It was one of those heart-in-mouth moments. After a few laps on the Shannonville circuit on Buell’s radical XB12S Lightning, I was starting to think that I’d gotten this beast sussed. Its wide bars and short wheelbase were making the tight circuit rather enjoyable. A quick application of the throttle out of tight corners would see the bike lurching forward, in preparation of a series of short-shifts to keep the revs away from the limiter and keep the Buell up with the rest of the other bikes present.
I was closing in on Mr. Seck, who had braked early to negotiate the other tester we had – a Triumph Speed Triple – around the series of tight bends, just before the home straight. I saw my chance and held off using the full potential of the Buell’s brakes until I was on him. I turned in and then began to pull her back up just in time to realize that I was going to either have to brake really hard or punt into the back of him and take us both out.
Although tempting, I went for option A and tried to apply just enough front brake to scrub off the required chunk of speed – trying desperately not to wash out the front, and slide off like a complete and utter arse. The huge 375 mm rim-mounted front disc (clasped by an equally huge 6-piston caliper) came on with a predictably smooth effect and then bit hard, locking up the front wheel and trying to fold the right handlebar into my gut.
I’m not sure exactly how I saved it, but I suspect that the wide bars gave me enough leverage to counter the evolving situation. With an instinctive release of the brake, the front wheel stopped sliding, the bike remained upright and I was allowed the luxury of riding off the track and into the pits for a change of underwear.
The Buell had taught me a valuable lesson – it may be a bike packed full of innovative ideas, but it’s still a quirky one and as such, demands that the rider adapt to its style, not the other way around.
With respect renewed, I learned to trail-brake into corners (thereby knowing where in the non-linear braking spectrum I was), relax (instead of tighten up) as it got frisky over the bumpy bits, and enjoy the fact that the bike was so damn compact that you were riding along without anything in front of you except a pair of clocks (to remind the brain that you were actually on a bike and not flying) – an altogether enjoyable experience.
As a result, my corners became smoother, the bumps seemed to disappear and I learned to fly. Oh, and my lap times went down – considerably.
Still, by the end of the day, the fact that you always had to think about the bike more than the track itself meant that maximum fun was always somewhat elusive. After a build up in grin factor – as you became more familiar with its quirks – the fun-curve started to drop off slightly as the Buell refused to let you switch your attention away from it and back towards the track.
Hmhh, was this going to be the same on our road-trip the next day?
A SHORT GRUNT WITH A LONG STROKE
The Buell’s 1200 motor can be a frustrating thing. One minute you’re grinning wildly as it propels you forward on a wave of torque, the next minute you’re cursing it as you hit the brick wall of a rev limiter at a lowly 7,000 rpm.
This requires an immediate upshift, which, if messed up, will upset the bike as it drops right back down the torque curve and lunges forward sharply. Although you do eventually learn to counter this by easing the clutch out (in combination with careful application of the power), to give you a smooth and happy change, it’s another chapter in the nuances of the house of Buell.
7,000 is also a low limit for any motorcycle engine, but then this is an air-cooled, push-rod motor after all. But the problem is that the limiter cuts in well before the engine’s power curve naturally tops out and then dips (the usual place where an engine’s limiter cuts in). As such, there’s no intuitive change point – you’re just accelerating hard and then you’re not.
This was a more pronounced issue on the track, where it also preferred to be kept above the 4,000 rpm point (and below 7,000!) to keep it in the smoothest part of the torque curve.
Interestingly, on the road, the need to be above 4 thou wasn’t so much an issue, and the fun would come in from the 3,000 mark. The result is that its power characteristics were much more usable and, oddly, I found myself not hitting the rev limiter anymore either.
With some of the frustrations of the track from the previous day thankfully absent out in the real world, the Buell really began to grow on me, and the swooping bends of north-eastern Ontario’s Calabogie region provided the Lightning with the happy place that it was looking for. Actually, more like ecstatic place.
Road 1, track 0.
Being a 45 degree V-twin, the motor’s a bit of a vibrator too, and at idle it promises to be a very painful experience. But Buell have worked with this problem since their start and have masterfully designed mounting brackets that cease to transmit this shake to the rider once you get above idle. A nicely engineered work-around.
It doesn’t seem to work for the mirrors though, which give you a good view of what the world must look like to a marital aid. (No tunnels on our route though). Oh, and the motor must run hot too, as the fan (located at the back of the motor and under the seat) remains on pretty much all the time – you can hear it frantically and loudly whirring whenever you pull to a stop.
A major improvement on motors of old is the new gearbox, which is actually smooth and positive in its action, without any false neutrals. Thankfully, it was smooth enough to be able to be changed sans clutch, as the clutch is the heaviest action that I have had to use in a long time. It’s not helped by a long stretch and a non-adjustable lever either – I was just happy that I rode the thing in the boonies, not in rush-hour traffic.
Boonies 1, city 0
RIDING THE PIGMY
When we were deciding our test bikes for the year I was a bit reluctant to add the Lightning to our wish-list. I mean, I’m 6’ 4” and the Lightning is, well, a pigmy. It’s soooo small, I figured that there’d be no way that I could last more that an hour or so, before seizing up and spending the rest of the week stretching out on a rack.
Well, although it was a bit cramped, it really wasn’t bad. My legs fit nicely within the tank cutaways, my legs tight (but not cramped) against the pegs and my torso leant slightly forward into the wind. Even the seat was quite comfortable – which is saying something for a Buell. Just don’t try and take a passenger, unless you hate them, as their seat width and ultra high peg position will only please a masochistic 8 year old with a penchant for wedgies.
With the wind protection provided by a small fly screen it does a remarkably good job up to about 110 km/h. After that you’re either going to have to build up those neck muscles or duck down and look like a wanker – well, I did anyway, but what’s new about that?
The suspension is on the stiff side – especially at the rear – which tends to kick you about a bit in the bumpy bits, but it’s in the right zone and is adjustable for some finer tuning. As a result, the Lightning is a very stable ride – much more so than its radical geometry would suggest. It never felt twitchy and the wide bars enabled quick steering into turns and a steady line through them. Another factor in its Calabogian ecstatic place.
The Dunlop D207s worked really well until about half way through our ride, when I noticed the rear sliding slightly in sharp corners. On closer inspection it was revealed that the tread was below minimum and erring towards bald! I’m not sure whether its just a super soft compound – shagged by a day on the track, and then annihilated on the road – or whether our tester came light on the tread depth to start (err, in which case we must have missed that on our extensive CMG pre-ride check-list).
Either way, the rest of the ride had to be taken at a reduced rate of knots, with the Lightning eventually rolling back to Fred Deeley Harley-Davidson with a strip of cord showing down its centre. Oh dear.
As far as braking goes, that big rim-mounted disc works well and is progressive to start but then bites hard, quickly. On the track, I found the solution to be the use of trail-braking (going into the corner with brakes still slightly on), but – as mentioned at the beginning of this article – the sudden rush of power caught me off guard once or twice, and on the road it needed a careful hand to prevent it from locking up. Stoppies were a slightly harrowing experience as a result, as it was an art to not go too aggressive and go over the top!
The belt final drive is smooth in operation, and is a non-adjustable unit (the rear wheel axle is fixed), but Buell reckon that it’ll last a long time before requiring replacement.
QUIRKY GOOD OR QUIRKY BAD?
Overall I was very impressed with the Lightning. Buell has taken a long time to get their bikes into the usable spectrum, and the Lightning is just in there, albeit with a load of quirks thrown in for good measure.
Where it excels, is in the fun factor. The motor has a unique character all its own, which, when learnt, keeps a broad smirk on your face (although it does take quite a few frustrating miles to get to that point). The chassis works well too, with the wide bars and compact dimensions making it a blast when carving through the twistier back roads (just be careful with that front brake!).
It’s the kind of bike that demands thought from the rider, which in turn gives it a certain character, and rewards rider skill. Of course, this is a two-edged sword, and if you find yourself droning along on the highway or stuck in town, then the same characteristics become a severe deficit.
But I fear that I am in danger of missing the essence of this bike. Granted, it has a boat load of oddities that can be frustrating at times, but at the end of our few days with it, both Mr. Seck and myself were talking more fondly of the Lightning than we did of the more refined Speed Triple.
It would be nice to see Buell take stock of what they have and work on the smoothing out the ripples instead of trying to break ground with every update, it’s probably a good time to consolidate the good things they’ve got and eradicate the bad things that tag along with them.
After all, what would be so bad about having a model with a bit more room, a proper passenger space and, err, a less finicky motor? I hear that there’s a rather nice unit in that V-Rod. What d’ya say?
BETTER THAN A SPEED TRIPLE?
At CMG we like naked. Everything’s better naked. You can see the goods, touch the goods, fondle and caress the goods. The goods are good. Good is good. Good.
With this preference we thought that it might be a good idea to bring along the current king of the naked bikes – Triumph’s Speed Triple. Okay, so our test was back in 2004 and it’s since been given a total makeover, but our requests to the Triumph factory to kindly hold off on their new 1050 Speed T. until we published were not heeded and so we just have to go with the comparison we’ve got.
The main difference between the two is that the Speed Triple is an instantly familiar beast. It’s developed, and despite its wild reputation, it’s predictable. Now that’s not a bad thing.
I was instantly quicker with it on the track over the Buell. I knew what the brakes would do when I needed them, how the motor would accelerate linearly and smoothly when I whapped it open, and how it would behave when I pushed it a bit hard into corners.
On the road it’s a similar story. Okay, the rear suspension is rather stiff and jarring when the road ripples up but there’s that beautifully raspy exhaust note (helped by the fitting of a "not for road use" pipe) and a style that simply says “sod-off”.
But when compared to the Lightning it started to seem just a bit too friendly. What had helped to keep the heart in check on the track and the mind relaxed on the road was turning into a bit of a yawn factor after getting off the rambunctious little Buell.
The Buell would jump into corners with all the confidence of a mindless teenager trying an extreme sport for the first time, never sure that it would come out the hero or a mangled wreck. In contrast the Triumph felt like a late 20-something that never quite grew up but had crashed and burned enough times to know not to go madly-off anymore; still capable of pulling a stand-up stunt, but not at the risk of a spectacular unplanned aftermath.
And this is where the two are miles apart. The Buell makes you grin like a parent that just caught their kid pissing in the grumpy neighbours’ pool – it does things that you really don’t want it to do, but there’s a twisted satisfaction gained when it does. In contrast, the Triumph is more mature and prefers to keep the peace, wicking up only when things allow and parental consent is assumed.
It’s an interesting difference and which one you love or hate will depend on which one relates better to your base character. I was torn a bit between the two – getting delight from the Buell’s irreverent behaviour, but also pissed off it by it. The Speed Triple, on the other hand, calmed my angsts, but left me pining for the another dose of Buell when the road twisted up.
Mr. Seck? He and the Buell were like long lost brothers – at last he’d found a soul-mate to go pissing in the pool with.
Of course, this is all a bit academic now, as the new Speed T. has been pumped up and brutalized – interestingly, much in the same style of the Lightning (imitation = flattery?).
It’s the Rottweiler to Buell’s Pitbull and the comparo is wide open again.
THE EVOLVING BUELL
For the longest time Buell seemed to be determined to prove that a bog-standard Harley Sportster motor could be fitted with some trick vibration-isolating hangers and slapped in a sporty chassis and be called a sportbike.
Although – as expected – this was not achieved, the company at least showed determination, and after having a large part of its shares purchased by the big Milwaukee company, it seemed to be finally getting closer to that goal with the 2002 launch of their new XB9S Firebolt.
It was definitely innovative, with a massive aluminium box frame that doubled up as a fuel tank, a chunky swingarm (doubling up as an oil reservoir for the dry sump motor) and a rim mounted front disc. The wheelbase was tiny, the geometry closer to a dirt bike, the ergos were sporty, and its 179 Kgs of mass well and truly centralized. All was looking very promising, until they slapped in an underpowered, 984 cc air-cooled V-twin lump in the middle. Oh dear.
The XB9S Firebolt was followed a year later by the XB9R Lightning, which used the same components, but with a makeover, consisting of lower pegs, wide bars and (in my humble opinion) a more suitable street-fighter styling. Unfortunately, the same wheezing lump was still supplying the power.
Things took big leap in the right direction in 2004, with the introduction of a stroked version of the V-twin motor, that gave it an additional 219 cc and gave birth to the all the more promising XB12S Lightning and XB12R Firebolt.
A trick exhaust valve that opens up a butterfly valve at higher revs (although it seems to be for pleasing noise rather than power) was also added to the new 1200s, and Buell claimed a respectable 103 hp – up 24% over the 9s!
Things are finally looking up, and Buell maybe on the brink of some real sporty(ish) bikes.
For supplying us with the accommodation on the road trip part of our test. Located in Combermere, Pine Crest has cottages for rent that work well for a group of motorcyclists wishing to explore the excellent north-eastern Ontario area, without having to get back home in the same day.
Comfort Inn - 200 North Park St., Belleville, Ontario, Canada K8P 2Y9 Phone (613) 966-7703
Thanks again to the friendly folks at the Comfort Inn in Belleville for providing us with accommodation on the night before our track day at Shannonville.