Martin and I swapped longtermers for a couple of days this month. I was keen to see how his Yamaha Tracer 900 GT felt in the flesh, after reading about the all-round ability it — and its competitors — displayed when we took them to Wales.
I’VE ONLY JUST realised I don’t even know what to call these bikes... The Kawasaki Versys GT is more tall sports tourer than adventure bike (Kawasaki calls it an Adventure Tourer), the Triumph Tiger Sport is more big supermoto than anything and the Yamaha Tracer GT is a bit of both.
suppose it doesn’t matter what you call them - what matters is how they work.
We’re going to find out with a couple of days enjoying some of the finest roads Wales has to offer. It’ll be a mixed bag of road surfaces, from smooth, fast A-road to gravelly single-track and from cobbled streets to concrete slab. For a bike to work well across all these surfaces it’ll need supple, well-damped suspension. It’ll also need accurate steering and confident braking performance. For our purposes it has to combine all that with decent luggage capacity and all-day comfort. Since we’re here for fun, it’ll also need enough ground clearance to encourage spirited cornering, and enough power to make us grin like loons when we open the throttle wide. But before that, we’ve got to get to Wales.
Racing for the border
Well, not so much racing as just munching miles. There’s nothing enjoyable about loads of motorway but we all have to do it sometimes, so it’s a case of seeing which bike does it best, cosseting the rider and leaving them set for some fun later. To start with I’m on the Tiger Sport, purely because Martin wanted to get acquainted with the unfamiliar Versys and Simon wanted to use the Tracer’s accessory socket to plug in his heated gloves (he has the body fat of a stick insect, so he feels the cold.)
First impressions of the Triumph are of
a surprising softness. Soft seat, soft suspension, soft power delivery. It’s initially very comfy, with plenty of room to move around but I’m expecting the seat to compress and cause numb bum within an hour or so. It’s only later I realise it hasn’t - definitely the comfiest seat here.
Ahead of me on the road, Martin’s getting on fine with the Versys. Like me he’s a bit vertically challenged, so he’d been apprehensive, as he admitted when we stopped for coffee and fuel south of Shrewsbury. “I’ve never ridden one before as I’d always thought they were too big and heavy for me. Initial impressions are very good though. The slip/assist clutch is light as a feather, the gearbox is slick up and down. Once moving it’s very smooth, with lots of low-down grunt — very easy to ride. The position is good and the screen is surprisingly efficient given its size. But the lack of cruise control is surprising for this specification and price bracket.”
Ah yes, cruise control. Absent on the Versys (which doesn’t have ride-by-wire engine control) but very welcome on both the Tracer and Tiger. I’m finding the Triumph’s cruise a bit troublesome — I actually have to think about how to turn it on (the trick is… you don’t: just press the ‘set’ button twice). The Tracer’s is much more intuitive, but they both work fine. Simon’s loving the Yamaha’s combination of cruise and quickshifter but he’s less convinced about the bike’s aptitude for this sort of riding. “It’s not as planted as the others, and it’s not as reassuringly substantial either — there’s something about sheer mass that makes being a thousand miles from home less daunting.”
I know what he means — the Kawasaki feels like it’s just soaking up outside influences and damping out your inputs and the buffeting from sidewinds and other vehicles, so the result is a smooth motorway ride. The Triumph does the same to a certain extent. The Yamaha is lighter, more stiffly suspended and with
sportier geometry, so it doesn’t have that same weighty, floaty feeling. The best way I can describe it is it feels as if the Versys and Tiger are happy to sit there all day, every day, while the Tracer fidgets, like it can’t wait to get on with some proper riding. That fits my own mindset, so I’m chomping at the bit as we turn off the A49 near Shrewsbury and into another world.
Into the valleys
But first, up into the clouds, except there aren’t any clouds. It’s a beautiful, hot, clear day as the road climbs steeply up. Road? It barely qualifies — at first I’m convinced we’re on the drive to someone’s house, but as we come out of the trees and onto the heathland of Long Mynd, we’ve got a stunning view down the valley and off towards Wales. A few wild ponies are arranged attractively on the rocks above us, red kites wheel and soar, and even the sheep are just far enough away to remain picturesque. How come I’d never even heard of this place before? It’s beautiful.
Unfortunately it’s so lovely that we
need to take some photos, which involves riding up and down the hill a few times. No hardship except that the road’s still extremely narrow and there’s nowhere to turn round — it’s solid rock on one side and sheer drop on the other. The Tracer and Triumph make relatively light work of it, but the heavier Versys is a different story.
So long as you’re moving, it’s fine - wellbalanced and with the grunt to roll along at tickover without stalling. But below walking pace, all that poise instantly disappears. It’s as if it’s been holding its belly in to impress you, but has suddenly breathed out and it’s all flopped over the waistband. Brake down to a halt, put your foot out to touch the ground, then the suspension bounces back up and suddenly your boot’s off the floor, at which point you realise just how top-heavy it is. Martin would later fall foul of this and drop the Versys on its side and I didn’t even have the heart to take the Mick out of him, because I knew it could just as easily have been me...
On this occasion I’m grateful to keep it upright, even though I’m now a sweaty wreck, so I’m happy to wave goodbye to the ponies and go in search of some quicker twisties. Joining the A489 near the Welsh border ought to hit the spot, with some nice fast sweepers, but most of it’s freshly ruined by a thick top-dressing of tar and chippings, so we’ll have to wait a bit.
We’ve been seeing warnings of slow arafs painted on the road for a good few miles now, and we come across them around Newtown – a long line of traffic doing 40mph as we come onto the A483. A twist of the wrist and we’re past, with miles of fast, flowing bends to enjoy.
The Versys is back in its element on this terrain - it’s just so smooth and the engine’s incredibly flexible. The road’s so good we go back and do it again, swapping bikes so I’m on the Tracer. Bloody hell, this is different! Narrower bars, pegs further back, a more assertive riding position all round. It just wants to gobble up each corner, spit it out and move on to the next one. So that’s what we do, all the way down to Crossgates on the A44.
We don’t really need fuel but we’ll top up anyway (for the record the Tracer and Tiger both average 51mpg over the whole test, with the Versys on 47.5mpg), but take advantage of the excellent café there. Ah, no we won’t - it closes at four and it’s ten past now. Bum. Fortunately the garage has caffeine and grub, so we can sit and swap impressions of the bikes.
Simon inherited the Versys at the last swap: “It’s a proper culture shock after the Tracer. It feels like a barge with a hinge in it,” he gripes. “It takes so much more effort to get it to steer and hold a line.” Martin’s
“As long as you’re moving, it’s fine”
much happier with the Triumph: “The motor is astonishing! Smooth power, lowdown grunt, not snatchy at town traffic speeds either. And the position works for me — more aggressive and sporty than the other two, my knees felt higher but the bars still allowed me to get comfortable.”
Heading towards Rhayader on the A44, I’m back on the Triumph and initially I’m impressed. It’s very much a halfway house between the heavy, smooth Versys and the relatively light and flighty Tracer. It’s soft and heavy enough to damp out a lot of smaller road imperfections and the suspension’s much more controlled than the Versys, while the steering’s smooth and instinctive. It still ties itself in knots a bit if it hits a sequence of bumps one after the other though. That’s the price of soft springs and heavy rebound damping — a sequence of bumps progressively pumps the shock down and ruins the ride.
The engine’s the star of the Tiger show, no question — a deliciously growly thing that can grunt away from low down or wind its way up to an impressive top end. It may share its triple layout with the Yamaha but they’re worlds apart in feel and delivery – this feels hewn from solid, the Yamaha feels like a four-stroke two-stroke.
Yet there’s something about the Triumph that just doesn’t do it for me and I’m struggling put my finger on it. It’s not anything I can complain about dynamically – as Simon said, “It’s viceless – comfy riding position, fabulous throttle control,
smooth suspension and decent ride quality. It’s pleasant, useful, versatile — real-world practical.” And yes, it’s all those things, but it also feels... well... old-fashioned, out-manoeuvred, a bit staid. Suddenly we’re at our destination the Elan Valley Hotel. Or rather, we’ve just ridden straight past it and onto the lakeside road beside the Elan Valley reservoirs. Rude not to, since we’re here earlier than expected. It’s a great road — up, down, twist and turn — with fantastic views over the reservoirs that have flooded the valley since the late 19th century. You might wonder why an under-populated area of Wales would need such a large store of drinking water, and the answer is it doesn’t. It was built to supply Birmingham...
But not just yet... We still have some quality riding to do on our way back out of Wales, starting with the reservoir road again the next morning, and then one of the best roads I’ve ridden in years — from the Elan Valley to Cymystwyth alongside the river. It’s a twisty, quick, challenging road that’s made more challenging this morning by a shower that’s left damp patches everywhere, and is still spotting my visor.
That’s causing a slight problem for me on the Triumph, because what you need
for these conditions is absolute confidence in the front tyre and the Tiger’s not really delivering — it’s okay as soon as you get back on the power, but for that split second at corner entry, it feels like you’re chasing the front. Further back, Martin’s got a similar problem with the Tracer on its standard Dunlop 222s, which are pretty rubbish in wet conditions. “I never felt out of control, even though we were going at a fair lick – hoonery was still clearly possible — but it would have been better on stickier tyres.” He was simultaneously trying to work out how to turn the scaldingly hot heated grips off, via the TFT display, which isn’t very intuitive: “I reckon you’d need a good 15 minutes with the owners’ manual to get the hang of it...”
Up ahead, Simon’s finding the Versys works really well within a fairly narrow envelope. We’ve already encountered its low-speed squidginess but now he’s pushing hard and getting beyond its cornering comfort zone. “The idea of basically mounting a Z1000SX on longtravel suspension isn’t the worst in the world; the same concept works well with BMW’S S1000XR, for example. But it only succeeds if the suspension is quality and the chassis well-balanced. The Kawasaki’s softly sprung and softly damped, which gives nice ride quality for gentle bendswinging. On smooth, fast A-roads the Versys can get into a lovely riding rhythm.”
The problem comes when you ask the engine for more than the chassis can deal with. “The bars sway around and the bike needs a good heave to get it to turn, then immediately fights back. Meanwhile the back end wallows and shimmies as it tries to keep up. Get a proper lick on and the shock bottoms-out completely, grounding the collector box over big yumps.” I can testify to that – impressive sparks...
The roads are drying out now as we pass through what looks like an old quarry, the gaunt skeletons of old buildings flashing past in the corner of my eye. I wonder who lived here,and how long ago. Then we’re into the village of Cymystwyth and I notice a sign on the side of a building: “SHED = A LAD IN HIS CAVE”, which makes me smile all the way to the Devil’s Bridge coffee stop.
The smile’s still there when we set off back to Rhayader, looping round via Ponterwyd and Langurig rather than retracing our steps. The smile gets bigger
when I swap from the Tiger to the Tracer for some of the faster sections. I had Simon’s comments from the previous day ringing in my ears: “I had a mad ten minutes down by the reservoir and pulled the pin on the Yamaha. Wow, what a bonkers creation – it’s got more ‘crazy’ than the other two put together.”
It certainly has and on more-or-less deserted roads I can give it some beans, revelling in the planted feel from the front end and especially in that wonderful engine, which just punches out of corners so hard. The section of the A44 from Dyffryn Castell to Eisteddfa Gurig is perfect for the Tracer — fast and sweeping, with a changeable road surface and some tricky blind turns over crests that put a premium on being able to change direction quickly and without fuss. Lovely.
From Rhayader we’re retracing yesterday’s steps as far as Crossgates but then staying on the A44 eastbound. The balance of the road shifts gradually away from corners, crests and stone walls towards straights, hedges and junctions, but there’s still the odd twisty section, where the Tracer’s happy to change character in a second. Bang it down a gear or two, change your stance, attack the bend, drive out hard, then shortshift back up, sit up straight and pretend to be sensible for another few miles.
It’s the split personality that makes the Tracer GT so much fun. You don’t have to make allowances for its touring ability if you want to go nuts for a bit, as you do on the Versys and, to a lesser extent, the Tiger Sport. When we stopped for a breather in the beautiful half-timbered village of Pembridge, Martin pointed out that though in this company the Tracer was the hooligan’s option, it’s actually considerably more sensible than the previous Tracer: “The engine’s the same – smooth, seemingly endless power. The difference is the chassis tweaks that let you use the engine without hanging on for dear life!”
Fun’s over now – back to work tomorrow so we need to get back on the road. Before we set off, Simon says: “The Kawasaki is pure tourer – smooth, massive, comfy, easy to go a long way without thinking. Great on fast, well-surfaced roads, not so clever on tight, nadgery bumpy stuff.
“The Yamaha is at the opposite end of the spectrum; a hooligan engine and a crazy power delivery added to its panniers, fairing and cruise control. It’s a tourer with attitude and could be less fun over long distance, but way more fun when you get there. The Tiger is a sporting step back from the Versys with better handling and sweeter steering than the Kawasaki, but steadier, more controlled and more civilised than the Tracer.”
In theory that should be that. Three very different variations on a theme, so just choose which suits you best. But here in the real world, there’s the small matter of price, which complicates things a bit...
KAWASAKI VERSYS 1000 GT SE £12,142 • 1043cc inline four • 118bhp • 250kg • 840mm seat • 21 litres TRIUMPH TIGER SPORT £11,143 • 1050cc inline triple • 123bhp • 238kg • 830mm seat • 20 litres
YAMAHA TRACER 900GT £10,649 • 847cc inline triple • 113bhp • 215kg • 850-865mm seat • 18 litres
Heading off the beaten track reveals the bikes’ strengthsSwingarm 60mm longer than on the MT-09The Tracer 900 GT gets a fullcolour TFT displayFactory-fit panniers won’t take a helmet
GT by name, GT by nature, especially when hooned Seems like a fair point, incomprehensibly made...
The Tiger is poised but not too committed
Empty roads, sunny day and no mobile signal... bliss
Cruise control buttons are on the Tiger’s right gripA simple but effective display on the TriumphRadial Nissin calipers give plenty of stopping power
After two days discussing the bikes, our testers felt a little hoarse
Simple switches unhindered by cruise controlSimple dash display is busy but works wellVersys panniers can accommodate a full-face helmet
The Kawasaki is the most ‘toury’ of the three
Kevin practices his caricature skills
Three upright allrounders in a row. And some motorbikes...