Saturday, November 9, 2013

Triumph Bonneville review

Update: 130,000 km (October 2015)

At the highest international border crossing in the world: China
Someone recently asked me how the Bonneville was holding up... Well, it's not as shiny as it once was... It has suffered on this part of the trip, has carried the most weight and has been over the worst roads imaginable. You can read elsewhere that it clicked over the 100,000 km without any problems. It has proven, to be honest, a more reliable motorcycle than the Yamaha XT660R... even though we ride the same trip under the same conditions. Add to that the Triumph's 40,000 km higher odometer reading before we left and it's fair to say we are impressed with the Bonnie. The last 30,000 km have been somewhat hard for it though...

The isolation of Kyrgyzstan
Let's be honest here. When the guys in Hinckley designed the Bonneville they had no idea some idiot from Australia would take it around the world. Triumph Australia said it would never make it up the Dalton highway... it did. It also did the Top of the World Highway, Canyonlands' Potash road, Monument Valley and the coastal road in Belize. We took it through Mexico and Central America too. All while being loaded up to the hilt, fitted with big aluminium panniers and no modifications from standard to the engine. I've had it on the scales and with me on it recorded a shocking 420 kg.

It held its own surrounded by off-road monsters in China
All the work done on the Bonnie has been just regular servicing. And even that was minimal. I replace the oil every 5,000 km as I've seen first hand how oil in an air-cooled engine suffers from heat. It's simply cheap insurance. I only use mineral oil as synthetics don't work all that well in both the Bonnie and the Yamaha. The fuel filter in the tank is still the original one and the valve clearances have been checked twice, the first time at 30,000 and again at 80,000 km. The clearances were fine and as it's a bucket and shim system I can't see the need to check it that often. Plugs last about 40,000 km as do air filters (I blow them out at every service and replace them at roughly 40,000).


Guatemala highlands
Being on the road and in places were Triumph dealers are far and few between, meant it has had to run on all sorts of oil filters, all sorts of oil and plenty of fuel of dubious quality. Some of it was so bad we couldn't even get our Coleman stove to burn on it... The Yamaha is much more sensitive to fuel quality and lets us know it's unhappy by rough running and/or reluctant to start at times, the Triumph just rumbles on.

Georgia (the one next to Russia...)
On the current part of the trip it needed some work though... Remember, this bike left on this trip with 40,000 km on the clock and hadn't needed any repair work before we left. I then took it through New Zealand, from Vancouver to the top of Alaska, down through Canada via Jasper and Banff, zig-zagged through the western half of the USA including Death Valley, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We subsequently shipped it from Costa Rica to Europe and travelled through England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. All without needing any work done to the bike at all.

After a stopover for Christmas at my parents place, it took me through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. In Greece it needed its first replacement part... its first replacement part ever! The bearing inside the rear sprocket wasn't as fresh as it should be and since we had Kazakhstan and the like ahead of us I decided to replace it. The wheel bearings are still the originals.

Cappadocia, Turkey
Dubious fuel
I was seriously impressed with the quality and reliability of this motorcycle. Even more so since I've seen first hand what all goes wrong with the seemingly more suitable bikes for this kind of work... But nothing had prepared me for what it coped with when we entered North Eastern Turkey and Georgia, where we took roads that had the bashplate grounded lots of times and the suspension battered for hours. In Georgia I hit a huge pothole, the size of a bathtub, which blew both shock absorbers apart in one hit. It didn't crack the frame or did any other damage though! Russia was next and then literally all hell broke loose when we went through Kazakhstan.

Valley of the gods, USA

End of the road, Romania
I seriously felt sorry for the bike when we did the Atyrau to Aktobe section. Not that the road before that had been all that good, far from it in fact, but with the benefit of hindsight it should not have survived the section after Atyrau. But it did. And it even did it on damaged shocks, with minimal damping left while being hammered to death on roads so bad that riding next to them on sandy tracks full of ruts, potholes, rocks and whatever else you can think of was in fact the better option.

Dalton Highway, Alaska

The handlebars where hammering up and down as the forks continuously reached the end of their travel. I frequently had to drop down to 1st gear while struggling through 48°C temperatures. It was so bad I had blood in my gloves from split calluses after just 20 km on that road, with another 330 to go. The heat coming from the engine, struggling through these temperatures while pulling a heavy load through sand, was cooking my legs through my motorbike pants and boots. This part of the world had me standing on the pegs for hours... Yet even after this torture, nothing went wrong, nothing broke and nothing failed. Then we went through Kyrgyzstan which hasn't been dubbed 'The Adventure Riders' Paradise' for nothing... on a Triumph Bonneville! A local bike mechanic mumbled it was unbelievable what we had done with it. After that followed China and the highest international border crossing in the world at 4,700 m. The Karakoram highway was next and then the madness called India...

Obviously the Bonneville isn't a match for the Yamaha XT suspension wise, when going off-road. There were times when I had to take a rest as my neck was becoming so painful that I just couldn't ride no more. Yet strangely enough the Bonneville seems to cope well with all the abuse. Nothing broke, nothing needed adjusting and even the often criticised rear brake calliper position, being mounted too low and too vulnerable according to the so called 'experts' works actually quite well as it keeps the shit out of the brakes. The rear brakes on the Yamaha had a much harder time, clogging up and destroying the brake pads. Summing up what needed replacement after 130,000 km is a very short list: 1 rear sprocket bearing in Greece ($9.-), 1 clutch cable in China ($3.82) and 1 gear lever seal in India ($3.17), which makes a grand total of $15.99 in 130,000 km. Just two weeks after I bought my Bonnie I said 'I hope it makes the 100,000 km'. That was before I had any ideas to travel around the world on it and take it off-road or fit panniers. Having done 130,000 problem free km now, I'm looking forward to 200,000 km...

The Dolomites, Italy
Update: June 2014

Both our Bonneville T100s have had a hard life. We hardly use them as the weekend classic that Triumph thought we would. They have been on plenty of roads they shouldn't have been on and have been in situations which were well beyond their to be expected capabilities. They didn't get through it all unscathed, in fact for a moment we thought it was 'end of story' for one of them… but we hadn't thought about the man in the blue towel…

I've combined both Bonnies in one post. Why? Because a post about one of them would have been a very short one, as on mine absolutely nothing went wrong. Nothing leaks, nothing failed and nothing broke… Amazingly enough it's the oldest one that has the heaviest load and has now covered well over 85.000 kms. Even when I did come off on the same road that blew the Yamaha's fork seals, the RennTec crash bars and Holan panniers took the full hit, saving my leg and the whole bike in the process. I love this bike!

Broken Ikon shock absorber
Jeanette's Bonnie has some battle scars. The same road that blew the Yamaha seals broke one of her Ikon shockies. We won't replace them with new Ikons even though the shock absorbers themselves are theoretically ok. The ones on my Bonneville need a rebuild as they haven't got much damping left, but I'm ok with that as we have been on some pretty bad roads. Having said that the Yamaha standard shock survived just fine, as did the Bonneville front fork. Mine has now covered 85.000 km and has never needed any work on the forks, yet the Ikon's have done half that and are worn out… 
Jeanette's Ikon shock absorbers seemed fine, right up to the moment she hit a pothole and the shockabsorber bottomed out for the first time. The internals proved to be too long and shattered on impact. The piston cracked, the damper rod bent; in short: one self-destructed shock absorber. You could argue that she must have hit the pothole hard, she hadn't, if she had both dampers would have been destroyed. 

We contacted Ikon, told them what happened and they confirmed me it was no longer possible to rebuild them. When I asked for a new one under warranty as it clearly had a manufacturing fault which just hadn't shown up until now, they refused on the grounds that the shock absorber had covered more than 40.000 km and was due for replacement anyway… Ikon even suggested that replacing at 25.000 km was advisory…!
The Ikon website states: 'IKON's are built to last a lifetime. Once you bought a set of IKON's for your motorcycle, they usually will outlive it. The reason for this comes from nature of the materials used in the first place as well as the fact that all IKON shocks are rebuildable.' Usually a motorcycle will live longer than 40.000 km and our shock absorbers are no longer rebuildable. The website also states: 'At the end of the production line every single damper is 100% dyno-tested to assure highest quality'. That clearly hasn't been the case here as the first time it bottomed out it destroyed itself. Ikon wasn't going to replace or repair, they asked for our credit card number and wanted full recommended retail price plus shipping… We have replaced them with new Hagons, see our post about them here.

Accident damage
On an absurd road in Nicaragua that had 4WDs sliding down the hill, I went down riding/trying to get Jeanettes T100 up the hill. Before you start; she was perfectly right in not doing that herself. I couldn't hold the Bonnie when it started sliding backwards, so she wouldn't have had a chance at all. This was by all accounts an absurd hill full of holes covered in powdery fine sand. She later crashed herself just a kilometre further… Not having Barkbusters then meant the mirror broke and the brake lever bend in an awkward way and eventually broke. Later we found the bash plate had dented the oil filter but luckily not damaged it. I have since made a recess for the oil filter on both bash plates so that when it gets another hit, it won't squash the filter. The broken brake lever was a bigger problem. Getting a new one was out of the question, the old one somehow needed to be fixed. Of course it wasn't just the end that had broken off but the whole thing had snapped. How we temporarily fixed it can be found in our last post about Nicaragua. I have just replaced the splinted lever with a new one and noticed they have changed the design. It now incorporates a break point near the end.

Leaking fork seal
Just after the shipping one of the fork seals started leaking. Was it because of the shipping or was it a seal that was about to go anyway. We will probably never know. It was an inexpensive and easy to replace part anyway. So, after respectively 48.000 and 85.000 km all that went wrong on the Bonnevilles was one leaking fork seal. The Ikon shockabsorbers are not original Triumph parts after all.

Servicing a Triumph Bonneville is relatively easy. Items like the oilfilter, airfilter, drainplugs etc are easy enough to replace. Checking the valve clearances takes a little bit more time as the tank with its built-in pump, pressure regulator and filter has to be removed. It's not a big job or complicated but it involves disconnecting the high pressure fuel hose, whose plastic connectors are covered in fine dust. Not a good combination. As Triumph uses the bucket and shim method I left them well alone the whole trip. As a result, my T100 has had its valve clearances checked at 30.000 km and 85.000 km. I'm still running on the original fuel filter… My theory is that as long as I hear the pump building up pressure all is fine.

When I checked the valve clearances at 85.000 km, all was ok. They have never needed adjustment. Jeanette's T100 had never been checked until 48.000 km, again all was fine. Still, I had a look to see if it would be possible to check the clearances without removing the tank. It is! Disconnect the electrical connector to the pump and low fuel sensor, slowly lift the tank and turn it 90 degrees horizontal with the front of the tank facing the gear lever side of the bike. No need to disconnect the high pressure fuel line, no dust in the system, no plastic connectors that can break… 

Next on the to do list was the airfilter. The standard Triumph paper filter had been blown-out a couple of times but now after 45.000 km was replaced with a new one. I also replaced the fork oil in both Triumphs, again 45.000 km which turned out to be way too long an interval as the oil was black. Maybe that had caused the seal to start leaking. I'll replace it at 20.000 km intervals from now on. Funnily enough I couldn't find any info on fork oil change intervals for a Triumph Bonneville

1st Update: September 2013

Now that we have come to the end of the New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, Canada and USA part of the trip and are about to enter Mexico, it's time to have a look at how the bikes coped so far. What went wrong, what didn't work, what would we like to change and would we do it on the same bikes again? 
As we have two Bonnevilles, the chances that things go wrong are double as well. Add to it that we asked more from them than we could have considering what they were made for. After all the Yamaha XT660R might have been designed as a dual-sport, the Bonneville was absolutely not. It's a classic, designed for people who want to go leisurely around the block on a sunny Sunday afternoon. What we did instead is take them halfway around the world, over roads that aren't roads and through weather and conditions that have nothing to do with a sunny Sunday! We loaded them up with panniers and camping gear. Fitted dual-sport tyres and took them to all the places that, according to the experts, are for BMW GS only. Mine is the oldest of the two and started this trip with already 45.000 km on the clock. Jeanette's was brand new, 3 years younger than mine. So how did they cope? Or better still; did they cope at all?

In short: yes they did! They did In fact amazingly well. Of course they can't match the brilliant Yamaha XT660R suspension or it's economy (although the Bonnie gets very very close economy wise) but they took it all very well. They are a bit sensitive to weight on the back. We carry a lot of weight in the panniers in the form of an extensive tool kit as I do all the maintenance myself, including fitting tyres. We also have dual laptops and quite a bit of camera gear as we are keen photographers. Jeanette has full cooking gear on hers and we have food and water for a few days. The Bonnies let us know they are on the limit by shaking their head a bit at certain speeds. It's not dangerous, it just let's you know.
The seat on mine is not the most comfortable one. I have thought about a gel seat but was advised against it by the Triumph dealer as it apparently gets quite hot. I also thought about Airhawk but for costs reasons didn't buy them. I guess I'm used to the seat by now as I can spend hours on it without any problems. Jeanette's newer Bonnie has a different seat. It's much more comfortable than mine and she has no issues whatsoever with it. 

What went wrong?
Not a lot. My 2009 T100 needed a new pressure regulator, well before we left and repaired under warranty. According to the dealer, Triumph had a series of pressure regulator failures around that time, which is a bought-in component. The rubber grommet of the crankshaft position sensor wire cracked and started leaking oil. This happened while we were in New Zealand. I cleaned the crack with brake cleaner, filled the crack with Blue Hylomar and shoved a hose over it with more Blue Hylomar between the two hoses. This was meant to be a temporary fix… 30.000 km later it still doesn't leak. Apart from chains, sprockets, a new battery and brake pads… that's all in 75.000 km. Service wise I changed the oil and filter every 5000 km, lubed the chain religiously, replaced the plugs at 30.000 and 70.000 km, cleaned the air filter every 5.000 and replaced it at 40.000km. It's still running on the original fuel filter and the valve clearances have been checked once at 30.000 km. In Monument Valley I flattened the side stand springs, which on a Bonnie are under the side stand, when I 'found' a bull dust filled pothole that was bigger than the rear wheel.

Jeanette's 2012 model has now covered 35.000 and needed… nothing! It hasn't been in for any warranty or repair work whatsoever. She had a fall on New Zealand's wet West Coast over railway tracks on a bridge that did quite a bit of damage to the bike but thanks to the brilliant Renntec crash bars and the headlight protector all could be repaired without having to replace anything. 

Chrome and paint wise the Triumphs are very good. We're not polishers and they haven't seen wax for 35.000 km. We washed them twice on the whole trip and yet we have no rust issues at all. Even the seriously damaged chrome headlamp rim on Jeanette's Bonnie I could knock back into shape with a hammer and screwdriver without rust developing.  

What would I like to change for the next trip?
Fit a hazard switch to it! There have been so many occasions where I needed hazard lights, instead I now rock the indicator switch from left to right and tap the rear brake several times, but a hazard switch would be very welcome.

As I take the Bonneville over roads which it was never made for, I'd like to increase the ground clearance a bit by fitting Scrambler shocks at that rear and longer fork legs at the front. This would give me all I need without making it a high adventure monster. 
The raised suspension will mean a longer centre stand and side stand. I'd also give it a bigger foot on the side stand for soft ground. 

A proper bash plate as the standard Triumph one does not protect the exhaust or oil filter. Believe it or not Jeanette's oil filter was hit so hard by a rock that it was almost impossible to remove at the next service. We used K&N filters up til then, which have a 17mm nut at the bottom, making them easy to remove. However the nut is made from pressed tin and hollow inside. It was flattened by the impact, the filter didn't leak but removing the filter was a hard job! Since then we fitted Hilo filters which don't have that problem. The bash plate would also have to be longer to protect the chain better from dust when off-road.
These are, again, modifications that have nothing to do with the bike but with the 'roads' we take them on.

Increase the size of the fuel tank to 20 litres. That would give me a range of 480 km and cover 99% of where I want to go. Plus I'd fit a couple of fuel bottles to each pannier just to be sure. 

Would I do it again on a Bonneville?
Absolutely! It doesn't have 100 hp and isn't comfortable cruising at 100 mph, not so much because the engine can't do it but because my arms won't cope. But I don't want to cruise at 100 mph anyway and don't need 100 hp. What the Bonneville has instead is a very flexible and tractable engine, the smoothest parallel twin I've ever had. It's got plenty of low down torque. It's seat is low enough to be able to paddle around without tippy-toe-ing and yet is very capable off-road too. It's simple to service and very good on fuel. Much better than the bigger adventure weapons. 
It's the best Bonneville I've ever had, it looks better than the old ones, handles better than the old ones and is totally reliable. I love it as much as I did on day one. Of all the bikes I have had, it's only the second one I can say that about…! Now you'd like to know the other bike I like as much… It's not the Electra Glide, not the BSA, not the older Bonneville, nor the Yamaha SRX600 I had; it's the little 250 MZ that took me to work for 17 years, through 17 Dutch winters and covered 157.000 km without failing. The Bonneville is the absolute favourite though.

So why not the Scrambler?
As much as I like the 270° crank and even better low end torque, I would have to change too much on it. I don't like the exhaust that close to my legs. It also necessitates the panniers to be moved further out which is not what I want. The front mudguard is too short and will throw even more dust and grit. I'd like to take the longer inner forks, the longer rear shockies and the centre and side stand of it and fit it to a T100!