Courier Advice: City bike test

Despatch riding: the ultimate test of man and machinery. Armed with four city bikes, can the staff survive London's urban jungle and earn an honest wage?

Being a motorcycle courier is probably one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world, ever. Some may claim that deep-sea fishing for killer crabs in the Arctic Ocean is tough, but I can't see many fishermen surviving the attack of the black cab, the pain of frozen fingers or the wrath of a pissed-off controller. Well, they probably suffer frozen fingers, but you get the idea.

But it's not just a test for man; it's also a supreme test of machinery. Spending all day, every day stopping, starting and dodging (or not) pot holes and traffic is like an urban version of the Dakar Rally. A heavy clutch will destroy a wrist in hours, a lack of turning circle will waste valuable seconds, light and nippy handling is needed to get in and out of gaps, and decent brakes are a necessity for avoiding pedestrians and U-turning cabbies.

So what better test of four very different city-focused bikes than to become couriers for the day? Could Honda's classic city tool, the CBF500, prove that size doesn't matter against Buell's CityX (say it 'City Cross') and could Suzuki's no frills budget GS500 hold its own against the Hornet-derived CBF600?

Under the terrifying gaze of courier company BCCP's controller, the delightfully named 'Punch', four of TWO's staff turned up for the first - and last - day of real work they will ever do to find the answers to all these questions, plus a few London backstreets they'd never heard of...

Buell CityX - Ponsford picks V-twin power

London's streets contain my biggest fear on the roads - motorcycle couriers. They're nutters. And they hate other riders who are slower than them. Riders like me. So imagine my 'joy' when I learn that I am to become a motorcycle courier for the day.

Meeting at BCCP couriers in Chelsea, we pick up our radios and meet Punch, our controller. He doesn't look like the kind of bloke you want to mess with. And then I'm introduced to my ride for the day - the Buell. The others are on a trio of unthreatening Japanese machinery, and I've got a monster twin to deal with.

I've never ridden a Buell but I've heard about their unwieldy clutches and lumpy delivery. And I'm about to ride through London on one, laden down with Very Important Packages. Bloody hell.

First impressions of the CityX are positive. It looks great. It's tiny and menacing, a bit like Ronnie Corbett with a chainsaw.

Pulling away, my only gripes are a slightly high seat height (the standard XB9S has less padding and would suit my bulky 5ft10inch frame a little better) and a jerky clutch which makes changing into second a tad jumpy. But after a mile or so I've got used to both of these little problems.

The riding position pitches you forward over the tank and makes you feel high up. Combine this with the brush guards and flat bars, and the CityX smacks of a supermoto.

As my radio crackles into life, my first pick-up comes through from Punch.

Weaving through West London my nerves start to subside. The diminutive Buell makes light work of the morning traffic, squeezing easily between sardine-packed cars and buses. The 984cc V-twin pulls eagerly at low revs while emitting a pleasingly gutteral exhaust note. It feels (and sounds) just like a Harley, but without the accompanying image issues of your traditional 'Hog'.

Although I seem to be having a few image problems of my own. Forgetting I'm dressed as a courier, I find the attitude towards me has changed. Just like Tim said, couriers are treated like dirt. As I'm handed a large envelope from the despatch entrance of an office building, I might as well be canvassing for Al-Quaeda such is the reaction I get from the wheezing smokers assembled outside. Sod 'em.Hooning round Hyde Park Corner I gather speed, weaving between cars and heading off to Marble Arch. I'm taking the long way round as the Buell proves to be a grin-inducing tool. The only downside is that the gearbox requires a lot of use in heavy traffic. Stop-starting is tiring and the V-twin only revs to 9000rpm so tapdancing on the gearlever is a must. Constantly kicking up into third and down into second induces foot ache, and the clutch is making my wrist sorer than the aftermath of a night in with a fresh copy of Razzle.

Package delivered and charging down towards London Bridge the engine again brings up the CityX's main problem. It's not that fast. Low-down torque is great, with the V-twin pulling like a bastard up to the redline. But the redline just isn't high enough and before long you run out of oomph. Personally, I don't need much oomph to have a good time, and anyway, the Buell isn't a sportsbike. If you're after a smooth four, forget the CityX. It's not about performance; it's designed as an off-beat city machine for those who'd rather look stylish and different than fast. And that suits me. Whether or not I look stylish and different is up for debate, but I certainly didn't look fast to Punch. Thanks to taking the scenic route my first delivery was late. I'm told to take the rest of the day off. It appears I'm not cut out to be a courier. But as long as I can take the day off with the Buell, I'll get over it...

Honda CBF600 - Urry opts for a classy ride

I'm only about half an hour into my new job and I've already cocked up. It should have been a routine delivery, but I've hit a problem. An experienced courier comes equipped with something I, sadly, don't - a sense of direction. And now, sat at the side of the road reading an A-to-Z all I can think about is the Punch-ing I'll be in for later.

Up until this point I thought I had this test sorted. I'd already blagged what I reckoned would be the best bike for beating London traffic, the Honda CBF600. It was, after all, designed for the city streets.

A quick consultation with my A-to-Z and I'm off again. Pulling out into the traffic the CBF600 feels like someone has stuck a banana up its exhaust as I 'accelerate' into the flow of buses and black cabs. When Honda unveiled this de-tuned Hornet-powered commuter bike last year my first thoughts were, 'Why the hell restrict a Hornet motor? It's not exactly powerful in the first place.' But that isn't the point of the CBF. Instead, it's aimed at new bikers and as such it comes in a sanitised form.

Alright, the motor isn't powerful, but it doesn't hold any surprises either. Where a Hornet buzzes and is flat as hell low-down the CB has a nice linear delivery, without the tingles. Overtaking buses, accelerating into gaps and swapping lanes you don't have to think 'am I in the right gear?' because there's no huge drop between ratios. Not like the the Hornet, which really needs to be spinning. And the gearbox is better too.

Honda doesn't really have a reputation for slick gearboxes - that's Suzuki's domain - but the CBF's seems to be better than most. Clutchless upchanges are actually smoother than clutched efforts and the downshifts are only greeted with the slightest of clunks.

Another A-to-Z stop and I'm starting to panic, but at least I'm heading in the right direction. Desperate not to disappoint, and with traffic building up, some aggressive riding is in order: it's time to enter proper courier mode. Although aimed at riders who probably won't be this rough on a bike, the Honda handles being thrown around very well. It's not quite as nippy and fast-steering as the Hornet, but has a good sized steering lock for getting into gaps and it handles surprisingly well. Although the suspension is quite soft this isn't really a problem, especially in town, and it's actually quite a relief as most of London's roads are more like the surface of the moon.

The bike we had came with ABS (an optional extra, and a comfort for new riders) and I've got to say it saved me a few times. Hitting a bump while braking hard you can feel the ABS kick in briefly as the jolt locks the front wheel momentarily before resuming braking. If I was buying a CB600F I'd go for this option, especially if I was going to use it for commuting.

Only about half an hour late, the address I was heading for eventually, finally appeared. The guy in the post room didn't seem in too much of an undue panic for the parcel so all was well. Maybe I could face Punch again. Well, from a distance...

Beating a hasty retreat I'm really glad I picked the CBF600. Initially this is the kind of bike I would have written off. Restricted motor, bland looks and aimed squarely at beginners, it's simply not my cup of tea. But in reality it makes a really good commuter. The ABS is excellent, the riding position comfortable, fairing reasonably effective and handling good enough for inner city life, although it's not very sporty. For the price it isn't a bad machine at all. Would I have it over a Hornet? Probably not because I like to go a bit mad on back roads but, as a daily commuter, I may well be tempted.

Job done, package delivered. Only one problem. How the hell do I get home?

Honda CBF500 - Adam picks the baby Honda

Deliver a package as fast as possible without damaging it. Simple. Sounds easy, in fact. And so it should be - unless your name's Shitehawk. Oh dear, the bitter whiff of imminent disaster is already in the air.

Picking up the CBF500 was the first disappointment of the day, as I'd been hoping for a slightly faster tool for the job. After spending the last year or so on my own Daytona 600 I thought the wimpy CBF would be a let down. And perhaps it would be out on the open road but, as it turned out, not through London's busy streets. The thing is you don't need power in London, just a light, easy to manage bike - and that's exactly what the CBF500 is.

The little Honda comes blessed with the kind of steering lock that sports bike riders can only dream of, and that makes it really easy to U-turn in tight streets as well as manoeuvre into disappearing gaps. Add to this what feels like virtually no weight at all and a low seat height, and I was starting to see why the CBF is a favourite among couriers and learner riders.

But it isn't just about learners as the CBF has a decent chassis as well. While I was muttering my initial disappointments at the little Honda, Jon pointed out that WSB champion James Toseland cut his racing teeth in the CB500 Cup, and it's actually quite a capable machine. I didn't push the chassis that hard but the CB has a balanced and reassuring feel about it, although the brakes could do with a bit more power. While the Honda has ABS as standard they never really came into play throughout the day. In fact, I'm not actually sure the front brake is strong enough to lock the wheel! But a bonus nonetheless.

Through traffic the CBF was comfortable, confidence inspiring. Okay, its acceleration was average to say the least, but average speed in London is the same as it was 100 years ago, so no real loss there. Anyway, the motor is smooth enough and the clutch light enough not to cause any problems. I just learned not to race everywhere but to look ahead at a slower pace for small gaps in the traffic and keep my momentum going.

And, despite my initial prediction and then spending most of my day watching out for stupid tarts doing their make-up instead of concentrating on their driving, I still managed to deliver everything on time and undamaged. Looks like I won't be incurring Punch's wrath after all.

Suzuki GS500F - Tim proves size doesn't matter

To Jon, Luke and Shitehawk this was all a bit of a joke, but despatching was my life for nearly eight years. I miss it, in an odd sort of way, and still get a real buzz from twatting about on a bike in heavy traffic. But to be honest I wasn't too keen on carting real packages about again and was happy just to ride around London pretending to deliver stuff, doing skids and chatting on the radio to my old mates at BCCP.

Still, I was paired up with an ideal tool for the job - Suzuki's GS500, a despatcher's favourite and stalwart of many-a training school, and now updated in 'F'-suffixed guise with a smart full fairing to make it look like a real racing motorbike. Sort of. Rickman top box bungeed on the seat, courier bag slung across my shoulders and we were off into the grey nether world of London's crawling back streets.

I was at home within seconds as indifferent memories of endless days on all manner of ropey old shitters came flooding back like a long lost mental illness. Despite our GS being a clean, shiny, low-mileage press fleet bike it felt like it had done at least 30,000 miles already, with sloppy suspension and lacklustre brakes. Even the seat foam felt knackered. The only thing that didn't feel like it had done a year's hard despatching was the parallel twin motor, which felt tight and reluctant to rev as if it was running with no oil (it wasn't). Flat-out, be it bolt upright, behind the screen, with top box or without, the most I saw on the speedo was 110mph. Still, I find you rarely need more down Regent Street these days.

Now, if all that sounds like a moan, it kind of is. But in the context of the GS, who it's aimed at and what we were doing, it's not. In fact, it's kind of ace, in a rubbish way. Where the GS wins is in its ease of use and ruthless ability to slice through gridlocked London like a slippery fish. So slippery it could show Jon, Luke and Shithawk the way at will.

And by lucky hap, most of the things that make the GS so good in town in the hands of a courier with 20 or so other things on his mind also make it astonishingly good for DAS learners and post-test riders still finding their feet. It is so manageable, simple to ride and unthreatening to use that even the most timid of the newly-qualified will find themselves at ease. The only downside is they'll either get bored quickly or, worse, think this is as good as bikes get and not hanker after something better.

It really hit home just how good through traffic the GS is when I dropped it off at the end of the day and jumped on my R6 for the ride home. Where previously the Yamaha had felt out of its element but effective enough through southwest London's rush-hour traffic, it was now, in comparison to the Suzuki, the sum total of useless. Harsh suspension, not enough steering lock, riding position out of kilter.

The GS doesn't cost very much money, and the build quality shows where costs have been kept down. It's all a bit... cheap. Does that matter? It is a cheap bike, so what do you expect? Mutton dressed as mutton, that's what the GS is. Workaday couriers and the newly qualified should lap it up, but me? Seeing as I'm no longer either of those, I'll pass.

ConclusionWhat have we learned after a day spent riding like idiots? Well for a start being a courier is bloody hard work, which must be why they look so pissed off all day! As for the bikes, the two surprises were the 500s. The GS is a basic, cheap, no frills bike with budget suspension and parts. Which is reflected in its price. This looks all very good, until you compare it to the CBF500. The Honda has all of the userfriendliness, but in a much more solid and well put together package. While it doesn't come with a fairing the Honda will certainly last a few winters, something I wouldn't guarantee with the Suzuki. Out of the two the Honda gets the nod everytime.For a bit more wedge the CBF600 is a proper first bike. It's powerful (enough), handles well (enough) and would be a great commuter. It feels weak compared to a Hornet but this isn't a massive problem in town and new riders won't notice the difference. The Buell is good looking, a bit different and a great fun to ride. Luggage space is non-existent, the clutch and gearbox is still a pain but it easily has the most character.

URRY'S A-Z OF COURIERING

A is for 'A' as in to -Z

B is forBlack cab

C is for Controller - he is your god

D is for Drop-off

E is for Empty - radio speak, means you've got no jobs on board

F is for Fuel - you'll be using lots

G is for GT550 Kawasaki - a courier's dream machine

H is for Hospital - avoid them at all costs

I is for Insurance - it costs a packet

J is for Jammy git for getting away with that overtake back there

K is for Kit - you'll get need lots to stay warm

L is for Late - don't be

M is for Muffs - as in handlebar

N is for a Nice cuppa

O is for Organ donor - try not to become one

P is for POB - radio speak, 'parcel on board'

Q is for quick - try and be, but see 'H' and 'O'

R is for Rickman topbox, the courier's favourite

S is for standing by and ready for more work

T is for toasty, as in 'warm and...' In winter you'll be wishing you were

U is for U-turn

V is for vehicle - you'll meet lots of 'em

W is for Wait and return

X is for X-rays at the hospital

Y is for Yesterday, as in 'that should have been delivered..'

Z is for 'Z', as in A-to

SPECS - BUELL CityX

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £5995

ENGINE -CAPACITY - 984cc

POWER - 83bhp@6600rpm

TORQUE - 64lb.ft@5600rpm

WEIGHT - 205kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 777mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 14L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - N/A

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - HONDA CBF500

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £3999

ENGINE CAPACITY - 499cc

POWER - 56.3bhp@9500rpm

TORQUE - 33lb.ft@8000rpm

WEIGHT - 183kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 770mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 19L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - N/A

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - HONDA CBF600

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £4899

ENGINE CAPACITY - 599.9cc

POWER - 76.4bhp@10,500rpm

TORQUE - 43lb.ft@8000rpm

WEIGHT - 196kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 770mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 19L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - N/A

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - SUZUKI GS500F

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £3649

ENGINE CAPACITY - 487cc

POWER - 47bhp@9200rpm

TORQUE - 29.5lb.ft@7400rpm

WEIGHT - 180kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 790mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 20L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - N/A

TANK RANGE - N/A

Being a motorcycle courier is probably one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world, ever. Some may claim that deep-sea fishing for killer crabs in the Arctic Ocean is tough, but I can't see many fishermen surviving the attack of the black cab, the pain of frozen fingers or the wrath of a pissed-off controller. Well, they probably suffer frozen fingers, but you get the idea.

But it's not just a test for man; it's also a supreme test of machinery. Spending all day, every day stopping, starting and dodging (or not) pot holes and traffic is like an urban version of the Dakar Rally. A heavy clutch will destroy a wrist in hours, a lack of turning circle will waste valuable seconds, light and nippy handling is needed to get in and out of gaps, and decent brakes are a necessity for avoiding pedestrians and U-turning cabbies.

So what better test of four very different city-focused bikes than to become couriers for the day? Could Honda's classic city tool, the CBF500, prove that size doesn't matter against Buell's CityX (say it 'City Cross') and could Suzuki's no frills budget GS500 hold its own against the Hornet-derived CBF600?

Under the terrifying gaze of courier company BCCP's controller, the delightfully named 'Punch', four journos turned up for the first - and last - day of real work they will ever do to find the answers to all these questions, plus a few London backstreets they'd never heard of...

London's streets contain my biggest fear on the roads - motorcycle couriers. They're nutters. And they hate other riders who are slower than them. Riders like me. So imagine my 'joy' when I learn that I am to become a motorcycle courier for the day.

URRY'S A-Z OF COURIERING

A is for 'A' as in to -Z
B is for Black cab
C is for Controller - he is your god
D is for Drop-off
E is for Empty - radio speak, means you've got no jobs on board
F is for Fuel - you'll be using lots
G is for GT550 Kawasaki - a courier's dream machine
H is for Hospital - avoid them at all costs
I is for Insurance - it costs a packet
J is for Jammy git for getting away with that overtake back there
K is for Kit - you'll get need lots to stay warm
L is for Late - don't be
M is for Muffs - as in handlebar
N is for a Nice cuppa
O is for Organ donor - try not to become one
P is for POB - radio speak,  'parcel on board'
Q is for quick - try and be, but see 'H' and 'O'
R is for Rickman topbox, the courier's favourite
S is for standing by and ready for more work
T is for toasty, as in 'warm and...' In winter you'll be wishing you were
U is for U-turn
V is for vehicle - you'll meet lots of 'em
W is for Wait and return
X is for X-rays at the hospital
Y is for Yesterday, as in 'that should have been delivered..'
Z is for  'Z', as in A-to

Meeting at BCCP couriers in Chelsea, we pick up our radios and meet Punch, our controller. He doesn't look like the kind of bloke you want to mess with. And then I'm introduced to my ride for the day - the Buell. The others are on a trio of unthreatening Japanese machinery, and I've got a monster twin to deal with. I've never ridden a Buell but I've heard about their unwieldy clutches and lumpy delivery. And I'm about to ride through London on one, laden down with Very Important Packages. Bloody hell.

First impressions of the CityX are positive. It looks great. It's tiny and menacing, a bit like Ronnie Corbett with a chainsaw.

Pulling away, my only gripes are a slightly high seat height (the standard XB9S has less padding and would suit my bulky 5ft10inch frame a little better) and a jerky clutch which makes changing into second a tad jumpy. But after a mile or so I've got used to both of these little problems.

The riding position pitches you forward over the tank and makes you feel high up. Combine this  with the brush guards and flat bars, and the CityX smacks of a supermoto.

As my radio crackles into life, my first pick-up comes through from Punch.

Weaving through West London my nerves start to subside. The diminutive Buell makes light work of the morning traffic, squeezing easily between sardine-packed cars and buses. The 984cc V-twin pulls eagerly at low revs while emitting a pleasingly gutteral exhaust note. It feels (and sounds) just like a Harley, but without the accompanying image issues of your traditional 'Hog'.

Although I seem to be having a few image problems of my own. Forgetting I'm dressed as a courier, I find the attitude towards me has changed. Just like Tim said, couriers are treated like dirt. As I'm handed a large envelope from the despatch entrance of an office building, I might as well be canvassing for Al-Quaeda such is the reaction I get from the wheezing smokers assembled outside. Sod 'em.

Hooning round Hyde Park Corner I gather speed, weaving between cars and heading off to Marble Arch. I'm taking the long way round as the Buell proves to be a grin-inducing tool. The only downside is that the gearbox requires a lot of use in heavy traffic. Stop-starting is tiring and the V-twin only revs to 9000rpm so tapdancing on the gearlever is a must. Constantly kicking up into third and down into second induces foot ache, and the clutch is making my wrist sorer than the aftermath of a night in with a fresh copy of Razzle.
Package delivered and charging down towards London Bridge the engine again brings up the CityX's main problem. It's not that fast. Low-down torque is great, with the V-twin pulling like a bastard up to the redline.

But the redline just isn't high enough and before long you run out of oomph. Personally, I don't need much oomph to have a good time, and anyway, the Buell isn't a sportsbike. If you're after a smooth four, forget the CityX. It's not about performance; it's designed as an off-beat city machine for those who'd rather look stylish and different than fast. And that suits me. Whether or not I look stylish and different is up for debate, but I certainly didn't look fast to Punch. Thanks to taking the scenic route my first delivery was late. I'm told to take the rest of the day off. It appears I'm not cut out to be a courier. But as long as I can take the day off with the Buell, I'll get over it...

I'm only about half an hour into my new job and I've already cocked up. It should have been a routine delivery, but I've hit a problem. An experienced courier comes equipped with something I, sadly, don't - a sense of direction. And now, sat at the side of the road reading an A-to-Z all I can think about is the Punch-ing I'll be in for later.

Up until this point I thought I had this test sorted. I'd already blagged what I reckoned would be the best bike for beating London traffic, the Honda CBF600. It was, after all, designed for the city streets.
A quick consultation with my A-to-Z and I'm off again. Pulling out into the traffic the CBF600 feels like someone has stuck a banana up its exhaust as I 'accelerate' into the flow of buses and black cabs. When Honda unveiled this de-tuned Hornet-powered commuter bike last year my first thoughts were, 'Why the hell restrict a Hornet motor? It's not exactly powerful in the first place.' But that isn't the point of the CBF. Instead, it's aimed at new bikers and as such it comes in a sanitised form.

Alright, the motor isn't powerful, but it doesn't hold any surprises either. Where a Hornet buzzes and is flat as hell low-down the CB has a nice linear delivery, without the tingles. Overtaking buses, accelerating into gaps and swapping lanes you don't have to think 'am I in the right gear?' because there's no huge drop between ratios. Not like the the Hornet, which really needs to be spinning. And the gearbox is better too.
Honda doesn't really have a reputation for slick gearboxes - that's Suzuki's domain - but the CBF's seems to be better than most. Clutchless upchanges are actually smoother than clutched efforts and the downshifts are only greeted with the slightest of clunks.

Another A-to-Z stop and I'm starting to panic, but at least I'm heading in the right direction. Desperate not to disappoint, and with traffic building up, some aggressive riding is in order: it's time to enter proper courier mode. Although aimed at riders who probably won't be this rough on a bike, the Honda handles being thrown around very well. It's not quite as nippy and fast-steering as the Hornet, but has a good sized steering lock for getting into gaps and it handles surprisingly well. Although the suspension is quite soft this isn't really a problem, especially in town, and it's actually quite a relief as most of London's roads are more like the surface of the moon.

The bike we had came with ABS (an optional extra, and a comfort for new riders) and I've got to say it saved me a few times. Hitting a bump while braking hard you can feel the ABS kick in briefly as the jolt locks the front wheel momentarily before resuming braking. If I was buying a CB600F I'd go for this option, especially if I was going to use it for commuting.