It was BBC Television's "Top Gear" programme that first made me aware of Triumph's 2001 Bonneville. Somewhat out of character, Top Gear did a very poor quality and low-key review of Triumph's new machine, using a rider/presenter of little motorcycling experience on a wet and muddy track. It couldn't have done justice to any motorcycle. In spite of this, seeing the Triumph on the programme stirred something in me.
I hadn't been on a motorbike for about 36 years. I had a Triumph Tiger Cub, a 200 cc 10 hp single of uncertain vintage, "inherited" from my brother. I was forever mending it as bits broke or wore out. Like repairing a broom, I gave it a replacement engine (the original got a cracked cylinder), then later a frame (with proper swinging arm rear suspension!). I used it for going to college, shopping, for fun, "doing Wales" (from south of London), even took the cat on visits to the vets' in a cardboard box resting on the tank (have you ever seen an eight week old bundle of black fur terrorise a German Shepherd into cowering submission? - but that's another story).
Petrol was about 5s 6d a gallon (for you youngsters that's five shillings and six pence or 27.5p), equivalent to 6p per litre, and I got something like 70 mpg.
I had a leather jacket, a helmet and goggles. When the weather wasn't warm, I got cold. When it rained, I got wet. With our weather, I always seemed to be cold AND wet. I always wanted a Triumph twin (Bonneville, Tiger, Thunderbird, Speed Twin), but there was no way I could afford one.
I once listened in awe to a Bonneville rider saying he'd "done the whole M1 [then about a hundred miles] and back, averaged over the ton including the stop for fuel". Wow!
I gave up the bike when I got my first full-time job and a car.
Time passed - then Top Gear did its review.
By coincidence I knew of a Triumph dealer some 150 miles from home that I happened to be passing late one Sunday. I stopped to look in through the showroom window; there was the new Bonneville. My wife had to drag me away.
A visit to Triumph's web site elicited some brochures and background descriptions. They'd designed a brand new bike, but styled it on a 1969 Bonneville. The pictures looked just the business.
I found a local motorcycle training centre, and got myself onto a three-hour course. Would I still like riding a bike? I definitely needed some tuition. At least my license was still current. I have to admit it was with some trepidation that I got on a bike after all those years.
They sensibly started me on a low capacity bike in an empty car park, practising the fundamentals, moving from rest, accelerating, braking, manoeuvring, gear changing, using mirrors and indicators, then repeating on a 500 cc machine. It was surprising how easily the controls came back to me after all that time, and how difficult it was to remember that the brake and gear pedals were on the opposite sides from my Cub.
After checking me out on my knowledge of riding/driving (with all too many corrections), Don took me out for about two hours of varied riding, his voice over the radio calmly telling me when I got it wrong, praising when I got it right, encouraging the whole time. I can still hear him saying "Mirror, mirror, shoulder - good", and "You don't ride a motorbike to stay in a queue of cars"! I had forgotten a lot, there was plenty new to learn, and quite a few bad habits to get rid of.
We stopped once for coffee and a warm-up (the weather was dry but freezing). I hadn't realised I was getting cold. Then back out for more riding. At the end I had mixed emotions, relieved it was over safely but exhilarated by the whole experience. And, yes, I could still enjoy riding a bike. Thank you, Don.
From Triumph's web site I found a dealer closer to home (Pidcock's in Nottingham). Bought myself a safety helmet, and tried their demonstration Bonneville. As soon as I sat on it I felt at home. If only they'd put the clutch and brake pedals on their "proper" sides. Didn't go far, didn't need to (and I didn't want to, I was still very unsure of myself). Seemed a much better bike than the ones at the training centre (I've nothing against modern H*nd*s, it's just that to me they lack character. But then they look nothing like my old Triumph. Maybe I'm just a little prejudiced). I immediately placed my order, and had to wait several very long weeks...
Bought Triumph jacket, pants, boots and gloves - considerably advanced from what I had been used to; the Triumph brand simply to limit my choices (and maybe to get that 'T' on my back!). When the bike came I carefully rode it home, about twenty miles. Although still feeling very apprehensive I savoured every mile.
Well, now I have a Bonneville. And I do mean "well". I added kneepads and a centre stand as extras. I wish there was a rev counter (please, Triumph, add one to your accessory list). I go out on it whenever I can find an excuse, and frequently when I can't. My long-suffering wife thinks I'm a little (?) mad. I can't argue. But on the bike I find I can just unwind and relax.
I ride about a hundred miles a week, almost all in the evenings for pure pleasure, and I emphasise PURE PLEASURE.
My first long journey was to a relative who lives about 125 miles away. In a car the trip can be boring, but not by bike. This journey also taught me not to carry a heavy backpack (shoes, electric drill, plumbing tools etc. - the things I do for relatives!). That gave me shoulder ache. Going back lightly laden was no problem, the seating position ideal for me. However, it was in pouring rain, including such a heavy downpour that for a time all motorists had to slow. Do any of the optional screens keep rain/flies off the helmet? The bike behaved impeccably, but I did stop for a while because I was concerned about being run into. Some water leaked in through the pants; Pidcock's replaced them without question.
Reactions of others to the bike? I have had nothing but praise, although my son says that I should have got a proper bike - I think he is referring to what has been described as a "bum in the air plastic racer". My response is twofold, to me the Bonneville IS a proper bike, and its performance, although mild by modern biking standards, leaves almost every car looking silly. It is certainly enough for me.
When out riding I have had nods of approval from pedestrians. Motorcyclists on the road seem to like it. Car drivers who notice take a good look, boy racers obviously want a drag race at traffic lights. There is no point, and I know it, even if they don't.
Ex motorcyclists all want to sit on it, the one person I know who had actually owned a 1969 Bonneville immediately said that it felt just right. He went all nostalgic on me with stories of his Bonneville days.
While getting petrol at a garage, a chap came up, and the conversation went like this:
Chap: "Is that a Bonneville?"
C: "How old is it?"
M: "About two months."
C: (after a moment's thought): "No, not how long have you had it, how old is it?"
M: "About two months." followed by, after seeing his disbelieving expression, "Yes, it's brand new."
C: "Made by Triumph?"
There followed the usual explanation and admiration.
For some reason, several people's first question has been "Do you mind me asking how much?" Maybe they want one...
Looks? It seems very well copied from the 1969 original, the obvious difference being the kinked exhaust pipes (doesn't look as bad in the metal as in photographs). Everyone admires it; a neighbour seeing it for the first time just stared open-mouthed, then uttered one word - "Gorgeous".
It certainly still bares a very strong family resemblance to my Cub, although inevitably a lot beefier. I find the upright cylinders and horizontal cooling fins very evocative of that earlier era of motorcycles. Apart from the obvious modern additions of mirrors and indicators, and the second exhaust pipe, the main visual differences are the headlamp (the Cub had a black nacelle), the brakes (drums on the Cub) and the suspension (the Cub had black sleeves over the forks and rear springs). Also the silencer of the Cub was more teardrop shaped.
Certainly more than I dare use with my present (hopefully improving) skills. The engine is flexible enough so that the odd wrong gear selection doesn't matter, though moving away from rest in third is a no-no, short of giving the clutch hell. The very smooth power delivery helps inspire confidence in bend-swinging.
I know what I said about boy racers, but there are times; you've stopped at red lights, "he" pulls up beside you, looks across, revving his engine, he creeps forward just a bit. The lights go red and amber, he squeals off. When the lights go green, you move off, holding first to about 40, already catching him. You snick into second. He is still accelerating, exhausts blaring. You glance behind, move into the outside lane, and just let that torque pull you past him, no fuss, no drama; he can't touch you. Up another gear or two as you accelerate to the speed limit, finally changing into fifth, and just continue in cool mode - luckily your big grin hidden under your helmet. He either stays back, or else feels he has to pass you, usually going way above the limit. Either way, no contest. Can't do his ego much good at all (ho-ho).
Gearbox and clutch? Took me a while to realise that gear changes are best done with a quick, positive action, then it's very slick and easy, but it clunks a bit selecting first from rest, and selecting neutral can be tricky. It does appear to be improving with use. I have noticed that when the engine is hot the clutch seems to drag a little; this can result in some uncomfortable snatching at the rear chain when stationary in first. This isn't helped by the inevitably greater difficulty in selecting neutral.
Brakes? Certainly adequate. If you use the front brake hard on its own (not recommended), the bike does dive on the forks. Use the brakes balanced and they're fine. I did once lock the front brake on a dry road. I snatched it during an unnecessary panic. Very embarrassing. That was a hard lesson in proper braking. Perhaps three hours tuition wasn't enough.
Handling? Feels quite OK to me, it's a matter of developing my confidence and ability. One difference from my Tiger Cub: I seem to remember the Cub only required a lean to steer, the Bonneville likes a little handlebar input to help at low speeds. Not a problem, just different. Yes, I know about countersteering, but when you lean, you automatically push on that handlebar, OK?
Ride? Much better than the Cub, I can't really compare with anything else. Rapid undulations can be uncomfortable. The riding position makes it very easy to lift your weight onto the footrests, which really helps on bad surfaces (I was well used to doing this on the Cub). The bike continues to handle well in spite of any road surface I've come across.
Economy? More a question of range, I am getting 54 to 61 mpg (UK), so a range of about 150 miles to the reserve and a further 50 miles or so after that. (Why does the main tank always run out just when I'm approaching a junction or roundabout? The Tiger Cub didn't have a reserve.) My mpg figure is still improving; at 1400 miles I did 124 miles using 9.27 litres, that's 60.8 mpg, and that was done in about 2.5 hours, much at 70 (but not driven hard). It's not needed any oil (nor has it shown any oiliness outside the engine, this is obviously NOT copied from the original!).
Maintenance? Apart from the usual "daily checks", the only actual work required is periodic chain lubrication. This takes about a minute (put it on the centre stand, run the engine at tick-over in first, spray chain lubricant on the chain at the rear sprocket - this technique comes with the usual safety warnings; without the centre stand it takes a bit longer). Service interval is 4000 miles, shorter than many, but that's little more than once a year for me, and compare it with the 1000-mile interval (if I remember rightly) for my old Cub.
When I first got it, the engine seemed very tight, and each time starting from cold it needed to idle for a while. It would sometimes stall, and at the slightest bit of throttle it would just stop. After a half a minute or so you could hear the revs begin to build up, only then could you change into first and drive off. The weather was very cold (only a few degrees above freezing) which probably didn't help. I ran it in according to the book, and, ever since those first few hundred miles, it's eager right away. It just likes a bit of choke for the first mile or so from cold.
The bike is a lot heavier than the Cub. I could lift that off the ground by myself (just). I can't even lift one wheel of the Bonneville. The weight can be a problem coming to rest on a corner. The trouble is the bike seems so light and responsive on the move that I can forget how heavy it actually is. It can also be a bit of a handful to push. Maybe I'm not as strong as I used to be.
The seat appears hard when you first sit on it, but causes me no discomfort after two hours or so.
Slightly wider mirrors would give a better rear view. (When I was young, rear-view mirrors on bikes were unheard of. Hey, I'm getting younger by the day!)
Not being used to fastish revving engines, I would like a higher top gear for cruising. Settling at any speed above 40 I often try to select "sixth". However, it certainly feels very comfortable at 70, even though the motor is turning at about 4400. There is no apparent increase in engine stress at any speed I've been at, and, although I don't make a habit of it, it's happy to rev right up to the limiter, albeit with increasing vibration. This also means that after higher speed riding, I can find myself holding a low gear unnecessarily. Where's that tacho?
The throttle return spring is strong enough to cause me some wrist/arm discomfort after a longish steady cruise (on my Cub the throttle used friction to stay where you put it so you could use your hand for signalling - indicators were also unheard of), but my wrist is improving with use.
Some write-ups complain about the subdued nature of the standard exhaust note. This makes it more acceptable from my point of view. Much as I like its noise, living in a crowded city the original level would upset neighbours particularly late at night, which I don't want to do. The actual sound is very reminiscent of the old Triumph twins, just less of it (the same goes for vibration).
Sometimes crossing white lines can make the back end wriggle just a little, settling immediately afterwards. It doesn't affect the bike's line, it's just a little disconcerting when you're not used to it.
How do you tell if the engine is getting too hot in traffic? With my previous machine you could smell the oil smoking. With this engine there is no oil outside to smell.
That's about it. I love the bike. I get (no, it gets) admiring looks from all sorts. No one on the road has reacted adversely (I have seen bad behaviour towards some other bikes or bikers). I can recommend the Bonneville to anyone who wants a bike for pleasure, particularly if they like the classic styling. I have used it for commuting, it works fine, but really only comes into its element on the open road. (I can also recommend Pidcock's of Nottingham, who have been exceedingly patient, helpful and supportive - even though they do mostly sell H*nd*s.)
I am looking forward to many more pleasurable miles. I hope that one day my increasingly neglected wife will get on behind, then my motorcycling life will be perfect.
Yes, I have become a Born Again Biker, and I thank Triumph for the opportunity.
P.S. I've just read in Torque Magazine that there is a tacho kit coming out - guess what birthday present I shall be asking for (if I can wait that long)!