Different bikes - same sort of fun
THE B863 sits about five miles south of Fort William, just off the A82. This gorgeous stretch of perfect tarmac encircles Loch Leven and twists and turns its way along the shores as the Loch heads inland. Above, the mountains Pap of Glencoe and Aonach Eagach cast their monstrous shadows over the road while to either side the thick forests and purple heather line the roadside. If it sounds like I'm getting all Keats you'll have to excuse me - it's an idyllic scene, and also home to perhaps the best 10 miles of biking road in the UK.
This claim has been made many times (by us and others) about a particular patch of road, but this time it's hard to refute. James Whitham has been making a pilgrimage to this spot for years with a group of mates for the sheer joy of riding this road, and now it's our turn to join him. With an unusually dry patch of weather for both the UK and in particularly Scotland we gathered the three bikes best suited to this snaking nirvana.
Which was the key, because although this is a fantastic road to ride it isn't suited to every kind of bike. When you get off the main roads and onto the B-roads in Scotland you leave behind the need for big power. Although the surface of the B863 is perfect it's tight, twisty and undulates as it tracks its way along the Loch. What bikes would offer the most fun per pound? Travelling all the way to Scotland was a hell of a trip just to ride one road, and we wanted to get the maximum amount of pleasure from the day.
We needed a sportsbike with grunt, but not too much grunt, and handling to make the most of the corners. A simple choice, Suzuki's GSX-R750, probably the best overlooked (by the fashion conscious 'much have a 1000' owner anyway) sportsbike out there. All the useable power you could possibly need and all wrapped up in a lovely, easy going, package with the handling of a 600. Perfect.
Then the ultimate back road missile, KTM's 690SM. Twisty back roads surround KTM's factory so their supermotos are born and bred into this environment.
And finally we have what promises, for me at least, to be the bike of 2007: Triumph's Street Triple. A naked bike with the chassis and engine from a class-leading sportsbike, could anything be better suited to back roads? Having ridden this machine on its launch around some fantastic smooth, twisty roads around Italy I couldn't wait to see how it coped with the UK's finest. And, to be truthful, I simply couldn't wait to ride one again. I am that shallow. So, with the sun glinting off the surface of Loch Leven, James, his mate Shoey and myself began the best day's riding that any of us had enjoyed so far this year in the UK.
Although James was a regular on this road neither Shoey nor myself had been on it before, so we thought it was probably best to let James get on with things while we followed at a more relaxed pace. Although this is a stunning road it does have its fair share of Armco barriers and blind humps so a degree of caution is called for. James hopped straight on the KTM and proceeded to wheelie as far as possible, which not only set the tone of things to come but also was like a red flag to a bull. Shoey was revving the GSX-R to follow suit and never one to miss a good opportunity I flicked the Triumph's clutch lever.
Ah yes, now it's all coming back to me. There are many reasons why I have fallen so much in love with the Street Triple, but one of the biggest is the fact it's so ridiculously easy to pull big, long and satisfying wheelies on. Childish pleasures perhaps, but when you are with a group of mates there is simply nothing better than watching, or being the person who pulls, a massive wheelie. It makes me smile every time I see one, which is a rare occurrence on the road nowadays due to the law's rather dim view on them.
The plan of caution seems to have gone out the window. James is merrily chucking the KTM into the corners and despite the enormous power deficit the little single has over the GSX-R750 it is by no means holding us up. That's the beauty of these roads, you just need a light, easy bike to ride which the KTM is.
Unlike previous models of KTM supermoto the 690SM isn't a fire-breathing animal that is to all intents and purposes a motocrosser with road wheels, no the 690SM is a dedicated road bike. It's all part of KTM's massive expansion plans. No longer is the Austrian firm prepared to simply be an off-road manufacturer that happens to build a few road bikes, oh no, they want to be as big as BMW. What this means is that they are now building dedicated road bikes, rather than simply modifying existing models. The 690SM is a perfect example of this. Although it looks like a full-on supermoto, this is much more a road bike made to look aggressive rather than an aggressive off-roader made to look like a road bike. Along the way it has lost none of the aggressive KTM racing spirit. With 63bhp the single cylinder motor is the most powerful road-based single out there and as well as a slipper clutch it comes with an electronic ride-by-wire throttle. For its £5,895 asking price it's a hell of a trick supermoto and it goes well too.
Traditionally supermotos generally fizzle out of power at about 70mph. They will go faster, but you have to rev the tits off them to get there and the vibes coming up your arse are shocking. Not so with the SM. You have to rev it but this little bugger will happily top 100mph, virtually unheard of when it comes to this style of bike. And it does so with composure.
Supermotos have long suspension, which traditionally makes them weave like a teenager after three alcopops. With the 690, KTM has spent time with spring and damping rates to make sure it doesn't do this, which is a refreshing change. What they can't engineer out is the long-travel suspension.
Compared to the sure-footed GSX-R750 and Street Triple the 690SM feels a bit long in the forks. James reckoned it lurched a bit during changes of direction, which is fair, but it only does this because the forks have so much travel and it really isn't an issue. Well, judging by the speed we were hoofing the KTM through corners it wasn't. Compared to the other bikes it did wobble a bit during a change of direction, but against other supermotos the 690 feels like a finely-honed sportsbike.
And speaking of sportsbikes how was Shoey getting on with the GSX-R750? To be fair as soon as we turned up at the B863 I realised that the GSX-R750 was probably out of its depth. Actually that's not fair, it wasn't out of its depth, just not suited to this road. James realised the same thing which is why he snaffled the KTM, and I know for a fact that's why I pinched the Triumph. The Suzuki is a brilliant bike, and a huge favourite of everyone who's ever ridden one. It combines the best of two worlds by providing the useable part of a 1000s power with the handling of a 600, but on this particular road it just didn't fit in. The KTM, and even more so the Street Triple, required less effort and were simply more enjoyable.
At speeds below 60mph the GSX-R is basically working between the first two gears. The engine has a wonderfully smooth power delivery not to mention totally raucous airbox/exhaust note, but it is designed for flowing roads, not the more stop-start nature of the Loch. Every time you started to get the Suzuki into the swing of things a tighter corner would appear, meaning you never really got going. And the race-rep riding position, which is remarkably comfortable over a long distance, seemed squashed after the sit-up style of the other two. In turn, this meant you couldn't move around on the bike as easily nor see what was coming up so well, vital for this kind of road.
On the A82 back to Fort William, and on any other of Scotland's more open roads for that matter, the GSX-R's pedigree shines through. Show it a set of fast, smooth and sweeping corners and the Suzuki displays its class. Like the GSX-R1000 K5 tested in the Extreme Sports test in this issue the 750 chassis is wonderfully balanced with blistering brakes and sorted suspension, but unlike the thou' it comes with an engine that is in no way intimidating to ride.
A figure of 133bhp is mighty impressive from a 750, but the GSX-R delivers its power in a smooth build-up with a intoxicating tingle of vibrations and a hefty kick in the power at the top end. But what was interesting about this test was that the GSX-R was taking a pasting. Given almost any other bike on the market the 750 would have been the one we would all have instantly headed towards, but instead it was the Triumph's key that was in hot demand.
If ever a bike suited a specific road then the Street Triple was built for the B863. Light, agile and with a superb and wide spread of torque from its triple engine, the baby Triumph was simply divine to ride. Want to go nuts? Not a problem at all, the Street Triple would happily oblige. Fancy a gentle tour while looking at the stunning scenery? That's okay by the Triumph. On British roads, the Street Triple can really get its head down and boogie. I struggle to find any bad things to say about this bike and am forced to resort to moaning about the pathetic steering lock in a way of finding some way to show that it isn't a perfect bike, but that's the only fault I can find. And James struggled to find any more, either.
We both have similar outlooks on bikes, neither of us cares what a bike is, where it's from or what it is meant to be as long as it's fun to ride. It's probably the reason we both have garages full of old bangers and certainly the reason we both loved the Triumph.
Get it on a twisty road and the Street Triple shows its sporting genes. Its entire rolling chassis (wheels, frame and swingarm) are identical to the Daytona 675 and it's only the forks that are non-adjustable budget items and the brakes non-radial. Not that this matters. When you're really on a mission the rear end does get a bit soft, but this is easily tuned out with a minor suspension twiddle and your average rider is unlikely to encounter this problem. The agility of the chassis and wonderful motor manages to encapsulate everything that is good about the larger 1,050cc triple engine, just in a smaller package. It even comes with the delightful burble on the over-run that the bigger triples have. Lovely job, properly done.
Then there is the riding position that feels roomy despite the tiny stature of the bike, the fact that the seat height will suit shorties, the stylish dash with a gear indicator and rev warning lights, the brakes that although look cheap embarrass more expensive units with their levels of power and feel and finally the price. How on earth is this a £5,349 bike? I can't understand how Triumph has made it so cheap, but bless them for doing so.
Every time I ride the Street Triple it blows me away and on this road it was stunning, but in fairness it is stunning on any road in any situation. I really can't recommend this bike enough, everyone who rides one instantly falls in love with the Triumph and with good reason. Although I'm generally not a huge supermoto fan due to their impracticality, KTM's 690SM goes a long way to curing this. For back roads it's brilliant, the engine never fails to impress and the handling is surefooted and balanced. On the open road it can hold its own and would make a really stylish, day-to-day bike with more than enough fun to keep you entertained at the weekend.
And finally the GSX-R750, which is one of the best bikes around at the moment, provided you take it on the right road. While is was unsuited to the twisty back roads of Scotland, on faster A-roads it is an absolute joy. If you are considering owning a 1,000 try the 750 first, it is honestly all you need and may well sway your decision. It will save you money on insurance when it does.
And as for the Loch road? It may only be a 10-mile round trip, but somehow James, Shoey and myself managed to spend nearly all day messing around on the B863. I could go on for hours about the views, hysterical humps in the road that launch the bikes into the air, sweeping corners and even the decent pubs en route with friendly locals. But why listen to me? Get out there and do it yourself.
Really enjoyable to ride, what a brilliant thing. I struggled to find anything I didn't like about the Triumph. The brakes were fantastic with a really good feel to them, the seating position was lovely and for the roads we were on perfect. You're perched a bit higher so you can see over the crests and it makes you feel the boss of the bike. The engine has a beautiful feel to it, really torquey, well geared and just dead right everywhere. When you really start to hammer it the back end felt a bit loose, but you could add some preload to sort this and to be honest under normal riding it was brilliant. Strangely, although the seat has a really soft pad it's on top of something hard, which dug in a bit. But apart from these things, brilliant and really good fun. Made me smile, a lot.
A totally different genre of bike, but really well-thought out in its own way. It handles and steers well but the travel makes it feel loose when you are really hacking on. Going from one direction to the other it lurches a bit, but only because the suspension is moving so much. It's a dicking about bike. I was a bit disappointed with the gearbox, I missed gears a few times, and the front brake could have been more powerful. For a single the engine is stonking, I expected a low geared single to feel sharp off the bottom in the first three gears, but the KTM was powerful and pulled well past 70mph. It also has the KTM-ness about it, which you either like or not. It's made for people who want it and not for anybody else, and I like that in the brand and in the bike.
Unfortunately this wasn't really the ideal conditions for the GSX-R, but it's still a great bike. If I were buying a sportsbike this is what I'd buy. Just the right amount of power, enough to be exhilarating but not too much so that it scares you, everything else is typical sportsbike feel. On the roads we were on it definitely highlighted that the fastest bike around here wouldn't have been a sportsbike, the corners were too slow and bumpy but I still liked the 750, it's the ideal balance of sportsbike for me. There was nothing not to like and it looks fantastic in black, it just wasn't ideal for what we were doing. It makes you realise that there are other bikes out there, other bikes can be more fun and that UK riders should think outside of sportsbikes. All other countries do.
Inspired? Then do it
Budget for £150 in petrol to get there and back from London. Hotels in Fort William cost around £60 a night, which is a bit steep but it's a big tourist destination due to some large hill behind the town. Everything is as you would expect in a major UK town, including rather chavvy locals. Riding from the south will take you around 8 hours and Glasgow is a nightmare. If you fancy a bit of a tour explore any of the A-roads around the coast, they all have stunning views and the A832 in particular is breath-taking. Keep your speed down. The Scottish police are quite hot on speeders and the roads can catch you out. Take insect repellant!
TYPE - STREETBIKE
TYPE - SUPERSPORTS
TYPE - STREETBIKE