Just a week ago, Winter was very much with us. It was snowing in my little corner of Surrey, and had been for a fortnight. I’d had flu, and life was very much about not going anywhere beyond the warm and inherently stable confines of a motor car. Then, come Thursday morning, Spring arrived with a burst of bright and glowing sunshine — outside, the sparrows were coughing their way through the first dawn chorus of the year and inside, the cats were darkly muttering their desire to get outside of those same sparrows. And, to round out the signs and portents for this first day of Spring, Haslemere Motorcycles had also arranged to hand me the keys to their very shiny, very new Triumph Sprint ST demonstrator, for a test ride, which was definitely worth getting up for.
Now you’ll notice that was spelt T-r-i-u-m-p-h, not D-u-c-a-t-i. But if you’ve read other stuff on this site, you’ll also know that, despite being a hardened Ducatista, I’m just generally in favour of excellence in the form of good and characterful motorcycles. And it’s always been a toss-up for me between the V-twin and the in-line triple as the perfect engine format. That’s an opinion that hasn’t changed since my motorcycling adolescence of the 1970s and my formative exposure to two of the great biking icons of the day – the Ducati 900ss and the T160V Trident.
I’ve ridden most current Ducatis, and not a few of the Triumphs of the last several years, and been impressed with all of them. The difference however is that I can usually manage to look at a Ducati without wincing, which hasn’t always been true of the Trumpets. Worthy and thoroughly competent motorcycles certainly, but frequently with all the stylistic finesse of a lard blancmange and occasional lapses of finish that would shame a Trabant.
That’s all been changing in the last couple of years — Triumph appearing to have adopted the very un-British view that a bike that looks good as well as working well will, funnily enough, sell well. And the latest incarnation of that thinking is the new generation Sprint ST, Triumph’s sports tourer and a direct competitor to my own ST4s. So here we have the Triumph, resplendent in electric blue paintwork and triple-themed lights, clocks and pipes: matching tie, handkerchief and socks. Parts in fact seem slightly and contrivedly over-designed, giving parts like the clocks the impression of cosmetic plastic rather than alloyed engineering.
Overall though, this bike looks great – it has a spare elegance of design and line, with an aggressive and very non-lardy rearward-rising stance and a remarkable overall slimness to the package — it looks, and feels, light and lithe.
Hopping aboard doesn’t change the feeling of lightness — the low-speed top-heaviness of the older Triumphs has vanished and the bars are a very natural reach and lean: perfect. The pegs are quite high though — definitely on the sporting side of things — but are well positioned so that there’s not too much weight on the wrists at low speed. Which all makes for a very, very neutral-feeling motorcycle – my first kilometre or so was through stationary heavy traffic and some narrowish gaps, where balance was very easy and the lack of an end-can meant that, if the mirrors could get through, the rest was bound to follow. At this point I also notice that I haven’t noticed the fuel injection. Promising.
Leaving Wey Hill, there’s a sharp right-hander, followed by a wonderful steep hill rising towards the A3. This is the first chance to start actually using the machine — I wind it into the bend at about 3000rpm, rolling on the throttle to fire it up the hill — turn in is precise and neutral and there’s just a steady stream of torque and a nicely linear throttle response. Through the rising series of bends, the Sprint floats across the road as I change line – no fuss, no effort. The steering is definitely lighter than the Ducati’s, but certainly a little meatier than that of the VFR800. Mid-bend, I pitch it over a sunken manhole cover and, again, no twitch, no fuss. And that’s the overwhelming impression of the machine: it does exactly what it says on the box, and does so while feeling thoroughly and consistently developed – the controls all have a positive and matching lightness – the gearbox particularly is a league ahead of that of any other Triumph I’ve ridden – and there’s an almost clinical feel to the efficiency which which it tackles its job. If that’s starting to make it sound like a VFR800, I’d have to agree, but with a couple of important differences — this is more like a VFR done right: if Honda had bored their machine out to 1000cc, ditched that ludicrous V-TEC system and paid more attention to their fueling, they might have a competitor for the Sprint ST. And it’s definitely that way around — I haven’t seen any back-to-back tests of the two yet, but my brief experiences with both tells me that its Honda who’ll need to be playing catch-up, not Triumph.
There’s something else — the Triumph almost has soul. It has the stance and it has attitude. It also makes the most wonderful induction howl as the big triple hoovers the atmosphere, but the final piece of the equation — the exhaust — is definitely lacking. I’m not in favour of making gratuitous noise, but if a big sporting triple on full song doesn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, then either it’s missing something or someone’s slipped valium into my coffee. A Triumph triple should, and can, sound like a banshee howling through a silk shroud — and there’s just enough intimation of this in the standard exhaust note to frustrate, and make the fitment of the factory ‘race’ cans mandatory, not an option.
Bounce and Go
Moving steadily on, we approach Thursley and the photo stop via one of my favourite pieces of washboard back road — taken at about 60mph, there’s a stretch that’s perfect for checking out suspension set-up on any bike. My ST4s runs it near faultlessly, but that’s with nearly two years of set-up practice behind it. The Triumph does extremely well here, with just the slightest kick from the front-end showing the need for a tad more rebound damping. And that’s where there’s a problem. In fact the one major problem with the machine is the front suspension. Not that it’s bad — far from it — the Sprint ST continues the Triumph tradition of being extremely well set up out of the crate, but it does lack the adjustability that is, IMHO, absolutely essential for a Sports Tourer — something that needs to be capable of being ridden in a brisk-to-ballistic manner when solo, two-up and when laden with the kitchen sink. For that you need to be able to adjust all of the suspension settings, not just the pre-load. I simply can’t understand why Triumph has done this, other than penny-pinching to hit a price point. If they put the front end from the new Speed Triple on it and added a remote adjuster to the rear, they’d absolutely be there. For solo use, at least. I didn’t get the chance to try the pillion seat, which looks comfortable, if rather high. Likewise, the triple headlights — the bright spring day didn’t lend itself to testing these. To complete the nit-picking, I also wish they’d just fitted a digital speedo with the analogue rev counter – the speedo is far too crowded with small figures to be easily legible.
For the rest, they pretty much are spot-on: the screen works just fine at 85-90mph cruising speeds, with remarkably little buffeting for such a low screen. The brakes work well, albeit without the initial bite and feel that I prefer, but I’ll allow that as a running-in issue. On dual-carriageway though, I did keep running out of gears, my up-shift frenzy being triggered by a slight buzziness at 4500-5000rpm – nothing major, but enough to make me think I was running much higher revs than was the case. I’m informed by Mark at Haslemere Motorcycles that this is something that settles down with running in, and I’m happy to believe that – my own machine is far smoother with 23000 miles up than it was when new.
Which is a good comparison to finish on: two competitor sports tourers with very different characters, but a deal in common. Both major on seamless waves of torque, the Triumph being much more composed in drive and fueling at low revs — it will pull cheerfully if not ecstatically from 2000rpm, with near perfect injection, where the Ducati displays the low-rpm grumpy ill manners of any large twin. Further up the rev range, the Triumph pulls with absolute consistency but doesn’t have the instant, visceral mid-range punch that makes the Duke such a delight. Both handle most excellent well, but the Triumph’s balance and set-up is more accessible — if Ducati ever learn to set their machines up properly at the factory, they might do rather better. The Triumph does come across, even on a brief ride, as a consummate all-rounder, whereas the Ducati is, in contrast, a bit of a curate’s egg: it’s got brilliant pillion accommodation and better suspension. But it’s fairing is less effective (mine is an ’02 model, before Ducati changed the fairing to the current spinnaker design), it’s lumpier at low revs and, back-to-back with the Triumph, feels like a race bike masquerading as a tourer and just waiting for its bluff to be called. But that’s how I like it and it’s why I bought one.
I’ve ridden 30 or so different bikes in the last couple of years and none has impressed me as a usable real-world bike as much as the Triumph. This feels like their coming of age, with no part of the machine needing any apology or patriotic excuse — it feels thoroughly developed and finished, looks great, goes brilliantly and is huge fun to ride. That’s going to do it for very many people — the only big problem is going to be getting hold of one: current delivery is looking like July and I can only imagine that, now that demonstrators are with the dealers, demand is only going to increase. Now that must be a nice problem for Triumph to have.
And many thanks to Mark and Michael at Haslemere Motorcycles for their generosity of time with their precious demonstrator.
And click here for the rest of the images of the Sprint ST (and some of the new Speed Triple).