Photos by Rob Harris unless otherwise specified
DAYTONA BEACH—I’m no stranger to Daytona. I still remember the first year I came down here nearly 20 years ago, driving in a Honda Odyssey minivan with several other journalists in a 24-hour non-stop dash for the sun.
As a recent immigrant from the U.K., just to see the transition from deep winter to melting spring, and then the palm trees of Florida’s endless summer – all in a single, long drive – was a revelation to me. And then I was introduced to Bike Week.
Daytona was all around me and it was trippy. Jesus walked down Main Street carrying his cross, women raised their tops at the mere suggestion from a stranger (usually revealing a sight best left unseen), and everywhere was a sea of unbaffled potato-potato thumping Harleys, mounted by middle-aged biker types looking more like pirates than motorcyclists. It was a spectacle not of my pasty-skinned world, and even then I felt I was witness to something rapidly passing its sell-by date.
The Daytona odysseys continued (though not the Odysseys in the Honda minivan) and Bike Week gradually became familiar and less bizarre. But somehow the curtain had been pulled aside to reveal a biker’s parody: A mass of lone wolves, all dressed the same, all riding the same bikes, all trying to call attention to themselves in a din of booming potatoes. It seemed the wolves were actually sheep, but they couldn’t see it.
But this winter, I didn’t care. Daytona is flat, with straight roads and eager cops, but its promise of warmth lured me down again for a weekend. That, and an offer to come ride a selection Triumph motorcycles.
When I arrived at the airport, the straight roads and eager cops were everywhere but the warmth was not. It was uncharacteristically cold and wet, so I went to bed at the Hampton Inn with a bottle of Scotch, hoping for sunshine the next day, but woke to more cool and damp.
But there were motorcycles. Billions of Harleys everywhere and everything else you can think of, jostling for attention and still trying to be individual. Succeeding better than most, beside an RV in the centre of Daytona Raceway, were four Triumphs with an invitation to ride: A pair of Bonnevilles, a Tiger and a Rocket X.
Triumph Canada’s Chris Ellis handed me the key to the Thruxton Bonnie and claimed the T214 Bonnie for himself, and we immersed ourselves into the madness.
A BIT OF HISTORY
It’s not such an odd thing to ride around Daytona on a Triumph. They’re one of the original bad-ass machines, after all, and steeped in famous history: Marlon Brando rode a Thunderbird in The Wild One, Steve McQueen rode a TR6 in The Great Escape, and James Dean rode an original Trophy everywhere he could. Triumph even made their entry into the sportbike world in 1997 with a 955 cc sportbike triple, and called it the Daytona. Though with everything that was going on around me, perhaps that name would have been best reserved for a big fat open-piped cruiser.
The most famous Triumph, of course, is the Bonneville, also named for a very flat American sporting event: the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, used for land speed attempts. The Bonnie began as a 650 in 1959 and grew to a 750 before the original company went bust almost 30 years later, unable to compete against the better Japanese bikes of the time.
The Triumph name was eventually revived and the new company introduced a completely new Bonneville in 2000. It kept the classic design cues of the previous generation, as well as the parallel twin air-cooled motor layout with a slightly larger 790 cc capacity. The range of Bonnevilles expanded over the next 15 years, as well as the engine size: they now pump out 856 cc.
It’s getting rather long in the tooth now, but the Bonneville is still a prominent bike in Triumph’s lineup and likely to remain so for a while yet. That’s the beauty of a classic. It’s protected from the rapid aging process that affects most modern rides.
Now the company is trying to bring some focus back to the range with three limited edition Bonnevilles: the Ace Café Thruxton, the T214 and the New Church. Each one is grasping at a bit of Triumph’s history.
The Thruxton (the café racer of the Bonneville range) is a tie-in to London’s famous Ace Café, still going strong and synonymous with the Mods-and-Rockers era of British motorcycling legend – a time where the youffs would race between cafes as fast as they could, and then head down to Brighton at the weekend to have a jolly good riot on the beach against the scooter-riding mods. A very British version of Daytona in a way, only the beach was all stones, the sea cold, and people got hit by knuckle dusters rather than 80-year-olds in Buicks.
The T214 is essentially a T100 Bonneville (which is the top of the range and, IMHO, the best of the Bonnies). The “214” is the mph that a certain Johnny Allen set on a Bonnie back in 1956, gaining a land speed record in the process.
Then there’s the New Church, which is a tip of the helmet to a town in Austria called Neukirchen. For some obscure reason, the town calls itself New Church one week a year to celebrate Triumph and all things British. Except Marmite, presumably.
All three bikes are limited to 1,000 units each, of which 25 per model are available in Canada. Although each one does sport a few mechanical modifications, the main difference and appeal is in the paintwork. I think the Thruxton looks the cat’s arse, which seems a fitting British endearment for its Ace Café logo and simple white painted tank.
A BRACE OF BONNIES
It’s the Thruxton I’m riding now. My first experience of this bike was back in 2004, and it came with a pair of fork-mounted clip-on bars that would not have been out of place in a CIA interrogation manual. The current incarnation comes with regular tubular bars, albeit turned down to keep an aggressive riding position in combination with the rear-set pegs.
It also has one of the best sounding sets of pipes fitted to a production machine: a grunty rasp that makes you wonder why all production bikes can’t include some soul in the exhaust, but keep it legal and responsible at the same time.
I rev it freely though the narrow access tunnels under the Daytona Speedway, riding ahead of Chris into the mayhem that is Daytona.
The Thruxton yearns the open road, but when we finally break free of the local traffic, we’re in a slice of suburbia that feels right out of a zombie apocalypse. There are houses, with cars parked in driveways, but no people at all. It’s eerie. Round and round we go with not a soul to see and nobody to hear my raspy pipes.
Eventually we escape Zombietown and head to the safety of the beach. Daytona has a long relationship with the petrol engine and its fine white sand welcomes vehicles – or at least, vehicles with drivers who don’t mind paying $10 in exchange for a 10 mph cruise up and down the sands. I find out quickly that the speed limit here is enforced as enthusiastically as on the street.
“Ten miles per hour!”
A loudspeaker voice barks at me from who-knows-where as I blast past Chris, pushed on by the Thruxton’s eagerness for more speed. I’m likely only pushing 20, but if the dunes have eyes, what else do they have?
This is obviously a hint from the Florida Speed God and we swap bikes. The T214 has an old-style upright riding position, and like an old dog, it’s happy to just be outside. It doesn’t look anything like the Thunderbird that set the land speed record nearly 60 years ago, which was wrapped in a fiberglass tube and called the “Texas Cee-Gar,” but the new bike’s a lot more practical. Even the Daytona traffic doesn’t bother it as we head back to Chris’s RV in the infield.
A BREAK FOR RACING
Thankfully, Daytona is more than an excuse to amass and get drunk – there’s racing too. Tonight is the Supercross event and there’s a circuit of bumps, twists and turns bulldozed into the infield in front of the grandstand.
There’s a large and very different – positively youthful – crowd that fills the stands and spills down the famed Daytona banked track to the edge of the newly erected course. The bikes are suitably loud, the announcers pumped, and flame throwers and fireworks explode to keep us all suitably entertained just in case the racing wasn’t quite enough.
I look around at the disciples of Supercross and cannot help but ponder if these could only be the same people who fill the town’s streets and bars, then Daytona Bike Week might have a brighter future.
SUNSHINE, ROCKETS AND TIGERS
The next morning is warm and clear, just as it should be in Florida. The Rocket X and Tiger XRx are welcoming in the sunshine, especially after another night in the Hampton Inn and my dwindling bottle of scotch. I grab the keys to the Rocket and swing a leg over the seat, settling behind its behemoth 2.3-litre triple.
The Rocket’s been around for 10 years now, thus the “X” special edition. It sports no mechanical changes for the anniversary, but it’s painted all black, save for a metallic stripe down its length, along the top of its tank and rear fender.
The Rocket is a monster of a bike, with huge amounts of mass, countered by massive torque. Its inline triple has the cylinders mounted front to back instead of across the frame. It looks massive beside the Tiger that Chris rides alongside.
In reality, it’s an asinine machine, but the world needs the occasional exercise in stupidity and the Rocket is there for the person who gets a kick out of lighting up the rear tire while doing a wheelie at the same time.
But my Daytona trip is a short one and I’m flying out tonight, so we head back into town, but not before a stop at the famous Iron Horse bar, which is like a huge magnet, pulling in all Harleys within a 50-mile radius, Like the entire town, it’s a temple to the dominance of the open-piped cruiser, patch-adorned leather waistcoats, chaps, and thinning grey hair.
There are some giant, blow-up bottles lining the bar’s roof, but they’re not Jack Daniels. They’re advertising for pain-killers, heartburn and sunscreen. It appears the wolves are getting infirm. This is a challenge to the motorcycle industry that long fed the affluent boomer’s appetite for form over function, emptying their wallets only to ignore the less wealthy generation that followed.
And this is the thing about history, and the story of Triumph and Daytona. Although one is a motorcycle company and the other an event, both rely heavily on their prestigious past. However, when Triumph was reborn it also evolved, producing a selection of good-looking and fun to ride machines, that are also reliable and efficient. And it’s doing very well as a result.
Daytona itself must also change things up if it’s not to be a crumbling temple. It can’t keep looking back only to stay the same – the Boomers are shuffling off their mortal coils and their kids don’t want to copy them. When the last patron of the Iron Horse swallows his final heartburn pill and the last of his hair blows away in the wind, this may also be the last chapter of a storied and historic event.
Maybe the answer lies in going back to the beginning, the reason that Daytona Bike Week exists today – racing. The only place I saw a crowd close to youthful was the Supercross. It appears there’s always a crowd for a good old-fashioned race. Even if it does come with acrobatic jumps, flame throwers and fireworks.
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