Photography by Jason Critchell & Paul Bryant
I figured this was not going to be your average street-based press ride, a hunch further reinforced by the London-Gatwick Customs Officer checking my passport upon arrival.
“Where are you traveling?” he asked. “Is it business or leisure that takes you to the Isle of Man?” My answer prompted further inquiry into the nature of my business. “Motorbikes! You do realize it’s quite dangerous at the Isle…for spectators as well.” His parting words of warning only fueled my desire to experience the infamous 37.75-mile Mountain Course, home to the annual TT these past 101 years.
After a brief turbo-prop hop from London to that lump of land in the Irish Sea, I found myself standing upon hallowed ground, breathing the damp air where many racing greats have left their mark—or, for the unlucky ones, their very lives. A tip of the cap to Triumph for having the nerve to stage a world press launch for its 2009 Street Triple R on such a grand stage. Regrettably, we missed the summer’s-end Manx Grand Prix meeting, an amateur-oriented race that had taken place a week prior to our visit.
Triumph’s proceedings began with a technical briefing at the hotel followed by a tour-bus ride ’round much of the TT course en route to dinner at the famous Creg-Ny-Baa, a pub located near the 34-mile marker. The coach ride proved to be a highlight of the trip, with Richard “Milky” Quayle—one of only three native-born Manxmen with a TT solo win to his credit—standing at the head of the bus with microphone in hand.
At first, Milky maintained a mellow delivery, offering up some background on the TT and himself as we headed to the course. But once the driver merged onto the circuit at Quarter Bridge, it was as though the helmet visor had come down, cueing an adrenaline surge. “Up through gears, bang into sixth!” shouted the mad Manxman. By the time we reached Union Mills a couple miles down the road, Milky and his earthy, energetic delivery had secured a captive, wide-eyed audience. He bounced about, leaning into bends like an aerobics instructor and mimicked the sound an engine emits racing through the gearbox.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon…roll over you b*%&^!” was his colorful play-by-play as we passed through what would be a top-gear transition that threads through stone buildings and walls so close that any sane man would select three cogs lower and much less throttle.
“Gotta keep me head out of that bush!” was another of Milky’s key thoughts as he relayed his technique for getting through a mind-numbingly fast apex. My heart was pounding as he related braking and turn-in points, sight lines, bumps and camber changes, all of which held no relevance to our bus-bound, sedate rate of travel. It seemed like every third bend or so brought about a reference to some recognizable racer’s mishap.
“My God,” I thought. “This place is crazier than I’d ever imagined possible!”
As our bus climbed the hill out of Glen Helen past Sarah’s Cottage, the rain-swept windshield had become too steamed up for us to see out. “At this point, now I’m sweatin’ like a (sex offender) and breathin’ heavy,” gasped our animated emcee, emphasizing the extreme physicality of racing a liter-class superbike in the Senior TT. As you might gather from our tidied up quotes, there were no ladies onboard.
One gets the impression that motorcycles are deeply rooted in the local culture.Ya think?! No surprise that my taxi driver on the following morning’s transit from the hotel to the Grandstand Paddock was a regular Wikipedia entry of roadrace knowledge, and even had sponsored several racers over the years.
When we finally got our chance to ride, we were divided into two groups. I rode with fellow American and Portuguese journalists who were led by Trevor Barton, product coordinator for Triumph. Aside from when it is used for the TT and Manx GP, the Mountain Course is a public road the rest of the year. In other words, the previous evening’s fast-line lesson didn’t apply. First and foremost, I had to constantly remind myself to remain on the “correct,” left side of the road.
A posted speed limit and morning rush-hour traffic in the town of Douglas tempered the thrill of Bray Hill and took the spring out of Ago’s Leap, but rolling through the famous section for the first time was entertaining just the same. If oncoming traffic wasn’t enough to cool an overexuberant rider’s jets, waiting on a red traffic signal at Ballacraine or getting balked behind a dump truck through Quarry Bends surely kept the lap record well out of reach.
Kidding aside, all along the route there are orange sign-boards on the approach to kinks and corners bearing names like Greeba Castle, Ginger Hall, Joey’s Bend or Ballaugh Bridge, the latter being a low-speed tabletop jump entering a small village. Talk about speed bumps! Yikes!
Being able to put a name to the corner I was negotiating right then was an added bonus, if somewhat distracting. I often found myself so engrossed in the course and its history that I wasn’t thinking much about the bike I had traveled so far from home to ride. In a way, this says plenty about the Street Triple R. It felt refined and natural beneath me, as though it were part of my anatomy. I liked last year’s Street Triple quite a bit, too, but like others at CW, I found its seat uncomfortable and that its budget rear shock didn’t deliver the sporting damping quality the excellent chassis deserved.
Carrying an MSRP of $9499 ($800 more than the standard Street Triple), the new R model addresses those nits, while greatly enhancing the platform’s sporting capability. The seat had already been upgraded a year ago when the standard model went into production; it seems our testbike wore a pre-production saddle. With Triumph giving its Daytona 675 supersport a major makeover for 2009, the Street Triple R now utilizes the fully adjustable fork, shock and race-spec front brake system of last year’s Daytona. Spring and damping rates of the R are softer than those of the Daytona but stiffer than the ones used on the standard Street Triple.
The R’s liquid-cooled 675cc inline- Triple is unchanged from last year, so it features the same retuned Daytona powerband that emphasizes strong low-to-midrange running. Power comes in right off idle and builds in a linear manner all the way to the 13,000-rpm rev-limiter. Throttle response and fuel mapping are as good as it gets. Heeding Milky’s advice, I “banged” the silky-shifting gearbox into sixth and held ‘er pinned through a series of blind left-hand bends… But I must sheepishly admit the rev counter read 2500 rpm at the time! The engine pulled cleanly and displayed the flexibility and robust torque output of Triumph’s impressive middleweight mill.
A forested 4-mile stretch of very bumpy surface from Sulby Bridge to the town of Ramsey gave the suspension a thorough workout. Keeping this particular piece of road in mind, Triumph Development Engineer/Test Rider David Lopez had dialed the bike’s suspension out to be on the softer side. A proper race calibration would be a different story, according to Milky’s account of the same section of circuit: “So, so bumpy, gotta get me arse off the seat and ride ‘er like a horse!”
The R’s chassis stability proved surefooted with the Dunlop Sportmax Qualifiers tracking pavement undulations very well at our moderately swift pace. Lopez, himself a very skilled racer, says that the Street Triple R during testing proved a worthy match for anything around a tight and technical short circuit, largely due to the fact that it offers superior leverage through its wide Magura tapered-aluminum handlebar and a neutral riding position. He pointed to one of the accessorized bikes fitted with low-mount, single-muffler Arrow performance exhaust and said that it provided one of the most notable handling improvements because it reduced and repositioned the high-up weight of the stock under-tail exhaust.
Our group had spent much of the day chasing patches of sunshine and drier conditions that could only be found away from the circuit. I was a little disappointed to get only one complete lap of the course. But when we gathered at Creg-Ny-Baa for the obligatory TT-course action photo op before returning the bikes to the Grandstand garage and heading to the hotel, I mentioned my desire for more riding within earshot of fellow journalist Alan Cathcart. The two of us got Triumph’s blessing to break ranks and have one last go at the course. I threw a leg over one of the Arrow-equipped bikes and set out behind Sir Alan, a multi-time TT race veteran with an intimate knowledge of the Island.
The pace was more like what I’d come for as we pushed well into triple digits when the opportunity arose, although we always observed the lane lines and stayed alert for the usual public-road hazards. Along one fast stretch, a Subaru WRX insistent upon drafting Cathcart illustrated that this truly is a motorsport Mecca. Slinging past a police car along the no-speed-limit mountain portion was priceless! It was an amazing experience, and now more than ever, I have visions of racing at the Island.
I arrived back in the States the following day and breezed through U.S. Customs. While I didn’t have any illegal produce in my possession or manure on the soles of my shoes from a foreign farm, none of the officers at the airport accounted for the disease I’d contracted abroad. The Mountain Course has gotten under my skin, and I can only imagine what it must be like to use full width of the road and every ounce of skill and courage you can muster. You have to credit a well-mannered machine like the Street Triple R at our fast street pace for instilling such delusions of grandeur.