Catalunya Triumph – Riding Barcelona

September 25, 2009
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Who knows why Triumph chose Barcelona to introduce its new cruiser to the international motorcycle press  Its not the type of invite to mull over  only respond to with immediate dispatch.
Riding the Triumph Thunderbird in the beauty of Barcelona and the surrounding countryside… Someone has to do it!

It’s 4 a.m. in Barcelona and I’m not tired. The capital city of Catalunya, Barcelona doesn’t sleep at night – it only shrugs off the cares of another workday for some real fun. And fun I’d been having for days, and nights, there in Spain to test the all-new Triumph Thunderbird.

City of Architecture and Motorcycles

Who knows why Triumph chose Barcelona to introduce its new cruiser to the international motorcycle press? It’s not the type of invite to mull over, only respond to with immediate dispatch. Most Americans know Barcelona only as the host of the 1992 Summer Olympics, but the Spanish town is a cultural capital home to a thriving food and art scene as the sixth-largest metropolis in the EU (European Union) after Paris, London, Ruhr, Madrid and Milan. Neither the long transatlantic flight nor a brief Swine Flu quarantine on the runway by Spanish health officials could diminish my spirits upon arrival.

The Spaniards love  I mean love  their scooters. There are more in one or two city blocks in Barcelona than you will find in an entire downtown of many US cities.Pretty girls and scooters... Its a wonderful thing.
The amount of scooters adorning the sides of Barcelona streets is culture shock for an
American rider, not to mention who’s riding them – including well-dressed business
professionals, many from the fairer sex.

Even while airborne Spain’s motorcycle enthusiasm is evident while catching a glimpse of the Catalunya circuit – one of three Spanish stops on the GP schedule – and once on the ground packed motorcycle parking areas, dominated by scooters, will surprise most American travelers. Heading down to Barcelona’s waterfront on the Ronda Litoral expressway only confirms the Spanish obsession with two wheels and a motor, as the thrum of 4-stroke and belching smoke of 2-stroke scooters rip through the heavy traffic.

Within minutes Barcelona’s mixture of the historic and modern greet us as the terraced cemetery at Montjuic shadows the busy four-lane road below. A hill governing the southeastern corner of the city, Montjuic has been a strategic bastion for centuries, now home to museum and parks – although the ominous castle fortress was the site of torture and execution as recently as the fascist Franco regime (which was particularly repressive toward the independent-minded Catalans).

The Saint Joseph Market  located just off Las Ramblas  is a perfect place to sample Barcelonas strong culinary tradition.The Barri Gotic  or Gothic Quarter  houses serpentine streets opening onto small squares and centuries-old buildings.
Las Ramblas takes you past the St. Joseph market (left) and the
Barri Cotic neighborhood (right), which narrow streets snaking
through the oldest quarter of historic Barcelona.

Our hotel, the AB Skipper, is plush and extravagant – located a block from the ocean (these PR folks don’t seem to know I would sleep in a hostel grovel to ride in sunny Barcelona!) But the decadent leisure doesn’t fit into my agenda. No, time for some Spartan discipline and miles and miles and miles of walking – we must see Barcelona.

First order of business, saunter down Las Ramblas, a wide pedestrian mall cutting through the heart of the Barri Gotic neighborhood. The Gothic Quarter, as it is also known, encloses serpentine streets winding about medieval buildings, including the Barcelona Cathedral. The highlight, however, is less medieval, the St. Joseph Market, an outdoor bazaar featuring fresh produce, meat and still-twitching seafood. Wandering the rows of vendors, sporadically sampling their offerings, is a definite must – regardless of how touristy it seems!

Gaudis Casa Mila  located in downtown Barcelona.Another Gaudi work is Casa Batllo.
The flip side of the Passion facade is the Nativity facade  built in Gaudis lifetime and a complete change from the more modern face of the church.The Sagrada Familia  a work in progress when Gaudi died  is still being built.
Antoni Gaudi dominates the artistic landmarks of Barcelona:
(Clockwise from top left) Casa Mila, Casa Botllo, Passion facade
of Sagrada Familia, Nativity facade Sagrada Familia.

Spanish artistic luminaries like Goya, Picasso and Dali (a native Catalan) are world-renowned, but the most permanent artistic presence in Barcelona belongs to architect Antoni Gaudi. His work is both odd and compelling, a style of grotesque shapes and form. His still unfinished masterwork, the Sagrada Familia church, is, like Barcelona as a whole, a blend of modern and old. The Nativity façade, much of which was built by Gaudi in his own lifetime, is contrasted by the later Passion façade, a moving collection of modern religious sculpture by Josep Maria Subirachs. Other bizarre Gaudi buildings include the Casa Botllo and Case Mila (both within easy walking distance), as well as the Park Guell (which we bitterly regret not seeing).

Strolling back to the waterfront, the downtown Barcelona Scooter Grand Prix entertains. Gentlemen with expensive suits ride alongside young co-eds and stiletto-heeled business women. All source the efficient scoots, with mid-displacement step-thrus like the Honda SH150 and Suzuki Burgman the most common. The sheer numbers commuting on two-wheels makes American interest in riding look like a passing fascination.

Barcelona to Montserrat

After lazy days of touristy fun, it’s time to get down to actual work – test riding the all-new Triumph Thunderbird. Not quite work with a capital “W,” it feels good to get behind the controls for our modest 100-mile ride looping from Barcelona to the mountainous terrain of Montserrat.

Montserrat rises behind us as we tool around the Monsterrat nature park.
Montserrat rises behind us as we tool around the Monsterrat Natural Park aboard the Triumph Thunderbird.

The “serrated mountain,” Montserrat cuts a distinctive profile in the Catalan horizon and is home to a Benedictine monastery, which houses the popular Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat – a Black Madonna statue. (The Caribbean mountain island of the same name, famously abandoned due to catastrophic volcanic activity, was named after the original Catalan mount by none other than Christopher Columbus.) True believers make pilgrimages to Montserrat, many by foot. Our journey harbors less holy intentions, with our method of transport the unrepentant 1597cc and 85 horses of the Triumph Thunderbird.

Meandering through Barcelona’s metropolitan traffic our route sources the A-2 freeway. Luckily, the urban backdrop is soon shed on the C-55 highway before turning onto BP-1121 – the winding route up Montserrat. The road, and its pristine surface, gets progressively sharper and more picturesque as our T-Bird troop ascends the stone-faced mountain – the panoramic views punctuated by the sharp scrapes of stressed footpegs. Easily one of the most memorable and beautiful rides in my career.

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Instead of taking the side road up to the actual monastery, we explore the surrounding Montserrat Natural Park. Riding immaculate roads through the late morning hours, our group heads southwest following a baffling, circuitous route through rural hills filled with wineries and pastures. The rustic country architecture and earthy colors awash in orange sunshine feels amazingly similar to the chaparral country of California. Had I been awakened blindfolded at our lunch stop, a non-descript winery, my first guess would be Sonoma, California, not Catalunya.

Riding hard through the final pastoral scenery, our return route hits the expected congestion of the city. European riders are enthusiastic lane-splitters, called filtering across the pond. The Thunderbird makes for a wide fit, but we charge forward splitting through traffic, wobbling handlebars around protruding side mirrors. The European drivers make it easy; either very cordial about the whole affair or, more likely, conditioned to the practice. Our greater challenges proves staying out of the way of fellow riders, as even more aggressive lane-splitting scooters shoot through gaps like impatient kamikazes.

Pulling into the posh AB Skipper Hotel parking, our ride was far too short, as the sunny Catalunya countryside begs for more exploration. Yet the late afternoon requires a still jet-lagged siesta before a final evening tramping about the city.

Little anchovies fried up with a splash of lemon. I dare you not to eat 20 or so.Paella. Absolutely delicious.
Little anchovies fried up with a splash of lemon. I dare you not to eat 20 or so (left).
Most know paella is a Spanish dish, and in Barcelona its absolutely delicious (right).

Night Falls

Barcelona restaurants don’t stir to life until well past the early evening hours most Americans associate with supper time. Our party of journalists and Triumph execs wander up Las Ramblas again, this time cutting through the aforementioned narrow sidestreets of Barri Gotic. After an hour of navigating the labyrinth, we find a welcoming restaurant next to a medieval church. The furnishings are old, with the sickly hue of yellow light, yet it seems to portend an authentic culinary experience. Tapas bars are en vogue stateside, but we’ve found the real deal, ordering the entire tapas page for our sizable entourage. The evening meal is incredible, picking tasty bites from the numerous dishes: Salty anchovies, fried calamari, rich sausage, Serrano ham – the Spanish being fairly obsessed with all things porcine and ham in particular. Exhausting the plates, another round is ordered, the best of Round One. More octopus, briny muscles and, of course, succulent ham…. Also, more cervesa!

Pretty girls  4 am  a couple dips from the bottle = blurry night time pictures  but very vivid memories!
Pretty girls, 4 am, a couple dips from the bottle = blurry night time pictures, but very vivid memories!

Leaving the restaurant sated, the early morning hours require a stroll to the ocean-side clubs and restaurants. The festive mood lacks the desperation and gluttonous stimulus found in Vegas or other American meat markets. There’s no need to overindulge, just maintain the energy, riding the wave of the nightlife as surf breaks on the Barcelona beach behind. Above us, in the road, even now you can still hear the occasional buzz of scooters.

Sipping beer and stealing drags from cigarettes, the nightlife comedy strolls past while we perch at outdoor café tables. Young men sport wolfish grins while prowling the promenade. Rakish, pretty girls in heels pretend not to notice, returning flirtatious sidelong glances further down walk. Later a fight breaks out, a playful intermission of dramatic posturing more than any real danger. Soon the procession continues, more wolfish grins, more girls in heels – more people watching.

It’s Friday morning 4 a.m. and the Barcelona night blurs into bright colors, music, cool ocean air. No. I’m not tired at all…

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