Ring Cycles

Poking death with a stick then running away scared, our four intrepid testers take on the Nurburgring armed with four sports tourers, BMW R1200 ST, Ducati ST3, Honda VFR800 and Triumph Sprint ST

There must be five million quids' worth of motors in the Nurburgring paddock and probably at least a dozen multi-zillionaires. Even the canny Mackenzie, with his fortune from racing stashed carefully in a mattress at his Derbyshire home, can't compete with these high rollers. Rare Porsches, mega Mercs and flash Ferraris; if it costs a fortune and is fast, then it's here.

Impressive, but not enough to make us jealous, because yesterday morning we left TWO's Teddington HQ on a quartet of bikes worth together a fraction of just one of these flash cars, but each capable of turning in a fast lap of the famous Nurburgring circuit. More to the point, already we have probably had more fun than anyone here. The ride through Belgium was a bit wet in places and the traffic around the city a bit snotted up, but we zapped that in no time. We dropped down through Liege, blasted past the Spa GP circuit and turned left into the Eifel mountains and onto the superb riding roads that lead to Nurburg village.

Recent TWO extravaganzas, from superbike thrashes to Barcelona for the MotoGP test to naked bike blasts to nude parts of Hamburg, have proved that when it comes to having a great experience on a bike pretty much any style of machine will do. That said, you can't beat a sports tourer when it comes to cramming entertainment into every mile. This trip will prove the point. A 350-mile run from home followed by a handful of quick laps around the 12-mile Nurburgring circuit and all topped off with a cross-country ride back to where we started. And the machinery? A fine collection. First, Triumph's new Sprint ST. The Sprint's fitted with a new three-cylinder engine that's been stroked to 1050cc that we'll eventually see fitted across Triumph's triple-powered range. The old Sprint ST was a worthy bike but slightly dull and characterless. Triumph has certainly put that to rights with the new bike - funky styling complete with an underseat exhaust system that finishes with a sexy triple- barrel tailpipe.

Next, BMW's new R1200 ST. Seen the wacky styling on some of BMW's recent cars? Well, the firm's bike designers have been popping the same pills. The R1200 ST is a very eccentric piece of design with a headlamp and screen arrangement that looks as though it's fallen off the side of the art deco Chrysler building in New York. BMW might have had a bit of a cough when it comes to their ST's looks, but it knows how to knock together a bike for covering distances. It knows the little tweaks and details that together make a bike so much more useable. Features like the 1200 ST's plastic luggage hooks, integrated luggage mounts, adjustable seat height (separate for rider and passenger) and a trip select button on the left-hand switchgear. Details that make a long journey more of a pleasure and less of an endurance.

Even though Ducati has been building its ST touring bikes for years, we still tend to think of sportsbikes and Monsters when the name is mentioned. This despite the fact that bikes like the 916-engined ST4 and aircooled ST2 (which the ST3 replaced as Ducati's budget tourer last year) are interesting and capable bikes. The latest edition is the ST3, named so for its three-valve cylinder-headed watercooled V-twin engine. By Ducati standards the ST3's styling is a bit bland. It's not ugly, just not that distinctive. The engine will more than likely be a compensation.Lastly, we have Honda's legendary VFR, re-launched in 2002 and fitted with a totally new 800cc V-four engine that incorporates VTEC valve technology pinched from Honda's car division. The VFR is the original sports tourer and, like the original Pan European, is now a bike with a religious following. It's the oldest bike here, but its styling is still fresh and its engine still revolutionary.Urry is worried about Ring Bores. They're not some nasty parasite that nibble their way through the body from the basement. No, they're worse than that. Ring Bores are people who cannot stop talking about the Nurburgring. They speak in sentences laced with Germanic words and exaggerations like, 'I'm flat through Schwedenkreuz' and 'I saw one-eighty at the bottom of the Fuchsrohre'. Urry hasn't been here before so he doesn't yet know how easy it is to catch it. Mackenzie's been around in a hire car when he was at the new circuit for a GP, but doesn't really know it in detail. Tennent has been before and driven it on his Playstation.

It's a ridiculous place. You turn up on your bike or in a car, stuff a few Euros into a machine, collect the paper ticket and then slot it into another machine next to a barrier. Instead of entering an NCP car park when the barrier lifts, you are let out onto 12 miles of twisting, rising, falling, flat-out and dangerous race track. No run-off, no gravel traps, no safety margins. And this in a country in which farting in public will have you in irons. The 'Ring is a haven of personal responsibility in a continent bound to choking point with red tape. I've done dozens of laps around the place but only on four wheels. I've even done a 24-hour car race here, but never have I ridden a bike around the 'Ring. As with opium, I've avoided it because I've been scared that the experience would deliver an intense pleasure, to which once addicted would lead to serious health issues. Such as death. I'm not exaggerating. Every time I've been here I've seen a biker carted off in the back of an ambulance. Or worse.But we are a sensible bunch. More to the point, Urry is the only one of us who doesn't remember old money. Mackenzie is very old indeed and, now away from the dangers of full-time racing, keen to become even older. Oli Tennent is the youngest of the old fellows and still trying to take 'The Picture' that will define his artistic career, so he won't be going mad. I know how dangerous the place is and, since I'm the only one who knows it well, will look the silliest if I fall off.

We start off in a long snake with Goodwin at the head on the 1200 ST. BMW has got into a bit of a muddle with its range. Or rather the marketing of it. So keen is the company for us to think of the R1100S (and its Boxer cup brother) as a sportsbike, that it has labelled this bike the ST (you guessed: 'Sports Tourer'). In truth the 1100S is the sports tourer of BMW's range; the 1200 GS a multi-purpose tourer/sporty/street bike that's almost impossible to label because it's so versatile. Then there's the full-on RT tourers and bikes like the Rockster. Where does that leave the R1200ST? And we thought the R1150RS - the bike the ST replaces - looked odd.To be safe and fast around the 'Ring you have to be smooth and to let the bike flow. This suits the BMW. Thrap it short-circuit style and it will fall to pieces. Too soft, too much pitch coming on and off the throttle - inevitable with shaft drive - and not enough feel from the servo-assisted ABS brakes. There are 174 corners on this circuit, many of which are either very fast, incorporate a crest or even a jump, or are approached almost flat-out. If you don't know the place you have to ride to what you can see. You also have to try and stay relaxed and calm, and for that the ST is perfect. The motor's got stacks of torque and has grunt whatever the revs. The trick is to brake early, allow the bike to settle, then accelerate gently through the corner.That's the theory. In reality there's the cars. Doing anything calmly and relaxed around here is difficult with some Swiss stockbroker bearing down on you at 165mph in his Porsche GT3 RS. The idea is that you pass on the left, just as you do on the roads abroad. The trouble is, some of these car blokes don't have a clear understanding of motorcycle dynamics. I would dearly love to dash over to the right side of the track, Fritz, but at 135mph I am more than somewhat committed to this line and if I stray off it just now I will be but a slab of leather-wrapped meat dangling from a pine tree. Usually the Nurburgring is open to punters (the rest of the time the motor industry uses it as a test track) for only a few hours each afternoon. Today and tomorrow, however, it's open all day.

The boys are a bit gobsmacked, including Mackenzie. In fact, Niall was fazed as soon as we got to the place. His phone rang just as we were about to set off on our first lap. "Hi, I'm at the Nurburgring," he said to the caller. "You might be the last person I ever talk to." That's confidence. Tennent is grinning nervously and Urry is just quiet.The track has still got a few damp patches on it, especially under the tree-lined sections, so a careful right hand is essential. A requirement which on the VFR brings to light the bike's big flaw. I've driven all of Honda's VTEC-equipped cars and, generally speaking, the system works very well. You get low-down torque and then a rush of power at the top end. Exciting stuff. Unfortunately, VTEC on the VFR is not quite such a joyous device. The step between the engine operating on two valves per cylinder and four valves (a hydraulically operated pin engages rockers that bring the other two valves in the combustion chamber into play) is far too harsh. The changeover comes at 7000rpm on the dot and it feels like either fuel starvation or the drive chain jumping a tooth on its sprockets.

Around the track, with damp patches, it's a mixture of unnerving and annoying. To avoid it you have to either keep under seven grand - where the motor feels lethargic - or keep above it, which is not ideal for the aforementioned relaxed and calm riding style. Apart from this massive drawback the VFR is great. It feels very compact, agile and predictable. The linked brake system and ABS has more feel than the BMW's peculiar servo-assisted brakes. Ride the Ducati, however, and you realise just how effective a well engineered and well balanced conventional braking system can be.

Ducati's ST3 is a wonderfully simple bike through and through and around the Nurburgring it's almost perfect. Lovely V-twin engine noise, very stable chassis and excellent brakes.It's only taken Mackenzie a few laps to get an idea of the place and so now it's not possible to keep up with him. No matter, because this isn't the occasion to get competitive. And when you're on the Triumph speed isn't really an issue, fun and enjoyment is. What a fabulous engine. Not only does it sound fantastic regardless of whether you're lugging at low revs or screaming downhill, but it makes the most wonderful pops and crackles on the overrun. The new motor has a very flat torque curve and power whenever you need it. It's the exact opposite of the Honda.

The Ducati has the best suspension set-up for hooling around this track while the Sprint ST's forks are a bit soft, which makes the bike slightly less stable through the fast sections and coming off crests. But that's a niggle. The Triumph is the bike which everyone wants to ride. Unlike the BMW, next to which there are several key fights. "You ride it next!" "No, YOU ride it!"Always do one less lap of the Nurburgring than you intended. It's that last 'I think I've cracked this place' lap that causes problems. On one of our last laps a chap on a Ducati goes down the road, fortunately doing nothing more than spannering his bike and covering his leathers in mud. It's usually more serious than that.

It's a good feeling to retire to one of the local hostelries knowing that all limbs are intact and the bikes are in one piece. Rather important when there's a ride home that promises to be just as entertaining as riding around what the Germans call the Grunne Holle ('Green Hell') of the Nurburgring.Add in a healthy dose of track knowledge and each one of these bikes would be capable of putting in a decent lap time around the 'Ring. Even the BMW. A ragged rider on a GSX-R1000 who barely knows his way around the place wouldn't see any of these bikes except in the car park. But it's out on the roads home that these bikes really come into their own and sell themselves as mile-munching sports tourers and brilliant do-everything all-rounders.

The plan is to ignore motorways and head back through the Eifel mountains to Belgium, where we'll stop off for lunch at the Spa Francorchamps circuit before riding through the Ardennes and picking up the E42 autoroute for a swift blast for Calais. The BMW has been the kid at school on his own in the playground, but Mackenzie seems happy enough to ride it away from our hotel in Adenau. "There's not a detail on it that I like," he admits. "It's hideous. But I didn't mind it round the track. Certainly it's the less sporty of the four, but it's smooth and stable. On the road though it makes even more sense. And, of course, when you're riding it you can't see how daft it looks."

Where we found the Sprint ST's front end a bit soft on the circuit, it is almost perfect cross country. In fact, the Ducati's front end now feels a bit stiff. Mackenzie reckons that if you took away some preload from the forks the ST3 would be spot on. Rather, it would be like the Triumph.The Honda is a very frustrating bike. Apart from the engine, it's superb. Usual Honda build quality and plenty of thoughtful details such as the lever that swings out for you to get the bike on the centre stand. Looks good, too, but the step as the VTEC comes in is even more irritating on the road. When you're touring across a continent with a mate or your squeeze on the back you don't want to have the surprise of the extra two valves chiming in with a bang. Much better the steady torque that all three of its rivals have in spades. The Honda also has the shortest fuel range of the four. At just under 140 miles we've seen worse on other Hondas, but the 150-plus miles of the Ducati and, better still, the BMW's and Triumph's excellent 200-mile ranges are what you should expect from a bike with 'tourer' in its tag.

The Triumph is a handsome bike, but let down by a few stupid build quality issues. "How difficult is it," asks Mackenzie, "to find the right size bolt? The one that holds the rear subframe onto the bottom of the main frame is twice the length it should be. If you were restoring a bike or building a special you'd cut the bolt to length. There's no excuse for a manufacturer. And I don't like the chrome stripe on the fairing sides. It looks like it's come off a Hillman Minx." After lunch at a hotel next to the Spa circuit we ride into the Ardennes. I've never been into this region before, and the others soon realise, as after 40 minutes of riding we pass a sign that reads 'Spa 10 km'. I hoped that no one would see it, but unfortunately Tennent is on the ball. If it was wet or we were on less suitable bikes I'd have a riot on my hands but as Mackenzie cheerfully points out "there's worse ways of spending an afternoon than riding around interesting countryside on good bikes."

It's only when we get within sight of Calais and our last fuel stop before the ferry that anyone starts to walk stiffly or complain about aches. Pretty much any bike is uncomfortable after a whole day in the saddle and not one of these is less comfortable than the others. The BMW has an adjustable screen - with a missing screw on our bike - that cuts down the windblast. The Ducati's screen looks like a traditional 'bubble' off an old racer.Back on the ferry, messing up P&O's club class lounge with helmets and backpacks, it's decision time.

And it's unanimous: Triumph's new Sprint ST wins hands down. An ace engine with plenty of torque and the most fabulous character. A low price of £7799 is no excuse for poor attention to detail, but otherwise the Sprint ST joins the new Speed Triple as being one of the best bikes the firm as ever made. Second comes the Ducati ST3. Almost as much character as the Triumph, another superb characterful engine and a great chassis. And at £7495 almost a bargain. The Italian owes its second place to the Honda's irritating VTEC engine. The VFR fitted with the old 800 motor would be almost perfect, and with that, the second place winner.

In last place we have the BMW. More tourer than sports, it is a competent bike. Trouble is, it's just too hideous for words. And that's a serious problem for a bike that costs £9060 plus £75 for a centre stand. The real problem, however, is that there's a bike called the R1200GS that's more fun, just as sporty in its way, and more than capable of long distance touring. And it wouldn't go too badly around the Nurburgring.