During the past two weeks I've been lucky enough to attend the launch of both the Honda Crosstourer and then the Triumph Tiger Explorer 1200 at glitzy locations in Spain. And after deep contemplation and much soul searching I've concluded that Triumph won out on location and wine and Honda championed the travel arrangements and breakfast. So there you have it – bribery wins, I'll call it a draw and hopefully ABR will be invited back next year.
Anyway, let's move on. If the past 18 months, and more specifically the past two weeks, have counted for anything then it's this: if you, like me, prefer your motorcycles adventure-style then it's starting to look and feel as if we're being spoilt for choice.
The pendulum has finally swung, the adventure barbarians have stormed the grid and the debate has moved on. Or, if you'd prefer me to phrase things in a slightly less dramatic and in a more understandable fashion, we've now reached the point where the question, 'what is an adventure bike?' is of diminishing relevance.
With so much choice of size, power, brand and specification the only question in town is 'what adventure bike best suits your style of adventures?' And with that in mind let me whisk you to a hotel in the dry, dusty hills north of Malaga in southern Spain, and an encounter with the new Triumph Tiger Explorer 1200.
Arriving at the hotel early, with a good five or so hours to kill before the rest of the UK entourage were due to turn up, there was plenty of time to poke and prod the new Triumph and chat with a Norwegian journalist who had just completed his test ride.
He was mighty impressed with the Explorer, claiming it was without doubt a credible alternative to the all-conquering BMW GS. If he had an issue then it was focused on the harshness of the engine braking when screaming through Alpine-style twisties. Having since ridden the bike I can categorically say that engine braking was one factor that did not concern me in the slightest. But then Scandinavians have curious priorities; the smorgasbord is proof.
The Explorer has been a long time in the making, having been conceived by the Triumph team in July 2006 when the world was awash with disposable cash and easy credit and everyone else was watching Zinedine Zidane being sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi in the France vs Italy World Cup final.
From the outset the design and build brief was to develop a new 1200cc adventure bike to take on the BMW GS, and Triumph wasn’t shy in telling the assembled journalists that the German bike was the target in the Hinckley factory's cross-hair. In order to compete, there would be a new chassis, engine, shaft drive and electronics; the Explorer truly was a project that started on a blank piece of Bavarian paper.
The base concept was to make a bike that was comfortable for extended use, that would be capable of carrying a pillion with ease. Reliability had to be built in, as did features that would appeal to the adventure and touring rider. It also needed to come with a whiff of off-road capability (more promise than reality) and it had to have that look which had been raking in the cash for BM for many a year.
So, having raided the lunchtime buffet, I found myself standing next to the Explorer under a clear blue Andalusian sky with a tasty ham sandwich hanging from my gob, contemplating the question 'has the motorcycle equivalent of D-Day arrived?’
Up close the Triumph looked well put together, with clean angular lines and hardly a hint of the external plumbing that had made some of the earlier Tigers I've owned look more like mobile chemical plants than combustion engines on wheels.
Take a step back and there's little doubt that the Explorer, just like the Tiger 800, had probably started life on the Triumph sketchpad as a GS. Tuck a bit here, rub a bit there, whip out the horizontal twin pots and bolt in an in-line triple and you have it. Though in some eyes the end result will still not have enough of that rugged, plough-through-walls visual drama that oozes from the BM. If the new Honda Crosstourer is the Range Rover, then the Explorer is the Discovery and the GS is still the Defender.
The Explorer, as you'd expect for a 1200cc shaft-driven motorcycle, is a big, heavy lump with a wet weight of 259kg, which makes it heavier than the GS and lighter than the new Honda. Throwing a leg over the bike both feet could be planted flat on the ground, although I am 6ft 2in. However, with all the adjustment/accessory options available the seat height is variable between 810 and 880mm so it'll be fine for riders of all different heights.
I've yet to confirm details on where the centre of gravity lies but my initial thoughts were that it felt more like my top heavy Tiger 955 rather than the more balanced GS or indeed the Honda Crosstourer. But then it is an in-line Triple and that means it's inevitable that weight is carried high.
There's no doubting that Triumph have done their research on what 'adventure' customers want. The Explorer comes with a class-leading 950 watts generator, which means it'll power the adventure caravan that Touratech are no doubt busy planning as an accessory. In more practical terms, it's a sign that Triumph are listening: they know that having the power to fire up a legion of gadgets ranks almost as high as having two wheels and for that reason there's also a beefed up 18Ah battery as standard and auxiliary power sockets at the front and back of the bike. All good news.
Continuing with the theme of giving the market what it wants, the Explorer boasts a class-leading 222kg load carrying capacity; a centre stand that comes with the bike and not as an optional extra; an aluminium luggage rack in situ; cleated footpegs with removable rubber inserts; a side stand with a large footprint; 10,000 mile service intervals; a maintenance free shaft drive; an adjustable and effective front screen; cruise control and ABS and Traction Control systems that can be turned on or off depending on your mood or the conditions. Phew.
Accessories on the test bikes included heated grips and a heated seat. Plus we were fitted out with a substantial bash plate and robust engine bars that looked good enough to scare off any after-market metal basher with Explorer accessory sales in mind.
Triumph has also made a set of panniers and a top box available for the Explorer and this is the one area where, in my opinion, they've fired well wide of the mark. I'm at a loss as to why the company didn't just bang out a set of metal boxes for this bike rather than a trio of unsightly plastic containers. In my view they spoil the look of the bike. In fact, they look as if they were made for different motorcycle. There's no question I'd be waving cash at a supplier of after-market aluminium luggage.
The Road Ride
Now here's a confession: the Triumph engine in the 885 Sprint and Tiger 885 rejuvenated my passion for motorcycles, as did the race-tuned Triple in my Tiger 955. All the above bikes were far from perfect but the combination of torque and speed from those rasping, roaring triples suited my style of riding and were the background inspiration for a magazine that goes by the name of Adventure Bike Rider. With that in mind, I view all triples through a haze of cupids and go all Elvis at the knees when they start to howl. But for the sake of objectivity I'll tone down the hunka hunka burning love in what I'm about to describe.
From the off the ergonomics of the Explorer compelled me to think in terms of 500-mile ache-free days on the road; every aspect of stance and control position suited the Davies torso to a T. Plus the seat felt custom-made for the 50-something bony-arse brigade – as I pointed out earlier, Triumph have done their research all right. Ignition engaged and the engine sounded wonderful, the unique triple growl almost bringing a tear to my eye (yes, I know, cupid’s aim is good) and then it was time for the off and my first errrr moment.
Triumph has fitted the Explorer with the company’s first ride-by-wire throttle system where the fuelling is essentially controlled by an ECU (computer) activated electric motor. The thinking behind such a system is that traction and cruise control can be programmed by a geek with trendy specs rather than fitted by an engineer with greasy hands. Plus, of course, it helps with the all important emission controls. All good stuff, but there is almost nil resistance when winding back the throttle.
Over the course of the test day this lightness of touch counted for little on road, it's just a case of getting used to it, but I still have visions of the Explorer flying out of control when hitting an unexpected off-road bump that causes an unplanned twist of the right hand. I've had many an off-tarmac moment where the lack of resistance of the Explorer throttle coupled with the huge power of a 1200 triple would probably have had me on my back with the bike leaping off ahead. But enough nightmares – let's head out on to those Alpine-style roads and see what she's made of.
If I learnt one thing at the Honda event the previous week then it was that the rate of progress on these test days can be far in excess of what 99% of riders would consider spirited. Throughout the course of the day there were moments when my next meal was just as likely to be a bowl of porridge slid through a metal hatch as a three course à la carte back at the hotel. What you do get though is the opportunity to test out the power and handling of the machines over and above what the average buyer is ever going to demand, and in both these respects the Triumph delivered what I'd come to expect from the British firm.
This is another adventure bike that is built for long, fast days in the saddle and if I were ever to consider meeting the criteria for joining the Iron Butt Club (1,000 miles in 24 hours) then the Explorer would be on the short list. It eats motorway miles effortlessly with superb comfort and stability. Even the screen – a feature that in my experience has always been an after after (yes, two afters) thought when it comes to Triumph – is effective and protective. Throw in the cruise control and there's nothing left to say – top motorway marks to Triumph.
Open the throttle up on the twisties and this is where the Explorer comes to life in a way that felt so different from the Crosstourer. The Honda beats the Triumph for the low/mid range grunt and has a heavy, solid, stable feel to it that had me riding in a totally upright style even when the bike was cranked over far enough to scrape the pegs. The Triumph on the other hand had me moving about from side to side and engaging with the machine and the riding experience with far more gusto, and I rarely, if ever, do gusto these days.
The 135bhp and torque are immense, pulling from low down and delivering through the range, and if I hadn't known the bike had a shaft drive there was almost nothing in its on-road character that would have had me thinking anything other than chain drive.
I'm no track day groupie who considers and contemplates the finer nuances of handling and suspension for days on end, I'm more of a 'wow I scraped the pegs and it didn't waver' guy and in that respect the Explorer gained my total confidence during a day that had us scraping boots and pegs on very fast, very long, bumpy Alpine bends. Once again, top marks Triumph.
To call what we did an off-road test would be stretching things a little – it was essentially a short ride down a dusty trail where if I'd met a golf buggy coming towards me it would have been no surprise. Not that that’s a bad thing – I felt that the lack of throttle resistance is something I'd want to change before taking on a golf cart unfriendly trail. Plus, the slow-speed stability and balance of the Explorer felt more in line with my 955 Tiger rather than the GS and the surprisingly well-balanced Crosstourer. That said, I've taken the 955 on the Stella Alpina off-road rally in the Alps and wouldn't think twice about doing the same with the Explorer.
With the above in mind I'd better throw in this qualification: the Explorer is a big, heavy beast for taking on anything other than gravel forestry roads and the off-road ability of all 1000cc plus adventure bikes has far more to do with the knowledge and experience of the rider than the ability of the bike.
Fuel consumption and range
Over a pint after the Crosstourer test ride the week before, the general consensus was that the Crosstourer had a potentially fatal flaw when it came to fuel economy and more so with the tank range, so it was with fevered interest that the assembled journos discussed test day fuel performance of the Explorer and prodded Triumph for official figures.
The only thing I'm sure of is this: on the test ride we were returning around 40mpg, though I'm equally sure that very few customers are going to thrash their adventure investment to the extent that these test bikes were exposed to on test. Triumph, though not quoting exact figures, was hinting that a return of just over 50mpg would be possible. On balance I reckon a mid-point of 45mpg would be real world achievable which means a tank range of around 200 miles.
Triumph has stated that it’s after the GS market and there's little doubt that this bike has the quality and technical ability to dent the sales account of the German manufacturer. How much they do so will depend on the strength of the immeasurable 'GS factor'. The big BM has an aura that can't be measured in a lab nor copied on a CAD system and in that respect Triumph has a Long Way To Go.
However, in my short experience in the Explorer saddle, I think the company is well placed for picking up the ageing Blade or R1 rider who's had enough of experiencing motorcycling and lumbago in equal measure and is looking for more comfort and versatility but not yet willing to give up the power and speed. The Explorer is the answer.
I've no doubt that this bike will sell – Triumph is looking at 6,000 in the first year – what's going to be interesting is finding out who buys them. I have a hunch that the Explorer (and the Crosstourer) are going to expand the adventure bike market and bring more riders in from other sectors of the industry just as much as they could compete with and take ground off BMW. I know one thing: if I were stepping off a sports bike and were to judge the Explorer and the GS purely on a test ride, the first letter on the cheque would be a T.