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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Street Triple vs. Blackbird - some thoughts so far

Coromandel Peninsula, NZEdit Pages

There are few absolutes in life excepting the laws of physics (and some of those are a bit shaky too).  The same goes for motorcycles and how they're regarded across the spectrum of bike owners.  It's principally what they're used for which defines how good they are, apart from the occasional genuine lemon which sinks without trace.  Also, an inexperienced motorcyclist is probably going to have a different view of a bike when stepping up in capacity than an experienced rider who is heading the other way - just like me in fact!


The decision to move from a Honda Blackbird owned for 8 years to a Triumph Street Triple was for a number of reasons but the main driver centred around increasing age, short legs and a heavy, tall(ish) bike in the shape of the Blackbird. I’ve loved that bike with a passion. It’s seen me through long distance events like the Southern Cross round NZ in 5 days ride and Grand Challenge 1000 miles in 24 hours, through to racetrack behaviour round East Cape with the lads and even occasionally pootling along with Jennie for a laid-back cruise. From the outset, a conscious decision was made NOT to replace it with a pure sports bike as it would be all too easy to make direct comparisons with something that became part of my soul. Dissatisfaction and regret lies in that direction!

However, one of the non-negotiable criteria after owning a ‘bird was something with errr… “decent” performance.  A lighter, more nimble bike might be more suitable for the area we live in but that didn't mean that horsepower had to be substantially sacrificed too.  In previous posts, I've mentioned the circumstances which lead to buying the Triple but having now covered just over 2500 km from new, it's probably worth giving a broad outline of my thoughts so far.

Let's start with something which has only dawned on me since letting the 'bird go......  the realisation that I didn't entirely trust myself to ride sensibly on it.  Sure it was fast and had blinding acceleration but there's more to it than that.  It was the absolute ease with which it built speed and to be honest, the only time you really felt that you were starting to get involved was at a pace seriously above the speed limit.  This also meant being the fastest thing on the road on many occasions and slower traffic could become a nuisance. Passing other traffic at pace, even done safely; can also bring unwanted attention and I'm probably fortunate to have escaped any serious interrogation by the authorities during Blackbird ownership.  It's a fair comment that self-control is all that's required to moderate speed but with a bike which is built for cruising at twice the legal speed limit in NZ, easier said than done as it's all too easy to cut loose; hence the comment about not entirely trusting myself.

Tongariro National Park, NZ

For a couple of weeks after switching to the Triple, probably also accentuated by observing running-in protocols, there was an odd feeling about moving to a smaller capacity bike.  If  I'm perfectly honest, this was probably due in part to a touch of testosterone (bigger is better) or as Jennie would succinctly put it: "Little Willy Syndrome".  Fortunately, that quickly passed!

In terms of specifics, the first thing I really noticed was the light weight of the Triple, plus the centre of gravity is noticeably lower than the 'bird.  Whilst the difference is less noticeable when riding, the biggest benefit to me is manoeuvring it when standing alongside the bike.  Our house is at the end of a steep drive with lots of off-cambers and relatively little flat ground. Not being tall, I always had to take a lot of care when walking the 'bird out of the shed backwards in case it got away on me - no such worries on the Triple.

On the road, the short wheelbase, geometry and light weight makes direction-changing a piece of cake.  The 227kg dry weight of the 'bird, even with substantial suspension changes meant that in the tight stuff, a bit of preparation and precision was required regarding lines.  The 167 kg Triple simply doesn’t seem to care; it’ll handle anything even if you’re a bit sloppy and need a second bite.  It makes even an average rider like me look good!  The OEM Dunlop Qualifiers (French, not Japanese made) fitted to the Triumph stick very well in dry conditions but are less effective than either the Avon Storm or Avon VP2 in the wet.  That's not to say they're a bad tyre though.  They also tend to want to "drop" into a corner rather than roll in a controlled manner - another plus to both Avons and it will be VP2's (Sport or Supersport as per photo) that go on when the Qualifiers are worn out .

Both bikes have excellent brakes but the light weight and short wheelbase of the Triumph makes it prone to unloading the rear end under heavy braking.  I first discovered this when anchoring up for a steer that decided to bolt onto the road from an open paddock gate.  The rear brake was useless with the tyre an inch or so off the deck but it still pulled up quickly and with no drama, the only side effect being a seriously elevated heart rate! 

In terms of handling uneven surfaces, the 'bird evens them out more effectively whereas the Triple jumps about a lot more but is still faster in the tight stuff.  The jumpiness is not in a scary way but it doesn't seem so well-planted as the 'bird.  The comparison is probably a little unfair as the 'bird had a top of the line Penske shock and modified front forks whereas the Triumph OEM suspension is clearly built to a price.  Had the Honda retained its OEM suspension, the comparison would have been a lot closer.  The Triumph is not really suitable for 2 up riding over longer distances (say 600+km in one haul).  The minimalist rear seat and high pegs would soon take their toll and a passenger would also compromise luggage-carrying ability.  Those limitations are just fine for my current needs though.

On the open road away from the tight stuff, the 'bird wins every time.  Better protection from the elements, big lazy donk making long distance high speed cruising an effortless affair.  The higher revs of the Triple for a given speed were slightly disconcerting during early ownership but like most things, you get used to it.  It will be interesting to reflect on long distance suitability when the 1000 miles in 24 hours Grand Challenge has been undertaken later this year!

Most modern big bike owners will rarely explore the top end of its speed capability and in most circumstances, the incredible acceleration and roll-on capability is the key to making real progress.  This is where I thought that the Triple would seriously lose out but I was in for a real surprise!  Using dyno data from "Bike" magazine and dividing by dry weight, the Blackbird delivers ~ 0.62 bhp/kg and amazingly, the Triple delivers a shade under 0.6 bhp/kg - not a lot of difference, especially where wind resistance at higher speeds isn't a major factor! It also delivers ~85% of maximum torque at 3000 rpm, making it unlikely that you'll ever be caught in the wrong gear when wanting to overtake in a hurry;  another "plus" in the real world and gives a significant advantage over pure 600cc sports bikes.  With a 0-100 km time of 3.3 seconds and a top speed in excess of 230 km/hr, it's no slug at either end of the performance spectrum, compared with the Blackbird's 2.7 secs and around 290 km/hr at the top end!

With longer distances between towns than in Europe for instance, a decent range is important to a lot of Kiwis; especially if you have a preference for long haul riding.  The Blackbird was always good for 300+ km between fills on most outings.  The Triple is still pretty good though and with moderate control of the right wrist, 280+ km is achievable.
In terms of ergonomics, the Triple is more comfortable at moderate speeds with the small Italian Barracuda aftermarket screen proving to be quite effective and the relatively high, wide bars of the Triumph also keep the load off the wrists on longer journeys.  The 'bird is clearly superior at higher speeds because of better protection. Seat-wise, there's probably not much to choose between either bikes in standard trim BUT the Rider brand seat I fitted to the 'bird for long distance events was a design of sheer genius.  Ride for as long as you like and the result was always the same - no "numb bum" whatsoever.

In terms of finish and attention to detail, the Triumph doesn't appear much different from the legendary build quality of Hondas in most respects.  Only time will tell whether the paint holds up as well but I've taken the precaution of having 3M clearfilm applied in the high wear areas as insurance.  The only poor bit of engineering I've discovered on the Triumph is where the headlight brackets attach to the inside of the chrome shells -  a rust trap if ever I've seen one! A preventative spray of the inside of the headlight shell with chain wax whilst I was fitting a bulb upgrade is good insurance in my humble opinion.  Whilst on the subject of lights, both the Blackbird and Triple lights are "adequate" for night riding in unlit areas, but not really up to it when the unlit areas are twisty too.  The headlight design of the 'bird with a sharp beam cutoff was an issue, but largely fixed by fitting 100W bulbs.  The OEM bulbs in the Triple gave a good spread but simply weren't bright enough.  I'm not game to fit 100W bulbs because of the small headlamp volume but switching to Osram Nightbreakers have made a substantial improvement and we'll leave it at that for the time being.

The only other noteworthy comparison at this stage of ownership is an audible one!  I loved the standard exhaust cans on the Blackbird.  Their quietness didn't attract unwelcome attention and somehow seemed to make the bike's performance even more outrageous.  The howl from the airbox when giving it a handful was also pretty impressive.  With the Triumph being naked, the whistle from the injectors and cam chain is a bit more intrusive at low speeds but the snarl from the airbox when the throttle is opened is guaranteed to give even a 60+ year old a hard-on and should be bottled and sold as an alternative to Viagra!

Finally, it really is true what all the motorcycling journalists say.  The Street Triple is a lunatic of a bike which encourages immoderate behaviour.  Part pit-bull, part lairy teenager with spots; it wants to have a go at everyone and everything.  It might even hump your leg if you stand close for a bit too long.  I really don't know why but so help me, even at 60 plus years of age, I'm finding myself swept along by its "fu*k you" attitude!

So there we have it.  Two bikes that I absolutely love but built with a different "fitness for purpose" in mind. For where I live now and the type of riding I normally do, the Triumph is close to the perfect choice if I'm only going to have one bike in the garage.  That's not likely to change with the various toys I've already got!

Update:  More about the Triple in more recent posts, including 1000 miles (1600 km) in under 24 hours HERE, accessories, tyres and laser wheel alignment. Use the search bar near the top of the blog.  There is also a long-term review in an August 2010 post HERE.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

An Introspective Day

One of my close friends and Blackbird-riding buddies has developed a serious medical condition and is about to commence treatment.  I rode up to Auckland yesterday and joined up with our other close riding partners/mates to spend the day with him.  You can't but help have some trepidations but as it turned out, we all had a ball with plenty of banter flying and non-stop laughter.  Not the sort of banter and laughter to cover a potentially awkward situation, but the honest, straightforward and disarmingly direct conversations which you can have between true friends.  I feel both humbled and incredibly privileged to have friends of that calibre.  None of our riding group are at all religious and it seems somewhat hypocritical but we'll be offering up a few prayers over the coming months.  The prognosis is good and we'll be there to keep his spirits up.  It does, however, reinforce the notion that you should never put off anything that you really want to do in life.


















On a happier note, I took our daughter Victoria for a ride today.  It's been 4 years since she came on the back of a bike and she's as good as her mother - you'd hardly know either of them are on the back.  Victoria graduated with a Masters degree in Psychology late last year and works with prisoner rehabilitation in the Justice system - we're incredibly proud of her.  She's feisty and scares the hell out of me.  I'm picking that the prisoners tread warily too!