Monday, February 1, 2016
ODE TO THE TRIUMPH THUNDERBIRD
And now for something COMPLETELY different
The autumn of my motorcycling career is about ten years off, but creaky joints tell me it’s coming. Tossing my leg over the high seat of the dual sport equipped with panniers, on some mornings, is, at best, problematic. And the scrunched seating position of the roadster is good for decreasing lengths of journey. These two statements, of course, are blatant excuses. Both the BMW and the Moto Guzzi are fabulous machines engineered for the long haul, eye catching and dependable.
I just wanted something different.
Enter the Triumph Thunderbird. Triumph introduced the Thunderbird model in the early ‘50s. Purportedly for the American market, Triumph bored their standard 500cc motor to 650ccs. Marlon Brando rode a T-bird in the 1953 classic “The Wild One.” A derivative the 650 engine became the backbone for Triumph’s signature Bonneville line. Every kid I knew back then lusted after a Bonne. But Honda came out with a 750cc four-cylinder bike. Cheaper and faster, the 750-Four almost single-handedly crushed the British motorcycle industry. BSA died. So did Norton. And in 1983, Triumph went into receivership and was shuttered.
The marque was revived in the mid-90s and Triumph was reintroduced to the US market. Fast forward to 2016 and Triumph is again making motorcycles bearing some the old company’s most venerated models: the Speed Twin, the Sprint, the Tiger, the Trophy, the Rocket III (borrowed from BSA) and, yes, the Bonneville. In 1994 the T-bird came ashore as a 900cc triple and was later discontinued. Then, a few years back, Triumph reintroduced the Thunderbird as a big-bore cruiser.
And that’s what rests in my garage now.
The good folks at Santa Rosa BMW/Triumph made me an offer I could not refuse on a brand new last years T-bird. I’d been eyeballing its long, low line and, a couple of times, dropped by the dealer to nestle my butt in its glorious seat and heft its eight hundred pounds to an upright position. I’d sit on the thing, peer over the Plexiglas windscreen and sub-vocalize the roar of its massive 1700cc engine. (My beloved ’71 Volkswagen had 1500ccs.) Finally, because I wanted to reduce my motorcycle stable from two steeds to one, I took a test ride. A quarter of a mile off the dealer’s lot, I knew this would be a change I’d be happy to make.
The Triumph Thunderbird is different from any motorcycle I’ve ever owned. The folks at Triumph weren’t particularly interested in paring weight, nor did they scrimp on the chrome. The exhaust note is deeper and mellower than what I’ve ridden before. The thing turns heads when I’m cruising through town (as did the Guzzi) and those fellow riders on that big American bike offer their signature low-five as we pass (not that that matters.)
The first full day of ownership found me making a 120-mile loop from the Alexander Valley, over the Hopland Grade, into recently fire-ravaged Middletown. With a twist of the throttle on the on-ramp, the bike’s torque feels as if someone has placed a hand in the small of your back and is pushing you and doesn’t want to stop. On the “motorway” - as we Brits often refer to it - the T-Bird strums at a low gait while clipping along at seventy. Then I engage the heel shifter – another something new for me – and click it into high gear. The windblast over the windshield will take some getting used to, as because of my 6’ 4” height, my head is well above the bubble of still air.
The Hopland Grade, California State Route 175, is a combination of sweeping turns and tight twisting challenges as the road climbs to a crest offering views of the Russian River drainage as well as the Clear Lake basin. On a crystal clear day, few vistas can beat it. The bike likes sweeping turns on good pavement but I find it is less intuitive than my former BMW when the going gets tight. Perhaps I am not one with the machine yet.
Dropping into Lakeport, I catch CA 29 and head to Middletown where, thankfully, my favorite coffee spot survived last year’s devastating fire. Sipping some Joe on the sidewalk back of where the T-Bird is parked, two riders, heading north, eye the machine, flip a u-turn and pull in next to it for a chat. One fellow, on a Triumph Speed Triple, comments that the Santa Rosa dealership is the best ever. “I bought my first bike from them in the nineties and keep going back for more.”
CA 29 winds precipitously down to Calistoga, some seventeen miles south. The big Triumph rushes through the straights and curves in a wide-ranging third gear, but I have to muscle it around when the highway becomes a series of tight corkscrews as it drops into the Napa Valley. Again, probably due to my inexperience on the thing. North on CA 128 the road is ideal for the T-Bird. At fifty-five, the exhaust note is symphonic, the wind noise just right and I find myself able to enjoy coursing through the winter vineyards and gorgeous oak crowned hills. Am I becoming one with the machine?
The first tank of regular petrol returned about 44 miles per gallon and as I park the big boy in my garage I walk away thinking that there’ll be some compromises in getting down to this bike for my one bike, but none of them are bad. Just different. I also think to myself, “I hope tomorrow is sunny.”
Note: Santa Rosa BMW / Triumph is a small, family owned shop staffed by folks who take great strides to ensure you are satisfied. They maintain a nice inventory of some beautiful bikes. They regularly organize rides along scenic Sonoma County roadways. Know that two shop dogs will greet you in the parking lot with a demand that you rub their ears and say hello. A visit is well worth your time. Located in Windsor, CA (just north of Santa Rosa) you should check ‘em out at: http://www.santarosabmw.com/ or http://www.santarosatriumph.com/
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