David and Felipe Lopez are former roadracers who work for Triumph R&D in Spain. They play a significant role in every model that Triumph produces, with responsibility for chassis and suspension development. It's hard to picture two people better matched to their work; the passion they have for motorcycles is obvious. When they talk about rake and trail and linkage rates, their eyes light up with excitement.

As the Lopezes were developing the latest version of the Tiger 800, they had an idea: Make a version of the 800 that was as much an off-roader as possible and race it in a rally. They love the smooth torque of the midsize triple and thought it would be fun to make a bike that was faster than everything else on the straights and see how they could do in the maxi-class of an African rally.

They brought the idea to their bosses, and the response was positive—as long as they wanted to work on it after hours. So the Tramontana was born at night, a product of not just David and Felipe but others throughout the company who thought it would be fun to do their day job without the constraints of production.

Tiger 800-based Tramontana prototype
As the Tiger 800-based Tramontana prototype shows, David and Felipe Lopez are clearly excited about rally racing, following a pattern that seems increasingly common: a casual interest in off-road racing giving way to adventure riding and then a desire to compete.Courtesy of Triumph

The Tramontana retains the overall look of a standard Tiger. Changes include Öhlins suspension with 300mm of travel instead of the standard 200mm, custom triple clamps and linkage, new instrumentation, a one-off Arrow exhaust, and a whole bunch of weight reduction—about 40 pounds. The airbox, frame, gas tank, and a few other basics remain stock. The hardest part to manage in your garage (or with your credit card) would be recalibrating the software after you’ve replaced the standard exhaust and chucked the key. That’s when it comes in handy to be drinking buddies with the engineer who programmed the ECU.

The finished product looks, feels, and rides differently. After all, these guys are professionals at developing bikes to make them suit a particular task. Immediately upon climbing aboard, I noticed the taller suspension and weight loss. The engine has a mostly unmuffled rumble, and there is a sense of purposefulness that the standard bike lacks.

Much-modified Tramantana
Much-modified Tramantana is lighter and rowdier, as the author demonstrates. For production models, the Lopezes start with a prototype frame that allows every pivot to be modified—steering angle, fork offset, swingarm position and length, etc. Ballast representing systems not fixed (a battery, for example) can be relocated to manage balance. They develop a desired blend of stability and responsiveness, and finish with specifications for geometry and weight distribution.Courtesy of Triumph

The stock suspension does a good job with small bumps, but it is out of its depth when dealing with impacts that require greater control. The Tramontana, however, has no such concerns; its suspension feels planted and bottomless. The Öhlins parts the Lopezes chose are top quality, David and Felipe having developed the settings specifically for this bike. They also substantially relaxed the steering-head angle. As a result, the bike is less flickable but more stable—a good compromise for rally racing.

The Tiger’s 800cc engine is incredibly flexible, carrying its new shorter first gear from a standstill to nearly 50 mph, and top gear can be used from anywhere between 40 mph and 120. This makes shifting almost optional, which is nice on a rallybike where you might be distracted by route finding, but there is no joyous explosion of torque anywhere in the rev range. The Tramontana has a little more urgency, thanks to its open exhaust and even shorter gearing, but retains said flexibility.

David and Felipe Lopez
Like many others, the Lopezes (David, left, and Felipe) modified an existing motorcycle to better suit their personal desires. They just happen to be better at it than most of us. After all, it’s their day job.Courtesy of Triumph

I rode the bike around a track used for the Baja Aragón race, which is made up of graded dirt and two small tracks in northeast Spain. These roads aren’t really technical but become tricky with speed. I had the good fortune to switch back and forth between the Tramontana and a stock 800 XCA throughout the day, which made for an interesting comparison.

Improvements in one area are often trade-offs in another, and that is the case here. The raked-out steering geometry and high seat are great when the track is open and speeds are high, but when turns get tighter, the standard bike is easier to ride. There’s no question which one I would choose to race though; the overall effect of the changes made to the Tramontana is really enjoyable.

So why travel halfway around the world to ride a bike that isn’t going into production and whose main claim to fame is finishing a second-tier rally in Africa? The answer is passion. KTM already makes the best rallybike (having won Dakar 17 consecutive times), but what fun is that for the rest of us? In the case of the Tramontana, a couple of guys got excited about a project and poured their hearts into it. That’s something with which we can all identify.