Triumph Thruxton Redux

Riding Triumph’s Café Racer on the Street and Track

By Zack Courts, Photography by Brent Baer, British Customs, Fay Robles

Having grown up in a motorcycling household, I didn't join the brotherhood in the Hollywood fashion. No desolate road stretching out in front of me, spawning gritty resilience and buoying me on with the mere thought of freedom. My dad did all of the rebelling without a cause when he was a young man.

I grew up at a racetrack. For me, it was mostly tire walls, grid positions, and focus. When the opportunity recently arose to race at the outstanding Barber Motorsports Park, it was right up my alley—an extension of my very upbringing. And it was fitting that I was going to race a Triumph Thruxton, a bike hearkening back to the days of my father's own insubordinate and reckless youth.

The racing would be awesome, surely, but that's a world I know well. I could show up at the track and race, but why not truly embrace the café racer genre and ride a Thruxton to Alabama? That would put some hair on my scrawny chest, not to mention provide a glimpse of what made my father such a lovable scofflaw. Triumph North America saw wisdom in the plan and so stranded two bikes in New Orleans, for me and Road Test Editor Ari Henning to ride to Barber—a Bonneville T100 for him and a Thruxton 900 for yours truly.

Our plan for the two bikes: a 500-mile road trip from New Orleans to Birmingham along the Gulf Coast, then north to Barber Motorsports Park via state and county roads. After which point would come the real challenge, competing on a race-prepared Thruxton in the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) Thruxton Trans-Atlantic Challenge, otherwise known as the Thruxton Cup, a part of the 9th Annual Barber Vintage Festival.

We picked up the two bikes in New Orleans, reeling from not enough sleep and too many brightly colored frozen drinks on Bourbon Street. Our old-fashioned Trumpets were conveniently deposited at a local shop, The Transportation Revolution in downtown NOLA. After gawking at their facility for a little while, we shook hands and pointed our beaks east.

The Thruxton's riding position was more committed than I expected but still comfortable. True to the café racer consortium, I suppose, and I thumbed the starter button anxiously awaiting the unruly, sneering bark that would surely come out the pipes. Instead, curiously, it sounded like a well-maintained sewing machine. Ah well, tame pipes suit a road trip just fine, and if I was as hungover as some of the folks we saw the night before, I wouldn't want loud pipes in my proximity either. And so the wrought-iron railings and narrow streets of the French Quarter stoically bid us farewell—or tried to anyway.

We chose the path less researched to leave town, meaning plenty of U-turns and unnecessary stop signs. It was a good test of the bikes in an urban environment, but mostly it tested our friendship. And as expected, apart from the exhaust note not matching my rebellious smirk and leather jacket, the bike proved a competent urban companion. Finally clear of the city and shouting matches over which way to go, we set out along the coast via Route 90.

What we thought would be a scenic cruise through the bayou was relatively uninteresting, what with a water-level road lined with trees and shrubs. When we did stop to soak up a vista we were shocked at the amount of insect life we could hear and see at the roadside. Dragonflies the size of small birds were either mating or mounting an attack against humanity, limiting our speed on the road and making us seriously question our choice of open-face helmets.

By mid-day we had crossed into Mississippi and, proud of our progress, peeled off 90 to look for some fresh-caught lunch. Pale, tropical beaches stretched out before us, just across the road from stately Southern mansions complete with weeping willows and confederate memories. We cruised along the beach until the town of Bay St. Louis, which provided a welcome break from the Thruxton's seat as well as a fish sandwich that exceeded expectations. Route 90 joined us near the sand soon after and carried us adjacent to the water for the next 40 miles to Biloxi.

With daylight waning as we entered Alabama, we abandoned trusty Highway 90 again to look for a scenic sunset route into Mobile. We landed in the town of Bayou La Batre, perhaps best known for being the hometown of Forrest Gump's best Army buddy, Bubba Blue. Okay, fine, we were lost, but the fishing docks and marshland served up a stunning Gulf Coast sunset before the mosquitos chased us the final 35 miles to Mobile.

Pleased with our sterling anti-interstate effort from the previous day we stuck to two-lane roads again the next morning and wound our way deeper into the Bible Belt. Swampy coastal lands gave way to gently rolling hills. We jumped railroad tracks and took pictures of cotton fields as we passed by one stereotype after another, until a final sprint down the interstate landed us at our hotel just outside the gates of Barber.

Anyone seeing Barber Motorsports Park for the first time will surely be awestruck; it's difficult to describe just how exquisitely prepared the grounds are, but here's an example: A staff member told us about one particular line of oak trees along a paddock road that had all been grafted from the same "mother oak" for symmetry in the row.

The Thruxton I raced at Barber was prepared and owned by Paul Canale, a Thruxton Cup regular with the generosity (naiveté?) to lend me his backup bike. An orthopedist by trade, Canale's custom "Team Orthopedics" paint job accented the race prep that had gone into the bike. Immediately noticeable were stickier tires, reservoir shocks, clip-ons instead of a handlebar, and rear-set footpegs. The bike, while pristine, almost certainly wouldn't matter. I'd never seen the track before, and my only Thruxton experience was two days old on the stock, sewing machine edition.

Much to the delight of the rebel inside me, a 2-into-1 race exhaust gave it the raspy, purposeful snarl I was looking for in the stock bike (and then some). The bike sounded confident, but I couldn't say I felt the same rolling out on the track for the first time. Fortunately, even in race trim the Thruxton isn't a very fast bike and in many ways the perfect way to acclimate to a new racetrack. It was easy to ride at a "learning" pace, and manageable power meant it was easier for my brain to keep up. Other than struggling with a lack of feel in the aftermarket front brake setup, I was feeling comfortable after a few sessions.

Soon after my newfound confidence arrived, Daytona 200 winner Jason DiSalvo passed me on what I assumed was a supercharged or jet-fueled Thruxton, smooth enough to distract and fast enough to crush any spirit. The rest of the hurdles to clear were familiar to me from my previous vintage-racing experience—front-end chatter from a spindly conventional fork, dragging hard parts when leaning over, and a general lack of performance. I was ready. This was going to be fun.

With no previous points in the Thruxton Cup for 2013, I gridded up dead last on race day, in the middle of the fifth row and right alongside DiSalvo. Hey, why am I last and he's second to last? I thought. He must have registered first. Man, he's fast everywhere. I angled the bike ever so slightly toward the outside of the track, hoping that the good racing starts I enjoyed in my more venerable days would magically return.

The Thruxton grunted off the line, and while everyone dived to the inside for Turn 1, I swept around the outside of the pack. With adrenaline fully in charge, I passed all the Thruxtons ahead of me, save one; it was none other than Motorcyclist contributor and cagy racing veteran Thad Wolff, who peeled into the long right-hander of turn 2 leading the race. I got alongside Thad three turns later at the entry of the left-hand hairpin known as Charlotte's Web (due to the enormous spider sculpture) and forced my way into the lead.

After all these years, leading a race again! The rush of potential victory lasted about 50 yards until just after the apex of the same turn when DiSalvo glided by on the outside, supercharger whining. I followed him down the three-story drop of the "Museum Curve"—so called because it sweeps past the incredible Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum—and onto the back straightaway. By the end of the first lap he was too far ahead to learn anything, and I focused my attention on maintaining second place.

Just like the stock "Singer" model had done on the street, the race-ready Thruxton proved a worthy steed to fly around a track, again with some exceptions. Beyond getting used to the wooden brake, I had to be gentle changing directions. Quick transitions were easy, but longer setups at the end of straightaways or between curves would often sprout a speed wobble that threatened to grow into a full-blown crash. Hell hath no fury like an old-fashioned tank-slapper.

Although my loaner Trumpet wasn't technically vintage, all of the challenges I faced riding around Barber reminded me of why I love classic motorcycle racing. The Thruxton belted out a raspy, visceral note, but it also chattered, wiggled, wobbled, and protested steep lean angles. To me, this kind of riding is such a beautifully symbiotic compromise between man and machine. Rather than holding on for dear life like most of us do on a modern sportbike, it's working with the machine to go as fast as possible—like riding a skittish horse. Smooth and predictable, and when the bike pushes back the rider must react gently, coaxing the motorcycle back on line.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I fought off one more challenge by the end of the race, despite being caught up in a wave of nostalgic bliss, and brought the borrowed Thruxton home in second place. It was a successful result, in my mind, especially considering the competition. As I prophesized at the beginning of the weekend, where I finished didn't matter much in the end, because the plan had worked. Triumph's Thruxton in stock trim brought me closer to the roots I have often longed for in motorcycling, while the race bike rejuvenated my love of competition and introduced me to the fantastic event that is the Barber Vintage Festival.

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