The week leading up to this year’s ALMS weekend at Road America was a busy one. I had already accepted an invitation from BMW to join its team in the paddocks to witness Rahal-Letterman Racing going about its business, and was rather looking forward to a day filled with the smell of burnt race gas and smoking clutches, not to mention the sights and sounds of some of the most exciting race cars on the planet. Attending the race was a given; how I was getting there wasn’t. And then came a call from our favorite Triumph dealer, Motor Cycle Center, down the road from us just a couple miles. A 2011 Sprint GT demo had just rolled in, and was I perhaps curious about putting a few miles on it? Why, of course I was.
The Sprint GT, which recently debuted as a 2011 model, is a new twist on the popular Sprint ST 1050 sport touring model Triumph introduced back in 2005. The goal was to refine the “sport touring” equation a little more toward “touring” for long-distance riders; the GT is therefore an addition to the Sprint lineup. The transformation from ST to GT involves a stretched wheelbase, a bump in power, standard ABS and a pair of 31-liter panniers.
Those panniers, it turned out, were the key to my yes vote. I had been looking forward to a little extended seat time on a bike — hell, any bike — as most of my riding consists of the 35-mile back-and-forth from the office to my house and vice versa. So the three-hour sprint (no pun intended) from the suburbs of Chicago to bucolic Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, seemed like the perfect opportunity, especially since I was going solo and would have no one with whom to converse on the trip anyway.
By 5:00 am I had arrived at the office, where the Triumph awaited. In just a few minutes I was packed and ready to go, the summer sun still hiding behind the eastern sky in the waning minutes of the pre-dawn. As with women, I like to suggest it’s best not to get acquainted with a new bike in the darkness, but there are always exceptions. Before I pulled out of the bright whiteness of our garage, I took full inventory of the Sprint’s controls for good measure; they are exceedingly standard — no surprises here.
Out on the road, I found myself somewhat surprised by the sportbike-like riding position. Triumph touts the GT as being built more for comfort, but the bars are still set low, requiring a decent reach around the bulging 5.3-gallon fuel tank for this six-footer. The position puts a fair amount of weight on the rider’s wrists, though not as much as a pure sportbike. The low grips limit steering range as well, making for tight maneuvers when parking.
What it lacks in parking lot agility it makes up for on the road. The Sprint GT shows its sporty side at speed, where lane changes occur at the mere suggestion. The additional 2.3 inches of wheelbase don’t hamper the GT’s ability to weave through slower-moving traffic with precision. Despite the ability to seemingly change direction with your synapses, the bigger Sprint still feels rock-solid stable at highway speeds.
The 1050-cc three-cylinder boasts an extra five horses over the ST, for a total of 128 hp at 9200 rpm. There’s an extra four lb-ft of torque, too (80) that arrives 1200 rpm earlier than the ST’s peak, meaning the GT doesn’t need to be wrung as tightly to get all the juice out, and it makes for a very lively performer. And unlike the hard-pulsing beat of a V-twin or the distinct side-to-side rhythm of a boxer, the balanced strum of the inline-triple is silky smooth, delivering an exhaust note that can only come from a Triumph.
A little over an hour into the ride, I stop off just north of the cheddar curtain in Racine. The bike’s still doing fine on gas with more than half a tank to spare, but my ass is in desperate need of a time-out. The forward leaning position means the most cushioned part of my bum isn’t really supporting my weight, leaving the work to leaner, bonier parts. A few minutes of rest and a Red Bull have me back in gear and heading north again.
With full daylight and a bit of traffic to blend in with, I pick up a little speed as I continue on. The GT I’m riding has been fitted with the optional taller windscreen from the Triumph accessory catalog. I must not be tall enough to take full advantage since I can’t find a position that doesn’t buffet my helmet, other than placing my chin on the tank, thereby rendering my view of the road worthless. A subsequent ride on a Sprint GT with the standard windscreen confirms my suspicion.
The second leg of the journey proves more comfortable, and I roll into Elkhart Lake feeling a little less beat up than I was originally expecting. There’s still a gallon or so of gas in the tank after 160 miles, and other than a slightly sticky second-to-third shifting tendency, the bike has performed flawlessly. I park and dismount, much to my surprise and pleasure, adjacent to the BMW Rahal-Letterman rig, ironically alongside an older Sprint ST that belongs to one of the crew. Setting the nearly 600-pound bike (590 pounds fully fueled) on its center stand in tight quarters proves tricky but doable. Three hours after leaving the kilometer offices, I’m off the bike for a day at the races. My helmet and gloves go into one pannier, while my riding pants go into the other; my jacket gets draped over the handlebars and seat, a decision I’m comfortable with only because of the intimate surroundings. If it’s good enough for the other riders there with the team, it’s fine with me.
Throughout the day I check on the bike, occasionally stashing my camera outfit in the box with my helmet, and with every trip to the Sprint a conversation starts. Most people are more intrigued with the Triumph than familiar, but it certainly draws its share of attention. It’s a good looking bike in its dark blue livery, but a fair number aren’t quite sure what to make of a European sport-tourer, especially here in the heart of Harley country.
The day gets long in the late-summer Wisconsin sun. The competition on the track has been thrilling, between the Jetta TDI Cup race, the Patron GT3 Challenge and the ALMS headliner event. For the Rahal-Letterman Racing team, Bill Auberlin is out of the race, having crashed his M3 in spectacular fashion on the way to Turn Five, but teammate Dirk Müller is still battling Porsches in the other RLR M3. I felt bad leaving before the conclusion of the race, but I also knew I had a long ride ahead of me that would only be made longer if I waited for the masses to exodus at the conclusion of the day’s spectacle. It doesn’t matter what bike you’re riding — stop-and-go traffic in 90-plus-degree weather sucks.
The ride back toward Chicago is a fairly typical one for a Sunday evening in the summer, with weekenders returning home from vacation places filling I-94. The brakes are getting more of a workout than in the morning, and they prove trusty from the start. They’re the same as found on the Sprint ST — twin 320-mm discs in front, bitten by four-piston Nissin calipers, and a dual-piston Nissin slider gripping a single 255-mm disc in back — but ABS has been fitted as standard. I nearly got to use it, too; a six-car accident just a quarter of a mile ahead of me stopped traffic completely. I was close enough to the last exit to be able to turn around and re-route, avoiding perhaps a half-hour of sitting idle in the heat.
At around 8:00 pm, I finally pull the Triumph back into the kilometer garage. In the course of one day, I had logged more than 300 miles and seven hours of seat time on the new Sprint GT. Is it a bike I would choose specifically for long-distance riding? Probably not. It’s still a bit too much of a sport bike for rolling on the big miles; I can’t see being comfortable trekking 500 miles in a day’s riding without hurting badly at the end of the day. That said, it successfully straddles the divide between an engaging daily-use sport bike and an occasional open-road tourer. If you had to have just one bike to do everything, the $13,199 Sprint GT might be just the thing.