and gives you extra motivation.
Big bike riders just don’t realise how easy and effortless these little bad boys are to ride. A low centre of gravity and weighing less than a KFC family bargain bucket with extra beans and gravy is! We bounced and laughed all the way across the friendly landscape trying not to wet our man undies. We chatted to walkers via our open faced helmets and gave cheeky winks to the ladies on the horses with not a bad word whispered. We have finally found the bridge that could connect all of us….. small bikes!
Lessons from the road
The most important lesson is: don’t overthink it. You can have some incredible biking adventures right on your back doorstep – from a one day blast to a week-long back road epic!
And don’t get caught up in what the media says you need to have. You don’t need the best of the best bikes and gear out there. Just buy or borrow what you can afford and save your bucks for a one nighter in a five star hotel on your route or save the coin to get a little further afield.
Overpacking is also a big one, try and keep as light as possible. You’ll be surprised at what little gear you actually need. And if you forget something and truly need it, just buy it on the road!
And always, always, always carry a foldable umbrella.
There are loads more adventures on the Honda C90 to come.
Winter is approaching so it’s the Cubs are heading for the Dragon Rally in Wales next. That basically means camping in a muddy field, drinking lager from buckets with chances of snow storms.
And also, we haven’t done John o’ Groats to Land’s End in a while, so we might as well do that again – and to make it interesting we’ll try and do it on the Honda Cubs in under 24 hours this time! We’ll strap an extra 24 litres of fuel onto the bikes and wobble the 900 miles on B roads all the way to Cornwall from Scotland… I believe it’s all downhill… right?
About the author
Matthew Helliwell is a New Zealander who has lived in London for the last 20 years while working to fund his thirst for two wheeled round the world travel.
Seven years ago, Matt bought a £320 1989 Honda C90 and has been going on mad small bike adventures most riders with ‘big bikes’ wouldn’t dare. He is the Kiwi on a Cub.
Check out and follow his awesome adventures here:
Pics courtesy of Matthew Helliwell, Jason Bourne and Chris Lloyd.
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