The Triumph Speed Triple is so macho, it could play Rambo, says Tim Luckhurst

First, an apology to the retired couple in a Renault Megane who nearly drove off the road. In the tranquil beauty of the Massif de la Sainte Baume, just north of Toulon, a bellowing motorcycle, its front wheel several feet off the tarmac, is an unwelcome sight. With three more following, each doing wheelies with depraved abandon, the prospect, frankly, can be intimidating.

First, an apology to the retired couple in a Renault Megane who nearly drove off the road. In the tranquil beauty of the Massif de la Sainte Baume, just north of Toulon, a bellowing motorcycle, its front wheel several feet off the tarmac, is an unwelcome sight. With three more following, each doing wheelies with depraved abandon, the prospect, frankly, can be intimidating.

I would like to pretend that it was consideration for other road-users that kept both my tyres on the tarmac. Actually, it was fear of humiliation. This was the launch on which several of my fellow road-testers proved to be wheelie kings. The Triumph Speed Triple is their kind of motorcycle.

This is a naked muscle bike, so stripped down that it is almost pornographic. It is raw, elemental, thuggish and aggressive. The engine is the heart of the frame as well as the performance and it is meant to be seen. This is essentially a power plant with just enough styling to make it desirable. Earlier versions of the Speed Triple had such luminous sex appeal it was cast in films including The Matrix and Johnny English. The 2005 version feels ready to audition as a replacement for Rambo.

One Speed Triple looks like trouble. A gang of them spells mayhem. It was inevitable that 12 journalists doing their best to break their bikes would attract attention. But it says something endearing about the culture of French law enforcement that the officers simply clapped in appreciation. Admittedly, the sight of two large men trying to prove that the Speed Triple can carry a pillion passenger was comic. It can't. Not unless they are a size 10 and weigh less than eight stone.

Triumph's engineers have taken the 1,050cc three-cylinder engine they developed for the Sprint ST and completely changed its characteristics. In this guise, it develops 128bhp and has been tuned to deliver stomach-punching acceleration. This is most impressive in the mid-range where power delivery is savage. An instant-response throttle linked to multipoint sequential fuel injection helps.

The Speed Triple is a show-off. It will blast away from traffic lights, rocket past sports cars on roundabouts and make mincemeat of touring motorcycles at any speed below 100mph.

Handling is as good as the stubby appearance suggests. Steering reaction is fast and precise, though ambitious riders will need to adjust settings on the forks and rear shock to achieve full potential. The Speed Triple is a thoroughbred wildcat and must be carefully set up to deliver all of its thrilling, pugnacious performance. Even then it requires skill and concentration to ride well. Novices and occasional riders should not contemplate starting here.

The Speed Triple's direct competitors include the Aprilia Tuono, Ducati S4R, Buell XB12S and Kawasaki Z1000. It is more powerful than any of them, though the difference is so marginal as to be irrelevant to any but the most skilled riders. Where the Triumph really wins is on looks. Its twin spot headlights and brutish aesthetic stand out in any crowd. So does the engine's deep bass tone that produces a crisp, ripping-silk crescendo as the 9,100rpm rev limit approaches.

Since its first incarnation as a modern café racer in 1994, the Speed Triple has been cast in pop promos as well as movies. It is crammed with insolent attitude and the performance potential to live up to big boasts.

This motorcycle lets its thong show above the waistband of its jeans and grins back when you stare. The new version is a distinct improvement on its predecessor and a tribute to Triumph's ability to coax dramatically different performance characteristics from one engine.

Its flaws are few. The rear-view mirrors are abysmal; it was impossible to adjust them to provide a comprehensive view of the road behind. This made motorway riding acutely vexatious. The side stand is tucked too tightly under the gear-lever and absurdly difficult to extend, particularly while wearing motorcycle boots. Each of these niggles can and should be rectified. The mirrors simply need to be a few inches longer. The stand needs a proper extension. Some sacrifices to style are simply not worth making, not even on a motorcycle that demands recognition as a modern icon.

The Triumph Speed Triple is not for long-distance travel or poor weather. Its performance and looks could impress a potential partner, but they might prefer to take a taxi back to your place. Touring is not on the agenda. A tame commuter bike would be faster over distance, because the wind buffeting you experience on a Speed Triple becomes uncomfortable at motorway speeds. Luggage-carrying capacity extends to a credit card and either a toothbrush or a G-string. To take both would stretch things.

You guessed. I am too risk-averse to truly appreciate the Triumph Speed Triple. It is for riders with a lesser sense of their own mortality. But the motorway toll collector at Bandol told me it was utterly gorgeous and young men stopped to whistle at it from the roadside. Triumph can do macho as well as the Italians and deserves credit for it.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model Triumph Speed Triple

Engine 1,050cc liquid-cooled, DOHC, in-line, three-cylinder

Performance 128bhp (130ps) at 9,100rpm

Torque: 78ft/lb at 5,100rpm

Fuel capacity 18 litres

Brakes Front twin 320mm floating discs; rear: single 220mm disc

Suspension Front 45mm USD forks; rear: monoshock

Price Around £7,600

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