Is there a bike which has started the careers of as many champion racers as the Aprilia RS125?
Names like Cal Crutchlow, Sam Lowes, Alex Lowes, Danny Kent, Chaz Davies, Tom Sykes and even MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner all started out their careers riding the Italian two-stroke in the British Aprilia Superteen Challenge – and that’s not to mention the huge number of road riders who proudly hung their L plates on an RS125.
Back in the 1990s, the motorcycle learner market was a very different place. The A1 was a road that linked Edinburgh and London, not a category of driving licence, emissions laws were something that only really applied to cars, and the thought of a racy 125 being strictly restricted to less than 15bhp would have had you laughed out of the room.
Sports 125s were two-strokes. The law stated that they had to be limited to 12bhp to be ridden on L plates, but usually the restriction was so simple, rebellious kids would just have to remove a restrictor in the exhaust and replace the CDI box to extract maximum power.
Japanese giants Honda (NSR125R), Suzuki (RG125) and Yamaha (TZR125) all made sporty 125s but the really trick stuff came from Italy. Aprilia, Cagiva and Gilera all brought Grand Prix level of equipment to their sporty strokers and fought it out on the track in their sports production racing championships.
Derestricted, these Italian beauties were good for upwards of 30bhp and 100mph – and they handled as well as anything on the road. And for many young owners, derestriction was seen as a rite of passage.
Aprilia introduced the first RS125, the RS125R Extrema, in 1992. It replaced the AF1 and shared its name with the company’s 125cc Grand Prix bikes, which were starting to become a major force in world championship racing. With Italian rider Alex Gramigni winning the 1992 world title (Aprilia’s first) the RS125 had a pedigree none of its rivals could match. And it was a fine motorcycle too, albeit one that had to be worked hard to get the best out of.
The Extrema packed one heck of a spec for a 125. The upside down forks, sports tyres and a beautifully sculpted aluminium frame and swingarm were wrapped up in a full fairing that still looked fresh over 10 years later. With graphics inspired by the factory race bikes, the RS125R was a proper little racer for the road, and helped to propel the previously barely known into a major player. With its winning race department raising the profile of the company (and bolstering the coffers through the lease of semi-works racers), sales of the company’s scooters rose and the RS125R led to a golden era for Aprilia.
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In 1996 a new RS125 was introduced. The name was simplified, dropping the ‘Extrema’ and the ‘R’. A new engine, built (like the old one) by Austrian company Rotax, was the most notable upgrade, while the bodywork was given a more contemporary and swooping look that was inspired by Max Biaggi’s dominant 250cc Grand Prix bike and very similar to the bigger RS250. With a digital dash, a distinctive new headlight and GP style airscoop, the RS was once again able to take its place as the teenage dream bike in its battle with the Cagiva Mito.
That model was arguably the pinnacle of RS125 development, as emissions legislations would slowly blunt the edge of future generation models. The 1999 model was subtly updated but used a slightly smaller (28mm) carburettor to meet changing market demands. This model ran through to the end of 2005, when the RS125 gained its most significant update – at least visually.
The 2006 RS125 gained a more contemporary fairing, twin headlights and wheels inspired by the RSV1000R V-twin superbike. In 2008, it gained fuel injection in order to meet the Euro3 emissions laws, before being replaced in 2012 by the all-new four-stroke RS4 124 – which was built specifically to meet the new A1 licencing laws.
The latest Aprilia learner bikes remain beautifully engineered miniature sportsbikes, but for riders starting out on two wheels at the turn of the millennium, the two-stroke originals will always have a special role in their hearts.
Unlike many sporty two-strokes, 125s have yet to reach true modern classic status. However with so many being modified, raced, stolen, crashed or tuned (and usually a combination of all five) good examples are becoming thin on the ground. Ultra desirable collectors bikes, they probably won’t be. But as an interesting addition to a collection of modern classics, or a first restoration project, the Aprilia RS125 is an interesting proposition.