I’ve never been into big bikes. I started on scooters and for the most part, I’ve always really preferred midsize and smaller motorcycles. Yet I have to admit that my bias against big bikes was exactly that: a bias. It was prejudice, not taste. Just because I didn’t quite understand the appeal of larger motorcycles didn’t mean there wasn’t any. That all changed for me when I spent a blisteringly hot July day aboard the 2015 Triumph Thunderbird LT ABS. In short, I get it now.
My day began with me feeling a bit restless. It was Sunday, and for once I didn’t have any prior commitments. What to do? As I tumbled head long down the rabbit hole of my iPhone, I saw an Instagram post from my buddy Gabe. He and the usual suspects were down at Autobahn Country Club running the 24 Hours of LeMons. “Perfect.” I thought. “I’ll just ride down, see what those jokers are up to, watch a little racing, and get out of my own head for a while.” The only question remaining was what bike to ride?
After asking the sales staff at Motoworks for a couple of demo fleet recommendations, one obvious choice emerged.
“You’re riding down to Joliet? Dude, take the Thunderbird.” Grant suggested, standing over the Triumph bruiser cruiser.
“Oh totally!” Johnny piled on. “Sarah and I rode that thing back from the Springfield Mile. It’s terrific.”
Sold. I grabbed my gear and hopped aboard 840 lbs* of Triumph Thunderbird LT.
It would be easy to dismiss the Thunderbird LT as some sort of Harley clone. I had made that assumption, previous to riding it, if I’m honest. It’s a bike that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Seems like if I wanted a big Harley, then I’d buy a big Harley, you know? Yet in typical Triumph fashion, the Thunderbird defied my assumptions about both its character and its capabilities.
I stuck the key in the ignition location just behind my right knee and fired the bike to life. The 1,700cc parallel twin engine is best thought of as the big brother of the engine we find in the Triumph Scrambler. With the same 270º firing order, both the Scrambler and the Thunderbird straddle a very pleasant balance point between gruff engine character, and smooth running you can actually live with on the road. The Thunderbird’s big motor made a pleasing grumble as it idled there in the summer sun.
Tipping the bike up off its stand, I could definitely feel that I had a big bike on my hands. The Thunderbird LT’s center of gravity is pretty low, however. It’s substantive, but the bike’s weight distribution keeps it from feeling precarious. I had to be careful, but at no point did I feel like I was going to drop it.
Looking at a big bike like this, I’d half expect the control points to feel heavy — like it should take significant hand strength to pull in the clutch. Yet I’d wager that on actual measure, the Thunderbird’s cable-actuated clutch pull might actually be lighter than the Bonneville. It was no trouble at all to pull the clutch in and tamp down into first gear. Cracking open the throttle, the engine’s response was forgiving as I began to disengage the clutch and inch the bike forward out of its parking space. With 93 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque on tap, it was nice to know the big bike wasn’t going to do anything enthusiastic unless I asked it to.
Pulling out of the shop and down Damen, I got my first feel for the Thunderbird’s riding dynamics. Underway, the bike’s weight and size didn’t seem to factor very much. In fact, the Thunderbird LT was surprisingly agile. Assertive counter-steer inputs resulted in equally confident leaning from the big Triumph. The bike would change directions with surprising ease and poise. Sure, it’s no Street Triple, but dodging pot holes was no problem and maneuvering through the midmorning Chicago traffic wasn’t as dramatic as I’d feared. Is this a city bike? Of course not, but it’s perfectly workable for the urban escape, if not the urban assault. This didn’t worry me though, as I knew the Thunderbird’s natural habitat wasn’t the surface streets of Pilsen.
I took the exit south onto Hwy 55 and was finally able to open the Thunderbird up for the first time. The power came on with predictable strength, and as I leaned the bike deeper into the onramp and picked up speed, it felt more and more at home with the work it’d been given. This bike trots just fine, but it loves to gallop. True to its name, we thundered down Hwy 55 and it didn’t take long for me to understand just what this type of bike was all about.
Where in most bikes being lightweight is a virtue, for a bike like the Thunderbird LT, its mass is actually an asset. That is, it’s an asset in the type of riding this bike is designed to do. Namely, it’s ideal for gobbling up lots and lots of freeway miles. It’s a big bike designed for big, American roads. Sure, my Bonneville is perfectly capable of blasting down the freeway at speeds that’ll get me arrested. Yet at those same speeds, good as it is, it’s working hard in a way its bigger sibling just doesn’t have to. The Thunderbird LT feels at home on the freeway in a way that would never have clicked for me without actually riding it. There’s something about the scale of that big bike that rises up to meet the slab on its own terms — something that lighter, even arguably more capable bikes aren’t able to do in the same way. Even brilliant touring bikes in the Triumph lineup like the Tigers and the Trophy take on big roads in a different way than these cruisers do simply by virtue of mass. Obviously I can lump in the Rocket III in that cruiser category too, but that’s another story for another day.
So it didn’t take more than 5-10 miles of riding the Thunderbird LT down the freeway to understand the appeal that had previously been lost on me. This was a bike that made the big road not feel so big anymore. It made miles feel shorter, it made highway speeds feel slower, and most of all, it made riding the big road feel really easy. Yet in no way did I feel like I was compromising the performance I wanted out of a bike. If I wanted speed, it gave me speed. If I didn’t want to slow down for that curve, the Thunderbird responded to my riding position and riding technique just like any smaller bike would have. Most impressive of all were the Thunderbird LT’s brakes, which in this case, featured ABS. I had a car start to make a left turn across my right of way — that classic motorcycle accident. Thankfully they didn’t follow through, but I was well into the Thunderbird’s twin 310 mm front brakes before they changed their mind. Like every Triumph I’ve ever ridden, the brakes on the Thunderbird LT are responsive and the feel is very good. I could tell exactly what I was asking the bike to do, and that feedback is critical, especially in sketchy situations.
My route down to Joliet offered me an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up on the big Triumph. That opportunity was to make most of my way on sections of historic Route 66. That particular bike on that particular road just felt particularly appropriate. There’s something kind of old-fashioned about a big cruiser. In a scene mostly fascinated by cafe racers, scramblers and adventure bikes, riding a big, old-fashioned cruiser seemed mildly anachronistic. Yet I wasn’t alone. Out on big, kind of boring roads like these is where you find all the big bikes. Granted, those populations are 99% Harley, but still.
Having ridden a couple of the big Harley Davidsons myself, the Thunderbird LT was a fun contrast. Sure, it’s big, it’s got that cruiser silhouette. Yet form factor is really where the resemblance ends. While obviously designed for American roads and American customers, the Thunderbird is not entirely without its British roots. Taken for granted that it goes, turns and stops with a high degree of precision and confidence, the Thunderbird harbors a heavy dose of sophistication that its Milwaukee-born rivals purposefully lack. It’s a much easier bike to live with on the road. Obviously, to each their own. This isn’t to say that the Thunderbird is better or worse than say a Road King or a Softail Deluxe, but I do mean to say that it’s different. While Triumph may have had some Harley fans in mind while positioning and styling the Thunderbird LT, they certainly didn’t adopt much of the American mindset when it comes to the bike’s underlying character.
For example, that parallel twin is a completely different take on big cruiser motor. It’s smoother and has a broader power band than its typical V-twin counterparts. Where especially a non-counterbalanced Harley engine can feel a bit like a bowling ball inside a washing machine, the Thunderbird mill makes a pleasing amount of rumble and grumble, but smooths out in a charming, more refined way as soon as throttle is added. Likewise the suspension felt dialed in, especially for such a big bike. The brakes felt assertive and tight. Everything about the Thunderbird LT, right down to its spectacularly comfortable saddle, spoke to a level of refinement and sophistication that no American bike I’ve ever personally ridden really compares to. Again, to each their won. This isn’t to say that the Thunderbird is a better bike, as much as it is to say that it’s a very different bike, and that given my druthers, it’d be my personal preference for exactly those reasons listed above.
It was for all these reasons that I didn’t mind at all getting a bit lost on my way to Autobahn. I’ve been several times, for several different events, yet somehow I missed my turn and found myself sort of circling the place on the surrounding roads. Not that I minded, really. The Thunderbird and I were having a great time. I wasn’t really lost, and I soon came to enjoy not needing to get anywhere in any kind of hurry. It was a 24 hour race, after all. So we took our time. When a crossing train delayed us, it was no big deal. I got off the bike and had some water. Then I kept right on riding. I got there eventually.
My visit to Autobahn Country Club was delightful. The 24 Hours of LeMons races are a story unto themselves, but I will say this. I was quick to pick up on that very familiar feeling of camaraderie and adventure in the paddock. Sure, it was four wheels instead of two, but the spirit in the pits was the same as I’ve felt trackside at Barber, at Road America and even right there at Autobahn when motorcycle racing and track training are afoot. It’s a good vibe. Get into it.
I didn’t stay long at Autobahn. The big road kept calling to me, even in the blazing July heat. It felt like the first properly hot day we’d really had this season, so I was going to get out and enjoy it. With my saddle bags loaded up with water and Gatorade, I headed back out into the swelter. I ate it up though. Sweating on a motorcycle is fine, because it means I’m on a motorcycle. It’s a lot harder to suffer through the weather come winter. Being hot has felt like a privilege this year. I also didn’t mind sweating when the bike was otherwise so comfortable. When the riding is easy and being a little warm in the wind is the biggest hill I’ve got to climb, then that’s a good day aboard a bike, and in this case, a great bike to be aboard.
I was surprisingly comfortable on the Thunderbird LT. The riding position was slightly leaned back, with the footboard slightly forward, but not so far as I’d think of them as forward controls. The handlebars swept back to meet my hands right where they felt like they should. Then there’s the saddle. The Thunderbird LT just might have the world’s most perfect motorcycle saddle. I’m serious. It’s incredible. I’m nearly always uncomfortable after a while, but I never got tired of the LT’s seat that whole day.
My only complaint worth making was the boom coming off the windshield. Yet that’s more my fault that Triumph’s. I’m just too damn tall for stock windshields. I’m not down in the clean air where basically everyone else would be — enjoying the quieter bubble of less turbulent air. The discomfort was small, though, and I had my earplugs in. No big deal. Time to ride out and get lost again.
I ended up spending the entire day out on the Thunderbird cruising up and down Route 66, and there was no bike I could think of that I would have rather been on at that time. The big Triumph had thoroughly charmed me, prejudiced though I was. I’d gotten used to the big bike, and came away with what I think are two key observations. The first is the degree to which I really have to pilot a big bike like this. I had to tell the bike explicitly what I needed it to do and where I wanted it to go. That’s not hard, but if like me you’re used to lighter bikes, there’s a certain amount of that rider/bike conversation that’s happening with smaller things like shifting your body weight. On a big bike like the Thunderbird, those inputs have to be explicit. Yet to the end, that’s better riding technique anyway.
My second big takeaway was just how enjoyable riding a big bike really was. It’s a whole other animal, and I liked it so much more than I thought I would. The Thunderbird LT turned out to be a terrific introduction to the world of big cruisers on big roads, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the bike to beat now for that kind of riding. That surprises me greatly. I’m so much more curious about this entire segment of motorcycling than I was, and that’s the biggest lesson of all: don’t make assumptions about a particular kind of bike until you really spend some time with it. In the case of the Triumph Thunderbird LT ABS, that was time very well spent.
*I didn’t look up the Thunderbird’s weight until I sat down to write this story, and it definitely surprised me. I would have guessed somewhere in the 650 lb range based on how the bike behaves on the road. Clearly the actual weight of the bike was not important.