It's late afternoon and still cold under the low winter sun. There are quite a few cars on the N8 as it snakes from the old home of the Bol d'Or at Paul Ricard to the Mediterranean Sea, but the Triumph Speed Triple's rapid pace is rarely broken as it howls down the road. The bike cranks through the bends with an easy precision, its 1050cc three-cylinder engine punching hard out of turns and the lack of a fairing emphasizing its raw, addictive performance.
No wonder Triumph's latest Speed Triple feels good here. This short section of N8 is a spiritual home of the streetfighter. Until 1999 the Bol d'Or was a Mecca of European sportbike riding, a late-summer highlight that saw tens of thousands of motorcyclists converge on Paul Ricard, as much for the party and the chance to ride on these winding roads as for the famous 24-hour race itself. If you could choose one bike to sum up the legend of the Bol it would probably be an early Suzuki GSX-R with a race pipe, no fairing and twin headlamps retained as a battle scar.
Young, loud and snotty: The Speed Triple feels perfectly at ease near its spiritual home.
Similar machines appeared elsewhere in the late '80s and early '90s, as crashed sportbikes were reborn without bodywork to fuel the fast-growing streetfighter scene. Triumph took that image and used it well. The Speed Triple was already a successful model following its launch in '94. But it was the introduction three years later of the T509 Speed Triple--with its tubular aluminum frame, racier attitude and, above all, those twin spots in place of a single headlight--that made the naked Triumph such a big hit.
The Triple has been tweaked a few times since then, most significantly in '99 and '02. Now comes another major upgrade, incorporating a larger, 1050cc motor, a new chassis and even more squat, aggressive styling inspired by a cut-down Speed Triple specially designed by Triumph's brilliantly creative Italian importer, the late Carlo Talamo.
The '05 production Triple retains the familiar menacing, engine-dominated profile and crash-chic image with those two chromed and bug-eyed headlamps. But now the rear end is even more blunt thanks to a pair of stubby exhaust silencers flanking the single-side swingarm instead of the old single can. Other new bits include radial front brake calipers, redesigned wheels and a neat instrument panel with an analog tacho and digital speedo.
One thing that hasn't changed is the Triple's riding position: a wide, slightly raised handlebar, fairly low-set seat and sporty rear-set footpegs. The new instrument panel--which also displays fuel consumption, average and top speeds plus distance to tank empty--is quite compact, so the rider's view remains dominated by the road ahead.
The Triple's main attraction has always been its engine, and that remains true for '05. From the moment the three-pot lump fires up with an intoxicating combination of gear whine and slightly deeper exhaust burble, the Triumph delivers even more of the model's trademark urgent, free-revving yet flexible feel. Touch the loud handle in the lower gears and it snaps forward, gloriously alert and responsive. There're heaps of three-cylinder character enhanced by just the right level of vibration. The air rushing past your head and chest simply makes the bike more involving to ride. That said, I would have been glad of a fairing. The Triple gives its rider virtually no wind protection at all, though a small, screenless shield is an available accessory.
Hanging off to throw the Triumph into a succession of tight, first-gear hairpins will soon warm you up, however. As we climbed a steep, narrow road that wound toward Cap Canaille, I was glad to have that wide handlebar. Its leverage helped make the Triple very agile, and the bike would be handy in city traffic, too, though it's a bit short on steering lock.
Much credit for the Speed Triple's composure goes to the sophisticated, multi-adjustable suspension, especially up front, where Showa's 45mm inverted fork, recalibrated for more compliance, gives a superbly controlled ride yet also deals efficiently with bumps. There was ample stress on the fork at times from the new Nissin front brake. The combination of 320mm front discs and new radial four-pot calipers matches power with plenty of feel and copes effortlessly with a succession of downhill hairpins.
Heading north and then east on the more open N560 gave me a chance to test the Triumph's performance at higher speeds, and again it was ace. Stars of the show are the crisp throttle response and stunningly flat torque curve, which combine to make the revamped and notably sweeter-shifting six-speed gearbox almost redundant at times. Whether accelerating cleanly from 50 mph in top gear, hoisting an effortless, controllable wheelie or spinning hard toward the 10,000-rpm redline, the motor never fails to impress.
The toes of my boots touch down occasionally as the Michelin Pilot Power rubber works hard. But ground clearance is excellent, as it should be given the lack of a centerstand. Inconveniences include the lack of bungee hooks and the difficulty of fitting panniers. At least Triumph's accessory list includes a tank bag, as well as louder silencers, a bellypan, a seat hump and a rear hugger color-matched in the Triple's shades of black, blue or yellow.
The naked Triumph might not be the world's most practical bike, but it's surely one of the most entertaining. It's perfect for the south of France, too: cool when parked or cruising along the beachfront, with sufficient speed and handling to be a riot on nearby racer roads. Performance, agility and pose value. More than ever before, the Speed Triple does it all in style. MC
|Triumph Speed Triple|
|Valve arrangement||dohc, 12v|
|Weight||416.7 lb. (claimed, dry)|
|Fuel capacity||4.8 gal. (18.0L)|
|Wheelbase||56.3 in. (1429mm)|
|Seat height||32.1 in. (815mm)|
Oh, to be on the Riviera now that winter's here!
Apart from the fact that Roland Brown's knowledge of naked-bike history trumps mine to a fare-thee-well, there's another perfectly good reason why you are reading his take on Triumph's new Speed Triple rather than your faithful correspondent's. Snow. On the French Riviera. First time in a decade, said the locals.
As you might expect, new-bike launches can be pearls of rare and splendid beauty, often much sought-after by staffers and dispensed by The Editor as a boon for service. The Triumph Speed Triple launch promised to be such a pearl. I mean, think of it: Riding a brand-new Triple along the warmth of the Mediterranean.
At least, that was my special fantasy.
The first warning my trip was about to go off the rails came a week prior to departure. I checked the weather in Marseilles on the internet; it was freezing. I thought that had to be a mistake, or a freakish occurrence. Then came the e-mail from Triumph's Monika Boutwell: "It's freezing in the mountains in France. Dress warmly!" Yes, Mum.
Snow had been rumored for a week. And as we set off from the hotel, it was merely unbearably cold for an old geek with bad circulation in his hands. Then here it came: The flakes, each unique in its design and evil intent, clumped together and then began to blow sideways. Our freezing little band actually got about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) before clear thinking shut us down.
For those who take a sharkish delight in another's plight, sorry, I didn't drop one of Triumph's jewels in the snow. That incident, I believe, was simply one more misfortune to befall the maker's crew of redoubtable dog's bodies, as always overworked but hale and hearty nonetheless. Mon chapeau to them all.