By Fish, Surj Gish, An DeYoung & Sam Devine
Photos by Angelica Rubalcaba
Riders: Fish, Surj Gish, & An DeYoung
Treasure This Always
Fish: When you’re handed a couple of plated minibikes on The Island of Treasures, the options for misbehavior are paralyzingly numerous. This is not my first go-round with such delinquency-inspiring hardware, but I usually get my minibike kicks on kart tracks in mind-altering endurance races. This free-form venue would take some getting used to.
Today was to be an actual photo shoot with some instructions from Editor Surj about posing, pan shots, blah blah blah. But I had some other motivations for my presence. Sharing the stage with me was An, who (thus far) refuses to grudge race her Ducati against my FXR. My underlying goal for the day was to goad her into a bit of rivalry. Can’t say it was a successful endeavor, but I made a valiant effort. Baby steps, I guess.
Surj: Speaking of delinquency, here’s how the conversation went when I told Fish I’d managed to get us a Grom and Z125 at the same time:
I said, “Hey man, you’re gonna like this. We’re gonna have a Z125 Pro and a new Grom at the same time. We gotta go have some fun on these things.”
Fish just cackled in that maniacal way he does: “We’re going to jail!”
An: Editor Surj had managed to get me down to CityBike World Headquarters on a weekend under the guise of needing help with the AB 51 party. Once there, he and Fish invited me to ride some bikes for a photo shoot. Not one to turn down riding and posing in my ‘Stich, I agreed.
So he pulls the “motorcycles” out of the cavernous airline hangar where we keep all the test bikes. First out was Kawasaki’s smallest Z. “Where’s the rest of it?” Also, it’s not green—why don’t we ever get green Kawis?
Then, Honda’s reworked Grom. I’ve got friends that do 24-hour races on a Grom and I’d ridden one in the pits at Thunderhill, but that was about the extent of my experience until that moment. This particular Grom has red brake calipers that match my boots—obviously the faster of the two. We load ‘em up and off we go to the secret photo shoot location, one we would surely not be chased out of because we always have our permits in order and never trespass.
Surj: An has been along on some shoots where we ran into some… we’ll call them nonbelievers. So her expectations of potential… we’ll call it intervention… are well-founded.
Fish: So we’re choosing bikes… I’d spent a little time with the Z125 earlier in the week, so I chose it for my first ride—anything for a competitive edge. An takes off on the Grom, and the first thing I learn is that she’s a very responsible individual. Stop sign drag races were uncontested. She obeys speed limits. I have never felt more childish in my life. Getting her goat was gonna be tough.
An: Fish and I race to find a badass photoshoot spot. I win. Mostly because he keeps screwing around, doing wheelies and burnouts.
Fish: My Z125 (and me) are unaffected by An’s maturity. Rather than riding straight to the location—marked by Surj waving his hands—I practiced a few wheelies and some curb hopping.
You all know about the less-than-smooth conditions of Bay Area pavement, but the Z just does not care. It’s got a short wheelbase, but the suspension is perfectly content soaking up the various abrupt edges and potholes the Island threw at it. The Z isn’t a full-on dirt bike, but it’s a perfectly competent mini-supermoto.
Eventually, I get an actual drag race out of An. This is serious journalism after all, so we need to know which bike has the advantage.
Result? Too close to call. But, it didn’t stop me from convincing An for more passes, for, you know, research.
We move from the closed course (cough street) to an adjacent open lot, giving me a chance to really assess the overall maneuverability of the Z in a controlled environment. I look for markers and debris on the ground and create a loosely-defined course for myself.
The Z is an excellent parking lot racing machine. I haven’t found edge of the brakes, the tires are adequate, and the overall package is working. I’m literally riding circles around An, putting her into a nice blend of mild annoyance and confusion, which I finish off with a smack of the Grom’s kill switch.
There really are few things more gratifying than shutting off an unsuspecting rider’s motorbike.
An: Fish thinks he got my kill switch, but little does he know I am well aware of that trick and am pretty quick to switch it back so the bike doesn’t die. Turns out, he’s also susceptible to the old grab the key out of the ignition trick.
I notice Surj sitting on a curb, fiddling with his camera. I toss him the key to the Grom. He dons his ‘Stich, cackles almost like Fish, and off the two of them go.
Fish: With An tapped out and Surj mounted on the Grom, I’m now at a mild disadvantage—he’s been observing my childish behavior and knows what he’s in for. But he’s also more susceptible to the trouble-making influence of the Z and the Grom, and joins right in for the parking lot olympics. We add some terrain to my course and introduce a “who can skid the rear wheel longer” contest. The screeching sounds of our tires eventually drive Angelica to say, “what about more wheelies and less of that shit?”
Surj: The diminutive size of the Grom makes it immediately crazy-enabling, and Fish’s shenanigans add to my hoon-lust. We’re looping around each other in increasingly tight circles, dragging pegs, sliding the bikes, kicking at each other… it’s glorious and ridiculous. We’re both laughing hysterically.
Remember “we’re going to jail!”? That’s the thing about these bikes—while hypothetically, either of these motorcycles are perfectly capable utilitarian round-towners, perfect for going to the grocery store or the post office (we still do that!), the reality, for us at least, is that the only thing they’re good for is breaking the law, breakin’ the law.
Fish: Somehow, amongst the orchestra of little minibike engines being abused and howling tires, we realize it’s Fleet Week—there are fighter jets roaring overhead. The contrast of untrained buffoons scrambling random patterns on tiny motorcycles down below while highly-skilled pilots dance precisely above in multi-million dollar machines is not lost on me.
Eventually, Angelica has had her fill of screeching tires, and Surj and I manage to make unintentional but damage-free contact, so we decide it’s time for a venue change.
Surj and I trade bikes and we roll off in a surprisingly lawful manner to a top secret, closed course stunt bowl of sorts. It’s here that the magnitude of my immaturity really sinks in. There’s zero hesitation as we drop in to a former water storage facility turned skate park.
The bowl is amazing! There’s a fantastic blend of graffiti, damaged fencing, overgrown vegetation, and piled debris that makes it an almost surreal place to ride.
Surj: I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in a skate park, but I skated in the 80s, and had multiple iterations of shitty plywood structures that passed for ramps. So I have some background—albeit it near-ancient—to work from. Drop in, curve, up, across the top, diagonal back to the bottom. There’s a rail along one wall that threatens to curtail our fun, and I try to remove it, but it’s bolted down. Note to self: don’t hit that thing.
Pretty quick, I’m wheelying the Z125 off the wall as I descend back into the bowl. I’m glad I’m on the Z, because the front suspension on the Grom is so soft that Max pointed to it as we unloaded it from the truck when we first got it and said, “I think the fork is fucked.”
A call to Honda resulted in a “that’s how it’s supposed to be,” and anyway, it doesn’t seem to be slowing Fish down, although he does narrowly skirt a couple “that bush came outta nowhere” situations.
Fish: It’s getting really fun keeping the Grom centered on the narrow edge at the top of the bowl. More tire screeching, more hysterical close calls, and every so often one of those pilots passes over with a thundering reminder of real skill. I guess everyone needs an ego check.
Eventually Surj and I have had our fill of skate park idiocy. The timing is about perfect—the larger jumps are starting to look doable, and we do have to send the minis home in reasonable condition.
Any Two Wheels, One Of ‘Em Flat
Surj: So we figure, “Hey, let’s go to Sam’s Any Two Wheels thing in SF.”
Fish: This requires crossing the Western span of the Bay Bridge; not a particularly intelligent thing to do on minibikes, but this day has been wall-to-wall irresponsible decisions and so far, it’s worked out just fine. What’s one more? I did convince Surj to trade the Z125 back to me—what better place to test top speed than frantic tourist traffic?
Surj: I immediately wonder if Fish gave me the Grom because it got fucked up somehow. It’s feeling a little weird, like more than just the combination of grooved pavement and wheelbarrow-sized tires. And then the mirror gets squirrely…
Fish: One of the Grom’s mirrors has worked its way loose, and Surj unthreads it to keep from losing it on the bridge. I could see the question in his eyes: “Now what do I do with this goddamn thing?” I hold out my hand, he hands me the mirror, and I stash the discarded Honda part in my ‘Stich.
That handled, we proceed to the merge ramp—why the fuck is there a stop sign here? The gap appears and we take off. Turns out it wasn’t enough of a gap. The harsh reality of our situation sets in—we’re outgunned by everything on the road around us.
Surj seems to have the top speed advantage as we work our way across the five lanes of doom. At least I had my top speed answer. But as we land together in the #1 lane, I notice Surj slowing a bit. Was the Z faster?
I’m not gonna slow down and ask—my favorite offramp is ahead! I set myself up for the sweeper, for this once in a lifetime opportunity. I complete my slo-mo Moto GP corner, I realize Surj is way back there.
Surj: I’m on the bridge, a little confused as I watch Fish pull away from me. Does the Z really have that much of a top speed advantage? I didn’t think so… and that weird feeling is getting worse. The Grom feels like shit at high speed… because the rear tire is flat. On the Bay Bridge. Second one this month, goddamnit!
Fish: I pull to the side, post-ramp, and Surj rolls up, rear end (of the bike) riding low thanks to the flat tire. I pull out my phone and make a few calls to see what shops are open on a Sunday in SF, that might be willing to swap a tire. Surj fumes. Props to SF Moto here—they have the tire needed, and were willing to help. We talk of two-upping the Z back to TI to retrieve the truck, because two-up on the Bay Bridge on the Z125 sounds like a pretty solid plan.
Surj: Pulling the wheel and swapping the tire means we’ll miss Sam’s show. That sucks, so I head to Cycle Gear in hopes of a plug kit, having left all the many plug kits I own in the garage, where they’re obviously super helpful.
Fish: I push the gimped Grom to the corner of Harrison and 3rd, conveniently stopping behind a PG&E service truck, whose operators were friendly enough to loan me a wrench to reattach the Grom’s mirror. Surj reappears shortly after with the plug kit, and I go knuckles deep in the conveniently-located puncture. With no small amount of force, I force the worm-shaped plug into the hole, pull the tool and trim the excess plug with my trusty Kershaw. We have to read the instruction to figure out the finicky the inflater, but with minimal fidgeting we had a functional rear tire again! Two cartridges of three consumed, good enough pressure attained.
Surj graciously remounts the Grom and we re-depart for Any Two Wheels. I gotta give him credit here—he makes it two full blocks before going full idiot on the newly repaired tire. But to be honest, SF doesn’t suffer timid riding well, and being on tiny motorcycles doesn’t help. We’re not breaking every traffic law—we mostly respect traffic control devices—but we’re pretty aggressive in making our way through Fleet Week tourists and ride sharing idiots.
One moment will be forever etched into my memory: we run into one of SF’s less-talented illegal dirt bike gangs. I was hoping for lawless 450-mounted hooligans doing 12 o’clock wheelies down the street; what I got was some scared-shitless teenagers on TT-R125s.
I feel for them, as I’d have been in the same condition in that situation at that age. We decide not to join up and press onward to Speakeasy Brewing for the show.
Surj: It’s easy to condemn the illegal dirtbikers, and I’m certainly not a fan of the effect their antics have on the public’s view of motorcyclists. Today, we’re not in a real good position to criticize anyone short of Charles Manson on a motorcycle, but I find refuge in the fact that our Aerostich suits and proper helmets certainly must signal to Joe Public that we’re the “good guys.”
Fish: Our arrival at Any Two Wheels couldn’t have been better timed. There’s a break in the music and our own multi-talented Sam Devine is on the mic: “CityBike! Hey Everyone! CityBike is here!” I may not be a local celebrity, but Sam made me feel pretty cool.
Our flat tire adventure cost us some time, but we take in some of the show and grab some food and a soda. The cool mix of bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, music, and a great venue made me wish we could stay longer. The food and conversation dulled my hooning buzz just enough that I figured it’d be a mellow ride back to the truck. I can’t say it had the same effect on Surj—he didn’t miss a beat, and we rode full throttle back towards the bridge.
Crossing the bridge this time was less eventful. I can now add splitting below most car mirrors to my resume. I’m not sure if this is a marketable skill, but there should be some kind of achievement patch for it. 10/10, would hoon again.
TROG-dor On The Beach
Fish: You might think our SF hoon-gasm constituted enough research for these bikes, but you’d be wrong—we’re nothing if not thorough here at CityBike. You may have read about The Race of Gentlemen (“TROG West 2016” – Pit Stops, December 2016) that Sam and I attended recently at Pismo Beach. If there was ever a more perfect place to continue our testing, I couldn’t think of one. So the bikes were lovingly loaded into my truck and shuttled down to the sand.
Sam had procured lodging for us in the adjacent town of Solvang, as Pismo seems to be the land of not enough hotels. We’d briefly discussed riding the bikes down, but quickly realized how bad of an idea that was.
*Yes, that’s right, it was such a bad idea that Sam and Fish declined to add it to their list of Stupid Adventures.
I’m sure you read Sam’s bit of info about the actual race, so I’ll spare you that, but I’ll remind you that we’re at Pismo for a wet weekend on the beach. Not quite driving rain, but enough that my gloves are soaked from simply unloading the bikes. I was very glad to have packed my ‘Stich for this adventure.
Bikes unloaded, we consult the map and discover we have to ride about a mile back down the beach to the gate, then up the road and about two miles to the main gate. Creature of habit that I am, I grab the Z and within the first minute, there are cookies, slides, burnouts, and one bike buried in the loose stuff.
The next few hours are filled with the sounds of low compression engines lumbering down the beach with that signature deep rumble. It’s amazing how straight pipes on a flathead Ford are still quieter than a Thunderheader on a modern Dyna. Hanging around the beach in my Stich and riding boots, I manage to find the one car that needed repair in the pits, so I offer a hand and some conversation to the gentleman from Petaluma repairing the linkage on his dual carbed Model A. Some bailing wire and a Leatherman re-connect his second carb and he heads back to the starting line queue.
Eventually, we arrive back at the truck and I play with the Grom for a few minutes on the wet, hard-packed sand. In this environment, I’m struck by the how different the two bikes feel, due to the Z’s shorter wheelbase (46.3”) compared to the already abbreviated wheelbase of the Grom (47.2”). The Z’s inch-shorter wheelbase makes it more playful on the street, but here on hard-packed sand the Grom becomes some kind of magical miniature flat tracker. It starts with a little powerslide. I’d done a few on the Z when earlier—fun, but nothing remarkable. The Grom, however seems at home sideways. So I try a little faster, then I try a little longer.
Sam: It’s sprinkling. The gray sky bleeds into a gray sea, sandwiching a flat plain of brown sand that stretches out, disappearing into the haze. A line of cars drives slowly down the beach, leaving the Race of Gentlemen, their headlights glowing in the mist. A blotchy shape zips by. What is that? A bear on a tricycle? A linebacker riding a pony? Perhaps a condor trying unsuccessfully to carry away a toddler?
Nope, it’s a Fish on a tiny Kawasaki!
Fish: Within 10 minutes, I’ve made my own mini oval and I’m hanging the Grom out, feeling like Mert Lawwill on the Mile. I decide to give it a go on the Z again, and while I think my practice on the Grom helped, the Z isn’t nearly as smooth and comfortable sliding sideways as the Grom.
Sam: Fish’s Z125 purrs and putts as its back tire spins like a saw blade, spitting sand down the flat brown canvas like streaks of paint. I toss one of the yellow dishwashing gloves I picked up earlier onto the ground, rev the Grom’s tiny engine, kick sand for thirty feet, and slap down the other glove.
Fish: Sam’s joined the fun now, and we’re doing our best to race each other around the two gloves he’s dropped in the sand as our “official” turn markers. We do this for an hour: trading bikes, jumping ruts in the sand… but the makeshift oval on the beach is the most fun I think I’ve ever had on 2 wheels.
Sam: Cars slow as they pass our small, impromptu racetrack, watching the mini-madness. A giant bro-dozer of a pickup truck leaves the procession of cars and comes over. Its massive doors and windows loom high above us and our itty-bitty motorbikes.
What does it want? Is it here to issue territorial proclamations? Several stories up, the driver’s window rolls down. The grinning face of a middle-aged man peers out and says, “Say, what are those things? They look like fun!”
Fun they are, sir, just so long as you enjoy doing burnouts until the rear wheel is lodged in the sand and a kickstand is no longer necessary. Fun, if you enjoy slipping and sliding around the soggy, rain-slicked streets while giggling. Fun, if you’re the type to go for lap after lap around a sandy oval, breaking the rear end loose sliding around the turn until you finally tilt the bike too far, stalling the engine and find yourself standing there, holding the tiny machine at a fifty-degree lean, easily fighting it away from gravity, and laughing, laughing, laughing.
Fish: Darkness finally persuades us to load the bikes up and move on. A warm pickup cab and the promise of dinner back in Solvang are calling. Besides, there’s always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was not to be—the race was canceled due to tides, so a day at the Solvang Motorcycle Museum would has to suffice. I still feel like I won.
To Z, Or Not To Z, Which Would Be To Grom
Surj: We passed our Grom and Z around the Wrecking Crew and thrashed both pretty well, which in spite of their position as entry to the entry-level—Honda uses words like approachable and user-friendly—both essentially beg to be bad. It’s a little funny how something with so little power brings out the misbehavior.
For us, the primary hypothetical use cases for a Grom or Z125 are these: ’round town utility bike, mini-racer, and well… being a jackass. That last one is the most likely.
So which bike would we choose, if we were gonna plunk down $2,999 for the Z or $3,199 for the Grom? It’s a really tough call—you can have a lot of fun on either bike, and you kinda can’t go wrong with either one. They’re within a few pounds of each other: Honda says the Grom is 229 pounds, ready to ride; Kawasaki says their Z weights 224.8 pounds, ready to roll. In our experience, horsepower is close enough between the two to not really matter, although the Z is better for wheelies—probably for other reasons, honestly. Both are fuel-injected, with four-speed trannies and disc brakes at both ends. Even suspension travel is the same: 3.9” in the fork and 4.1” from the rear shock.
The Grom has been in the market for a bit so there’s tons of aftermarket support for it. It also has a lower seat height at 30” compared to the Kawi’s 31.7”—but at this size, the seat height is almost immaterial. The Grom does feel a little closer to “real motorcycle size,” which may make it a little easier to ride for taller people. It also has bigger brakes: 220 mm up front versus 200 mm and 190 mm versus 184 mm out back on the Z.
The Z125 Pro is $200 cheaper, has a bigger tank (2 whole gallons compared to the Grom’s 1.45) and you can get it in that kickass Kawasaki green. Beyond paint, we think it’s a better-looking bike overall. But here’s the most critical difference: the front suspension is way better out of the box.
Where’s that leave us? Like we said, it’s a tough choice and you really can’t go wrong. The Grom may be an ever-so-slightly better platform to build on, especially if you’re taller—although as aftermarket support catches up with the Z, most of that advantage will go away. But the Z’s slightly lower price combined with the much better front end makes it our choice for immediate off-the-lot good times.