Two subcultures of English kids. One group, dressed impeccably in fine suits riding highly stylized Italian scooters and listening to the latest R&B and soul music. The other, grimy leather-clad toughs mounted on leaky, thundering British motorcycles bopping to the sounds of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
Many Americans were introduced to these English subcultures via The Who’s Quadrophenia double album in 1973. From this side of the Atlantic, it was easy to take the sharp Mods’ side rather than the rough-hewn Rockers; the Mods had The Who telling the story, after all. Yet, if you are a motorcyclist, the Rockers rode the prototypes for a current two-wheel genre many of us love—the streetfighter.
Triumph, a favored marque of the Rockers, offers two streetfighting bikes in 2011—the redesigned Speed Triple 1050, and the returning Street Triple R 675. Seventeen years ago, Triumph introduced the Speed Triple 885 to an appreciative audience, recalling the classic Meriden-era Speed Twin’s name.
Since then, 65,000 Speed Triples have been sold, making it Triumph’s most successful model. In 2007, the upstart Daytona 675-based Street Triple arrived, and last year the more aggressively handling and braking R version was introduced to thunderous applause.
This year is the Speed Triple’s turn for upgrades. The iconic moderately oversquare 1050cc powerplant has been moved forward, and a new 43mm inverted fork is tucked in three-quarters of a degree. To keep the Speed Triple from becoming too fussy, the wheelbase has been lengthened nearly a half-inch, and the seat height dropped a hair. The triple-cylinder motor has not been forgotten, as it enjoys a peak torque production seven percent higher than its predecessor.
The decision to test these two machines in their homeland was a natural. It is an opportunity to strafe the unspeakably chaotic streets of London and get a keen sense of their urban streetfighting mettle, as well as follow the trail of the Mods and Rockers. We were planning to ride the Triples on the backroads from the Ace Cafe London to Brighton Pier, the site of legendary clashes between the rival youth gangs.
So, it’s off to the streets of London to see how these two bikes fight the good fight in traffic. No question about it, with 60 years’ experience riding on the right between us, the prospect of instant immersion in a no-holds-barred environment on the opposite side of the road is daunting—one false move and one or both of us could get flattened by an unyielding double-decker bus or lorry. Riding in London is a place for neither beginners nor the faint of heart.
Switching to the left throws off your safety autopilot. Whether you realize it on not, your brain has been trained to know which way motor vehicles are moving by the side of the road they are on. A quick glance in one direction without focusing on the actual movement of the vehicle can have catastrophic results.
However, despite being continuously bombarded with the swapped external information and feedback, it was surprising how quickly we went from raised eyebrows when watching local riders split lanes right next to oncoming traffic, to embracing a when-in-London attitude and diving in ourselves. We had adopted the streetfighter stance, almost before we realized it.
Our confidence was enhanced by Cardo System’s Scala Rider G4 PowerSet intercom devices, which allowed us full hands-free, duplex communication. We always had each other’s back, feeding information between us about directions and possible hazards. This communication meant we had constant knowledge of where the other rider was without taking our eyes off the road ahead. Scala Rider units are potentially life-saving devices in situations like these, as were the Joe Rocket RKT-201 (which accepts the G4 graciously) and the wide-eyeport Arai RX-Q they were attached to.
In past years, the Speed Triple had a muscle-bound feeling in crowded quarters. When the streets were empty, it was a great motorcycle for tearing about town, but not so much in a jam. With the tightened rake and improved torque, the Speed Triple has become a natural in the streets. The Speed’s fuel injection is flawless, and roll-on power is abundant and impressive.
Even with so much potential power on tap, the Speed can be a pussycat when necessary. All that is needed to have a sedate, controllable ride is a reasonable sense of throttle control. Even when winding between stopped cars and through bus lanes, the Speed Triple never showed its brawn without being asked.
Of course, when the road opens up a bit, as it does on the southbound A1 just below the North Circular Road, the Speed rockets up to a velocity we probably shouldn’t mention, with the front wheel riding light on the pavement.
The five-figure redline allows the 1050 to announce its presence with unmistakable three-cylinder authority. In tunnels, or with crowds of tourists amassed on Westminster Bridge, late shifting is a must.
Somewhat in contrast, the Street Triple R is a flighty little guy. Weighing in at a claimed 416 pounds wet, the R carries 55 fewer pounds than his big brother. The R’s front end is raked out a degree over the Speed, but that is more than compensated by a two-inch shorter wheelbase. Nimble and precise doesn’t begin to describe the R’s handling, and with only 60-percent of the peak torque of the big Triple, finesse is the name of the Street’s in-town game.
When power is needed, the Street Triple R’s throttle demands to be twisted, and the six-speed transmission downshifted a cog or two. Redline is just short of 14,000, though its peak of 105 horsepower appears 2000 rpm sooner. Flashing lights appear to warn the rider of the impending rev limiter, and the sound from the twin underseat exhausts is a direct injection of adrenaline.
Whether flying down Fleet Street on the wrong side of the dashed white lines or splitting traffic on Victoria Embankment, the Triples turn American tourists into indigenous hooligans in a shockingly short period of time.
While we somehow resist the temptation to do burnouts while showing the V (England’s version of the bird) to passing pensioners, we enthusiastically embrace the no-adult-supervision opportunities of an area seemingly free of traffic enforcement to ride like bloody lunatics. The streetfighter ethos is achieved.
When we return home, there may be a mailbox stuffed with violation notices from the ever-present traffic cameras that we purposefully ignored—if there are, we will consider the fines to be money well spent.
The Ace Cafe London (the “e” in Cafe is strangely silent and lacks an accent) in Stonebridge is the motorcyclist’s equivalent of the Vatican. Not strictly a hangout for café racers, there are more Harley-Davidson’s in the parking lot as we visit than we have seen in our entire visit to London. The Speed and Street Triples fit in nicely with the sportbikes that predominate in the car park.
Reopened in 2001 after falling on hard times in the 1960s, the Ace Cafe London offers some excellent pre-ride grub, be it a bowl of porridge or a British Breakfast with beans, an Ace sausage, baked tomato, and mushrooms. Go with the Special Breakfast if you know what black pudding and bubble-and-squeak are. All the while, you can drink in the atmosphere that includes a display of vintage café racers.
The ride from London to Brighton is our Hajj. It has been glorified in movies and literature, so the only question is if reality can match our expectations.
Taking a leisurely westerly route south on a damp and foggy morning, we enjoy a coffee and hot chocolate break at Costa in Cobham before passing through colorfully named towns such as Leatherhead (no doubt an inspiration for Morrissey) and Dorking.
A24 is an agreeable route down, and you can enjoy any pace that suits you. We take gentle pleasure in the countryside, and note that the two Triumphs are completely at home in the wet at light sport-touring speeds. A turn east on A272 guides us to the A23 dual carriageway (divided highway) to Brighton.
Even sans fairings, the Triples make fine high-speed motorcycles. One might expect that the easy handling in traffic would result in a fussy feeling on highways, but that is not the case. The bikes are absolutely stable, and vibration is not an issue.
At these high speeds in damp weather, we greatly appreciated the warm Triumph-brand apparel we had been expertly fitted with by Metropolis Motorcycles in London—a must-visit shop build into the arches of a bridge for a National Rail line. Although the Rockers would disapprove of our textile apparel, it all fit perfectly and never interfered with riding.
For him, the retro Richmond jacket struck an effective balance between style and function, as it is water-repellant and strongly windproof. The cut is natural, and it looks great off the bike. Waterproof AS2 boots by Alpinestars keep feet dry, with protection just short of what you would want on the track.
The Heddon jacket kept the female half of the team toasty, and it had the additional function of being waterproof. The jacket has a good number of pockets, and the belted waist allows for a nicely tailored fit. The TriTex waterproof boots were suitable for the weather, but protection isn’t present for fast riding.
Both of us wore gender-specific Explorer gloves and pants. Fully lined, our legs were never cold—the heat put out by the naked motors no doubt aids this. Also, top and bottom, we supplemented the apparel with heat-retaining undergarments from Gator Skins (him) and First Gear TPG (her).
The Explorer gloves use leather exteriors and TriTex to, respectively, provide protection and warmth. They kept hands from freezing with the temps in the 30s, and did so without compromising control sensitivity.
Once into Brighton, negotiating the busy roundabout fronting Brighton Pier is a piece of cake. We pull into The Seagull on iconic Madeira Drive for some fish and chips, enjoying the sunshine as we look out over the English Channel toward distant Cherbourg. Life is good.
With the roads dried out and free of traffic in the early afternoon, the return ride to Metropolis is a mission. Sans a map or GPS, we work our way to A275 out of Lewes, east of Brighton, and begin twisting throttles in earnest. On this narrow rural road, visions of the Isle of Man dance in our heads, and we have a bit of good luck—we cross paths with a fast local on an Aprilia Tuono.
He takes off, and we give chase. Although we had been pushing the Triples hard, having a guide who knows the road intuitively intensifies the ride. The caution inherent in riding an unfamiliar road is jettisoned. At speeds that would make the Ton Up Boys proud, the magic of both machines is worked.
The new Speed Triple has flawless handling. The front end sticks far beyond reasonable expectations, so there is no concern in anything from a tight 90-degree corner or a flat-out sweeper. Stability is unquestioned, and the suspension that soaked up London’s potholes is without fault. It’s perfectly on the street side of a full-race suspension, so the uneven portions of the pavement are not cause for bucking and unsettling of the chassis.
The 1050 motor can be revved, but it is just as happy to be slightly short-shifted to let the additional torque pull the bike along. The radial Brembo master cylinder and calipers give complete control of the bike to the rider without any drama.
There is no slipper clutch, ABS, or traction control, so it is all up to you—the streetfighter. Happily, the motor, brakes, suspension, and tires blend into a single entity that reacts as one with the rider.
Certainly, being on the Street Triple R on this ride was more of a challenge. The speeds weren’t high enough to leave the R chained to a pole, though keeping up required more revs, more shifting, and harder braking. Still, the R is a formidable bike in these conditions. It is easier to position in the tighter corners, and revving up past 12,000 rpm is a pleasure all its own.
Like the Speed Triple, the Street Triple R has absolutely fault-free handling, suspension, and braking. It delivers on every request, never making you feel as if you have pushed the bike too hard. There is always the feeling of something in reserve, just in case conditions unexpectedly become more demanding.
The end of the ride is through crowded south London, where we are still on an adrenaline overdose. The bravado of dealing with traffic is enhanced, and the Triples are up to the task of keeping the pace brisk when possible, and the motorcycles nimble when necessary.
As we pulled into Metropolis with grins wider than the Vauxhall Bridge, the sense of both excitement and relief is palatable. We have been on one of the most exhilarating rides of our lives, and lived to tell the tale.
The overriding feeling about the Speed Triple and Street Triple is how they allowed us to immerse ourselves in London and through the British countryside without a thought. Both motorcycles are 100-percent intuitive to ride. They allowed us to focus on the intimidating tasks at hand rather than on any shortcomings of the bikes we were riding.
Letting the Triumphs strut their stuff with a home-court advantage may not seem fair at first glance, and maybe it isn’t. The Triumph Speed Triple and Street Triple R are clearly indigenous creatures in London and thereabouts, prowling with confidence and intensity that is transmitted into the souls of its riders. Give this round to the Rockers.
Editor Don Williams contributed to this story.
Photography by Paul Bryant