A motorcycle is the perfect vehicle for exploring a city. Being small and nimble, it allows you to slip through traffic, find creative shortcuts and park like a rock star. Back in the late ’90s, when I was a stressed-out grad student living in Philadelphia, I used student loan money to buy my first motorcycle — a 1986 Yamaha FZ750 — and I maxed out my credit card to buy a Shoei helmet and a Vanson leather jacket. Foolishly, I tried to teach myself how to ride by wobbling down hidden alley streets. After a few close calls, I signed up for an MSF course down at the old Navy Yard.
With more confidence and skill, I was soon exploring the city with a newfound freedom, following the contours of the Schuylkill River through Fairmount Park, riding over the city’s many bridges and trying out restaurants tucked away in unfamiliar neighborhoods. But my motorcycle also provided a means of escape from the city, away from streets choked with traffic and lined with parked cars. I’d ride up to New Hope and cruise the leafy-green roads along the Delaware River, or out to the Amish farms of Lancaster County, mindful of horse-drawn buggies that clip-clopped slowly down the road — and the manure they left behind.
You can explore or escape the city on any motorcycle, but a slim, fast, sexy machine like the Triumph Thruxton RS is an exceptional choice. Named after the Thruxton 500 endurance race that ran on a former Royal Air Force airfield from 1958-1973 and saw the debut of the Triumph Bonneville in 1959 (it finished 2nd and 4th), the Thruxton is the quintessential café racer. In RS spec, it’s a cut above, with more power, less weight, top-shelf components and stunning attention to detail. No matter where you ride, at some point you’ll put the kickstand down — at a gas station, a coffee shop, a restaurant — and it never hurts to dismount a bike that draws admiring looks and comments. Your motorcycle should be your pride and joy, and the Thruxton RS checks all the right boxes.
With a long history of iconic models to draw inspiration from, Triumph knows how to make a good-looking bike. Ours is painted a subdued two-tone Matte Storm Gray and Matte Silver Ice, with a fetching red stripe on the tank and rear cowl. There are black finishes on the engine, frame, side covers, fenders, wheels and rear springs. The twin silencers, Monza-style fuel cap and stainless-steel tank strap are brushed silver, and the aluminum swingarm is clear anodized. Gold fork tubes match the piggyback reservoirs on the rear shocks. With so many colors and finishes it could be a chaotic mess, but everything balances out harmoniously. And for those who see this bike as a blank canvas, Triumph offers 80 accessories for it, including a pillion seat and passenger footpegs.
We do most of our testing on roads that wind along the natural contours of canyons, mountains and valleys near our office in Ventura County, California. In such an environment, the Thuxton RS truly excels. A special tune to the “high power” version of Triumph’s 1,200cc parallel twin makes 103 horsepower and 83 lb-ft of torque at the crank. Reworked internals help the engine rev more eagerly and give it an extra 500 rpm before redline. Dual pipes burble and snarl with the 270-degree crank’s syncopated beat. Sport mode provides immediate throttle response without being overly sensitive, and it adjusts the ABS and traction control accordingly. Road and Rain modes are there if you need them, but I never did.
Riding the Thruxton RS at speed is exciting and satisfying, yet remarkably guilt-free. I never felt like there was more power or performance than my skills could handle, yet plenty of both were available upon demand. Scrubbing off speed going into a corner, adjusting body position while applying pressure the inside clip-on, holding a steady line and rolling on the throttle to burst out of the corner — on the RS this is a pleasurable process that rewards your best efforts and keeps your senses engaged. The best motorcycles are of a piece; their whole exceeds the sum of their parts. In the case of the Thruxton RS, those parts read like a wish list — a Showa Big Piston fork and a pair of Öhlins shocks, both fully adjustable and marvelously responsive; Brembo M50 monoblock front calipers that are strong and precise, like a ballerina on steroids; and Metzeler Racetec RR tires that feel glued to the tarmac. And together those parts and the engine play together like a symphony.
For this photo shoot, we headed south, into the heart of Los Angeles. In 2006, still licking my wounds from Hurricane Katrina and a divorce, I moved from New Orleans to L.A. and lived in the edgy neighborhood of Echo Park. I ripped around the city on a Suzuki SV650 streetfighter, taking Sunset Boulevard all the way to the coast or lane-splitting through traffic to reach Angeles Crest Highway. Feeling nostalgic for my days of living in the City of Angeles, I pulled my old Vanson jacket out of the back of the closet (it still fits!). And I hit some of my favorite riding spots near downtown, like Elysian Park, the 2nd Street tunnel and the Arts District. With museums and office buildings closed due to the pandemic, streets and sidewalks were eerily quiet.
You’ve got to stay frosty when riding in the city. Traffic lights, cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, bicyclists, potholes, manhole covers and unexpected surprises create an ever-changing obstacle course. That’s part of the challenge. On the Triumph, with its slender shape and modest weight, it’s fun, though the bar-end mirrors are sometimes a liability. Although it has a go-fast café racer riding position, the clip-on bars are mounted above the triple clamp and the footpegs are sensibly positioned. With a rock-solid chassis, easy-shifting gearbox and top-notch brakes backed up by non-intrusive electronics, the Thruxton RS never faltered.
What I’ve always loved about modern-day Triumphs is the user-friendliness built into their DNA. Throughout the company’s lineup — adventure bikes, sportbikes, scramblers, standards, cruisers, café racers, you name it — Triumph motorcycles are well-engineered and thoughtfully designed. They look good, perform well and have an uncanny ability to be easy to live with. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, like being called “nice” or having “good personality,” but it’s not. Triumphs are not lacking for character or style, and a gem like the Thruxton RS has more than its fair share of both.
2021 Triumph Thruxton RS Specs:
Base Price: $16,200
Price as Tested: $16,700 (two-tone paint)
Website: Triumph Motorcycles
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin, SOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 97.6 x 80mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated assist-and-slipper clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 55.7 in.
Rake/Trail: 22.8 degrees/3.6 in.
Seat Height: 31.8 in.
Dry Weight: 434 lbs. (claimed)
Fuel Capacity: 3.8 gals.
Fuel Consumption: 38.7 mpg