I am standing at my bedroom window, looking down at the 2017 Triumph Tiger 800 XRT parked in my back garden, light rain plinking off its aluminum panniers and top box. A wave of melancholy comes at the thought of the mysterious red dirt embedded in the bike’s nooks and crannies now washing away.
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The dirt is unlike any you’ll find in the United Kingdom. It’s clearly from somewhere far away, somewhere warm, somewhere far more interesting than Cardiff. It was one of the first things I spotted when Triumph delivered the bike to my house earlier this morning. Digging into the battered cases I also found a soggy, lone sock in the top box. This bike has been places; it has done exciting things.
It is at my house because I’m supposed to be riding it to EICMA. Every November, I borrow a bike and ride to the Milan-based motorcycle show to see the newest bikes being revealed, as well as put my business card in people’s hands. It would be cheaper, faster, and easier to fly but, you know: motorcycles, man.
It’s become clear, however, that I won’t be going this year. Red tape. I’ve lived in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for nigh 12 years but am still classed as a foreigner. Every two and a half years, I have to renew my visa – a process that involves sending every official document I have, including passport and driving license, to a small town in northeast England. Said stuff was sent months ago, but it has not yet been sent back.
Such is the joy of being an immigrant, man: they can do whatever they want to you. Without my passport I can’t leave the country. But damn it, this bike still deserves an adventure.
A week later, I’m making my way north to Scotland. My frequent riding buddy and occasional cameraman, Cam, and I have decided to ride to the Isle of Skye. An island famed for its mercurial weather, where else would you go with winter coming on?
Cam lives in Dunblane (famously home to tennis champs Andy and Jamie Murray), which is roughly equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Some 430 miles from TMO headquarters, it’s easily within a day’s ride for a comfy, all-bells-and-whistles machine like the Triumph Tiger 800 XRT (cruise control, heated grips, and heated seat are standard), but I’m in the mood to keep things slow. Using a map from Bikers’ Britain, by Simon Weir, I’m doing my best to avoid motorways and taking two days to get to Dunblane.
It is markedly cold but unseasonably dry. I’ve purchased a Keis V501 premium heated vest and am happily nestled in its warmth – the bike’s heated grips and heated seat both cranked to high.
This is the second-generation Tiger 800 XRT, rendered obsolete by the third-generation Tiger lineup announced at EICMA (Hence the reason I’ve felt no pressure to write up the experience until several months after the fact). A few months from now, I will get a chance to ride the new Tiger 800, as well as the new Tiger 1200, and discover that third generation models aren’t really all that different from second generation. In the moment, though, I feel I’m riding on the last of a breed and wondering why Triumph would want to change a bike as good as this.
I’m also wondering what’s changed about me. Last time I rode a second-generation Tiger 800 – a little more than two years ago – my response was lukewarm. I described the bike as “disappointing” and couldn’t find much about it that I liked over the Suzuki V-Strom 1000 I owned at the time. Maybe my tastes have changed? Certainly I’m a more confident rider now. And I’m more willing to seek out a bike’s upper rev range. With the Suzuki, there’s little reason to explore above 6,000 rpm – it’s mostly just noise from that point to the 10,000 rpm redline – on the Triumph 800, however, that’s really where the fun starts. Maybe I was riding the Tiger wrong last time.
Whatever the case, things now feel right. The bike’s 800cc triple puts out a respectable 94 horsepower, and delivery of that power is so sublime that I’m feeling foolish for having bought the more powerful but also more expensive and much heavier Tiger Explorer XRX. Everything I need is right here.
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A late start means I don’t make it to the Peak District until early winter sunset has turned the sky a dirty orange. Roads are relatively quiet this time of year but soon I’m battling against commuters making their way home for the day. I give in and take main roads to be able to get to my hotel in time for a late dinner.
The next morning, I’m on the road at sunrise. Which is to say, I intend to be on the road at sunrise. I don’t actually get moving until a full hour or so later. This is frustrating; the days are short at this time of year, especially as you push north. In early November, the sun sets around 4 pm in Scotland, with darkness beginning to creep in as early as 2 pm. You don’t want to be wasting daylight.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have wanted to be out any earlier, though. There are patches of ice on the sides of the road as I make my way through Yorkshire Dales National Park. Hitting these roads “late” has given the sun time to melt away the worst of it. The scenery is incredible and this is clearly the time of year to visit – no tourists.
I really wish I had taken a few pictures. But, as I say, it is cold. I am cocooned in the warmth of heated gear and disinclined to stop. I want to fuss with the heated vest as little as possible. It’s a useful bit of kit, but Sweet Baby Jesus, is it a colossal pain in the ass.
The controller’s wires aren’t very long, so, in order to turn it on/set it I have to open my jacket. To unzip my jacket, I have to take off my Klim Adventure gloves, which I’m wearing with liners. To be able to look down at the controller, I have to flip up the lid of my Schuberth C3 Pro. Meanwhile, to operate the controller the bike has to be on. So, every single time I want to set off, the process starts with me straddling a running bike – jacket open, helmet face flipped up, and gloves stuffed between the bike’s windscreen and dash. I set the controller to medium because the heated vest’s instructions say not use it on high (THEN WHY THE HELL DID YOU MAKE IT AN OPTION, KEIS????), then zip up my jacket. I pull my neck buff up over my face, lower the front of the helmet, then carefully – making sure not to drop the gloves, else I be forced to unplug the heated vest, get off the bike, and do this all over again – put on the liners, then the gloves. Frustrating. Pain. In. The. Ass.
By lunch I’m in Lake District National Park, making good enough time I could probably make it through most of southern Scotland before dark. “Could probably” – were it not for my need to run up and down Kirkstone Pass, a narrow, winding stretch that connects the Ullswater and Rothay valleys on the eastern side of the park.
The elevation of the pass is just shy of 1,500 feet, the road is wet, and the Tiger 800’s external temperature readout says it’s 3ºC (37.4ºF). That readout is optimistic, so it’s more than likely only just above freezing. But the sun is out and the road abandoned. I push the bike as hard as I dare through the corners over and over and over, up and down the pass. Even with loaded 35-liter panniers and a 35-liter topbox the bike is surprisingly nimble, and I lose track of time.
I jump on the motorway just before sunset, cruise control locked at 85 mph as I cross the Scottish border. I arrive at Cam’s house a few hours later in pitch dark – just in time to say goodnight to his children before they are are sent off to bed. We open a few bottles of beer and tuck into takeaway curries, discussing the various bikes revealed at EICMA. Cam’s wife, Tracy, manages to feign interest for a while but eventually leaves us on our own.
The next morning I’m up before sunrise, before anyone else. After showering and organizing my kit I head down to the kitchen. Tracy had set out pastries the night before. I make a cup of tea and enjoy a danish or three, watching the slow morning light reveal a back yard completely covered in frost. Cam’s house is warm and modern, and quite large by British standards. It feels American to me, which is a good thing. Knowledge of the welcoming family of five that occupies the house makes it feel even warmer and I feel like Peter in that 1980s Folgers ad.
The frost is still there a few hours later when Cam and I finally gear up and hit the road. The Tiger 800’s temperature gauge reads 1º C and we ride gingerly through his neighborhood, which has not been salted. To add warmth, I’ve taken to wearing my Dainese D-Crust Plus jacket and pants. I feel a little like Randy in A Christmas Story (“I can’t put my arms down!“), and the heated vest palaver is now even more a pain in the ass, but I’m at least comfortable.
“Gah,” he exclaims in his lightly Glaswegian burr. “I’m boilin’!”
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This always happens when we ride together. A Texas guy and a Scottish guy. I come close to freezing to death while he melts. Other than our thermal incompatibility, however, Cam’s a good riding buddy. I’ve mentioned before the importance of choosing people you can tolerate for long stretches of time when traveling by bike. Cam’s that guy.
I do my best not to complain about the cold because the day is gorgeous. I had been expecting pure Scottish misery but instead the air is crisp, the sky blue. And there are no tourists.
Are you picking up a theme here? The United Kingdom is roughly the size of Oregon in area (I say “roughly;” Oregon is bigger than the United Kingdom by more than 5,000 square kilometers, which is about the size of Puerto Rico), while being home to an estimated 67 million people. That means that there are, on average, 271 people filling up every square kilometer. Whereas in Oregon there are just 39 souls occupying the same amount of space.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom plays host to some 37 million visitors each year. That’s equivalent to the population of Canada. Most of those visitors come in the summer, when the 67 million people who live here are inclined to take vacations. The two-lane roads that serve an area of beauty like the Scottish Highlands – where we’re riding now – become scenic parking lots.
To see it now in the early winter, relatively empty and more or less as God made it, kicks me in the chest. It’s worth the numb fingers. The beauty feels surreal, to the extent you almost feel as if you’re being taunted. Each time we come around a bend or through a pass to yet another sweeping vista I’ll shout, “Fuck you, Scotland! Fuck you for being so gorgeous,” and Cam bursts into laughter.
Scotland is, of course, pretty far north. The country’s southern border sits more or less on the 55th parallel, which geography nerds will know is north of every US state save Alaska – it is a line that runs above all of Canada’s major cities. Travel four hours north of that line and you reach the Scottish town of Fort William. At this time of year especially, Scotland feels like it’s on the top of the world and Fort William feels like the last reasonably sized town on earth; there be monsters beyond.
It serves as the obvious choice for lunch. It’s Armistice Day and the town is bustling with people who have come in to either see the parade or do a bit of shopping, or both. We pick a middling pub on the main road offering the traditional British fare of foodstuffs served exceedingly hot and dripping with cheese to mask absence of flavor or nutritional value.
We take our time – too much, in fact. Checking his mapping app, Cam suddenly realizes it will take an hour and 15 minutes for us to get from Fort William to Mallaig, where we’re scheduled to catch the one ferry of the day to Skye. It’s 2:30 pm, the boat sails at 4:30, and our tickets insist we be there half an hour before departure. Work in the time needed to walk back to the bikes and for me to go through the whole heated vest routine, and we should have already left.
Cam takes care of the bill and I start walking back to the bikes, gearing up as much as possible en route. When I get to the bikes I dig into my pants pocket and… the Triumph’s key isn’t there.
I’m wearing my Hideout Hybrid leather riding pants beneath the D-Crust waterproof trousers, so getting at the hip pocket is a little tricky. I dig my hand fully inside to feel around – nope, nothing there. I check the other hip pocket. Nothing. Cam arrives and I’m swearing.
“Perhaps it slipped down the trouser leg of your waterproofs,” he says. “Might be in your boot or something.”
I slap at my thigh. Not feeling anything, I go back to checking my pockets. No key in the waterproof jacket’s breast pocket. No key in the right external pocket of my Hideout Touring jacket. No key in the left external pocket. No key in the right internal pocket. No key in the left internal pocket. No key in the right pocket of the heated vest. No key in the left pocket. No key in the breast pocket of my mid-layer shirt. I check them all again, several times, swearing more and more profusely.
“And it’s definitely not slipped down into your waterproof trousers?” asks Cam.
“Well, if it did, it will have fallen out the leg as I was walking,” I say, jogging back toward the pub. “Let’s retrace our steps.”
I scour the ground. Cam runs to the pub, checks there, then makes his way back. We meet halfway and start checking with nearby businesses, asking if anyone’s handed in a key. This is a small town, so the shop attendants are unnecessarily inquisitive.
ME: “Excuse me, has anyone turned in a lost key here?”
ATTENDANT: “A key? What sort of a key?”
ME: “To a motorbike. I’ve lost the key to my bike.”
ATTENDANT: “Oh, dear. What sort of a bike is it?”
ME: “Uh… it’s a Triumph.”
ATTENDANT: “Oh, aye. What’s the key look like?”
ME: “Well, uhm, you know, like a car key – metal bit and a black plastic bit that you hold on to. There’s a T on it, for ‘Triumph.'”
ATTENDANT: “I see. Nay. We’ve not had anyone hand in any keys today. Have you looked in all your pockets?”
After checking the shops, I retrace my steps again, walking slowly this time, paying close attention to the ground. My mind is spinning on thoughts of what happens now. I’m not worried about missing the ferry but how to explain this to Triumph: “Uhm, hi guys. I’ve lost the key to the Tiger 800 XRT. You’re going to need to come get it. It’s at the top of the world. All my stuff is locked in the panniers, so if you could get here quickly, that’d be great…”
Back to the bikes, Cam again suggests I check the legs of my waterproof trousers. I look at him, ready to snap.
“OK, fine! Here’s what I’m going to do, you nagging son of a bitch,” I say. “I’m going to strip down to my bare ass in this parking lot and show you that there is no key on my person, which is what I have told you several times.”
No, that’s not at all what I say; I’m just thinking it. The words that actually come out of my mouth are simply: “Well, maybe you’re right. I’ll take them off, so I can check thoroughly.”
Which is a fortunate thing to have said, because you’ve already guessed what happens, right? The key plops to the ground as soon as I unzip the leg of my waterproofs; it’s been stuck in the top of my boot this whole time. And we now have less than an hour to get to Mallaig.
In the movie version of my life, the scene would now shift to the placid shores of Loch Eilt, a quiet lake in the middle of nowhere, along the north side of which runs the A380 – the road from Fort William to Mallaig. Picture yourself there now. It’s quiet and bewitching; the sky is beginning the long, beautiful, shimmering process of winter sunset. Everything is good and right with the world. Then…
WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH WAH WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH BRRRRRRRRRRRRRR VWHA-WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA BRRRRRRRRRR WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA-WHAAAAAA
That’s the sound of the Tiger 800 screaming as I push it to its max speed, tipping into corners so hard that some faraway back-of-the-mind thought imagines the panniers touching down. Cam is nowhere to be seen, but I figure that if I can get there before final check-in I can drag my feet long enough for him to show up. A few miles short of Mallaig, though, I get the yips and become convinced there’s a cop lurking just around the corner.
There isn’t, but it’s OK. I’ve made up enough time. Cam catches up just as we get to Mallaig and we check in with exactly one minute to spare. A few minutes later we’re directed to ride onto the ship. The ride to Skye is short and we never lose sight of land – indeed, it feels more as if we’re crossing a big lake than venturing into the cold north Atlantic Ocean, but I feel about as far from home as I can ever remember. It’s a hell of a long way from Houston, y’all.
As we cross, night begins to rush in. Our hotel is only a few miles from where the ferry docks and we arrive with the very dying of the light. Picked completely at random because Google Maps had identified it as being on our route, the hotel turns out to be one of the best I’ve stayed at in a very long time. Cam and I are put into a cottage that looks out on the sea. Walking to the water’s edge, I look up and see little moving windows of dark, star-filled sky – breaks in the cloud cover.
We eat dinner in the hotel’s rustic restaurant/pub, which is packed with the warmth of people. Every seat is full. Some are hotel guests, but many are locals. Cam and I find a spot next to the fire and I scratch the ears of a dog that’s excitedly trying to angle himself to capitalize on anyone’s dropped food. With each consecutive pint of Guinness the desire to stay for several more days grows stronger. I mean, hey, I’ve got my laptop; the hotel’s got (subpar) WiFi; I could work from here…
When we eventually call it a night and stumble out into the pitch black my head spins with that incredible mix of fresh air and booze. This is so much better than going to EICMA.
A light snow falls over night, and turns to squalls of freezing rain by sunrise. They come and go within a few minutes of each other, interspersed with brilliant, glowing sunshine. Because it’s a Sunday, breakfast isn’t being served until 8:30 am, which means we won’t be on the road until at least 9:30 (remember the sparsity of daylight at this time of year), but we don’t care. This place is beautiful.
We walk around a little before breakfast, taking pictures and making internal plans to bring our respective loved ones back here. I can’t wait to show Jenn this place some day. Breakfast is hearty and delicious – you wouldn’t have expected any less – and we manage to roll away from the hotel shortly after 10. It’s Sunday and we’ll be heading our separate ways today. Cam has a real job, so has only had a weekend to spare. And, well, technically I have a job, too – which I’m better able to do from my office at home than a hotel room.
The goal is to spend the daylight making our way south, then split up once we hit Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Cam will head southeast to Dunblane and I’ll push straight south en route to an overnight stop in Lancaster. Before we go our separate ways, however, I want to make sure Cam gets a chance to spend some time riding the Triumph.
Within 45 seconds of his getting on the bike he’s giggling on the intercom and saying, “Wheeeee!” as he twists the throttle to make it leap forward. Meanwhile, riding his F800GT behind him, I can fully understand why he has fallen out of love with the thing. I feel a deep sense of guilt for having been the person to suggest the bike to him in the first place. Six months later, he will buy a brand new 2018 (third-generation) Triumph Tiger 800 XRT and he will still giggle each time he rides it.
We take the long way back down, leaving the island via the Skye Bridge, a loping structure that looks to have been inspired by a child’s Duplo train set. It’s Remembrance Sunday and at one point we get stopped to allow a parade to march past. We’re on the A87 – pretty much the only road in these parts – and it tickles me that officials and locals are perfectly content to see the whole thing shut for the sake of a brass band and some bagpipes. Scotland is great.
Cam and I are making lots of tea-and-cake stops today. Partially because, hey, tea and cake, but also in a subconscious effort to postpone having to part ways and head back to regular routines. We’ve lucked out this weekend. There’s no way you could predict such good riding conditions up here at this time of year. Indeed, less than a week from today I’ll note from Cam’s Facebook feed that they got 3 inches of snow in Dunblane.
At our final tea-and-cake stop, the Green Welly, we say our goodbyes and exchange slapping hugs, then speed off into the oncoming night. When I get home to Cardiff late the next afternoon, there is an official-looking package on my desk. My visa has been renewed, my passport returned. I find myself thankful for government inefficiency. I didn’t get to go to EICMA, but the Tiger 800 still got an adventure. So did I.
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