Three very different versions of Triumph’s brilliant Bobber
Watling St, the A5, one of the UK’s oldest and most important historical roads has a feel of Route 66 about it. As we pass through small towns, even smaller villages, glancing at the abandoned, boarded-up pubs and transport caffs – the discarded furniture of what used to be a major artery of UK manufacturing. It feels like the place for a slow-paced, custom bike adventure and, funnily enough, that’s exactly what we’re here for.
Triumph’s Hinckley factory is a stone’s throw from the A5 and today, we’re picking up three versions of the Bonneville Bobber for a run across the Midlands to the heart of the Black Country and a small village called Bobbington west of Wolverhampton for no other reason that it made us chuckle. Bobbers to Bobbington? Count me in.
Our three bikes are fitted with different Triumph accessories. First off is the ‘quarter mile’ kit, which has low-set drag-handlebars, blacked-out Vance and Hines exhausts, a billet headlamp cover and a few other moody (or goth for those of us born within the smoke rings of Leeds) bits and pieces for an additional £1500. Next up is the ‘Old-school inspiration’ kit, which goes the other way entirely using tall apehanger handlebars, teardrop mirrors, free-flowing (but not too noisy) brushed-alloy Vance and Hines exhausts and a completely different vibe for an extra £1610. The third variant is the touring pack, which adds free flowing pipes, a couple of leather panniers, comfort seat, cruise control, some dinky additional instruments and an upgraded Fox shock absorber with adjustable damping. Costs for this one vary depending on spec and accessories ordered.
The day gets off to a slow start; Chris, who came over in the van (long story, don’t ask) forgot his boots so we detour to Alf England in Bedworth to buy some. And then, three miles later the left-hand pannier falls off the Tourer, so we double back and play ‘Nuneaton chicken’ with the trucks to retrieve it. It looks like someone forgot to fit the retaining straps, without which, the panniers simply slide off the rails. We improvise using the shoulder straps, wrapped around the frame. By the time all this is sorted, two hours have passed. Thankfully, this is not a day for rushing. It’ll be what it will be, who’s for a slow burble to Bobbington?
First up is the Old-school apehanger bike. I love proper choppers, it’s in my blood. But there has to be a certain vibe. My kind of custom bike is what they call a ‘Digger’. Long, low and powered by an inappropriately tuned air-cooled Japanese four-cylinder motor. Ape-Bob is a long way from this but it wins me over through being so flipping hilarious to ride. Sit normally and it feels surprisingly comfy – your arms aren’t as high or out-of-place as it looks. But all you can see in the mirrors are your elbows and back of your forearms (aft-arms?). To see anything behind you have to lean back in an exaggerated custom-cool manner, which straightens your arms and that just makes me giggle. Which is good, yes? Surely anything that makes us smile this much is worth paying a few extra quid for. Why should motorcycling be serious and moody when it can be daft, like this?
It only takes a couple of roundabouts to get the hang of steering a motorcycle using four feet of chrome tubing. Counter-steering sort of works, to a point and then after that, you just release your grip on the bars and let physics sort the rest. In faster corners you feel the bars starting to move a bit, but not so bad it gets scary and, really, who’d buy a bike like this to go chasing apexes?
I’d forgotten how cool the Bobber is. Triumph worked hard on every detail. There are no corners cut, nothing looks half-finished or snuck in there because they also use that part on half a dozen other models. The finish is superb, detailing ditto and the performance is spot-on.
Easy to ride with a light clutch, smooth power delivery and predictable steering. Yes, when you just jumped off a sporty bike it could do with a stronger front brake or another disc, but, it only takes a few miles to get your eye in and start stopping early enough to get the job done.
It’s a neat trick, and one that Triumph are masters of. Making a bike that looks radical, but rides as easily as any lightweight commuter. Even this, crazy-barred custom bike, has a light clutch (despite a cable long enough to suspend the Humber Bridge), slick gearchange and gentle power delivery at low revs, which makes the all-important ‘cool-custom-bike-getaway’ so flipping simple your Gran could be Brando if she wanted to.
Next up is the tourer. This is the standard Bobber riding position and it is so right, it makes you wonder how others get it so wrong. The easiest way to describe is it to imagine sitting down in a bespoke, made-to-measure chair where your arms and legs sit just where you want them. Road tester clichés number one, two, three, four and five are all ‘The controls fell readily to hand’ and, finally, in my 23rd year as a road tester I’ve found a bike that lives up to the line. The perfect lazy riding position, which, after riding Harley Davidson’s Street Rod yesterday (the complete opposite – feels like they went out of their way to make lack of comfort a focal point), makes me wonder why all cruisers can’t be this easy to get along with.
Sadly, the rest of the tourer is mostly style-over-substance. The panniers are too small to be any use and, after seeing how they (don’t) stay in place I wouldn’t risk anything of value in there. Cruise control is motorcycle touring’s Marmite – not for me, I’d much rather have heated grips – but the uprated shock absorber and comfort seat are both well worth the money.
Watching a Bobber from behind is weird. The rear wheel and mudguard do a lot of bobbing, while the rider and seat appear to stay still. There’s not a lot of suspension travel, but the Tourer’s Fox shock has noticeably more control over bumps than Ape-Bob and the padded seat is about twice as thick as the leather-coated plank on the other two bikes.
Thrumming up the A5, past the desolate, abandoned pubs and cafes, the reminders of Route 66 return. Not literally, but there is an atmosphere of history being present, but no longer required. Evolution in action…or summat.
Canny old road testers know that when there’s a comfy one, a sporty one and a weird one, you do the weird one first, then the comfy one and so, as if by magic, it’s your turn for the sporty one just as the test hits the twisties. And then the comfy one for the journey home. So I’m feeling smug as I throw a leg over the quarter-miler as we round the top of the A5 and head south on the back roads.
Except I think I might have made a mistake. Sports-Bob has drop bars and a badder, blacker attitude, but the same low seat, same mid-set footpegs and same cruisey suspension as the standard Bobber and it’s a combination that just doesn’t work.
It’s a riding position that puts strain on your upper and lower back at the same time, while offering no extra control in corners because the footpegs are so far forward. Thankfully, the Bobber’s basic handling is good enough to make up for a rider lacking the tools for the job.
So…the one that looks the best (the quarter-mile) is the worst to ride, the one that looks the worst to most people (the old school) is the most surprisingly good and the one that no one really notices because it just looks like a generic old bike (the tourer) is the one you’d want to ride the most.
Which is fine, but if we all bought bikes based on sensible logic, the whole world would be riding a Honda NCX750. Thankfully (for everyone apart from Honda), we buy bikes for all sorts of reasons. If it were my money, I’d go for the forthcoming Bobber Black (because I’d really like that extra brake disc) with a comfort seat and heated grips. And that’s the real beauty of what Triumph are doing here; allowing you and me to build some kind of bespoke personalisation into a mass-produced machine without ruining the cool. Triumph has worked hard to offer a line of accessories that are every bit as cool and well built as the basic bike, without simply re-badging someone else’s accessories. They deserve to be successful.
Only one question remains for me. If I have a Bobber and buy these accessories separately, then the fairly hefty additional costs make sense. But if I’m ordering from the factory as new, surely the costs should be less because the new parts are being swapped for the existing ones.
Unless you get the standard parts in a box with the bike, it seems like we’re being charged a lot for some swapsies.
The high mileage commuters’ opinion – AKA Toad
As somebody who clocks up around 25,000 miles a year commuting, I’ve got a pretty good idea as to what it takes to make a good bike for big mileages. So when I heard about Triumph developing a Bobber for touring I had to take a look.
Firstly, I have always thought the styling of the Bobber – and many modern Triumphs – to be spot on. The company have a knack of making a bike look cool but not overly shouty, a bit like me. I was initially worried that a Bobber for touring would spoil this look but I was completely wrong. For me the additional parts added to create the Tour de Bob actually enhance the overall look of the bike. The panniers, although wayward at times, look great and while they aren’t waterproof could carry enough for an overnight stop. The angle of the bars gives the profile of the bike a really nice post-war vibe, which is really hard to get right, especially when you’re trying to make a bike comfy and cool.
To ride the Tour de Bob is great; light clutch, lazy throttle response initially and a wonderful baritone bark from the Vance & Hines pipes as you saunter round the rev-counter. As previously mentioned, the front brake is woeful – a two-piston calliper for a bike of this size? – but you learn to live with it. The Tour de Bob’s charms far outweigh its foibles.
The biggest surprise was that this bike is genuinely useable. I’m not talking of cross continent ability here, not for the sane at least, but you could easily ride it every day. I should know, I have been. Triumph allowed BikeSocial to keep the Tour de Bob for another ten days after the initial Bobbington trip and I’ve been clocking 140 miles a day back and forth to work; it’s been fine. There are comfier bikes, sure, but comfy bikes look like Pan Europeans!
The biggest pat on the back for Triumph from me is that all too often when a bike gets a ‘coat of cool’ they quite often become crap in the real world; not this Bobber. If I didn’t have to give it back tomorrow, I wouldn’t.
The not so canny old road-tester – AKA Chris
I've wanted a custom bike for some time now. I brought a CX500 with good intentions of cutting it up and turning it into my own piece of rolling art. However, lack of time, funds and talent later resulted in the custom dream remaining a rusty Honda in my garage.
So when I showed up at Triumph HQ to pick up the three Bobbers, there was only really one bike that I wanted to throw a leg over. The custom ‘Quarter Mile’ Bobber.
I later found out that Dick Dastardly and Muttley (Steve and Toad) had actually hatched a plan to avoid this bike for the initial motorway stretches, but the riding position really wasn’t an issue for me. I’m 5ft4 and the hunched riding style wasn’t as exaggerated as expected, in fact it was a darn sight comfier than some sports bikes I’ve ridden shorter distances.
Two of my good friends have built their own custom bikes recently and they look great, but they’re constantly fixing and mollycoddling them. Yes, I know this is part of the attraction of owning a custom bike, but with the ‘Quarter Mile’ Bobber that’s not an issue and it offers you all the performance and reliability you’d expect from a new bike in 2017. Something I know appeals a lot more to me.
A few miles from home the seat on the ‘Quarter Mile’ was causing a tad of soreness, but the tender cheeks were a small price to pay for being the coolest kid in class for the day (the padded seat which comes standard on the Pannier’d Tour de Bob would be a good replacement if you are planning on doing long distances on this bike). All the team agreed it was the best looking Bobber and you do notice people taking a second look when rolling through high-streets and burbling through traffic.
From the few social updates I posted on the day I could see the Bobber was dividing attention. "But it's not a true bobber", "it's an insult to Bobbers around the world". Who cares! If it encourages more people on two wheels and it gets more people into biking it can only be a good thing. Keep your original Bobbers. They won't ever go away. But don't discourage people that want to in some way join the fraternity and share the same passion you do. The Bobber really opened my eyes to a new style and genre of riding and if I had the money I would certainly make room for it in my garage.