I went for a test-ride on a Triumph Bonneville today. It was fine in the morning, so of course like an idiot I opted to do some stuff around the house. By the time I was ready to go to the bike shop, it was drizzling. Nevertheless, I am an optimist, and put on my leather jacket over my jeans and trainers, and set off. By the time I was at the bike shop it was pouring down and I was soaked. But the owner had kindly got the bike ready for me, so I had to go ahead. Not the ideal conditions for a thorough and wide-ranging test of a bike's capabilities.
The bike on test was a newish Bonneville SE. This is the version with a lower seat and more shiny bits, specificaly aimed at middle-aged returnees and lady riders, who found the original Bonnie a bit big. Sure enough, it was very low to the ground, but quite pretty and well-proportioned. I was putting on my helmet ready to set off when I realised that the bike had been left running. It was so quiet I could not hear the exhaust, even ten feet away. Bad start - I like a proper exhaust.
There are two points of view on modern Triumphs.
The first is that a philanthropic businessman, John Bloor, stepped in to save a British icon which was about to go bust, and developed the product range from the leaky, unreliable rubbish that British bikes used to be into a modern range of leak-free, reliable, world-beating classics. Ride the flag, keep the faith, British iron is best, and by buying a Bonneville or Thruxton (ah, the power of those names) you were buying a slice of British Heritage.
The second is that Triumph were already bust, and an entrepreneur simply bought the name, and used it to paint a historic gloss over a range of good, if not world-beating, bikes. The Bonneville, Thruxton and Scrambler are cynical attempts to create a pastiche of the originals, and do not deserve the hallowed name of Triumph. Worse still, the names of iconic performance bikes were being used to sell bland, low-spec entry-level machines which crudely mimicked the originals to people who cared more about the image than the actual bike.
I have to admit that I was of the latter persuasion. I was never a big fan of Triumphs, even back in the day, so I approached this test-ride with a bit of a negative expectation. It needed to be good to convince me.
It was. To be sure, it lacked power compared with a sports 900, although I was clear in my mind that the power I needed was 'enough' rather than 'more than yours'. There was certainly enough power to make the ride interesting, although I didn't need to reposition my eyeballs afterwards. The bike was light, for one thing, which is a major advantage after the 300kg Pan, and in the old journalist's cliché, 'all the controls fell easily to hand'. It really was very comfortable, and I felt I could go for miles on it. Even on narrow roads, with heavy goods lorries and mud and puddles and a rain-bespattered visor, it felt completely planted and secure, and the handling was sharp and stable. I was completely at home on it within two miles.
I can see why these bikes are popular with new riders and long-time returners. They are unthreatening, for sure, but what's so bad about that? I suppose the worst criticism is that they are bland, but I didn't find it bland. I found it predictable and user-friendly, and I can live with that. I could see myself climbing aboard, with a tent and a couple of saddlebags full of spare clothes, and setting off for the far side of Europe. There we have the difference between the Bonnie and the Sportster - all down to riding position, I suppose.
When I got back to the dealership, there was a slightly older Bonnie sitting there, a standard model in silver, with a normal seat height, some useful modifications (better exhausts, rear-set footrests) and at a price that seemed affordable. By the time they had done a few things to it for me, serviced, tested and taxed it, the difference between that and the part-ex price of the Pan was fairly modest.
I pick it up at the beginning of next month.