Triumph Tiger Explorer XC Review While Touring Scotland

2013 Triumph Tiger Explorer XC Test

It was just me — a rare moment of complete solitude in an otherwise open space. Jagged stone monoliths soar above glacial moraines that undergird a windswept carriageway that has provided passage to explorers and plunderers alike throughout the ages.

The Scottish Highlands are a geographic testament to the rugged character requisite of both man and beast to survive and flourish in Britain’s northern-most extremity. This provides an apt proving ground to evaluate the new Tiger Explorer XC, Triumph’s flagship adventure bike, which has been conceived and constructed 300 miles south in the temperate conditions of the English Midlands.

Traveling by adventure motorcycle is a perennial conversation starter with locals from village to village. Having a Scottish surname inevitably meant that this journey would entail a colorful cultural lesson about my not so distant ancestral past, as well as how far we Trans-Atlantics have strayed from our optimal and pragmatic selves after a century of moral degradation in the New World.

Fortunately for me, the obvious path to salvation from American pop culture is a pilgrimage north aboard the striking Explorer XC, an update of the standard Explorer that debuted last year. The XC version is adorned with aluminum spoke wheels, handguards, auxiliary touring lights, a skidplate, and crash bars, all designed to enhance the off-pavement durability and rider experience for the nearly 50-percent of Tiger Explorer owners that are reported to enjoy a dirt experience.

Awakening in the small village of Aberfeldy, about 50 miles northwest of Edinburgh as the whooper swan flies, I find it frigid and damp with the wind howling from the west down through the glens and across the loch. How quintessentially Scottish this morning is, I think to myself as I fire up the 1215cc powerplant and rumble onto the narrow tarmac, making a mental note to keep left.

It takes a nanosecond for my frozen mouth to remember the grin it wore for hours the last time I sat atop a Hinkley triple—with a near perfect linear power delivery and crisp throttle response from a slight crack above idle to a peak of 135 horsepower at 9300 rpm, the inline-three incorporates a sport-touring soul cloaked in an off-road capable package.

Even in stock trim, the throaty whine from the 3-into-1 exhaust system is an audible reminder to the rider of the awesome potential for speed and general chicanery that await—and in the Scottish Highlands this growl has the ancillary purpose of warning sheep of your immediate presence.

Carving onto the infamous Braemar Road and climbing to over 2000 feet, I witness the clouds beginning to lift as the patchy wet tarmac gives way to relative dryness, allowing for a quickened pace despite the gravelly road surface. The Metzler Tourance EXP tires excel in these mixed conditions; decreasing radius turns and unfenced mutton are navigated with confidence and the 110mm-wide 19-inch front rubber provides consistent turn-in feel on corner entry and pick-up under acceleration from apex to exit.

Acceleration is a blistering fun experience, especially when dropping a cog in the gearbox and letting the big triple hit the upper reaches of the rev range to make short order of farm lorries and other lower velocity vehicles. Speed tends to have a cumulative effect on the mind—the faster one goes, the harder it is to settle back into a slower pace. Subsequently, this creates the perfect opportunity to stop and get off the bike for a mental reset.

Respite comes in the form of tea and biscuits at Balmoral Castle, the summer residence of the Royal Family for the past 150 years. Although it is not summer time, I feel compelled to inquire with the docent if the Queen is in. The friendly chap points to the Royal Standard flag of Scotland flying above the castle and politely informs me that when the Queen is in residence, her personal royal flag would be waving in its stead.

His encyclopedic knowledge of all things Scottish is abundantly evident, and I seize the opportunity to delve into my own personal ancestry to give me some fodder for the next way-stop conversation with a local. I learn that my surname comes from Loch Lomond and the district of Balquhidder, where the famed folk hero and outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor is buried in the Old Kirk graveyard.

Although the docent’s story sounds a wee bit sensational, I leave Balmoral with a fond new sense of kinship with my surroundings and I set my sights on an unpaved experience, though not before I make adjustments to the bike.

Maneuvering a large adventure bike in off-road conditions is heavily dependent upon properly weighting the footpegs and steering with the feet while in a standing position. To facilitate this, I detach the rubber inserts from the footpegs and stow them in the under seat compartment.

Additionally, the handlebar needs to be adjusted upward and the brake and clutch levers downward to accommodate efficient use of the hand controls and a comfortable standing position.

The two-track route near the village of Kincraig stretches through the Alvie & Dalraddy Estates, and permission to pass is mandatory from the Game Keeper. A mundane yet straightforward endeavor, but when the Game Keeper arrives in his well- used and ne’er maintained Land Rover Defender, I could not believe the serendipity.

Gruffly bearded, stag rifle deftly tucked above the crook of his arm, and adorned head-to-toe in woolen plaid and forest camouflage, complete with knickers, bog gaiters, and a trapper hat, the epiphany hits me — he is the physical personification of the Triumph Tiger Explorer XC in the flesh!

Rugged and authentic, yet completely purpose-minded and pragmatic, I don’t think I have ever met such a stunning character. With the blessing from the Game Keeper, I commenced the off-tarmac experience and the first thought that came to my mind was the absolute predictability of the Explorer XC.

The Triumph engineers had what they describe as “unsurfaced roads with occasional potholes” in mind, rather than aggressive single track, and this is surely congruent with the usage of a vast majority of the potential ridership.

Regardless, a quick twist of the fly- by-wire throttle and the tall Scots Pine trees swiftly begin to blur as I click up to the middle range of the gearbox.

Standing on the pegs lowers the center of gravity and aids in offsetting the natural top-heavy feel of the inline cylinder configuration, replicating the same agile experience from the road to the pine-duff covered trail.

Wet and muddy cobbles require a slower approach and a deft right hand, as throttle modulation is fairly touchy. This requires me to slip the clutch a bit until I mentally recalibrate. Aspiration is superb, and the Explorer XC pulls cleanly from 1500 rpm, which matches up perfectly to the low rpm needs of most adventure riders in the never-ending pursuit of optimal traction.

Soon, the wooded foothills dissipate as the trail evolves and presents a vast open glen speckled with peat bogs efficiently drained by a menagerie of rivulets. The path begins to undulate as I near the water’s confluence, and tests the KYB suspension.

Inverted 46mm forks offer 7.5 inches of travel, and are sealed with regard to damping adjustments. The forks do offer an adjustable preload setting, which is of paramount importance when loading the bike for two- up adventures. Over larger bumps, the front suspenders blow through the stroke quite quickly, but the rebound is predictable and overall it does not unsettle the bike.

The shock is equipped with a hydraulically actuated preload adjustment, as well as adjustable rebound damping. For quicker on- and off- road handling, I increased the preload two turns and the rebound one turn to compensate for the additional ten- sion placed upon the shock spring.

Traversing larger bumps and g-outs, the 7.6 inches of rear travel has a more progressive feel than the front fork, but offers similar predictability and is more than adequate for the typical off-pavement traverse.

Harnessing 135 horsepower in off-road situations with street-biased tires requires constant focus and attention. Fortunately, electronic traction control allows the rider to relax and forgo the worry associated with a trip-ending crash due to over acceleration in slippery conditions.

The standard TC2 setting is fairly intrusive, and takes a rather long pause before returning throttle control to the rider. However, it is certainly the safest option when reaching the destination is of more import than impressing riding buddies.

Less intrusive is the TC1 option, making it a great choice when a rider wants to allow some rear slippage, but prefers the electronics to engage before the bike gets truly unsettled. Again, there seems to be almost a one-second lag before the system resets and relinquishes control back to the rider.

For those of us who cannot deny our inner exhibitionist, the Off setting allows for an extremely fun and “ride at your own risk” off-road experience. Turning off the ignition resets the traction control to the default TC2; a quick work-around to maintain your desired setting is to keep the ignition in the On position and killing the engine at stop by putting down the side-stand while the trans- mission is in gear.

Forested trail gives way to tarmac, and soon a modern yet quaint civilization creeps into view in the form of the town of Inverness—gateway to the fabled Loch Ness. Common restraint is easily defeated by childlike exuberance as minutes later I strut out of the souvenir store with a stuffed Nessie for my daughter, and a palm full of magnetic trinkets. The 80-year old myth of the Loch Ness Monster is obviously true, as I have a 50-quid bite mark on my wallet to prove it.

Trail-famished and in need of restful quarters, the Loch Ness Inn is warm and inviting. Haggis served with neeps ’n’ tatties is on the menu this evening, and the madam of the tavern describes it as a savory pudding made from sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced up with onion and oat- meal and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach to simmer for three hours.

That sounded about as appetizing as eating my wet gloves, but then she added that the neeps ’n’ tatties are deliciously simple turnips and potatoes, and my mind is made up. I take the culinary plunge and was pleasantly surprised with the nutty texture and rich gamey flavor of the haggis. The pairing, with a frothy hand-pulled, cask-conditioned draught ale—a Belhaven 80 Shilling—was an absolute heavenly match.

Morning brings light rain and a heavy mist blankets the entire 21-mile length of Loch Ness. With the exception of the paved road in front of me, I imagine I have shared this majestic view with knights and conquerors over the millennia, which ordains me a two-wheeled time traveler.

The road straightens and, despite the wet conditions, the big Triumph quickly revs into the triple digit speed range. I judiciously back off before I zap myself into the 5th dimension, despite a feeling that is absolutely addicting.

Ben Nevis looms in the immediate distance, the highest peak in all of the United Kingdom at 4409 feet above sea level. This sounds rather small by California standards, but the high latitude, driving wind, and barren rocky landscape create the illusion that an oxygen mask is necessary for additional ascent.

At the foot of the mountain is the Ben Nevis Distillery, established nearly 200 years ago. It is one of the oldest licensed distilleries in the country, and may be staffed by one of the most colorful blokes in all of Scotland.

After a quick tour, and an enlightening lesson on the high calling of crafting Scotch Whisky, I found myself in a quandary. “Why is it referred to as Scotch Whisky and not Scottish Whisky?” I ask.

The gentleman must have anticipated this question, as I had to settle into a 10-minute dissertation on my Trans-Atlantic waywardness, and how someone of my heritage should clearly know that the term Scotch is only used for whisky, eggs, pie, and mist. I then made a cheeky comment about Scotch Tape, which surely put me out of contention for any sort of ancestral redemption. I quickly changed the subject to the place known as Balquhidder Kirk and he reaffirms the story of the origin of my surname revealed by the docent at Balmoral Castle — a pleasant surprise.

Mindful of the road ahead, I depart with just a small sip of the smoky goodness from the West Highlands that is the Ben Nevis 10 Years Old — just enough to moisten the tongue and inhale the scent of sherry wood casks, taste the subtle organics, and experience the toffee afterglow.

Eighteen miles southwest of Ben Nevis lay Glencoe, a glaciated valley widely considered to be one the most magnificent areas of natural beauty in the whole of Britain. Layered between an ancient carriageway and an even older footpath is legendary A82, a highway with grand sweeping curves, steep monolithic road cuts, and breath- taking views of cascading waterfalls. This stretch of road is stimulating for all of the senses.

Effortlessly carving through an arching chicane in 5th gear, I was startled by an ewe darting out from the left and approaching the centerline. I moderate my speed, and then realize that she is being followed by four small lambs.

I instinctively grab a handful of brake and feel the twin Nissin four-piston calipers dig into the 305mm front rotors. ABS engages and modulates well as I instantly decelerate in a very controlled manner and avoid the livestock and what could have been a pretty ugly spill.

Had the brakes been any less effective, I might have made a bit of family history by being buried next to Rob Roy in my ancestral family plot. Speaking of which, I see the sign for Balquhidder Kirk flash by and I realize I have to make a quick decision to detour for an unscheduled, and likely anticlimactic homecoming, or carry on with the journey.

A quick bit of soul searching confirms that I prefer the ancestral myth over an unknown reality, and by continuing my journey through the Scottish Highlands I can build and perpetuate that myth behind the windscreen of the Triumph Tiger Explorer XC.

Riding Style:

  • Helmet: AGV AX-8 Dual Evo Tour
  • Jacket: Dainese G. Teren D-Dry
  • Gloves: Dainese KKH D-Dry
  • Pants: Dainese P. Teren D-Dry
  • Boots: Dainese Carroarmato Goretex

Photography by Alessio Barbanti

This story is featured in the July/August 2013 issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine — available on newsstands and good bookstores everywhere. The issue is also available free to readers on Apple Newsstand (for iOS devices) and Google Play (Android). To subscribe to the print edition, please visit our Subscriber Services page.