The Two-Stroke Virgins
Photos:Trevor Hunter and Scott Hoffman
The first time for anything can be an experience, some amazing and some not so amazing. Some people are going crazy that the wacky smoke is now legal in California. Heck, we have been on the pipe since the late 60s and loving every minute of it. We found out that there are some Millennials that have never been on the pipe or enjoyed the sweet smell of “the” smoke in their lungs. Our goal, pick up brand spanking new 2018 Yamaha YZ125 and 250 smokers, find a few two-stroke virgins and give them a ride they have read about in books, seen on YouTube but have never dripped oil directly into a fuel can in their lives. Believe it or not it was not that difficult to find two Vs that had little or no time on a smoker. This is our tail, no valves, no cams, no chains in these engines. We like the old KIPS saying, Keep It Simple Stupid. Get bike, unload bike, check tire pressure, add Maxima 927 (smells the best) and go get high (on jumps).
We brought them out to a few different tracks to see what differentiates our duo of smokers and why two-strokes are making a resurgence. Ryan Nitzen, a 450B motocross rider whose steed has been a CRF450R for the past several years and a CRF250F before that, rode the YZ250 the most while Preston Campbell, whose ridden nothing but Honda four strokes except for a short stint on a CR85 when he was a runt, piloted the YZ125 quite a bit.
What makes Yamaha two-strokes or any smoker so much fun? Just ride one, it tells you in the first five minutes. First, you have to ride them differently and momentum is your friend, especially on the 125. Hitting jumps out of a turn from the inside rut? Less likely, especially on a 125. Both testers immediately took to their usual line choices when first getting on the bikes and the inside line was a common choice. However, by the end of the day, the insides were mostly a thing of the past as they were railing every berm they could find in order to keep up the momentum. After riding the bike at a sandy yet fast Cahuilla Creek MX, Campbell stated, “I had a lot of fun holding it wide open and trying to keep as much momentum as possible to make sure I could clear all the jumps. The YZ worked for me when I was able to rail the outsides.”
Due to its lack of power compared to modern day 250cc four stroke, riding the 125 makes you feel like a hero out on the track as you are always on the gas and crave every little berm to avoid letting off the throttle. While some jumps couldn’t be cleared at Cahuilla, most were still a breeze when ridden properly. Ryan says it best as he believes, “the nostalgia of listening to a crisp new 2-stroke sing around the outside lines of Milestone MX is second to none. After coming off of a 2018 CRF450, both the YZ125 and YZ250 require a much more demanding riding style. The 2-stroke powerband requires a kind of raw aggression that isn’t as necessary on modern 4-strokes. Gas, shift, clutch, and brake are all things you have to remind yourself as you lean off the rear fender, hoping to put every last horsepower to the back wheel.” Don’t forget, you have to turn the gas on before you start riding these bikes!
Additionally, shifting is crucial to ride these bikes to their potential. Four-strokes allow the rider to be a bit lazy while still staying up to speed but the two-strokes are a little different. After a few motos at Cahuilla, Preston commented, “being used to the 4-stroke power, it did take me awhile to get confident in shifting the 125. You have to downshift a lot more in the corners to keep up the RPMs while the 4-stroke can be lugged around in a higher gear.” Leaving the bike in one gear around the whole track is an impractical method for riding a two-stroke and will quickly teach anyone the importance of keeping a bike in the meat of a powerband.
Likewise, a small bore two-stroke like the YZ125 serves as a good stepping stone when transitioning from a mini to a big bike. Due to its lightweight and lack of power, Ryan believes, “the 125 on the other hand is a great stepping stone from the 85cc mini bike to the 250 four-stroke as it familiarizes the rider with the ‘big bike’ feeling.” It provides a bit of a safer platform as a crash will usually occur at slower speeds and the ability to correct a mistake on the lightweight bike is greater. Additionally, teaching a rider the fundamentals of riding and things like line choice, carrying momentum with late braking techniques and carrying corner speed, and proper shifting will result in more success when moving on to the common four-stroke. It also teaches a rider to eliminate mistakes as they can’t be fixed with the extra power a modern four-stroke provides.
After multiple days of riding, how fun is a two-stroke? Both riders left the track with a big grin on their face and nothing but compliments on how fun they were. Preston described, “the YZ125 is an awesome bike to have loads of fun on. Being a racer who has pretty much just grown up racing four-strokes, this bike has given me a new outlook on how fun a two-stroke can be.” Similarly, Ryan detailed, “the smiles come naturally underneath the helmet as you’re forced to find creative lines that allow you to carry momentum through each section of the track. Both of the blue two-strokes are lightweight and feel extremely agile on the race track.”
With a 125 weighing in around the 200lb mark and a 250 two-stroke around 215lbs, that’s a far cry from the 240+lb 450cc four stroke. It gives the rider more control over the bike and allows them to practice techniques that would be almost impossible to learn on a 450cc thumper. While the different riding style brings joy to the rider, the nostalgia of two-strokes and their historic past also create a sense of enjoyment. Growing up in the nineties, Ryan recounts, “riding these bikes takes me back to a time when I would hear the sweet sounds of 2-strokes filling the air in Angel Stadium as the likes of McGrath, Carmichael, Stewart, and Reed raced around the track. In a way I felt like a 90’s superstar as I twisted the grip around Milestone’s main track.”
The ultimate test on how fun a two-stroke is the comment that both riders want to buy a two-stroke to have some fun on. Ryan relates, “after riding both of Yamaha’s two-stroke offerings, I am seriously considering buying or building [a two-stroke] of my own. Riding dirt bikes is supposed to be fun and these blue bikes reminded me as to why I started riding in the first place. Picking up a used two-stroke for $1,500 to $3,000 or even a brand new one for $6,000-$7,000 is a far cry from the list prices of $10,000 for a new 450 motocrosser and having it as a back up bike or a play bike simply for fun is a sure-fire way to bring back the smiles on the track or trails.”
Likewise, Preston affirms, “riding this bike makes me want to buy a two-stroke. I had a lot of fun just playing around on the sandy dirt of Cahuilla Creek MX and I would like to buy a Craigslist 125 and build it up into a nice bike. I think it would be a good time.” When buying a two-stroke, being aware of a beater is a necessity as they could be a clapped out race or practice bike that would eliminate the fun factor. With new two-strokes costing around $6,000-$7,000, it’s hard to beat the stress free feeling of having a known bike that will last a lifetime. However, two-strokes are cheap to rebuild and you will still be under the $10,000 mark.
Two-strokes have undoubtedly been making a comeback in the last few years. With races like the World Two-Stroke Championships or the Two-Stroke Revival race that takes place at A Day In the Dirt, riders and racers are realizing the newest technology and the biggest horsepower numbers aren’t necessary to have fun on a dirt bike. Simple, cost-effective riding and racing are on the rise with the ease of maintenance two-strokes require and some of the new 450cc bikes costing $10,000+. Also, with their lack of change, parts are readily available and can transfer over from year to year while there is also a strong aftermarket parts supply that has been perfected over the years. In our YZ125 test, we contemplated naming it the “Most Fun Bike In Motocross.” If a two-stroke could be described in one word, our testers might agree on “fun.”
Hop onboard for a couple laps around Cahuilla Creek MX with test rider Trevor Hunter as he rips the 125 around the fast and flowing track:
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