Test rides

Ride review: 2014 Triumph America

2014 Triumph America

Find yourself a sofa — the comfier the better. Take a seat on the edge of the cushion, in such a way that sweet tushy of yours is supported but your thighs are not. Keeping your feet flat on the floor, now recline your back until it just barely touches the back cushion, but do not put any of your weight on it. At this point you should find your abdominal, back and neck muscles straining to support the weight of your torso. Welcome to the strange core workout that is riding the Triumph America.

It breaks my heart to tell you of how unpleasant is the experience of riding an America. I would almost prefer to lie, or narrowly focus on good things whilst conveniently ignoring any negatives. Like the seat. Golly, that seat is comfy. Oh so lovely and comfy. Sure, it is angled in such a way that you need the abs of King Leonidas to be able to sit on it for more than a few minutes, but in and of itself, it is a great seat.
The reason it breaks my heart to speak ill of the America is that I have loved this bike from the very moment I saw it. Before this blog even existed, the Triumph America was at the top of my wish list. The image of the America served as a nucleus around which my plans to get a bike were formed. Then, about a year ago, I spotted its almost identical twin, the Triumph Speedmaster, in a car park in Bristol and the beauty of the machine almost spoke to me.
The Speedmaster became a go-to dream bike. Search through this blog and you will see it mentioned over and over again — even more than the Victory Judge or Indian Chief Classic. I love the look of that machine; it is a piece of art. And it was the Speedmaster that I had asked to ride when I went up to Bevan Motorcycles recently. But they didn’t have a demo Speedmaster available and offered the America instead.

I happily agreed. After all, the Speedmaster and the America are almost exactly the same bike. Even more so than the Victory Judge and the “new” Victory Gunner. Basically, the only differences are paint and chrome. But because I did not actually ride a Speedmaster, I am going to cling to the desperate hope that it is still, somehow, the perfect bike for me. Whereas the America is not.

In fairness, you could resolve the America’s seating issue by simply forking out the extra cash to get a different seat — one with a back rest, perhaps. There are plenty of aftermarket options available. But the discomfort of the standard ergonomics seemed to open the floodgates for me. Slogging through corners and feeling the ache in my lower back intensify, I found myself having flashbacks to riding the Harley-Davidson SuperLow 883 and the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200
In those test rides there had been some intangible thing that had kept me from thinking, “I need this in my life.” I loved them, but did not really find myself thinking seriously about replacing my Honda CBF600SA, as I have with the Triumph Bonneville. That intangible thing is this: I don’t like cruisers.

Gasp.

I remember exactly where I was when those words formed in my head. Trauma has burned the moment into memory; I almost pulled to the side of the road and wept. Because it is not really that I don’t like cruisers, but that I don’t like the way they handle. As things to look at and hear, I love them. But as things to ride, I find them awkward and unpleasant.
In fact, so strong is my love for the cruiser aesthetic that I am refusing to accept my own conclusions. I have decided that it is not that I don’t like cruisers, but that I don’t like cruisers in Britain. Roads here are surprisingly narrow, crowded and in increasingly poor condition (a). Here in Wales, I am willing to bet, not a single road exists that offers a full mile of straight.

So, when you look at a bike like the Triumph America, the clue is in the name: these are machines made for a different country, a different continent, a different attitude. A place of grids and straight lines, where a large hunk of metal with all the responsiveness of a sedated horse makes sense. Take this motorcycle to the smooth, straight back highways of Minnesota or Texas or the like and it will be comfy bliss (assuming you have a backrest).

Only good on British roads if those roads have been closed
for photography purposes.

In another place, the America would be a lot of fun to ride. Gears are announced with a reassuring “clunk” and there is a comforting grumble within the bike’s stock exhaust. It is loud enough to sound like a cruiser but not so much that it hurts the ears or will damage neighbourly relations. Sitting behind the enormous chrome headlight and gripping the bike’s wide bars, I felt a bit like Flash Gordon on his weird flying motorcycle thing. The machine has a commanding presence.

The engine’s power is similar to that of the Triumph Bonneville, which is not surprising because, you know, that’s what a Triumph America is. Indeed, in some circles the America is known as the “Bonneville America.” The engine is exactly the same and pulls with with the same useful strength. You have roughly the same amount of torque as with a Harley-Davidson Sportster but it is delivered in a more pleasant way; you don’t feel as if your arms are going to be ripped from their sockets; motorway speeds are comfortably achieved, maintained, and exceeded.

At that speed, the bike made my heart ache for the wide concrete rivers of home.  This thing would be so wonderful to ride up to my friend’s cabin in Forest Lake, Minnesota, gently navigating the I-35 up from my parents’ house in Bloomington, or even trundling up via Highway 61. In the clogged tributaries and streams of Britain, though, constantly shifting was not made easy by the America’s stiff clutch and occasionally hard-to-find shifter.

Meanwhile, with the exception of the speedometer, dashboard information is placed on the tank, where it is completely invisible to a rider in motion. What’s the point of having a neutral light if you have to be stopped and staring straight down to see it?

Although the bike’s weight and bulk made me feel a little more authoritative on the road, it did not leave me feeling as if I could tackle the road with authority. The brakes required more force than I would have anticipated, and on one occasion I found myself floating out into a roundabout because the bike simply was not able to stop in the space I had given it.

And it was more or less at that point that I gave up on the America. In another roundabout I stalled the engine trying to get the bike to jump too quickly from the line and I learned it has a rather stupid safety feature of not being able to start when in gear — even though I had the clutch pulled in. So, I had to stare down at the tank and dance the shifter until I found neutral, then start it up and put it into gear, by which time the tiny window of opportunity to enter the roundabout had passed and the patience of the driver behind me had utterly dissipated.

I felt frustrated and completely deflated. Maybe my expectations had simply been too high. Having been so near and dear to my heart for so long, maybe no machine could have actually lived up to what I had hoped for the America. But at the end of the ride I found myself quite happy to get off and walk away without so much as a backward glance.

So, you can guess it doesn’t fair well in answering my three question test:

Does it belong in my garden?
No. I’d love for it to be there, for me to look at, but it would almost never get used. This is not a bike for this country. I don’t fault Triumph for that. In their launch of the latest Thunderbird models they have flat out said they are targeting the United States with their cruisers and aiming to one day be the no. 2 company in the cruiser market there. That’s fine. More power to them. And if you are reading this in the United States, I’d suggest giving the America a test ride (just make sure you allocate plenty of space in which to stop). In Triumph’s home country, however, these bikes are not fit for purpose. 
Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. That may surprise you to hear me say that. Objectively, though, I enjoyed riding the America. It was a huge disappointment for me because of what I wanted and what I expected, but in and of itself the riding experience is a lot of fun. The engine is smooth and powerful, but just better enjoyed in a standard Bonneville.

Is it better than my current motorcycle?
No. It sounds better, has a (potentially) comfier seat and looks cooler but it is outperformed by my Honda in all the ways that matter to a person riding bad roads on an overpopulated island. In terms of braking and manoeuvrability it is even outpaced by the Harley-Davidson Sportster.

Maybe the Speedmaster is different. Maybe, somehow, it doesn’t feel as heavy and the riding experience is more nimble. Maybe, somehow, it stops better. Maybe. Perhaps, though, I’ll just hold onto the dream of it as a perfect bike, rather than ever test riding one and risk learning otherwise. The America was enough heartbreak for now.

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(a) Seriously, roads here are awful and many councils have admitted they are simply giving up on maintaining them.