I’ve never known quite what to make of big, fully faired, bells & whistles touring bikes. A few months ago Rosa and I took BMW’s outgoing air-cooled boxer twin R1200RT out for a couple of hours, and we rather enjoyed it. Sure, it was big and heavy, but it was surprisingly light on its feet when moving, and that massive cone of plastic at the front did a tremendous job of keeping us warm and dry in the death throes of winter. So while the Street Triple was in for its first oil change, we took Triumph’s brand new Trophy SE, one of the R1200RT’s biggest competitors, out for the day.
So what is it? Well, the uncharitable might call it a photocopy – as with the Tiger 800 and last year’s Explorer, Triumph have benchmarked the competition, researched their audience and built a bike designed to tick every box of the touring customer. The fairing is large and effective, with an electronically adjustable screen and integrated speaker system. Both the rider and pillion seats are comfy, and can be upgraded with integrated heating units, just like the grips. Panniers are massive, as is the optional top box. Shaft drive eliminates chain maintenance, and the 1200cc triple provides adequate motive force to throw the total 300kg bulk forward at a surprisingly rapid rate.
So far, so touring bike. But the latest fad on anything with a price tag as big as its fairing is a bevy of electronic toys, and Triumph has come armed and ready to take on the best that Bavaria can offer. Suspension is fully adjustable via in-dash menus, allowing you to change the preload to account for differing loads (pillion, luggage, etc.) as well as damping to suit road conditions, with soft, normal, and sport being the choices on offer. The system certainly works, and removes the need to dig around under the bike with a C-spanner, but it has two critical flaws.
Firstly, unlike BMW’s system, changes can only be made via the on-board computer, which is like trying to program a VCR. You’ll need the instruction manual until you get the hang of it, and even then you won’t want to attempt it on the move. Finding somewhere to pull over just as the road gets twisty to firm up the forks, only for that caravan you’ve been chasing for ten miles to get past you again is extremely frustrating. Odds are you’ll leave it in Normal and forget about it, which makes the fact that Triumph no longer offers the standard suspension bike rather disappointing; you’re paying for a feature you may never use.
The second problem with electronic suspension (and this is by no means unique to Triumph) is this: ultimately, these systems are just choosing hard-coded presets based on how much the manufacturer believes you, your pillion and your luggage weigh. Even my Street Triple, designed for a 75kg rider, had to be reworked by suspension specialists MCT before it stopped throwing me out of the saddle over every bump and running wide on every corner. If the shock and forks are not right for your weight in the first place then any of the three modes are going to be compromises at best. In my case that means I’d rather have the option to buy without electronic suspension and get a specialist to set the bike up for my weights, rather than Mr and Mrs Average’s.
Other toys? Well, ride-by-wire throttle (very light, very responsive, very nice) allows Triumph’s engineers to add both switchable traction control and cruise control to the bike’s suite. Traction control, like ABS, is one of those features that many bikers scoff at as unnecessary, whilst anyone who’s ever been saved by them sings their praises. Having experienced plenty of scary slides, I have to say it sounds pretty good to me, especially on a slippery downhill hairpin in Switzerland.
Cruise control seems to be the opposite. It’s a great idea in theory, and finally having a car with the option has been a revelation. But so far only BMW have got it right in the bike world, and then only half the time. The R1200GS’ throttle snaps back to closed when the system is engaged, meaning a slight tap on the brakes or clutch causes the system to disengage and notice that the throttle is now shut. This makes it almost impossible to disengage smoothly. Triumph have seemingly placed a stepper motor in the grip, so that the throttle stays put. But now the problem is that the tiniest movement of the throttle disengages the system, so you daren’t actually relax your hand after all. And this is assuming you manage to get it activated in the first place; the right-hand gauge cluster is so spaced out that I have to hold the throttle in place with the edge of my palm while my thumb stretches for the ‘Set’ button. In practice you soon give up, and in the long-term I’d probably just invest in another thumb rest.
Now it may be beginning to sound like I didn’t like the Trophy at all, which is not the case. The engine was powerful and rewarding to use throughout the rev range (although the stock exhaust sounded terrible), and the brakes were extremely effective, stopping the bike with surprising speed and grace. I’d never have believed a bike weighing a full 50kg more than my old Bandit could be flicked through corners as easily as this. The leverage from the bars and sports bike-spec wheels, coupled with the firm and balanced suspension, meant that I was able to thoroughly enjoy every bend in the road. And as silly as a stereo system on a motorcycle may seem, you haven’t lived until you’ve swept past a Toyota minivan full of astonished kids, all the while waving with Swedish heavy metal playing from the speakers. It’s hilarious.
So the question is this: should you go buy one? And the answer is I don’t know. The Trophy is, in my opinion, a better motorcycle than the 2013 BMW R1200RT, but the 2014 model is heavily revised and may leapfrog the Triumph. BMW’s latest electronic suspension attempts to undercut my criticism by dynamically adjusting the damping based on how the forks are performing on a second-to-second basis, potentially working perfectly for all weights and riders. Plus it’s super easy to adjust on the road – one button, right next to your left thumb. Ultimately I need to try one out – and so should you.
You should also ask yourself what exactly you want the bike for. No bike is good at everything; compromises must be made – and no matter how cleverly the engineers disguise it, these are big, heavy bikes. Fully loaded with a pillion, I don’t fancy my chances holding one up if I put my foot down on some gravel. And then you’d need a crane to lift it up again. And whilst I would happily tackle a Moto Gymkhana course on one of these, so good is their low-speed balance, I’m very aware of the weight transferring to the front wheel as I hurtle towards a sharp left-hander. Will the front really hold? How much weight can a 1″ square patch of rubber handle as I dive into this bend, fully loaded?
The sheer size of such bikes is therefore both their raison d’être and their Achilles’ heel. They boast great weather protection and plenty of luggage capacity, but are difficult to filter on and park. A long wheelbase makes for high-speed stability, and a 2-wheeled nightmare when trying to turn around in the driveway.
For me, I think the bulk would limit my use to long trips where city riding would be at a bare minimum, with no complex filtering or parking antics. That’s fine for those who can afford to maintain a fleet of highly specialised bikes, but I’m afraid I will probably have to choose something a little less gratuitous. Probably without quite so many luxury features.
Oh. And a lot less expensive.