A day on the hill
TRIUMPH STREET TRIPLE RS VS. YAMAHA FZ-09
For blowing off steam on Palomar Mountain, we opted for a double triple: Triumph’s Street Triple RS and Yamaha’s FZ-09.
Although it lasted just three years, Japan Inc.’s 1980s turbo paroxysm produced a handful of truly amazing models.
Something about the rhythm, focus, and feeling of riding relaxes the body and soothes the soul. We all know that twisting the throttle has a cathartic effect, and some days you just need to be swept up in the kind of physical and psychic journey that only two wheels and an engine can offer. And as Zack and I wound our way through the cambered corners that swirl up the south face of Palomar Mountain like a tangled piece of yarn, the thoughts and concerns crowding the periphery of our minds were blown away like leaves on the roadside. With each passing apex, stress gave way to serenity. There’s really nothing like a day on the hill and a strong dose of throttle therapy to refresh your mind and put a smile on your face.
Our ablutionary ride was made all the more enjoyable and therapeutic because we were riding beautiful roads on two very compelling motorcycles. Triumph’s Street Triple RS and Yamaha’s FZ-09 both reside in a segment of the market dedicated to excitement, performance, and fun, making them the ideal bikes for a day of blowing off responsibilities.
If Yamaha’s FZ-09 has somehow escaped your attention, a brief recap: The FZ-09 is the perfect bike to bring you into the here and now right now. It’s been a staff favorite since Zack attended the press launch in late 2013. Rowdy, amazingly light, and an unreal value at just eight grand, the original FZ-09 was the thunderclap that signaled the beginning of Yamaha’s recent resurgence.
It’s a bike that seems designed to tickle your adrenal gland and raise the corners of your mouth, and this year the Fuzz-9 got a number of updates to make it even more enjoyable to ride. An upgraded and fully adjustable fork
MOTORCYCLES AREN’T JUST TRANSPORTATION.
and improved throttle response look to remedy two of the previous FZ’S shortcomings, but there’s also a slipand-grip clutch, three-level traction control, ABS, LED headlights, and of course a styling makeover to make it look more like the FZ-10. All those new features push the bike’s wet weight from a svelte 414 to 427 pounds, and the price has risen to $8,999. Both figures are higher, true, but the FZ still feels lightweight and you’re still getting a lot of bike for nine grand.
The Fuzz-9 embodies the spirit of a supermoto, and it almost feels like one too. The handlebar is wider than on the Triumph, plus it sits several inches higher and closer to the rider. The seat was tweaked for 2017 so it doesn’t slant forward, but you still find yourself sitting close to the tank, motocross style. With decent legroom and a firmer, larger seat, the FZ’S comfortable cockpit promotes a posture that’s prime for attacking suburban streets and urban traffic.
Yamaha’s use of an inline triple may have seemed like an affront to Triumph, since the English manufacturer has stood as the torchbearer of the charismatic three-across design for decades now. Compactness and performance have long been hallmarks of the Street Triple lineup, and to further those goals Triumph boosted the Street’s displacement to 765cc and ladled on loads of new technology and features like ride-by-wire throttle with switchable ride modes, traction control, and tunable ABS.
The bike Triumph had available for us to test, the up-spec, sport-focused RS, also comes with additional ride modes, a beautiful and highly functional TFT dash, a quickshifter, top-shelf suspension and brakes, and even a special engine tune to boost top-end power. The RS is the fanciest of the three varietals that make up the 2017 Street Triple lineup, and as such it carries a $12,500 price tag. (The base Street Triple R, which has lower-level suspension and
brakes, simplified electronics, a standard dash, and less power, costs $9,900.) Part of that expense went toward lowering the curb weight, which is now just 419 pounds with a full tank. Triumph must have also hired a team of jewelers to scrutinize the details because the fit, finish, and function of this machine are impressive, from the transmission action to the way the levers look and feel. It’s polished to a glorious shine.
A narrower handlebar and smaller overall dimensions leave the RS feeling properly petite. Compared to the Yamaha, the riding position is a few ticks sportier, mainly because of the bar position and about an inch less legroom. Zack and I both thought the Triumph’s seat was hard, but as it turns out the foam is just so compressible that you end up feeling the seat pan, and since the suspension is on the hard side you feel every bump in the road too.
Considering how popular Palomar is and what a perfect spring day it was, the roads were surprisingly empty. And what roads they are, coiling up the mountain’s flanks from all sides, each route offering its own unique flavor of relief and satisfaction. On torque-rich rides like our triples, it’s second gear and third gear all the way up. Our ears popped from the pressure and our bikes’ front wheels clawed at the cloudless sky as we ascended toward the summit.
For motorcycles with the same engine layout and similar displacement, the FZ and RS have remarkably different characters. They both purr like well-fed tigers at idle—the Triumph’s exhaust note accompanied by that characteristic whir from some blessed set of straightcut gears in the bottom end—but the FZ focuses its thrust in the midrange, while the RS is tuned for top-end power. The Triumph’s 116 hp eclipses the Yamaha’s 105-hp peak output, but the FZ’S hits its max about 2,000 rpm earlier . And while torque is impressive for both engines— about 56 pound-feet for the Triumph and 60 for the Yamaha—the FZ-09 spits
out about 10 more pound-feet of torque from idle up to about 9,000 rpm. For street use, it’s hard to beat the Yamaha’s thrust-on-command character.
A brawnier midrange plus shorter gearing and a faster-revving engine give the FZ a leg up in the sprint from one corner to the next. On the other hand, when it comes to slowing down, cornering, and anything else to do with handling or refinement, the RS has the FZ beat. The Triumph is faster in the quarter-mile—not simply because it’s more powerful and lighter but because its clutch, throttle, transmission, and chassis are so refined as to make consistent launches easy. The FZ-09, on the other hand, required a far more delicate touch and a lot of forward lean to help keep the front wheel on the ground. Most of the time it wheelied too much off the line and the run was blown, but it’s an FZ-09, so I just leaned back, carried the wheel, laughed in my helmet, and enjoyed the ride.
The Yamaha’s throttle response and fork are markedly better than in years past, but the shock is still soft, which is one of the reasons the Fuzz is so quick to sit up on its back wheel. There’s no question that as a sportbike, the RS clobbers the FZ. It’s so precise that it feels like it’s an extension of your mind and body. And what did we expect? With one of Showa’s best forks, a race-ready Öhlins shock, and superbike brakes, this top-tier Street Triple was designed to excel in the twisties and at the track.
The Street’s suspension is impressively controlled and the bike loves to attack corners, but with that requisite firmness comes some level of discomfort. It feels harsh over rough pavement, but then again so does the much-softer FZ since it tends to blow through its suspension stroke and buck the bike over big hits or choppy pavement. On smaller bumps, the FZ’S softer setup is more compliant and comfortable. The good news is that there’s ample adjustment for improving pliability in the
Triumph’s suspension, while the FZ’S shock can’t be firmed up enough to keep the back end under control. Even with spring preload and rebound damping maxed out, it was still loose. Zack and I (at 190 and 170 pounds, respectively) are simply too heavy for the FZ-09. Riders who weigh in at 150 pounds or less will likely find it suitable—anyone heavier will want to budget for an upgrade.
Think it’s unfair to pit the budget FZ against Triumph’s top-shelf roadster? Then you’re underestimating the visceral appeal of the Yamaha, or perhaps I just haven’t done a good job of explaining what a dynamic and exciting motorcycle it is. We know that the RS is a demonstrably better machine, but there’s more to a motorcycle than finish and function, especially if the goal is to stir your soul.
It’s the Fuzz-9’s rowdy personality and coarseness that make it so appealing. Even with the driveline lash, mediocre suspension, and still-twitchy fueling, the engine acquits Yamaha of all sins, just as it absolves its rider of all emotions except exhilaration. As Zack so aptly put it, “That engine is one of the modern treasures of motorcycling.” And as we all know, one of the key values of motorcycling is its ability to filter out the BS and bring you back to center.
Standing with the bikes as the sun
behind the blossoming orange and avocado orchards below Palomar Mountain, we felt relaxed and restored. A day spent ripping around with a good friend on great bikes had once again done the trick. In the end, we had discovered that Triumph’s efforts to improve its middleweight naked were thoroughly fruitful. This new RS is the most capable and impressive Street Triple to date, a bike the boys in Hinckley have every right to be proud of in every way. And Yamaha should remain proud of its FZ-09 because it’s better than ever, still an incredible value, and one of the most effective uppers we’ve ever experienced.