At the tender age of six, I went on my first motorcycle camping trip. Dad took my big brother and me on a 200-mile ride from Nashville to the Smoky Mountains. I was perched between Dad’s legs, hugging the tank, and Paul sat on the back. Kids nod off on long trips, so Dad used his belt to lash Paul to the sissy bar. When I fell asleep, my helmet would rest against Dad’s arm. When his arm got tired, Dad just popped his elbow and bounced my head to the other side. We’ve since come to appreciate the folly of such dangerous passengering techniques, but the ’70s were more freewheelin’ days, and I’m grateful for the memory.
Fitting, then, that my first press launch for Rider should be in the Smokies. Triumph invited us to Gatlinburg to showcase the new Speed Triple, its global top-selling model. First released in 1994, the Speed Triple began life as a stripped-down version of the Daytona sportbike. It was Triumph’s attempt to produce a roadster with high-spec components, a modern caf√© racer. But caf√â racers are throwbacks better represented by Triumph’s Thruxton. The scrappy Speed Triple began running with a new crowd, the rough-and-tumble streetfighters.
Befitting their name, streetfighters are combat-ready sportbikes stripped of their fairings (often after a crash) and tarted up with motocross handlebars, wake-the-neighbors exhausts and performance mods. Like Jeff Goldblum’s mutation in The Fly, the Speed Triple’s streetfighter transformation took time. It began in 1996, with the emergence of dual, bug-eyed headlights reminiscent of the aftermarket bits found on many streetfighters. Two years later, the Daytona’s vestigial clip-ons were dropped in favor of wide, upright handlebars.
The Speed Triple’s transformation continued. Its 885cc in-line triple bulked up to 955cc in 1999. A little cosmetic surgery here, a little dieting there. By 2005, the metamorphosis had reached maturity, with an all-new design purged of whatever Daytona DNA remained. Another powerplant growth spurt, from 955cc to 1,050cc, delivered more punch. A male-slider fork improved on-road dexterity, and radial front brake calipers better scrubbed off speed. A stubbier tail section with upswept silencers gave it a brawler’s profile. The next stage of evolution came in 2008, the impetus for our trip to the Smokies.
Living in Southern California has made me soft. Gatlinburg was cold, gray and wet. After a hearty breakfast and a new-model presentation, I wasn’t eager to leave the cozy confines of the lodge. But duty calls, so I suited up.
In the parking lot was a chorus line of freshly polished Speed Triples, one in Fusion White, another in Jet Black, and the rest in Blazing Orange (a fourth color–Matte Black–will be available this summer). Like a sushi chef at a fish market, I inspected the bike scrupulously. Italian design firm Marabese, which is responsible for the Tiger’s latest stripes, also styled the new Speed Triple. They nailed it, no doubt aware that one-quarter of all Speed Triples are sold in Italy. Newly sculpted bodywork, shapely radiator shrouds and redesigned alloy wheels are moto haute couture. But like the heroin chic fashion of the mid-’90s, this supermodel has a dark side: a menacing new black-anodized fork and wheels and a blacked-out frame and engine.
My prom date sported a stiletto exhaust and a shopping spree of carbon fiber accessories. Triumph offers two exhaust upgrades from Arrow: a low-slung, stubby silencer and a pair of upswept cans in the same location as the stock collectors. In a gradual move away from the previous model’s bobcat tail, the rear subframe is longer and the pillion footpegs have been repositioned for more passenger comfort.
The new instrument cluster includes an analog tachometer and a LCD speedometer that makes it easy to calculate the number of points you might get on your license. Other features include dual tripmeters and a clock, as well as fuel consumption, maximum and average speed indicators and a programmable shift light.
The new Speed Triple is a hottie, plain and simple. Preparing to ride, I was nervous of heart and sweaty of palm. There I was, a virgin on my first Rider intro, my confidence (and a bike) battered at the track a few days earlier, staring at this sexy machine that just oozes torque, trying to psyche myself up to ride twisty, unfamiliar roads in the wet. If not for my leather gloves, I would have bitten my nails down to the quick.
But the Speed Triple was a dream date, quickly putting me at ease. Even in the rain and fog, the bike was well-mannered. The fuel-injected 1,050cc triple fired up quickly, then settled into a warm, reassuring rumble. Although designated for “circuit use only,” the Arrow exhaust doesn’t add obnoxious bark for the extra bite. The seat was plush, and the seating position was just right for this 6-foot, 2-inch Goldilocks.
New tapered, silver-anodized, aluminum Magura handlebars gave my dance partner a light touch. The front brakes have been upgraded to four-piston Brembo radial calipers with 320mm floating discs and a radial master cylinder. The rear binder is a single, two-piston Nissin caliper squeezing a 220mm disc. Despite the dicey conditions, the brakes were predictable and confidence-inspiring.
After lunch, the sky cleared and the road dried. Good thing, because the choicest tarmac lay ahead: the rollercoaster NC 28 and then the infamous Dragon, Highway 129, with 318 curves in 11 miles. Wringing the Speed Triple’s neck put a big, nasty grin on my face. The strong, smooth motor has oodles of torque and the impressive power is delivered without surprises. Claimed peak power is 131 horsepower at 9,250 rpm and peak torque is 77 lb-ft at 7,550 rpm, measured at the crank. Triumph’s second-generation Keihin ECU and fuel injection work well, without hiccups or hesitation.
Back to those brakes. Yessiree, they’ll get you stopped in a hurry. Good feel at the lever, progressive, everything you’d expect from Brembo. The six-speed transmission shifted well, but I got stuck in neutral during a few first-to-second shifts. If I nailed the lever firmly, there was no problem, so it could have just been me breaking in stiff, new boots.
The Speed Triple handles very well, and its wide handlebars provide ample leverage. The bike holds a line, with excellent tire grip and stability. Both the Showa fork and rear shock are adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping and performed admirably. And there is plenty of cornering clearance. Slicing through the technical curves on the Dragon, I rarely scratched the peg feelers.
A half-day in dry conditions does not a full evaluation make, so a more detailed assessment will have to wait until we can subject a test bike to in-depth experimentation.
Bottom line: I love this bike. Its styling quickens my pulse, its strong motor is full character and its sporting prowess is top-notch. In the interest of disclosure, I own a streetfighter, a salvage-title, Frankenstein Suzuki SV650 stitched together from odds-n-ends. The aggressive look, snappy power and put-up-your-dukes stance deliver a raw, visceral experience. So the Speed Triple is a member of my tribe.
But something is missing. The Speed Triple is known as a hooligan bike. To wit: Its midrange grunt makes power wheelies a snap, earning it major cred among stunt riders. Yet the Speed Triple is very refined, civil even. When I think of streetfighters, my mind conjures up images of battle-scarred rat bikes, not well-engineered global sales leaders. Think Brad Pitt in Snatch, not Ocean’s Eleven.
“Hard as nails. The definitive streetfighter.” With a tagline like that, you’d think the Speed Triple would abuse you in some way, tenderize your flabby meat. Nope. It’s a pussycat. Sure, if you step on its tail it will come alive, but if you pet it nicely you’d never know what fury lurks within. There’s the image and then there’s the reality, and often the twain don’t meet. Much like adventure-touring bikes and SUVs that never get dirty, on a Speed Triple you can look the part of streetfighter without having to play the role.
If you’re interested in the 2008 Triumph Speed Triple, you might also be interested in Rider magazine’s Sport-Standard Comparo: 2008 Kawasaki Z1000 vs. Triumph Speed Triple vs. Yamaha FZ1