Two British Icons In The California Of Europe.
Words & Images Gregory George Moore
I awaken to a faint voice garbling through my noise-canceling headphones and the fog of Xanax. “We’re making our final descent into Lisbon. Put your seats and tray tables in their upright position and we will be on the ground in about 30 minutes. Thank you for flying with us.” I had made it. My second international flight over the Atlantic. This flying thing is starting to feel a whole lot easier — especially on drugs. The plane jolts to remind me that we’re in a metal tube in the sky made of shit we’ve pulled from the ground. How remarkable and deeply unnatural it seems.
Being a motorcyclist with a fear of flying is a strange conundrum. The irony of feeling safer while riding a two-wheeled machine than I do flying — statistically the safest way to travel — isn’t lost on me. Last year hit me with a lot of unexpected changes that forced me to put life into perspective. I spent four days in the hospital for a suspected heart attack (thankfully it wasn’t), my partner of five years and I separated, and I found myself in our old apartment in the woods of New Hampshire — alone. Things felt grim for a bit and I knew I needed change. Fortunately, Iron & Air is still going strong, bobbing, weaving, and leaning into what we do. So I decided to lean into the unique travel opportunities that it provides and tackle my fear of flying head on. When Triumph asked us to attend the launch of the new Thruxton RS in Portugal, my hand went up faster than a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July.
The launch was in Faro, on Portugal's south central coast. I decided to add a week on the back end of the trip. At the time, I didn’t have a vehicle or any real plans, but a road trip up the west coast of Portugal through the Algarve region sounded like the perfect respite. With the launch only three weeks away, I reached out to some old friends from Lisbon, Cool & Vintage, who’d previously graced the pages of Iron & Air in issue 025.
While there are quite a few shops fiddling with classic Rovers, Cool & Vintage is working on a surgical level, meticulously restoring and modifying Series models and Defenders. It was my hope that the founder, Ricardo Silva, might have a bucket-of-bolts shop truck that he could loan me as a means to explore the Portuguese countryside and coastline. Ricardo responded the next day with a resounding "Yes!" and left it to my imagination as to what they were going to loan me for the week. There’s nothing like a good mystery. I left the rest of the trip unplanned — no big Airbnb itinerary or destinations — just a shameless meander in a foreign country during the off-season.
It takes me a while to find the Cool & Vintage shop. When I do, Ricardo opens the door and waves me into a meticulous industrial space. There are at least four Land Rovers of varying ages in different stages of repair, restoration, and customization. Ricardo shows me my ride. It’s no bucket of bolts — it’s his personal Cool & Vintage custom 2014 Land Rover Defender 2.5 Diesel six-speed. It’s not “vintage” except for the fact that Defenders have remained largely unchanged since 1983. I’m not going to complain. It’s a perfect milky blue-gray, lifted and sitting on 33-inch tires with a canvas soft top and a butterscotch leather interior. It has custom Cool & Vintage touches throughout: logos stamped into the leather, Cool & Vintage tags hanging off the center elbow rest, and my favorite: a tag hanging off the rear window of the canvas top that reads, “Stop waiting for Friday.”
I heed those words as it is early afternoon on Thursday and I still have a five-hour drive south to the São Rafael Atlantico, where the Triumph launch is planned. I spray the whole shop down with a couple hundred photographs before I hit the road. I grab my luggage, toss it in the back of my adventure rig, and head back through the sprawling apartment complexes toward the A2 — due south.
I can hardly contain my giddiness; there’s a childlike newness to it all. I’ve never actually driven a Defender. I’m laughing and talking to myself the whole way as my head spins around to take everything in. Wide-open farmlands and wide-open roads — I feel incredibly grateful at this moment.
When I arrive in Faro there's a stillness in the lobby of the São Rafael Atlantico. With the exception of the receptionists, the new Thruxton RS in the lobby, and a few Triumph logos clustered in the corner, it's empty. It’s the right place, but they weren’t kidding about this being the off-season. The whole town seems shut down. But the 65-degree weather and the yellow sunlight pouring into my room has me scratching my head. Where could they have possibly gone in January?
Friday has no agenda and my sleep schedule is completely awry. Anxiety drives me out of bed, so I figure I’ll find myself some coffee and look for places to shoot photos. I’m struck by the age of the architecture and the narrowness of the roads. The cobblestones seem to be trying to unseat every bolt holding the Defender together. A couple of dash lights occasionally flicker on, then off; I heard these cans had gremlins, yet I can’t wipe the grin from my face. I make my way back to a coffee shop, or a tobacco shop, or convenience store — whatever it is, it’s the only place I can find that has coffee in a nearby town. The buildings are coated in dusty pink and pastel blue. I sit and drink a thimble of coffee alone while watching the sun climb in the sky. The calm is endearing, like an old movie set still waiting for a sequel.
It’s 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the Thruxton launch, and our group shoves off. I’m paired with the English-speakers, and it’s clear right away they are all more skilled riders than I am. This isn’t too much of a problem as I am able to push myself and focus on keeping up in some spots, and when the coiled mountain roads slow me down and the group pulls ahead, there's a ride chaperone staying behind me to make sure I'm not completely abandoned.
After only a couple of hours in the saddle of the new bike I’ve already come to some conclusions. The new Thruxton RS is more of the same, and it’s all the better for it. More horses, more brakes, and more of the same iconic styling that has made the Thruxton the crowd-pleaser it has always been. They've taken a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” approach to this iteration, only building upon its strengths and softening its edges. One of the most notable edges they’ve softened is the fuel mapping; they’ve smoothed out the low-RPM throttle response, which gave the Thruxton R a tendency to lurch and jump on takeoff.
It’s an interesting situation for a company to find itself in: Triumph is almost trapped by its own success in connecting the dots from their heritage to the brand we see today. The company has done such a great job with the Thruxton that one has to wonder, where do they go from here? The styling is essentially perfect, and the performance now lives up to its namesake and beyond.
My advice? Don’t touch a thing. Other than subtle technology and performance upgrades, keep making them just like this until people stop paying money and attention. This doesn’t seem like a problem Triumph will have to confront anytime soon, as the fanfare around these machines confirms — everyone is a gawker when this flagship bike makes an appearance. The Thruxton RS is another jewel in the British brand’s café racing crown.
After a couple of days of unreal riding, great food, and fast friends, the time comes to point my sails north to Lisbon. Ricardo has provided me with some maps with hand-drawn instructions for off-the-beaten-path places to explore. I decide I'm going to Amado Beach. I pack up and head along the south coast toward Sagres, uncertain what I’ll find along the way, or once I arrive. I take the roads closest to the shore, constantly making the GPS reroute as my phone bounces around the awkwardly designed cup holder of the Defender. The Land Rover Defender is full of British design quirks; it’s like driving around in a clothes dryer filled with loose screws that smells like diesel and leather. It’s near goddamn perfect.
I hear a thud and a crunch behind me as I’m changing lenses in the parking lot at Amado Beach. A large German man in full leathers is trapped underneath what appears to be a rented Honda CB500F. I drop my camera and run over to find a good spot to grab onto — one that won’t tear a large portion of plastic from the bike when I lift. After a few failed attempts and a couple awkward lifting positions, I’m able to free the man’s trapped leg and we stand the bike upright. A snapped clutch lever and few scratches. The man thanks me in German ... I think. “Don’t worry about it," I respond. "I’m glad you and the bike are okay.” Not being able to have much of a conversation about what just happened, I smile and we both go back to soaking in the light of the early evening’s sinking sun. These small struggles form a fast bond, and I wave as he continues on his way.
The next few days on my way back to Lisbon are aimless, beautiful, lonely, uneventful, tranquil, and nearly flawless. The Airbnb is out in the country, halfway between Amado Beach and Lisbon. In the morning, I look for nothing in particular except for the coast, a town, or a place to eat dinner. Pizza one night, a steak at a fine restaurant connected to a house the next. It’s a welcome silence that I’ve been craving. I’m falling for the torquey, lumbering slowness of the Defender’s diesel and this pace of life.
I spend my last night in the city of Lisbon after dropping the Defender off and bidding farewell to my travel companion. I book an apartment in Príncipe Real, a hip part of town. After enjoying a traditional Portuguese pot of braised green peas, chorizo, and poached eggs at Tapisco, I set out to grab a final drink with my friend Jonny of Malle London. We meet at a bar called the Madmen & Dreamers Association — a perfect dive for restless souls. After a few beers, our eyes burning from the second-hand cigarette smoke, we find ourselves drunkenly piloting JUMP bikes through the old city — falling, laughing, plotting. My favorite things. The world is big and small all at once. I’m again overwhelmed with gratitude — and alcohol. I manage to find my way back to my Airbnb to get a few hours of restless sleep before heading to the airport.
While waiting for my flight I have a chance to reflect on how my travels have changed me. From the kindness of a stranger willing to help me find my way in a foreign land to being there to help pull someone out from underneath a fallen bike. These instances where I became fast friends with strangers connected to me to a deeper sense of humanity; a sense of belonging to the world rather than my zip code. They helped me find some much-needed urgency to break the routines and the boiled-frog comfort of my everyday life.
But change for the sake of change isn’t always progress. Some things are great as-is, like a classic motorcycle or truck, or Portugal's old-world country charm. They are best left alone. As humans, however, change is essential to progress, like confronting a life you are not happy with, self-stagnation, self-limiting beliefs, an unhealthy need for control, or an irrational fear of the unknown. Once I was able to let go, I realized my grip was only choking myself.
With some newly earned, much-needed perspective, I forgo the Xanax as I board the flight home. It’s the easiest thing I’ve encountered in a while.This article was originally featured in Issue 038 of Iron & Air Magazine.