by Kevin Duke

Speed Triple Hooligan Breeds Badness

Naked and nasty: The Triumph Speed Triple has been inspiring hooliganesque behavior since its introduction in 1994 when Triumph returned to these shores. Eight years on and Mr. Speed continues to proudly wear the black hat as one of the bad boys in motorcycledom.

You can see that the Speed Triple is a bad-ass from the moment you encounter it, especially in the black version like our test bike. Other than the unique aluminum tube frame, silver wheels and polished exhaust pipe, the wicked-looking Triumph wears an all-black suit, accented by the multitudinous silver engine cover bolts. If it were a person, the Speed Triple would be a cross between Johnny Cash and Robocop.

Not only does the menacing Trumpet look the part, it also makes the rider join in on the nefarious mood as soon as it’s straddled. The aggressive forward riding position immediately puts the rider ready for action, kinda like a sumo wrestler’s crouch. The supple seat narrows greatly near the tank, providing shorter legs a straight shot at the ground from the 32.1-inch seat height. You’ll be appreciating the large seat step when the front wheel of this villainous machine inevitably climbs skyward.

And the sonorous three-cylinder engine has the beans to stunt all day. The 955cc mill was upgraded in 2002, going from sand-cast crankcases to pressure-cast bits, combining with reduced reciprocating mass to result in a 12-pound weight loss. A bump of compression to 12.0:1 ups the claimed horsepower from 108 to 118 hp. We saw just over 110 horsepower at the bike’s fat, 190-series rear tire.

Cold starts don’t require a choke thanks to the electronic manipulation of the intake charge from the fuel-injection system. The revised engine doesn’t have as loud of a diesel-like clatter at idle compared to older Triumphs, and changes have been made to improve cooling for better durability.

The bike’s most glaring imperfection makes itself known at takeoff: Fluffy fueling below 3,000 rpm necessitates a fair amount of clutch slipping when starting from a stop. The most vivid demonstration of this condition can be found during low-speed roll-ons in first gear. Crack the throttle open with 17 mph showing on the digital speedo and not much happens. But once the numbers flash 22 mph you better be hanging on tight because the front wheel is coming off the ground as surely as a sunrise.

Triumph says the Speed Triple received a new gearchange mechanism in its 6-speed transmission for 2002, and indeed shifting is low-effort and smooth when not rushed. But notchiness and imprecise cog swapping emerge when doing your Angelle Savoie impression.

Other than that low-rpm glitch, the howling Triple is a real gem. Power builds steadily until about 5,000 rpm when the nylon fuel tank cover begins to shiver between your legs from the vibes below, providing warning that the hammer is cocked and ready to fire. As the three-pot sound begins to deliciously wrap around itself, a snappy midrange pull launches the bike in a manner unlike a common Four or Twin.

It has to be said that the tune a three-cylinder bike like the Speed Triple sings is music to gearhead ears. Imagine a high-pitched Porsche Flat-Six racing motor cut in half and you’d be close. The delectable tone practically begs to be uncorked with a louder exhaust system.

At nearly 460 pounds on our scales with its 5.5-gallon fuel tank filled, the Speed Triple isn’t light, but it’s certainly not lardy. And the sensation of mass disappears once the paddling ends. The high-leverage high handlebar helps, of course, but it’s more than that. As of ’02, the Trip got sharper steering with the 45mm fork losing half a degree of rake to 23.5 degrees and its wheelbase was cut by 11mm to 1429mm (56.3 inches). Whether tooling between cars in traffic or cutting up the canyons out of town, the black meanie never falls behind your inputs.

The 17-inch wheels are well-damped by the Speed Triple’s suspension, fully adjustable at both ends. It sucks up small bumps really well, and road imperfections that made me cringe in anticipation gave far less a jolt than expected. Supple if not quite Ohlins-plush.

Smooth as it is, the Speed Triple is no highway hauler. With nothing but those bitchin’ dual, round headlights blocking the wind, you’ll appreciate the forward-leaning riding position. After about 250 miles of watching highway scenery pass by in the reflection from the bugeye’s chrome shells, your neck will feel like it had spent a day in a freshman chiropractor class. Your ass won’t be doing too well, either, as Dr. Velocity’s seat doesn’t offer much support. While we’ve got the full-bore whining in top gear, let’s also complain about the short seat-to-peg relationship that’ll cramp wimpier legs.

There’s not too much stopping the pegs from being lowered, either, as we found out when testing sticky Pirelli Diablos at Buttonwillow racetrack. Another of the ’02 changes was an increase in rear ride height for added ground clearance, and there’s plenty for all but the looniest street riders. Even with the greater corner speed a closed track can allow, you should begin to think about putting numbers on your bike if you’re regularly grinding hard parts on the Triumph.

The Pirellis actually have more grip than the Speed Triple’s chassis can handle. When you feel the rear tire dig in under the Triple’s big midrange pull out of slower corners, the motocross bars you’re holding might be calling out for a trip down to Steering Dampers ‘R’ Us. The Triple’s responsive steering that is so much a boon in most situations comes at a cost; it can also get a mite unstable at serious speed. Keep it off the track and under a-buck-twenty and you’ll be fine. Backed down a notch, you’ll be enjoying its neutral steering qualities, even with the big 190 on the back rather than a 180-series that makes many bikes steer sweeter.

We’ve been impressed with Triumph brakes in the past, so we were a bit surprised to find the front brake lever come back to the bar after a 30-minute abuse session on the racetrack. The 4-piston caliper, 320mm disc brakes are usually quite stellar, even on the track, so we suspect our well-used press bike just needed fresh fluid and a bleeding.

In virtually all street environments, the sinister Speed Triple will almost always have a grinning rider aboard. Unlike several other naked bikes, the $8,890 Triumph has personality oozing out of its engine cases.

It kind of reminds me of a guy I used to know in high school. He was a bit of a flake and would often say inappropriate things in conversation, but he never failed to evoke laughter and had a loyal following among the rebels at school. Embodied as a person, the Speed Triple would be shooting bottle rockets out of cars, throwing snowballs at girls and sitting in the back row of the classroom making snide comments about the teacher.

Nice people should stay away from this bike. It will entice you to do bad things.

As for me, a guy who learned what the word boisterous meant because my third-grade teacher wrote it on my report card, this raucous scooter is right up my dimly lit alley.