Riding the Triumph Tiger 800 XC off-road

Dailies, Reviews -

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One of the things we were hoping to accomplish during that weekend in Big Bear when I broke my arm was a story on riding the Triumph Tiger 800 XC off-road. I did manage to ride it in the dirt, but the Ural crash ended the weekend a day and a half early, derailing plans for a Tiger photoshoot. But, we did get the chance to run the new Triumph up and down some pretty challenging fire roads and even through a water crossing.

The big question here isn’t whether the Tiger can play at being a dirt bike. Like all other tall roaders, it’s going to be very limited by its weight and very limited by its OEM road tires and gearing optimized for relaxed highway cruising, not mud plugging. The lack of crash protection is also a concern on a bike that borders $12,000 when equipped with ABS.

No, the big question here is whether a bike that has such a clear advantage on the road can keep up with other adventure tourers once the road turns from tarmac to gravel. Or gravel to sand, like it does out by Crab Flats in Big Bear. The big question is whether or not the Tiger XC can hang with its close rival, the BMW F800GS in the kind of riding most adventurers dream about.

When we took that BMW through Newfoundland and then across Labrador, its main limitation in the rough stuff become apparent about 20 yards into the T’rail — too tall gearing and poor fueling means you have to slip the clutch at anything up to 25mph or so. Since the T’Rail’s 500-ish miles are mostly composed of soft gravel yumps and boggy mud, that was obviously a huge problem. Getting a big, heavy, fragile road bike through all that isn’t going to happen much above 25mph.

The Tiger is similarly geared a bit too tall (like the BMW, sprockets would fix that), but its incredibly smooth, torquey and perfectly-fueled triple can pull at much lower speeds than BMW’s agricultural parallel-twin. Where navigating a low speed obstacle on the F800GS is cause for wide eyes and fluttering hearts, the Tiger just plows through effortlessly at 10-15mph. That motor that’s so easy, fast and intuitive on the road is just as good off it.

Riding the Tiger 800 XC on the road, we sang the praises of the stock settings in its non-adjustable forks and preload/rebound shock. They were a bit soft, but very well damped, leading to a plush, capable ride. There’s enough feel through that suspension even to wear the 21-inch front tire to its very edges, not something I’ve been able to do an any other adventure bike. On sand, dirt and gravel, the same advantage applies. Feel is simply amazing. Sure, the non-knobby front tire wants to wash out, but you can feel it doing so so early and so clearly, that it’s just not a problem.


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At 6’ 2”, another advantage I found over the F800GS was in the ergonomics. With the cheesy rubber pads off the grippy metal pegs, I could stand comfortably and confidently on the Tiger. It was easier to grip with my knees and the stock bars adjust a bit higher than those on the BMW, meaning I could adopt a more natural, comfortable riding position.

Down a sandy hill to a muddy water crossing, it’s just a case of backing off the throttle, lining up the exit and whacking the throttle open to get through. No brake, no clutch, no nervous anticipation of a slide, the Tiger just effortlessly makes it across as your feet get soaked.

Setting it up for all that is a cinch too. Undo two Alan bolts on the bar clamp, stand on the pegs and pull the bars to rotate them forward. Undo one Alan bolt on each side and the entire mirror/lever/control assembly rotates down. Reach down, grab the rubber foot pads off the pegs and throw them in the garbage and you’re ready to go.

Carrying luggage on the Tiger is also ridiculously easy. Thank that huge, flat, two-piece seat, the standard luggage rack and exposed tubular subframe for that. Whether you’re coming at it with bespoke luggage, a generic solution or just a bungee net and some random bag, you’re going to get your gear on the back of the Tiger quickly, easily and securely. As an added bonus, that luggage rack could have been designed specifically to work with Kriega tail packs, the straps fit perfectly into the standard slots. When I was using this thing to run around LA, I could carry a passenger in complete comfort and let her put a purse in the Kreiga US-20 without cramping either us or the bag.

The biggest drawback on dirt is also the biggest drawback on the street. The OEM-fit Bridgestone Battlewings just aren’t optimized to work in either environment. On the road their quasi-trailness sacrifices grip. Off it, their quasi-roadness does the same thing. A better compromise for your style of riding needs to be found. Once the fireroad got slippery, that front just wanted to walk all over the place. Luggage or a passenger would shift the weight backwards, likely exacerbating the problem.

That tire compromise points out some odd spec choices with the Tiger range. Triumph is already selling two versions of the bike; the Triumph Tiger 800 is road-biased and the Tiger 800 XC is supposed to be more dirt-capable, but like the American political system, both end up sitting somewhere in uncomfortable middle ground. The Tiger 800 would inarguably be a better road bike if it ditched its 19-inch front for a 17 and its Pirelli Scorpion’s for some real rubber. It’s a light tourer/practical commuter/all rounder, don’t sacrifice ability for dirt fashion. The Tiger 800 XC would inarguably be a better adventure tourer with some real knobs and a bunch of crash protection. Those changes would broaden the appeal of the range with two distinct models over two very, very similar ones.

But that criticism is made because we’re such huge fans of the Triumph Tiger 800 XC that we want to see it live up to its full potential in stock form. It may not be the sexiest, most expensive or most lineaged adventure tourer out there, but it’s the most honestly capable, fun, comfortable, easy and versatile one we’ve ridden.

  • Beale

    I’ve given up on adventure bikes and resigned myself to having to have multiple bikes to do the type f riding I prefer, but the Tigers look so completely perfect for me I think I can ditch the multi bike idea. Could be my first new bike purchase since my old Elite 80 in 1986.

  • markbvt

    Regarding tires — I pulled the stock skins off my XC at a little over 9000 miles and put on a Kenda Big Block front knobby and Shinko 705 rear semi-knobby. Naturally on-road grip is sacrificed (though still surprisingly good in the dry), but the Tiger now feels rock-solid on dirt and gravel. I’m dying to take it up to Labrador but unfortunately won’t have time this year.

  • Will Y

    What about the difference of fuel tank position with regards to balance in the rough stuff? The bimmers low slung tank vs. the Tigers conventional placement?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      The Tiger is a well-balanced, easy bike to ride. The minor difference in CG caused by the GS’s underseat fuel tank isn’t a huge deal.

  • JaySD

    There are guys who will swear that dunlop 606′s will run pretty darn good on the street too. Or could go with the avon distanza SM compound which is a staple with the supermoto group

    • Brian

      I can vouch for the D606′s. I’m on my 3rd set on my late model KLR and have worn the peg feelers completely down. The added hum/ buzz at highway speeds is a small price to pay for feeling confident off-road.

    • Beale

      Dunlop 606′s = best dirt knobby with some semblance of street handling.

      Pirelli Scorpion XCMS = Best DOT legal knobby, useless on the street.

      Shinko 705′s = Best 50/50 compromise tire. Very good on the street, surprisingly good in the dirt when aired down.

  • Thom

    American Political System on Middle Ground ???

    Which DC are you paying attention to Wes ?

    All I’m seeing is extreme polarization from both sides

    That aside though , nice review . Looks like BMW has someone knocking at their door to take a few sales away if I’m reading correctly .

    • Roman

      Anyone looking closely enough can clearly see that one side is a whole lot more extreme than the other. But yeah, awkward political metaphor is awkward.

  • Justin

    What’s a challenging fire road? :P

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      On a street bike? Anything with bumps, ruts, elevation, corners and a very slippery surface. A 473lbs bike on slick tires ain’t no KTM enduro.

    • Beale

      Try this one:

      http://tinyurl.com/3k6utp4

      Hope you like beer keg sized rocks.

  • Beale
    • Justin

      Yeah, I’ve been on plenty of slippery fire trails with beer keg rocks in the sierras, but never on a street bike. It’s fairly easy on a dirtbike or dual sport with even DS tires, but I could see it being terrible on a pig of a bike like any adventure bike. I was chasing my brothers CRF450 when he taco’d his front excel talon rimed wheel on one. Yeah, slicks offroad are no fun.

      Worst I’ve done on a street bike is the sand at pismo at high tide-the cake sand. Oof, that’s no fun at all!

      • Taco

        Cool, I didn’t know you could use taco as a verb.

  • Your_Mom

    Not better nor worse – but a different perspective on the two bikes here:

    http://www.motorcycle.com/shoot-outs/2011-adventuretouring-shootout-triumph-tiger-800xc-vs-bmw-f800gs-91099.html

    • Joe

      God their writing is boring

    • HammSammich

      Ugh, this is much worse. Must they qualify every freaking “conclusion” they make? It’s pathetic. This kind of nuanced “On the one hand, on the other hand” analysis is appropriate to social sciences, and I expect it when I read Foreign Affairs, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to come up with an objective assessment of which bike is better. And don’t give me any of their “It depends on what you like” crap… a person might prefer drinking Wild Turkey to Balvenie 21, but that doesn’t mean one is just as good as the other, it just means that person has bad taste.

      • contender

        Hey! I like Wild Turkey.

        • HammSammich

          Well, liking Wild Turkey, and preferring it over a high quality well-aged scotch are different matters. ;)

  • jason McCrash

    I have Distanzas on my 89 Transalp and while I can’t say how they would be out west on the dry dirt, they work well on gravel and stick to the road better than I would expect. The front has worn down quickly though, which is helping it’s grip on road I’m sure.
    I had Mefo’s on my old DR650 and they were OK on the road but did squirm a bit of you pushed it in corners. Sold the bike before I could get to anything more than a few gravel roads.

  • nick
  • Chopped_Burban

    Ok, never ridden the F800GS but have now ridden the 800XC and a 2009 Buell Ulysses back to back. Here was my big surprise, the 800XC felt more stable than the Buell doing 180KPH (110MPH) on the Autobahn. I know, not fast by Autobahn standards, but fast enough. Aside from that, the Buell was still more fun carving corners once I got off the Autobahn. Just found it odd for an adventure bike with a 21″ front wheel to feel so stable at speed. I’m impressed. Don’t ask me about off-road, it was a rental.