Exploring the Highlands

Story by Costa Mouzouris// Photos by Alessio Barbanti
August 1 2013

A quick two-day trip through the Scottish Highlands tests the Explorer XC’s mettle, and the haggis wasn’t too bad either

new Triumph ExplorerIntroduced last year, the Triumph Tiger Explorer joined an elite, albeit small group of large-displacement, adventure-touring machines. Among these bikes is the king of off-pavement touring, the BMW R1200GS. According to numbers provided by the folks at Triumph, BMW GS annual sales worldwide have been between 20,000 and 25,000 units since about 2010, tapering off to just below this range last winter, as potential buyers awaited arrival of the new, liquid-cooled GS.
Despite this slight drop in GS sales, BMW need not worry about losing that number-one position, as the competition, which includes the KTM 990 Adventure, the Moto Guzzi Stelvio and the Yamaha Super Ténéré, each represent less than 5,000 units annually. The good news for Triumph is that despite being introduced in February 2012, the Explorer now occupies the number-two spot, behind the R1200GS. As Triumph product manager Simon Warburton put it, “The Explorer is now the best of the rest.”

For 2013, Triumph has added a second Explorer variation, the XC (for cross country), much like BMW has the standard GS and the dressed-up Adventure model. The Explorer XC uses the same chassis, suspension and engine as the standard Explorer; what it has in addition is a selection of accessories that make it a bit more practical off pavement. These items include tubeless wire wheels, which are more robust than the cast items on the standard Explorer, a large aluminum skid plate, tubular engine guards, plastic hand guards and 55-watt auxiliary lights. These goodies add $1,500 to the standard Explorer’s price, bringing the XC’s retail price to $18,999.

Triumph held a somewhat informal, two-day launch for the new machine in Scotland, where we covered 600 kilometres along some of the most beautiful roads in the Highlands. My hosts from Triumph included product manager Simon Warburton and head of PR relations Simon Carter, both avid riders.

front wheel of Triumph Explorer XC I realized almost immediately that I would have ample time to test the Explorer’s weather protection. Grim-looking skies, high winds and a light drizzle greeted us for our early-morning departure. Temperatures were in the low single-digits with forecast temperatures barely breaking into the double digits.

Carter tried to lighten the mood by using the well-worn phrase, “If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, just wait five minutes.” As I discovered, you can wait all you want, and you probably still won’t like the weather.
Our route began near Aberfeldy, about 120 km north of Edinburgh, and took us east along a variety of secondary roads before we turned north onto A93 and into the Highlands, where open, winding roads emphasized the Explorer XC’s comfortable ergonomics, modest weather protection and wonderfully toasty – but optional – heated handgrips.
The Explorer’s 1215 cc inline-triple produces a claimed 135 horsepower, 10 hp more than the new GS, while torque peaks at 89 ft-lb, a three foot-pound deficit on the latest BMW. The XC has plenty of standard-issue electronics, including ride-by-wire throttle control, cruise control, switchable ABS and adjustable traction control. There are, however, no selectable ride modes offering different throttle maps for various riding conditions.

Back wheel of Triumph XCWe stopped for a brief break at the Glenshee ski centre, Scotland’s largest ski hill (by Canadian standards, a bunny hill), where I parked the XC at the base of the hill to take some photos and noticed a gentleman sitting in a chair across the road. It turned out to be an aging and weathered sculpture by artist Malcolm Robertson, titled “Tommy and Wife.” The sculpture was erected in 1975, but sadly Tommy’s wife has since departed, leaving behind only withered remnants of the chair in which she once sat, and poor Tommy staring solemnly into the distance.

The road wound out of Glenshee in a succession of esses between treeless, rolling hills, and the XC’s firm suspension kept it steady through sweepers and allowed waver-free transitions through the twisty sections, proving it can readily handle a brisk, sport-touring pace. Although alarmingly high side-winds pushed us into a lean on the straights, the XC maintained a confidence-inspiring level of stability.

Within these rolling hills can be found historic estates like Blair and Braemar Castle, Glamis and Scone Palace. We made a brief stop at Balmoral Castle, a working estate of 49,000 acres that has been a summer residence of the Royal Family since 1852. There were no sightings of Her Majesty.

The Explorer’s rigid, steel-trellis frame holds everything together, and suspension includes a 46 mm inverted fork and single rear shock. Suspension adjustments are limited to front and rear preload and rear rebound damping. Seat height is adjustable to either 840 or 860 mm (33 to 33.9 in.), and optional low and high seats offer a seat height range of between 810 and 895 mm (31.9 to 35.2 in.). Seat height was fine for me at six feet tall, and even with the seat adjusted to its highest position, which offered more legroom, I could get both feet flat on the ground with just a slight bend at my knees. The bike’s midsection is somewhat wide, a bit wider than the latest R1200GS, which has been slimmed down a bit. The gauge cluster includes a large analog tachometer and an LCD screen that displays speed, trip and odometer readings, trip computer info and tire pressures.

I was grateful that our hosts had installed the accessory heated grips, which remained on for almost the entire ride, providing toasty warmth for my digits. Of course, they should be standard, at least on Canadian bikes. Also helping in this respect were the hand guards, which did a good job of keeping the windblast off my hands.

The windscreen is adjustable in five positions over a 13-degree range. It’s relatively easy to adjust via two thumbscrews, though this should be done while stopped. I set it at its highest position and it kept the windblast off my chest, up to about mid-helmet level. Although airflow around my helmet wasn’t as clean as it was with the screen lowered, it didn’t shake my helmet around unless I got up to about 130 km/h.

We continued north along A93 through whiskey country, where road signs announced distilleries like Aberlour, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, all of which produce whiskeys that occupy a spot in my stash of spirits.

With the heated grips still set to high, I followed Warburton, who led us to lunch at Alvie House, once the home of Sir Robert Boville Whitehead, cousin of Agathe Whitehead. Whitehead was the first wife of Georg von Trapp, also known as Baron von Trapp, whose family’s life story was the inspiration for the musical The Sound of Music.

The Alvie House estate was sold to Lady Carnarvon immediately following the death of her husband George Herbert in 1923. Herbert, an Egyptologist, discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. He died, however, within a year of discovering the tomb, reportedly from an infected mosquito bite. Legend has it he succumbed to King Tut’s curse.

While musicals and mummy’s curses mean little to me, the storied Alvie House did have something in store for us: it was where I tasted haggis for the first time. This mishmash of sheep innards, oatmeal and onion might sound dreadfully unappetizing (the sight of it surely isn’t inspiring), but it’s actually quite tasty – I even had seconds.

Upon leaving Alvie House, we used the dirt roads lining the estate’s 13,000-acre lot to test the XC’s off-road capability, and this is where the bike revealed its shortcomings. The firm suspension that kept the chassis poised on the road proved too harsh when the pavement ended. This was not a problem on smoother gravel roads, but the suspension reacted too slowly over sharp, successive bumps, causing the wheels to leave the ground. The cure, of course, was to slow down, but even at a modest pace, the XC was not as compliant as other bikes in this category. Also, throttle response was a bit harsh for off-pavement riding, something that could easily be cured with the addition of selectable ride modes.

We ended the day at an inn by the banks of Loch Ness, famed for sightings of Nessie, the legendary monster that has so far evaded capture and afforded no real evidence of its existence other than some blurry photographs. Unsurprisingly, there were no sightings of Nessie while I was there. Instead, I snapped a few pictures of a fibreglass likeness of the beast in a gift shop parking lot.

On day two, we headed south out of Loch Ness and made a morning stop at the Ben Nevis distillery. Founded in 1825, it is among the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland. A brief tour enlightened me on the distillation process of malt whiskey (in one of the early steps, it is essentially beer), and a visit to the distillery store netted me a bottle of 10-year-old single malt for my liquor cabinet.

From there, we took some open roads toward a lunch stop at the Inverawe Smokehouse, located in Taynuilt, which is the English spelling for the Gaelic phrase meaning “the house by the stream” – appropriate, since it’s a fish smokery.

The access road to Inverawe was tight, twisty and undulating, and the XC again demonstrated its preference for pavement. It’s a top-heavy machine, but it nonetheless flipped through transitions with relative ease. I used the engine’s abundant mid-range torque to hop between turns, lifting the wheel momentarily over sharp crests before the bike’s traction control took over and pulled it down again.

At Inverawe, I filled up on a sampling of smoked salmon, trout, and a couple of salmon terrines and pâtés, all of them deliciously oak flavoured. We left the smokehouse for our final destination, a luxury hotel in Dunblane, where I parted company with the XC for what, despite the inclement weather, turned out to be a very gratifying and revealing ride.

There’s no doubt the Triumph Tiger Explorer XC is a significant addition to the category. Its engine sounds great (surprisingly robust and throaty, in fact) and hummed along, vibration-free, throughout the ride. It handles like a sport-tourer, it’s comfortable and it gets great gas mileage to boot (I measured 5.5L/100 km, right on par with the factory’s claim), with a possible range of 365 km from its 20-litre fuel tank. Add luggage, and it can make a commendable sport-touring machine.

However, on the adventure-touring side, if you actually intend to venture off road, you’ll be somewhat disappointed. The suspension is too firm to handle rough or unpaved roads comfortably. Triumph’s latest Trophy SE has electrically adjustable suspension, and this should be made available, at least as an option, on the XC. Warburton says it might show up on future Explorers, as might selectable drive modes.

Truth is, despite Triumph’s own research, which says 50 percent of Explorer owners have ridden their bikes off road, it’s more likely that they only dreamt about it. Most adventure bike owners rarely take their tires off pavement, and for them, the Explorer XC will satisfy with great performance and comfort. It would just be nice to have an adjustable, off road–capable suspension for riders who do want to explore those less-travelled roads.

The basics
LIST PRICE $18,999
WARRANTY Two years, unlimited mileage
ENGINE TYPE Liquid-cooled inline-triple
COMPANY URL www.triumph-motorcycles.ca
the drivetrain  
POWER 135 hp (101 kW) at 9300 rpm
TORQUE 89 ft.-lb. (121 N-m) at 6400 rpm
BORE AND STROKE 85 x 71.4 mm
FUEL DELIVERY Fuel injection with ride-by-wire throttle
the essentials  
FRONT SUSPENSION 46 mm inverted fork adjustable for preload
REAR SUSPENSION Single shock adjustable for rebound damping and preload
WHEEL TRAVEL Front: 190 mm (7.5 in.); Rear: 194 mm (7.6 in.)
BRAKES Front: twin 305 mm discs with 4-piston calipers; Rear: 282 mm disc with 2-piston caliper
WHEELBASE 1530 mm (60.2 in.)
RAKE AND TRAIL 23.9 degrees/105 mm
TIRES Front: 110/80R-19; Rear: 150/70R-17
WEIGHT (WET) 259 kg (570 lb.)
SEAT HEIGHT 840-860 mm (33.1-33.9 in.)

Copyright ©2002-2024 Motorcycle Mojo | Privacy Policy | Built by Gooder Marketing