Friday, October 30, 2009

Triumph Thunderbird Conversion

In my dreams the road goes on forever.

I gravitate towards empty roads and places off the beaten path. Standing in the middle of old Route 220, once a place of pandemonium and aggressive drivers, I feel at home. And also a bit surprised at how A few weeks ago I sat on a motorcycle outside Kissell Motorsports. I found myself at the beginning of an unexpected conversion. A dedicated Vespa rider enthralled with a big cruising bike. The Triumph Thunderbird.

It's been almost a month since I had the Thunderbird. Enough time to sort out feelings and reactions to the biggest, heaviest motorcycle I've ridden in a long time. I expected a slow, lumbering, unresponsive ride. What I found was a remarkably nimble and easy to handle machine. The engineers at Triumph would probably cringe to read what I am about to say -- I found myself thinking more than once "This feels like my Vespa.". With the Triumph Thunderbird sitting along the road while I try and figure out the best angles for photographs it looks nothing like a Vespa.

I left early one morning for what would become a hundred mile short ride. Patches of fog were scattered through the valley producing areas of limited visibility and wet pavement. While making this picture I noticed the prominence of the exhaust system. Big pipes for the big almost 100 cubic inch parallel twin engine produce a deep rumble. Not too loud and not at all obnoxious. Something I can't say about most of the big cruisers that pass through my neighborhood, especially the ones that operate between 2am and 7am. Moving mechanical obnoxious alarm clocks. But I digress.

The exhaust tone of the Thunderbird reminds me of the growl of a big, mean dog. You know he's big and he does too. No need for any barking.

I confess limited experience on big cruisers. Or anything with two wheels weighing close to 750 pounds. Call me crazy but I always take new bikes to some empty parking lot for some experimentation. Not to see what the bike can do but to determine how little I know. The Mount Nittany Middle School has a nice big lot that supports all sorts of turns, swerves, quick braking, U-turns and anything else you might want to try. In less than 30 minutes imagined myself comfortable and at home on the Triumph. A quick stop for a picture in the fog and I was off to meet my friend Larry for breakfast.

Anyone who's followed Scooter in the Sticks knows a lot of my riding is slow-paced and riddled with numerous stops for pictures. A motorcycle has to be easy to manuever, run smoothly at slow speeds, and allow for quick on and offs. The Thunderbird engine and transmission produced extremely smooth riding at any speed, was agile at even the slowest speeds, and was simple to park almost anywhere. Stopped to photograph a tunnel of trees in the fog I was wondering if the Triumph and I would be a good fit. With the addition of some saddle bags for my camera and gear I could ride this machine anywhere.

A lot of riders don't understand the slow traveling part of riding. They want to get somewhere fast, ride along with a group, or just can't get their head or their hand to agree to speeds that are more akin to bicycle riding. But once the speedometer passes 25mph it is amazing how hard it is to react to things in the landscape. I might just be slow in the head but by the time my brain recognizes something of interest it's already behind me at higher speeds. And I resist turning around just to look or take a picture. I was sitting on the Thunderbird at about 30mph when I noticed the fog strewn across the farm. I don't want to miss this stuff.

I was getting hungry but still would stop to examine some odd detail along the road. The road surface was wet from an early fog but the Thunderbird offered no trouble or complaints as I moved along. The riding position on this bike was near perfect for me. An upright seating position, bars that were wide and just right for me, and foot pegs that seemed to be exactly where my body thought they should be. Both rear footbrake and shifter lever were easy to find and use. Something I can't say for every bike I've ridden where they seem small and hard to manage with the standard issue scooter clod hoppers I wear courtesy of Wolverine Boots.

Fog strouded the Sunset West Diner in Pleasant Gap. It looked like something out of Twin Peaks. Very odd. The Triumph looked appropriate in the lot. It is a handsome motorcycle. Triumph does an outstanding job of producing machines with classic lines. For anyone wanting a big cruiser with elegant lines and complete functionality this is worth looking at. Twice.

Fat and happy from my standard breakfast fare it was time to see how the Thunderbird performed in it's more traditional role as a highway cruiser. Jump on Interstate 99, twist the throttle and watch the needle on the speedometer leap to 80 in no time. All similarities to my Vespa evaporate on the freeway. With so much power, torque, and a smooth, stable ride at any speed I was willing to travel. Even the windblast in my chest seemed stable.

Central Pennsylvania is a beautiful place to ride. The views along the highway can, at times, be breathtaking. Looking at the Triumph I can easily imagine riding it anywhere in America.

The single guage on the tank is a model of simple design and complex function. In addition to the big speedometer a button on the right-hand grip allowed me to toggle through a variety of functions like fuel level, mileage remaining, clock, trip meter and more. And there was a readout for RPMs too but I wasn't concerned about that. Between the engine sound and it's ability to pull at any speed in any gear I didn't pay much attention to how fast things were spinning around. I was just having a fine time riding.

The big gas tank was easy to put fuel in. Not something I would normally notice but for some reason it seemed easier to see what was happening as I added. With all these new bikes I worry about splashing gas all over pristine paint and chrome. Not a worry with this bike.

I stopped to visit with the Nittany Road Riders who were taking part in Chris Kepler's 7th Annual Pennsylvania Grand Canyon Ride. The Thunderbird was the lone cruiser in the group but I'm certain it would have no problems keeping up. I found myself wishing I could go along but duty called another direction.

Around town the Triumph Thunderbird continues to excel. Up and down alleys, backing into parking spaces, making U-turns -- whatever I asked the bike to do it complied without complaint. Or perhaps I should say my skills did. With solid riding skills on a small scooter or motorcycle the transition to the Thunderbird is simple. My limits were apparent and areas to practice more were as well.

I rode the Triumph to work on the last day I had it. Backing through a gap between a pickup truck and another bike and into one of the motorcycle spaces was far easier than I would have expected. Standing there before going to my office I wondered how I could have dismissed any interest in a cruiser style motorcycle. I had ridden them before. I can remember riding a Harley back in the 1970s. Maybe that was the problem. This wasn't the 70s and this bike was a 2010 Triumph Thunderbird.

I've been converted. There is a place in my garage for the Thunderbird. Figuratively speaking.


Conchscooter said...

Triumphs and Vespas. I found the same simplicity of use when I first test rode the Bonneville. I was sold and 33,000 miles later I still am. I think it's time you bought a 750 pound bike. It'll make a man of you. And you'll have to call it Thunderbird in the Sticks so you'll have to wear leather. Ha ha.

cpa3485 said...

Sounds like you really liked the Triumph. Is this your favorite of the ones you test drove?
Your pictures of the bike and the fog are very nice, and you are lucky to have such beautiful country to ride in.

bobskoot said...


I don't know whether I would be able to handle a 750 lb bike, it just seems to me to be . . . well, too heavy for my small stature. I have an uneven driveway where I park and I have to consider a lot of pushing around to park it in place.
I have never ridden a cruiser and had no desire to own one as most had forward controls. I prefer the more upright, wide standard bars with controls in familiar positions. Perhaps the Thunderbird meets this criteria. But is is a nice looking bike.
It would look good in your garage

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

Mike said...

Very nice post as usual. I was kept on the edge of my seat thinking that you've converted. I resisted jumping to the end. Now I think it's just a matter of time until the conversion is complete - you've got all the signs. The Thunderbird is a very nice choice and it looks great in your photos.

marco melillo said...

nice post, and nice choice!
well, I'd have preferred a Guzzi instead: crazy Italians ;)

Charlie6 said...

Outstanding photos and posting!

My wife would say you should shoot pictures for the "shiny paper" glossies that dealers put in their showrooms!

Very nice.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Scooter In The Sticks (Steve):

Somebody gave me a tee shirt that reads, "Gigantic Slow Moving Object." You might get more use out of it with this bike and your disposition to take pictures.

There is nothing like finding a perfect fit in a motorcycle... Go for it.

I am going to experiment with gray, fall day pictures. Somehow, they will not come out like yours.

Fondest regards,
Jackj • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

Steve Williams said...

Conchscooter: While I can get my head around the Triumph I think I would have to draw a line at the leather. I'm definitely a textile man...

cpa3485: The Thunderbird was definitely my favorite in terms of riding utility and comfort. But my visual heart still goes out to the Bonneville and the Scrambler.

It is really nice around here now. Fall is a fine time of year.

Steve Williams said...

bobskoot: I had some misgivings about the weight BEFORE I rode the Thunderbird. Once aboard I was surprised at how compliant it was. The low center of gravity helped.

So many more bikes to ride before I pin myself down to just one...

Steve Williams said...

Mike: I am slow to convert. Or at least to make a decision and take action. Something would probably have to happen to the Vespa before I would make a move.

marco: Kissell Motorsports used to carry Moto Guzzi. Now the only Italian bike they have is Ducati. But that's not so bad...

Steve Williams said...

Charlie: thanks to you and your wife for the kind words of encouragement and support!

Steve Williams said...

Jack Riepe: I fear that I become smitten with whatever bike is in front of me. They all seem wonderful. Though I admit some are more wonderful than others.

Gigantic slow moving object is right. I often fear my motorcycle endorsement will be revoked since I abuse it so much by poking along at slow speeds. Not a true motorcycle or even scooter rider. An imposter with a camera pretending to ride...

Ade said...

Hah! I knew it! I knew you and a good cruiser would work.

Steve Williams said...

Ade: Yeah, it was nice. But I've ridden others that weren't. So not all cruisers are for me.

Rode the Vespa again this morning and I was reminded yet again of how really functional it is across a lot of different riding demands.

I couldn't see myself tying a Christmas tree on the back of the Thunderbird...

RickRussellTX said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention your friend John in that photo, with his BMW hack.

I'm still surprised he didn't go for something like the MP3 500. For me, motorcycling is nothing about shifting and all about leaning. That's what makes it more fun than video game.

Steve Williams said...

RickRussellTX: Yeah, John was there and had plan to ride along but his bike was having some problems which sent him back home. There is so much room in that sidehack that it's like having a little car along.

John has told me he doesn't like the no leaning. I mentioned the MP3 but you know how hard headed those BMW riders can be. *grin* There are no other bikes to ride...

Peter Beck said...

Now that you've ridden the BMW 1200RT, how would you compare and contrast the Thunderbird, if some distance riding on freeways/highways was a sizable part of your riding mix?

Touring Motorcycle Bike Exhausts said...

I only ride at a high speed when i want to get somewhere fast and don't wanna be late. I know if i ride slow and spot something of interest, i would be tempted to make a stop and start taking photos. Its either i ride fast or leave my camera behind. But when i do not have anything important to do, i always ride slow to make sure i spot everything and take snaps.