you call them Monster Trailies, Adventure Sports, Gelände
Sport, Supermoto or simply big off road jobbies, everyone is
jumping onto one of the biggest bandwagons in motorcycling.
With the current climate of “Speed kills” making
it a licence and liberty threatening experience every time you
open the throttle of your sportsbike, it should come as little
surprise that the biggest selling large capacity bike in the
UK last year was BMW’s seminal GS1200. It seems that,
quite simply, the best bike to buy if you want to have all sorts
of fun while staying comfortable and carry lots of stuff is
a big off roader. Of course, the televised activities of Messrs
McGregor and Boorman didn’t do any harm, either.
At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that
calling these behemoths supermotos is rather stretching things,
though some people will do it anyway. Actually, in the main
they are about as likely to go off road as the average Range
Rover, but now we’re just being pedantic.
Over the last few years we’ve tested several of these
bikes, on one occasion actually buying one. And without exception
we’ve found them to be surprisingly capable machines
– comfortable enough to ride all day, quick enough to
cover large distances in sensible times and secure enough
to be ridden in a, um, spirited manner when circumstances
so required. So there’s a lot to be said for taking
this direction when your licence, your aching bones or your
patience with traffic planners wears thin.
There’s a but, though.
Sure, these bikes are good. Very good, even. But they’re
also big. You might even say very big. We’re back, in
fact, to our Range Rover analogy again. Obviously you’re
still only using up a motorbike sized patch of ground, but
if you are slightly short of leg then you’re going to
struggle. And they’re heavy, too. Not ridiculously so,
but a lot of that weight is very high up and when it starts
But more on that later. For now, it’s time to take
a look at the latest entrant to enter the arena.
Erik Buell made his name turning heavy, primitive, evil handling
Harley Davidson racers into slightly less heavy, mechanically
primitive but very fine handling Buell racers. He’s
a truly gifted engineer, well able to see alternative ways
of doing things that people simply haven’t tried before
dismissing outright. And more often than not, they work. His
bikes are a fascinating blend of ancient and modern; the prehistoric
Harley Davidson motor and gearbox being mounted in a chassis
bristling with high-tech innovations. And the results are
a revelation. But his real area of expertise is making small,
incredibly agile sportsters – either full blown clipons
and rearsets jobs or slightly more relaxed but even more bonkers
roadsters. And with one frame and overall layout shared between
different models, you’d think that a trailie would be
out of the question.
You’d be mistaken.
First of all, it’s important to note that last year
Buell recognised that some people who were, how shall we say,
slightly less svelte than the rest of us, struggled a bit
to contort themselves onto a tiny motorbike. And remember
that Buells are built in the USA, where people aren’t
exactly renowned for being small. Anyway, the long and the
short of it was that Buell released a stretched version of
the naked Lightning, with a bigger fuel capacity and rather
more room from butt to bars. And a stretched bike gives far
more scope for making it taller as well without looking like
something from the end of an old movie in Panavision ®…
And so the Ulysses was born.
what do we have? Well, in essence, it’s an XB12Ss with
longer suspenders and a bit of a styling nod to offroad riding.
Same frame, engine, gearbox and airbox arrangement, so the
fuel lives in the frame while the airbox is where the tank
would normally be. Same sized wheels, same ZTF front brake,
same belt drive, more on which in a moment. The swingarm contains
the oil reservoir, as usual, while the exhaust runs longitudinally
under the engine as with all Buells. The suspension, as well
as gaining an extra 45mm movement at the front and 37mm at
the back, gets an extremely useful remote preload adjuster
as well as significantly different spring rates from the Ulysses’
more tarmac biased siblings. Tyres, of course, are completely
different with bespoke Dunlop rubber carrying a very chunky
dual purpose tread pattern.
Now I'm a big fan of belt drive as it's clean, quiet and
maintenance free, as well as being a spectacularly efficient
way of converting noise to forward motion. But they're a little
vulnerable on bikes. There have been a fair few cases of belts
snapping after they have been damaged by stones. A small stone
gets caught between the teeth on the belt and then gets forced
into the belt as it reaches the pulley, wedging between the
plies and splitting the belt. Not good. Buell have addressed
this issue, working with Goodyear, and come up with a belt
that simply ejects the stone instead. How? I don't know. But
I do know that they routinely run belts on a test rig for
the equivalent of 20,000 miles, firing small pebbles into
them to try to cause a failure. And none have gone yet.
The engine remains essentially unmodified, though, in common
with the other 1200 Buells, there is a new "InterActive"
exhaust which is claimed to offer a broader spread of torque
and power by using an electric valve inside the system to
change the gasflow. Sound familiar? Yes, we thought so too,
but hey - if it works then why not?
Styling is, um, different. It’s fair to say that I
have yet to see a bike in this class that I would actually
call pretty. Or even, to be fair, that I would really feel
bad about calling ugly. The Buell continues this trend, with
a look that is best described, I’d say, as functional.
The off road bias demands a high front mudguard in the now
established ostrich beak style. twin headlights (mercifully
symmetrical) peer out from behind a set of ‘roo bars
while the small top fairing has a snap-on screen which again
fits in with the general style of the type. Hand guards are
fitted, of course. The seat is wide and plush, with an extremely
clever three position rear carrier. If you’re travelling
solo, fold the carrier down over the pillion seat to give
you a luggage rack that’s much closer to the centre
of gravity. If you have a pillion then you can fold the rack
so that it stands up to provide a backrest or so that it’s
flat behind the seat to secure luggage. Very neat, very effective
and utterly usable.
Now one thing I have mentioned before but bears mentioning
again. This bike is enormous, at least in height. So if you’ve
strapped a big bag on behind you, that’s quite useful
to remember before you try to swing your leg over… Just
So. Enough background, let’s actually
get on and ride.
is the familiar Buell ritual – turn the key (by the
side of the headlight), wait for the little red light to go
off on the panel and thumb the starter. The Ulysses starts
easily and settles down to a lumpy but stable tickover. After
donning oxygen for the climb up to the saddle, getting settled
in is fairly easy. As is usual with a Buell, the controls
all fall readily to hand and the instrumentation is uncluttered
and straightforward. There is a 12v power outlet on the left
of the fairing, should you want to power a GPS or similar,
and a vast range of Buell goodies will shortly be launched
to facilitate this further. One thing to be aware of, though,
is that the clutch lever is a very long reach and is not adjustable.
Actually, the strange thing is that the lever is no further
from the bars than any other Buell, but the slightly different
angle it’s approached from makes it seem like a real
stretch. And it isn’t adjustable – an opportunity
for an aftermarket part if ever there was one.
The gearbox is, if you’ve ever ridden anything with
Harley Davidson or Buell written on it, a revelation. If this
is your first time then you’ll wonder what all the fuss
is about. But yes, this is a Buell with a decent gearshift.
It is possible to ride in soft shoes (not recommended) and
not get crushed toes. For the first time, it feels as though
the lever is attached to a piece of precision assembly rather
than just stuck into a box of bits that has had the top bolted
down. Clutchless shifts are at last a possibility, as are
more prosaic but probably more useful things. Like engaging
first without the almighty clunk making everyone stare at
Something the Ulysses isn’t short of is power. Slip
the clutch a little over-enthusiastically and you’ll
be monowheeling before you know it. If you’re so inclined,
the new box allows you to snick into second and keep it up
there as well. But more importantly, there’s ample grunt
to drive out of corners and to rapidly reach a rather naughty
comfortable cruising speed.
Handling is on the vague side for Buells, but is still up
near the best for this type of bike. You can’t get away
from the fact that the wheels are a long way away and the
suspension is a little more compliant than might be ideal
for spirited road riding. The chunky tyres don’t help
either, the whole lot adding together to give a slightly disconcerting
feeling of remoteness. That said, dry weather showed an extraordinary
ability to lean and the Ulysses really did seem to get better
the harder I pushed. Compared to most others in the class
it’s at least as good, allowing me to fling the bike
around with enthusiasm and really start to enjoy it. The eager
engine belies its roots and revs freely, offering masses of
low down grunt and drive, while the wide bars and (cliché
time) commanding riding position make hustling through corners
of breezes, the fairing, while not exactly pretty, does a
great job of protecting the rider from the worst of the elements.
The screen, while looking pretty much the same as all the
others in the class, has a great and extremely neat feature.
It comes off. Easily. So it’s a doddle to clean, even
with the little aerodynamic nooks and crannies that are de
rigeur with bikes like this. The handguards do exactly what
you’d expect while the seat, for all its cleverness,
is actually very good and comfortable, both solo and two up.
The final frontier, so to speak, is taking a leviathan like
this off road. Now I’m going to be doing that rather
more later in the year but as a total greenhorn in the offroad
department, all I can say is that the Ulysses is very big,
rather bulky and a little keen off the clutch to be a truly
relaxing experience for a novice. But it handled a few miles
of green lanes well enough and proved not to be short of ability
when things got wet and sticky. Indeed, the limiting factor
was the rider, not the bike, though I suspect that if things
got really rough then the underslung exhaust might prove a
little vulnerable. I’d have fallen off way before then,
So, to sum up. The Buell Ulysses is not
the best in its class, but it’s up the with all the
others. It has some brilliant features and it is refreshingly
different. It also sounds great, it’s as comfortable
as a very comfortable thing and it sips fuel like an old lady
sips sherry at the vicarage tea party. Bolt on a few choice
goodies and pick a continent to explore…