Tim Luckhurst rides the 160mph two-wheeled equivalent of an Aston Martin

There are few areas of natural beauty in the UK that compare with South Africa's Cape Province. In those that do exist, the roads are infested with speed cameras and fast cruising is impossible. But the Triumph Sprint ST is designed to cruise very fast.

In the mountain passes between Cape Town and the old Huguenot settlement at Franschhoek, and on the stunning coastal roads of the Eastern Cape that is possible. As long as one remains alert to baboons and gazelles crossing the carriageway, this is a breathtaking natural racetrack, the ideal playground for a seriously quick touring motorcycle.

I rode the new Triumph at its world press launch in Cape Town. It is confirmation of the British brand's newfound reputation for stylish, reliable, high-performance motorcycles, as well as a reminder of the joy of travelling on two wheels amid sun-kissed and sumptuous surroundings.

The Sprint ST is as fast as the fastest sports bikes were only a few years ago. The engine is velvet-smooth but it snarls assertively under hard acceleration. This Triumph is aimed directly at the sports end of the sports touring market. Those jolly fellows on the BBC's Top Gear programme recently organised a race from England to Switzerland in which a luxury sports saloon beat the trains, planes and buses of the world's most advanced public transport network. In skilled hands, this motorbike could complete the route faster than that car.

The 2005 Sprint ST is the two-wheeled equivalent of a Ferrari or Aston Martin. It will cruise all day at outside-lane-of-the-autobahn speeds of 130mph and above, and has the brakes, suspension and poise to maintain electric pace through alpine passes too

Riders of the old Sprint ST, which this replaces, often praise their bike's high level of comfort. This takes it to a new level. After 200 miles, hardly any of them at less than 80 mph and none on motorways, I was enjoying myself so much I had to be dragged away from the bike.

From behind, the perspective from which the Sprint ST is most likely to be spotted, triple underseat silencers announce the presence of Triumph's charismatic three-cylinder inline engine. The 1,050cc fuel-injected unit has been comprehensively upgraded. It generates 123bhp and 104Nm of torque. I reached 130mph on a slight up-slope and there was plenty of pull left in reserve. Less cautious testers achieved satellite-verified top speeds of 160mph.

The £7,799 Sprint ST is a motorcycle James Bond should ride. It deserves to be parked beside £70,000 cars on the forecourt of an exclusive spa. From that vantage point, it could look on the four-wheeled grand tourers as honorable opponents. It is at least their equal. The comparison almost extends to looks as well as performance. It retains the fresh, swooping, very British lines of the original Sprint ST, but takes a big step towards the angular modernity common in Italian and Japanese sports design.

Ducati deserves its reputation for making the most aesthetically appealing modern motorbikes, but this machine brings Triumph close to the same league. It is still a little too restrained to be truly cutting edge, but the look is clean, modern and svelte. The triple-beam headlight cone is very contemporary and provides superb illumination with the two outer beams working on the dip setting and the centre lamp joining them at full beam. Other touches include front indicators set into the forward facing surface of the mirror pods, an idea I find more imaginative than practical.

The Sprint ST really is meant to be ridden over big distances and no detail has been missed in the quest to make the experience delightful. The rider and pillion seat ergonomics are first class. The on-board trip computer displays average speed, fuel consumption and miles available until next fill-up as well as time and distance readings. An ABS version will be available before summer, though the standard brakes are so dependable experienced riders will consider that option unnecessary.

The new Sprint ST is assertively quick, not intimidating; it is a balance of performance and finesse. But for all its comfort and practicality, this is primarily a performance motorcycle. With colour-coordinated panniers, top box and tank bag, it should be ridden hard across continents, not coddled in some garage. Bikes like this remind sensitive souls that speed can inspire as well as kill. Fast tourers can check out a demonstrator now at every Triumph dealer. The Sprint ST is a touch of pure British class. The pity is Britain's speed restrictions.

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