TRIUMPH SPRINT ST
By IAN CHADWICK
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The original version of this article was first published in summer, 1999, in the Canadian Motorcycle Guide Online. Used with permission. This version is revised and expanded.
I'm a cruiser kind of guy. I like low, slung-back bikes, with plenty of chrome and loud pipes. Boulevard cruising, heavy on the style, not so heavy on performance or technology. So when I was offered a chance to test ride the new Triumph Sprint ST for a week, my first reaction was "Who, me?"
I was actually pretty apprehensive. It looked too much bike for me; too sporty, and too fast and too much to handle. I imagined myself in a low, hunched riding position that would require a chiropractor to unbend me after a few minutes in the saddle. But it wasn't a chance I could afford to pass up, so I took the keys from John Broderick of J&R Cycle and put on a brave face. I plunked myself in the saddle and fired it up. Or rather I attempted to do so - John gently showed me that I had to pull the clutch in, in order to ignite the engine. Newbies, eh?
So he looked me in the eye and asked, "You okay with this?"
I looked him back and nodded steadily. Never show them fear. They'll want the keys back.
His final comments to me were, "Keep it under 35 hundred."
Hmmm. Thirty-five hundred RPM. That meant I had to break the bike in. Whew. I could ride it cautiously and gently, and tell people I had to do it so they wouldn't think I was a wuss. The odometer already showed 140 kilometers, so according to the tank sticker, I only had to ride it another 20 before I could increase the RPMs to 5,000. Enough time to get a feel for the bike's behaviour. I slowly eased over to the driveway, then out onto the highway and - with some apprehension - twisted the throttle.
My life changed. My entire attitude towards sportbikes, sleek plastic fairings and hot red racers altered in one gas-into-carburetor moment.
In my limited experiencewith sportbikes, they seem to have a throttle that has about 1/16th of an inch of twist between idle and light speed. I get nervous just standing beside one. They are twitchy, eager to rise up on one wheel and race away. I had visions of the bike leaping skyward, with me falling head-over-ass off it, my dignity in pieces, not to mention bones and plastic bits.
Not the Sprint. My first reaction was pleasant surprise. This is a remarkably well-behaved machine, a thoroughbred, not just a high-spirited racer. The throttle is responsive, but Triumph tuned the Sprint to put the power in the middle, not all at the low end. The Sprint has controlled acceleration. It allowed me to ride it, not simply hang on and pray.And 3,500 RPM gave me lots of speed for my first ride - about 90-95 kmph in top gear. Within a few kilometers, I began imagining myself in a multi-hued, full-body leather suit. I wondered why I had taken so long to appreciate this sort of bike...
Within a few days I had put 500 kms on the ST and taken it to the limits of the local roads - and my riding abilities. The week stretched into a month. Triumph didn't seem eager to take the bike back (and I was conveniently away from the phone most of the time). I garnered 1,000 kilometers of accumulated fun and exhilaration on nthe ST. I never lost the sheer for-the-hell-of-it joy of twisting the throttle and zooming out of the traffic to pass into the clear zone so quickly and easily. I discovered new backroads where I could open her up and tuck into curves and corners with unrivalled glee.
Triumph completely rebuilt the Sprint for '99. It begins with the amazing 955i engine - putting the ST into the same family as the T955 Daytona and the Speed Triple. But where these two are sheer rolled-up-sleeves muscle and steel, the ST wears a cloak of calm sophistication. The fuel-injected triple is smooth and powerful. Although positioned as a sport-tourer - the emphasis is on sport - the tuning makes the ST a competent and comfortable street bike as well. This is a well-rounded, all-purpose motorcycle. Edward Turner would have been proud.
The seating position puts the rider forward, but not aggressively so. It's more forward than the Triumph Trophy and Honda ST1100, but less so than the Daytona and most sportbikes. It's a nice compromise position that doesn't require a chiropractor after riding to help remove you from the seat. I quickly got used to it and found it comfortable, even for long rides, despite my tendency to lean on the bars a bit too much. If the bike were mine, I'd lower the seat height (800mm stock) just a tad or raise the bars a bit. And maybe get a slightly higher wind screen.
The throttle was so smooth and responsive that I was significantly impressed every time I rode it. I never felt I had lost control of the bike when accelerating, even quickly. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, I always felt in control, capable of nudging forward by inches without jerking or launching into space with squealing tires. In passing, a twist of the wrist gave a whopping power surge, but it was delivered smoothly and without being choppy or twitchy. The tachometer shows a redline at 9,500. Since the bike was still in its break-in stage, I couldn't push it past 7,000 during my time with it - but I never needed to. I easily reached 140 kmph in sixth gear at around 5,000 rpm. I'm not sure where I'd put the rest of the power. My test ride hardly brushed the ST's capabilities.
At every speed, the ST was steady and inspired confidence. I was able to ride it into corners on the back roads at what would normally be sphincter-clenching speeds and never felt uncomfortable or unsure of the bike. Around town, even in wet weather, I was making low-speed turns faster and at lower angles than I normally can with my Thunderbird. At 450 lbs dry weight, the ST is so agile and maneuverable, it feels more like 350 lbs. I love to ride Airport Road through the Hockley Valley. It's a nice, twisty hill that offers challenges in both directions. I used to wrestle the T-bird through those curves, but the Sprint slipped through them so easily and smoothly that I missed the usual excitement the hills offer. It's such a competent bike that I always felt I was in the safe zone.
That doesn't mean the ST is a middle-of-the-road bike. There's a hooligan hiding inside that engine, a real muscle machine - but it waits for you to command it to come out, rather than presenting any unpleasant surprises. The EFI system provides a silky-smooth power flow. I was a bit bemused by not needing a choke to fire it up cold. You can almost just fire it up and go, although I recommend a few moments of warm up first (if nothing more, to allow you to the requisite time to contemplate the beauty of the bike before you ride away).
I was surprised the ST has a cable-operated clutch. As far as I know, all other bikes in Triumph's new line have hydraulic clutches. It may have been a weight-saving decision. I didn't notice any difference in performance. It seemed an anachronism on such a high-tech vehicle, but it worked just as well as any other clutch.
Up front are twin four-pot disc brakes. Compared to the single disc on my T-bird, the ST has amazing solid stopping power. A flick of the hand applies them solidly - not the grab-and-hang-on method I was accustomed to. I seldom used the rear brake except to bleed off a bit of excess speed. I had to be careful to avoid doing "stoppies" and tossing my rear wheel (any myself) skyward with such solid front brakes.
Mirrors are acceptable - certainly equal to or better than better than on any cruiser I have ridden and pretty clear at any speed. They're positioned forward compared to the T-bird' s, so it took a bit of practice to locate them in a quick check. They remained reasonably clear at high speed, but the low windscreen permits the air stream to buffet your helmet, so blurring occurs anyway.
Like other Triumph bikes, the ST doesn't have self-cancelling turn signals. It has always amazed me that such a simple device is not included on a such high-tech bike. You get accustomed to turning them off - but I have yet to be given an adequate answer as to why they're not installed at the factory. As far as I know, none of the new Triumphs have this simple, elegant device.
The windscreen is small and gives partial protection, but unless you hunker right down on the tank, it's really too low for most riders, directing the air up around the head level. The noise factor becomes an issue too. Expect an after-market screen to offer better protection. This is probably the ST's only significant oversight.
On the highway, the fairing provides adequate protection from the wind, but when you drop from highway to street speeds, you'll notice the hot air from the engine is directed over your legs. It wasn't a problem in May, but in the heat of summer, it may be uncomfortably warm, especially if you ride in shorts (I know, not acceptable safe riding gear, but on a hot June day, and you're riding through the crowded party zones of Wasaga Beach among all the other sportbikes and muscle cars, it's definitely the gear of choice). The frame can transmit the engine heat to your legs - and it gets hot enough to be unpleasant on bare skin if you're in slow traffic.
The adjustable suspension was fine. With the exception of the mammoth cruisers and highway tourers, I never worry overly much about suspension unless it's noticeably mushy or hard. I found neither on the ST, nor did it ever bottom out or cause riding problems.
The final drive is by chain - as on all other Triumph bikes. I've heard arguments for belt drive and even shaft, but the chain works very well and delivers the rear end power very effectively. But constant maintenance is required. Any bike that has a chain drive should come with a centre stand - but I don't believe the ST even has one as an optional add-on. This makes maintenance more of a chore.
Triumph rebuilt the original Sprint frame (a backbone tube thing still used on other Triumph models), taking the outline from the new Daytona model, but reverting to a more traditional rectangular cross-section, rather than the tube structure they used on the other 955 machines. It looks serious, but stylish, and certainly in the same eye-candy category as its competition.
Exhaust note? Well, for a cruiser guy, the ST is too damn quiet. When riding, there were times when I couldn't judge the need to shift by the engine sound. There's a beautiful sub-woofer note underneath that sort of vibrates the tailbone, but I'd opt for the add-on pipe that gives a heartier sound. Finish and looks are heart-stoppingly beautiful. The bike I borrowed was the ultimate definition of red, and came with hardshell bags large enough to store a full-face helmet. The fairing is clean, with twin headlights making a pleasant face that doesn't look like the X-Files alien face some competitors' bikes have. There's a snap-on peg on the left to provide leverage if you want to add a centre stand.
The ST gets appreciative glances from the younger crowd, making me feel about 20 years younger when I rode it around the area (not an unwelcome sensation and saves me hundreds of dollars on membership at the gym). When I took off my helmet, they probably wondered who the old fart on the hot bike was. Older cruiser riders glanced at it, turning back to look only when they realized the tank said Triumph. Then it got nods of approval and thumbs-up gestures. A lot of riders wanted to know more about the bike - was it really a Triumph? How did it handle? What was the seating position like? And so on...
The saddest day of the year was when I returned it to J&R (not without a final attempt to convince them I had lost it...). But it left a lasting impression on me. So much so that, later that summer I whined enough that John and Rhonda gave me the opportunity to take the Honda VFR800 out on a test ride, to compare the bike most commonly matched against the ST in the magazines.
To be fair, I only took the VFR800 out for less than an hour*. In my humble estimation, the ST is the superior bike. The ST is more solid, has better traction and low-end grunt, handles better in those country-road curves where shoals of sand and gravel accumulate as well as in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and has less vibration. The ST has more character - hard to define but it simply seems to ride better. And it has a better exhaust note (but this can be changed). That being said, the VFR800FI is hot, fast, handles well, has better brakes and costs several thousand dollars less than the ST.
In 2000, Triumph launched a new addition to its Sprint lineup: the RS. This is essentially the same bike, with a smaller fairing and apparently some tuning modifications and minor adjustments to suspension and seating. More emphasis on sport, less on touring. I haven't ridden it yet, but expect equal enjoyment levels from it. Personally I feel the ST simply looks better and more dignified, but the RS looks more street-savvy.
I've always said the Triumph T-bird was the best bike I'd ever ridden. Now I have to amend that. The Sprint ST takes that position. I never had so many smiles per mile on a modern motorcycle. This is simply an astounding bike with exceptional performance and handling. I don't know what took me so long to discover this style of riding*.
Triumph Sprint ST
$13,899 Cdn ($14,899 with bags)
955 cc (108 bhp)
Liquid-cooled, DOHC, in-line triple
Electronic fuel injection (EFI)
Six speed, chain drive
2 x 320 mm floating discs, 2 x 4 piston calipers
1 x 255 mm disc, 1 x 2 piston caliper
800 mm (31.5 in)
Tornado Red and Jet Black (get the red!)
My thanks to Triumph Canada and J&R Cycle of Wasaga Beach for providing the Sprint ST for my lengthy test. And especially to J&R for their kindness, support, help and friendship over the past several years.
* In April, 2000 I purchased the Honda VFR800 FI Interceptor. After three months, including a long seven-hour ride to Ottawa and a six-hour return trip, I exchanged it for a Kawasaki W650, an air-cooled vertical twin that looks remarkably like a mid-60s Bonneville - proving I still have a passion for cruisers and old-style motorcycles. My appreciation for the VFR rose considerably, and I came to enjoy its highway stability. But in town at slow speeds, it was less forgiving and less accommodating than the ST. The VFR is a wonderful bike - fast, smooth and technically impressive. But I found the ST simply a better all-purpose bike. I had a chance to ride it again in 2002 and my feelings were reinforced.
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