Triumph Tiger Press Tour

Tiger by the Tail | A Triumph of Gravity Over Man

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Brian J. Nelson, Tom Riles

A wary herd of journalists, eyes wide and ears flicking, cautiously sniffed the filtered air of the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina. At the head of the room, Triumph’s Reg Kitrelle assured us that camping out for one night most likely wouldn’t kill anyone, but he tucked space blankets into our kits just in case. A quick survey of the room revealed that none of the assembled adventurers had voluntarily spent a night under the stars in about 15 years.

Tough guys don’t camp. They do ride motorcycles, though, and Triumph brought good ones this year. The Tiger 800 and Tiger 800 XC are handsome predators, even in the chic new shade of putrid bile (a touch paler than BMW’s Acid Green Metallic) that Triumph calls Venom Yellow. Since red-green vision impairment seems sadly epidemic among the Brits, we felt compelled to tell them that their new candy-apple digestive fluid— handsome though it may be—is to any kind of yellow as dog-pecker pink is to Nuclear Red.

I kinda liked it, though—well enough that I didn’t even crash the green bike.

For years, riders have clamored for a lighter adventure bike than the street-heavy Tiger 1050. These are not your Starbucks café pacers, but true freebooters of the endless road who will risk a trip to the Westernco doughnut shop for Folgers drip. Speculation was fueled both by Triumph’s fizzy 675cc three-popper and BMW’s introduction of the F800GS twin.

Triumph, in its puckish wisdom, pranked us all with a 799cc triple in an all-new chassis. In this case, “tuned for torque” doesn’t carry its standard meaning of “gelded for your protection.” It’s growly but controllable off idle with a hair-raising shriek just south of redline, while the midrange is devoid of any peaks that might deposit you on your royal American arse.

Theoretically.

Eddie Frowiss, who wields a London cabbie’s grasp of deep Southern California two-lanes, led our merry banditos across roads that slung more wrinkled curves at us than a semi-retired stripper cocktailing in a North Vegas roadhouse.

The Tiger XC (a.k.a. “The Big Wheel”), styled like a cross between a hyper-mo’beak trailie and a racing snowmobile, is the more predatory feline. With taller suspension, wider bars and Bridgestone Battle Wings hugging dirt-mettle Excel rims, it’s bouncy, flouncy, trouncy, pouncy, and basically wonderful fun.

Its beakless littermate, called simply “Tiger” (Triumph pooh-poohed “Cub” as too cutesy for a 94-bhp bike) wears a 19-inch cast alloy front in lieu of the XC’s big 21-inch spoker. The standard Tiger has less trail and an effectively steeper steering head angle due to its smaller hoop.

Where the radials meet the road, both bikes felt solidly planted on even the crummiest avenues, with the XC a bit vaguer up front. The ganglier kitty also hobby-horses slightly under braking and goosing.

It crashes pretty good, though.

The standard Tiger is a feral alley cat that sways its hips exiting corners while its front claws remain firmly rooted to the pavement. Decent-spec Nissin 308mm front brakes and a solid chassis make peg scratching possible on the XC and purely effortless on its cast-wheeled cousin.

In the dirt, either would be better served with DOT knobbies—no, really. Get the XC’s optional, 65 mph-limited Metzeler Karoos if you’re venturing farther off-road than a potholed driveway. Their bottoms may be made out of springs, but both bikes weigh over 450 lbs. and that can be a handful to entrust to “dual-sport” tires in the sand.

It’s also a fair slug to bench press, should it happen to pounce on your leg.

Northeast of San Diego Eddie led us through the sovereign nation of Barona, where tribal policemen take a charitable view of sporting indulgences. Easing into the Cleveland National Forest involved dozens of roads that showed the Tiger at its cubby best, swooping three-dimensionally up and over, back and forth along the kind of 1.5-lane tracks where Mad Max’s Interceptor would fear to tread.

Come the apocalypse, you’re gonna want a Tiger. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya’.

Blaming jet-lag instead of the obvious culprits, I caught myself doing everything wrong: watching the rider in front of me instead of the curve in front of her, apexing early, clenching mid-corner and grabbing brake—pretty much everything my Team Oregon instructor told me not to do. On the street sections, even when tightly wound, the Tiger has so much capability in reserve that it forgave my clanking reflexes and repetitive clumsiness.

Then we hit the dirt.

Somewhere near the midpoint of a 9-mile section of sandy road, I sailed by a fellow rider, waved cheerfully and nearly dumped it right there. Three cliffside corners later, I over-punched a tight left hook, stared deeply into the eyes of the rock wall I was approaching, then the front wheel hit a soft spot in my brain and I dumped it quicker than Little Richard flushing evidence.

A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-BOOM!

At the bottom of second gear, my sandy landing caused only minimal damage. I jerked the bike out of the sand and cranked ’er, imagining I might get moving before the next guy came along to point and laugh.

Then I looked 50 feet back along the trail and saw two things: my left saddlebag, and The Next Guy—who just happened to be President of Triumph North America.

“Are you okay?” Greg Heichelbech is patient with idiocy in the line of duty.

“Uh, yeah.” I shook my scratched Shoei sadly. “Sorry about your bike, dude.”

“Don’t worry about it! That’s what they’re for.”

He strapped my erstwhile bag across his pillion and blasted on up the trail.

Turns out Tigers crash pretty well. Their bikerotic nakedness saves about a thousand dollars in busted plastic versus a more sporting mount. Basic bits, including the shifter and clutch lever I bent, are quickly field-reparable.

Not so much the saddlebags, rugged though they appear with their aluminum lids. The left pannier was roadkill, both main mounting hooks snapped off clean. At least it didn’t burst open and festoon the adjacent cacti with sweat-soaked Jockeys.

This theme repeated itself as more than one fellow writer suffered a similar yard sale, destroying one spendy bag per biff. Once their hardpoints are made either more substantial or breakaway and replaceable, those bags will be the globetrotting business. Until then, they’re a market opportunity for companies like Jesse and Touratech.

Me, I’d probably ask Cyclepsycho to bolt on a pair of 20mm ammo cans.

That night, we pitched our little tents at the Pine Valley campground. The 12-volt powerlet adjacent to the key-coded ignition is always hot. Without even cranking the bike, we could blow up our air mats with whiney electric pumps instead of trying to remember whether we blew or sucked.

They say an alpha wolf will conceal his injuries to keep the pack from eating him. I had little to worry about—that night we feasted on catered Argentinian beef with chimichurri and Newcastle Brown Ale—but every time anyone asked how my large purple ankle was doing, I casually answered, “Oh, ferally well.”

Around 0300, I realized that it wasn’t John Burns’ gargling fortissimo snores keeping me awake. After hobbling over to water a bush, I chewed 800 mg of MILSPEC ibuprofen. Twenty minutes later, I sailed off to sleep on a wave of relief.

Reg’s second-day schedule specified PHOTOS and WHINING before breakfast, but I was moving slowly and came in at the tail end of the gripe session. Raising my hand, I asked, “Uh, Reg…?”

He gave me a Spaghetti Western squint.

“Quitcher bitchin’, Lewis.”

The left boot took 10 minutes to squeeze on, but I wasn’t worried. Having been broken on four previous occasions, that leg sprains with magical ease. Once rebooted, riding came much easier than walking, so long as I crunched upshifts with my heel.

It’s always instructive to practice a new skill.

There are good roads, there are great roads, there are roads of titanic magnificence—and then there’s Pine Ridge Road. Think of a Malibu Grand Prix track, one-lane wide and cut into hillsides and along ridgelines, bent and hummocked like a semi-paved motocross track. PRR rides like an updated episode of “The Superbikers” on ABC’s Wide World of Sports,’ with the added relish of thousand-foot drop-offs in place of curbing. In its element here, the Tiger allowed speeds sufficient to push cooling air through our suit vents, even over the snarliest sections.

From there, we sidled down to the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, just a few feet from the Mexican border. I’ve seen the much-maligned fence between Israel and the Palestinian territories; it looks like a freeway acoustical barrier. The corrugated-steel southern face of the world’s richest nation looks like a Baghdad junkyard.

Having cleverly evaded documentation of my losing argument with gravitational suckage, I declined the last “photo-op” involving a dirt jump. My Tigger was a streetbike in cross-trainers; I now toted a virgin pair of panniers; and my ankle had barely stood up to the mini-jumps along Pine Ridge Road. It felt entirely too much like goading the gods of “Hold mah beer and watch this!”

We went road riding instead. The Tiger is all-forgiving of point-and-shoot sloppiness—especially the non-XC model. Stuff it into a bend with or without brakes, find a line (any line), and firmly squeeze her triple teat of torque to gently step out the rear. The Showa suspension may not be this year’s formula pick, but it’s four times better than top-class race tackle from even a decade ago.

The frame is stout, the brakes predictable, and that engine is a wonder. The oddest thing about it is its pink-pink-pink sound on the overrun, like FMJ slugs hitting steel. I found it as comforting as the valve tick of a properly adjusted Airhead.

History means many things to Triumph. These Tigers are no more descended from the original Tigers and their Cubs than a Speed Triple is descended from a Vetter Hurricane, and despite the obvious comparison with parallel-twin GSs, they define their own missions as uniquely as does a Rocket Three. While the XC strikes me as a slightly less dirty Gelände/Straße, its city cousin looks Ducati’s Monster 796 straight in the eye—or maybe, given that sit-up riding position, just over its head.

The standard Tiger turned out to be my favorite, quite likely because I am no Jimmy Lewis pretender (we’re not even related, AFAIK). The 200-mile seat and narrower bars are a good start on all-day comfort, and it’s no housecat in the canyons. The seat-height adjustment is almost brainless, and a decent assortment of factory farkles includes clever tankbags that swing away for refueling.

Either Tiger is less dirtbike than Beemer’s offerings, but let’s honestly acknowledge here that if you really wanted to do mostly dirt, you’d be looking at two fewer cylinders. That would make it much easier to hoist off your leg, but I’d hate to trade all that three-fer goodness for a KLR’s washing-machine motor on the highway.

Two days later, I found out I’d broken my ankle on the trail, and there you find the measure of the Tiger. It’s so natural, you can ride it with one leg—and you’ll always have an answer for the doctor’s question about when you’re finally gonna learn your lesson and quit riding.

“Not when the bikes are this good!”

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