ALMOST A TRIUMPH

THE TWO-WHEEL TEST
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The Independent Culture
Having scraped myself up at dawn to make the tedious journey to the Triumph headquarters in Hinckley, Leicestershire, I was not entirely enamoured of Mr Smart, the manager of the most impenetrable marketing department on the planet, when I discovered he couldn't provide me with the motorcycle he had arranged for me to ride. Indeed, any motorcycle.

I've calmed down now, of course. Grudges aren't healthy. Thanks to Jack Lilley's highly efficient dealer in Shepperton, a Triumph T509 Speed Triple demonstration model was salvaged at short notice.

For such a fiddly little name, the machine is a monstrosity. With it's twin-set chrome headlights, fat wheels and an alarming lack of spokes (three per wheel), it looks like a customised racing bike, which is exactly what it is.

For all its visual testosterone, the T509 is a thrilling and remarkably easy ride. But I was half way to May Hill, near Gloucester, before I realised why the T509 is known as a "muscle bike" in the trade. The suspension is sprung so tight that you need cast iron buttocks to go any distance.

The official reason why it's called "muscle" is that the frame has none of the plastic aerodynamic cladding around the front wheel or engine. This has two immediate effects. It means the rider is exposed to whatever the weather and the insect nation throws at her or him, and it draws a surprising amount of interest from people who profess to be far more interested in naked engines than they are in naked flesh. This is presumably what attracted the dishevelled foreigner clutching a battered helmet and a violin case at a motorway caff, who asked for a lift to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.

Speed, as every mod worth his parka knows, is highly addictive. Colin, my Hell's Angel friend and one time member of Dundee's Satan Slaves, tried to explain the fascination with going faster. "It's all about urge," he grunted cryptically. "And this," he said, running his digits over the three cylinder engine, "has real urge. See, no taps. It's fuel injected and..." getting on his knees, "... it's built like a racing bike. Pure sex," he concluded with distaste. "Guaranteed erection."

Putting Colin's racing theory to the test proved impossible around the streets of Brixton - not a desirable place to have an erection anyway. The tarmac runaway to May Hill was a different matter. At 90 miles an hour there is a fine line between exhilaration and panic. At 100 miles an hour, it requires brute strength to keep the bike on a straight line. At 110 miles an hour, I suddenly realised I had virtually no control. What this had to do with Colin's theory of sex, however, was beyond my ken.

May Hill was positively prickling with Triumph enthusiasts. Maybe Colin is right. Maybe Triumphs give off some sort of irresistible scent. The local lamb farmer came around on a rigid frame Triumph 1952 Speed Twin 500 out of sheer interest. The temptation to compare and contrast these blood relatives was overwhelming.

There couldn't be a greater imbalance in design than if Dr Jekyll had turned into Mr Hyde. Over the last 45 years someone at Triumph pulled a rip-cord and the beautifully civilised Speed Twin inflated into a muscle- bound version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There isn't much civilised "cafe racer" left in the T509.

Nevertheless Mr T509 Hyde can weave around country roads with a lot more ease than thundery old Dr Jekyll. Despite the muscle, it is in fact remarkably light (196kg). Dr Jekyll's archaic three gears are operated by the right foot, rather than the six gears available on the T509's left pedal. But ultimately the contrast is perhaps best measured in terms of evolution; the T509 is superior in every department except longevity and vintage class.

A good bike is a personal roller coaster. And the T509 is a good bike even if you have to pay pounds 10 for each of it's 885 ccs. It may well be a heap of parts in 10 years but you won't have wasted your money. There are several tips worth considering before you buy. Unless you are Colin and enjoy uncomfortable racing positions, it's advisable to replace the standard low slung handlebars with upright bars. The back pedal brake is a little too soft. But the front brake is superb in a crisis, particularly at speed. Because of its low centre of gravity, the bike doesn't dip like a drunk in an emergency.

My only real grudges are as follows: the tiddly size and lightness of the gear pedal - you have to be pigeon-toed to use it. The lack of a decent parking stand - the flimsy kick stand makes it impossible to park on slopes. And an apology of a luggage rack - too small for Mr Happy Eater's violin case, even if he could fit on the ludicrously small pillion seat. Oh and Mr Smart - but I've forgiven him. Honest.

T509 SPEED TRIPLE

Engine type: 885cc, liquid-cooled, 3 cylinder

Fuel system: electronic fuel injection

Transmission: 6-speed/chain driven

Weight: 196kgs

Fuel capacity: 18 litres, 35 mpg

Warranty: 24 months

Price: pounds 8,649

Overall value for money: Expensive, but if you like ugly good-looking bikes with acceleration and pedigree, this is worth the pounds 1,000 more than the competition. Lightness and easy-handling should interest female riders

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