Derbi: Big Fun in Small Packages

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What is the future of motorcycling in America?

If you were to guess from the kinds of motorcycles on our roads today, you might think the future will reveal more powerful and larger displacement sportbikes, dirtbikes and cruisers every year, until a literbike is regarded as a learner's tool and any cruiser under 2000ccs a "chick bike."

It's easy to hold this perspective in the USA, but a visit to a few other nations might change this view. In China, for instance, a 250 is seen as a seriously big bike suitable for the police or privileged Party apparatchiks. Japan requires a special license for just about every displacement category over 50cc, with anything over 400cc difficult and expensive to get.

In Spain and other European nations, restricted (meaning power output is limited so the vehicle can't exceed 30mph) 50cc motorcycles and scooters are legal to ride by youths as young as 14. This has created a lucrative market, giving rise to some fascinating machinery that is unavailable in the USA. 50cc dual sports, super motards and incredibly high-performance sportbikes with disc brakes, adjustable suspension, alloy frames and full fairings are in the motorcycle shops there from many manufacturers.

Those are 50cc GP Racers. The bikes were capable of over 100 mph.One of these manufacturers is Derbi SAU. Founded in 1922 by bicycle racer Simeon Rebasa Singla near Barcelona, Spain, Derbi started building motorized vehicles at the end of WWII and is now Spain's largest motorcycle manufacturer. Derbi has a long and rich tradition of building competitive race machinery, and has garnered 84 motorcycle Grand Prix trophies.

Since most of these victories were in the 125 or smaller classes, Derbi really knows how to make a lightweight, powerful two-stroke engine. The basic 50cc air cooled scooter engine has powered thousands and thousands of ring-dinging tiddlers all over Europe.

Derbi's relationship with the US market has been on-again and off-again for the last 40 years. Rental companies loved Derbi's mopeds in the 70's, as they made a model with collapsible pedals that could be rented to non-licensed riders, as well as other models popular during the 70's moped craze. However, Derbi never fully established itself in the U.S. as a series of small importers would bring in a few containers at a time and then abandon importation of bikes and parts.

This is a formidable machine whose profile fills Aprilia RS50 racers with dread.One of these importers started selling Derbi's GPR50 in the mid 1990's with some success. This machine is very sophisticated for such a small bike, with a liquid-cooled, reed valve two stroke engine replete with expansion chamber and electric start. The bike has a full fairing and 16" wheels, and is actually larger physically than a TZ125 roadracer. These units were being sold at the dealers with 70cc kits installed and can achieve almost 65 mph with the standard exhaust.

This is a formidable machine whose profile fills Aprilia RS50 racers with dread.

In 2002, I was working at the Derbi dealer in San Francisco when my wife decided she missed her motorcycle enough to want a scooter to ride to work. She wouldn't need a particularly fast scooter, just something light and manageable, with room for her helmet under the seat.

It's fast for a 50cc, but the Atlantis is still slower than a CBR 600 F2. Photo by Clint Graves.I figured all 50cc scooters would probably be slow, but if that's what she wanted, I'd get her one! I guessed something like a Yamaha Vino or Zuma would be the best value, but since I was working for a Derbi dealer, I should try one of our products out. We had a pretty light-blue Atlantis with some scuff damage from a test-ride gone awry that my boss offered to me for a bargain-basement price. I put it on my credit card and prepared to ride my new scooter home on side streets so I wouldn't become an SUV hood ornament.

I shouldn't have worried. The scooter warmed up in 20 seconds, and shot out into traffic when I wound the throttle to the stop. Soon I was rocketing out down Fell street at an indicated 55 miles per hour! The brakes weren't the strongest, as you would expect from a miniature 190mm disc, but the rear drum was surprisingly effective, so as long as you weren't two-up, you could stop pretty well. The 49 inch wheelbase and 12" wheels gave new meaning to the word nimble. After a while my wife started to complain that I was riding our new scooter more than she was, even though I had two or three bigger motorcycles in my garage at any given moment.

OK, 1, 2, 3: Crash!My excitement peaked in the fall of 2002 when I heard the new 50cc Supermotard from Derbi would be sold in California. Based on the Senda dual-sport, the SM50 has 17" wheels with sticky tires, a 260mm disc front brake with steel brake line, a twin-spar steel frame, and stout suspension. The 50cc liquid-cooled two-stroke motor is rated at about 8 hp by the factory, with a 10,000 rpm redline.

My first ride on the SM50 was incredible- it was the lightest, best-braking, best wheelie-ing, best handling motorcycle I had ever experienced! No wonder 125 two-stroke road racers go on and on about how great their race bikes are. There is no substitute for light weight to maximize motorcycle handling, braking and acceleration.

A friend of mine was looking for a fleet of motorcycles to start a Supermotard training school, and I told him about the SM50s. He was interested, and purchased the first two we got to test out.

This is OK to ride on the street in California. Don't you love loopholes?Peter hauled the two Derbis from his house in his van, and showed them off at the Arco station where our local Sunday morning ride starts out. Another friend of mine put his personal bike in the van and boarded one of the SM 50's I got on the other, and we joined the ride mid-pack to assault the first section of the ride on our 8 hp "toys".

The first section of our Sunday Ride is a gnarly, bumpy stretch of pavement along the cliffs of West Marin north of San Francisco. Horsepower is a liability on this piece of road, and the fastest riders by far are on beat-up dual purpose and Super Motard machines. We only had 8 HP, but on a motorcycle that's half the weight of the next lightest streetbike, it's enough to go at a good clip on slower roads.

My friend Justin acclimated to the 180-pound two-stroke right away. Following him up the hill, I watched as he "experimented" with the back tire's adhesion limits by going into a wicked slide from which he easily and expertly recovered. He then just took off out of sight, as I was not quite confident with the dual sport/Supermotard riding style. I fell to about 1/4 mile behind him and held my position, pulling up at the first rest stop a few minutes behind everybody else.

There's 15 of these being sold in the U.S. this year, and then we'll loose sight of Derbi for a while.The SM 50 was fantastic to ride. It is only lacking for power on uphill sections and in turns over 40 mph or so. It is slide-able and controllable like nothing else I've ridden.

The next 25 miles of coast is much faster: smooth, flowing turns that are banked and comfortable to ride at triple-digit speeds. This meant I would be left behind, but we saw another rider coming from the north, frantically signaling there was CHP ahead of us. Everybody slowed to 55: the Derbis top speed! I laughed and had fun racing the bigger bikes into the tighter turns.

After breakfast, we started an impromptu 1/32 mile paved flat track race. Two of the grizzled old Ride veterans took the pair of little bikes and raced each other around and around the parking lot, sliding into the turns sideways and passing each other with inches to spare. The little bikes were the greatest thing these guys had seen in a long time!

Listen up, students. You can only crash 20 times a day before you have to put down another $50 deposit.I haven't had so much fun on two wheels since I quit roadracing. My friend Jeremy ripped through the turns ahead of me and I struggled to keep up, sliding my boot through tight turns, sliding the back tire occasionally, passing cars and bicycles with inches to spare. The tires were sticky, the front brake is insanely powerful, and the spring rates are too firm, if anything.

By the end, I didn't want to go home!

I learned more about traction and motorcycle handling dynamics in a morning than I learned my whole first 5 years of riding. I got home and took my old FZR out- I was able to apply the stuff I learned instantly and felt smoother, faster, and more confident. The SM 50 is an amazing teaching tool.

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