If you already ride a Harley, you might wanna stop reading this now. …This isn’t your average ride report and I’m not going to be able to compare this new machine with it’s predecessors because I’ve never really ridden a Harley-Davidson before (the Duchess’s Buell doesn’t count). I’ve been around the block (literally) on a 48 and I had a short blast on a chopped-up & stripped-down sportster about two decades ago, but the truth is that this official Harley-Davidon Press Launch has been gate-crashed by a HOG virgin.
I turned up with an open mind and the desire to know what all the fuss is about when it comes to heavy-duty American Iron designed to turn petrol into noise so efficiently… Firstly, why do people love the H-D so much, and secondly, what are they really like to live with for a couple of days? It wasn’t what I was expecting.
For the launch team from Milwaukee this wasn’t about breaking my cherry, it was the official launch of their brand new Roadster, a 1200cc sportster-based motorcycle with ambitions to show that Harleys can handle, and the new Low Rider S, a performance cruiser with an 1800cc engine designed to catapult the rider into the horizon with minimal effort. I don’t plan to go into any technical detail, but what I can tell you is what it was like to for me to live with both these bikes for two solid days in the streets and mountains between Marseille and St Tropez.
The Roadster is quite a pretty thing, with all the right sportster DNA in it’s refined silhouette. A ‘peanut’ tank perches almost clumsily on a spine frame without the usual gap to it’s very sporty, cupped-seat, almost cafe racer in style, followed by a slightly chopped rear fender, with all the rear lighting integrated into the usual turn-signal/stop-light indicator stalks. So far this is all run-of-the mill Harley stuff, tweaked a little, but nothing unexpected. What stands out is the front end. Upside-down cartridge forks are steered by a very racy set of bars, down-turned at the ends in an almost clip-on-like position, while the business end has double-disc brakes wearing purposeful-looking harley-stamped callipers. Whether it all works or not this is a very strong statement from Harley-Davidson. It shouts “this bike turns and stops”. The rear suspenders are also adjustable and jacked-up a little compared to other iterations of the sportster mob. We’re told the handling is distinctly sporty. On a purely aesthetic level I like it a lot. It looks proper – complete with a tucked-in headlamp and speedo. Make mine a black one.
The Low Rider S looks like a cartoon version off what Harleys are supposed to be. Long, black, mean and hot-rodded. “Denim” gold wheels are followed by a bikini fairing, swept back bars that are ridiculously fat, while the super-wide tank wears the speedo and instruments. The seat is super low (well, it’s a low rider) and comfier than most sofas I’ve owned. In fact the riding position is extremely laid back, with feet forward, arms just below shoulder height giving a feeling not unlike sitting behind the dash-board of a car. It’s all very unfamiliar to me, but not at all unpleasant and it’s a rising position the human body seems to naturally fall into. I’m very surprised how easy the bike is to actually ride from the moment you lift your feet. Not what I was expected at all. So far so good. Now let’s go for a ride.
I spent most of day-one on the Roadster. It was the bike I was most interested in, as it was clearly aimed at the Bike Shed crowd with it’s sporty components and stance. 1200cc sounds like a lot of engine (although bigger H-D riders seems to think these are sissy engines) and it is, so with all boxes ticked, and my dignity still intact we set off out of Marseille into the mountains.
From the outset I didn’t really have to think about the bike, I just got on and rode it. Everything on the bike felt very familiar and easy. The clutch wasn’t light and the gearbox was quite clunky, but it also felt sold, strong and purposeful. However things were about to get very interesting…
I asked the Harley-Davidson team on three separate occasions why they chose such ridiculously twisty mountain roads to launch their two new bikes. I’m talking about proper ascending and descending cliff-edge hairpins, many with a decreasing radius bordered with very low walls that might stop a car from plummeting over a ravine but would only turn any motorcycle into an effective human catapult. These are the kind of roads I’d love to tackle on a Husky 570SMR or maybe my Ducati Sport Classic 1000, but not massive Milwaukee metal. I expected to be told that these roads were chosen on purpose to show just how well the new Roadster handled, but they shrugged it off.
Regardless, that was the result, because the Roadster was completely fine on roads that would challenge most riders on any bike. Deep into scraping your pegs in a second gear right-hander the corner would sharpen, leaving me wishing I was in first gear and going a lot slower, just as a Frenchman in a badly-driven Audi would come hurtling passed on the other side, but there was no drama. Add to that, I was riding with a group of “been-there, ridden-that” professional journalists who weren’t hanging around. I was told the pace was “very quick”. I am not a talented pro-rider, or even as fast as half my London mates, so the fact that I was able to keep up with the lead riders (in the “faster” of two groups) tells me everything about this bike. It works. It certainly wasn’t down to my talent so I’ll thank the bike.
What also surprised me was that after a full day of challenging riding on this ‘sporty’ Harley I had no aches or pains. My bum, back and forearms were completely fine. No neck-ache, nothing. I’d wouldn’t have felt much better if I’d covered the distance in a car (although I’d have been much less entertained). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Harley-Davidsons are some kind of miracle machine that are as lithe as a supermoto and as comfy as a Mercedes saloon, but I am saying the Roadster is a very competent motorcycle that works well and is very comfy – even on twisty roads. Brief motorways stints were also fine, and my only complaint would be during town riding in slow traffic. The heavy clutch was hard work after a while, and the gear box got very clunky when hot – but then it’s the same on my 2006 Ducati. My only real beef was the earlier-than-expected peg-scraping, of which there was a lot. You simply had to get used to feeling your foot lift on deep corners. I overheard the H-D team talk about changing everyone’s pegs for the next wave of journos. I imagine they did that a few times in the week.
So, what about the Low Rider S? To be honest I hadn’t been that bothered about having a proper go on the big bike. I assumed it would be a hoot in a straight line, but it just wasn’t “me” and I planned to endure it for the journey back to Marseille on day-two. I was also quite worried about taking it around proper corners. It looked very long, and I had no idea how to corner at speed with my feet on front of me and my arms at shoulder height. The pipes also looked very low to the ground and a few other riders had scraped theirs quite badly on the previous day, having already filed-off their hero blobs and “soft contact” points (H-D’s description).
So, on to big surprise number two. Again, this bike works, and if anything it was more fun than the roadster on all but the deepest corners. The hero of the machine is the engine. 1800cc of big v-twin means you can forget about changing gear and it’s so comfortable that you completely relax, even when you’re charging from turn to turn. The best part was that every roundabout exit was an excuse to have a little power slide on the way out. The bike is so long and heavy that there was never a sense of it stepping out too far or going off line, it simply spun-up a bit and went sideways a few inches. Lovely. When it was time to let someone else have a go on the Low Rider I was genuinely a bit gutted, and getting back onto the Roadster I was all out of sorts, sitting down onto the pillion seat and getting all tangled up in the footrests. It felt like getting off my T100 and onto my Ducati cafe racer. The Roadster was “better” at cornering, allowing me to go faster through each turn, but it wasn’t necessarily more fun than the Low Rider and I definitely didn’t arrive at the next corner any quicker.
So, have I sold my soul to the American devil, given up my new-wave custom cred and decided to buy a Harley? Well, no, but yes, but no… At the end of the day I am a biker, and I’ve owned around 30 motorcycles over the last 28 years of riding, so I’m used to all sorts of sizes, shapes and layouts of machine, and so in some ways I’m simply adding another enjoyable string to my bow of bike experiences. I’ve also been privileged enough to ride and own more than one type of bike at a time. So, yes I would buy a Harley, but probably not one of these two models, and perhaps not if it was to be my only motorcycle.
Back to the start of this “ride report”. Firstly, I’m not experienced with other Harley models, and I’m not a pro journalist. Secondly, this was a very personal journey of discovery into an uncharted world of American Iron, so my conclusions are not a recommendation, simply my very personal opinion, so, here goes…
Riding the Low Rider S made me realise that, for me, the point of riding a Harley-Davidson was to ride a “proper Harley”, with all it’s defining characteristics – good and bad. The fact that Harley’s new Roaster is a competent, proper road-going street bike is great news, but it’s not what turns me on about the marque. I’d prefer something less diluted. However, if someone I knew was looking for a new bike, and was umm-ing and ahh-ing between brands, I could tell them that the new H-D Roadster is a credible contender along side other bikes in the modern-retro genre. For me, I enjoyed the big-engined Low Rider more than the Roaster, but in terms of the style, the S really wasn’t me, and I’d feel odd owning one.
Dutch squares off with Wes from BikeEXIF
If I was spending my money on a Harley, I’d want a bike that had some of the looks of the Roadster but the engine of the Low Rider S with a riding position that was between the two bikes. I discussed this conundrum with a few of the guys from H-D and our conclusion was that I’d personally be better off on a 48 with a 1340 turning kit and a larger tank. I sat on one (our lead rider was on a 48 – through all those mountain twisties) and the riding position was bang-on between the two bikes, and I liked the lower stance, longer rear fender and fat wheels. It looked “proper” too.
If you already ride a Harley, and you read this all the way through despite my warnings, then hope I didn’t spend too much time teaching you to suck eggs. Head over to other websites for a technical review and more experienced comparisons. Meanwhile, I had a blast and broke my Harley cherry in some beautiful mountains, with a thoroughly nice bunch of biking nutters.
If you are being drawn to the idea of owning a Harley Davidson for the first time, then the great news is that the new ones are pretty nice to ride, or if you’re upgrading from an 883 Iron to something a bit bigger, but still ‘sporty’, then I’d recommend either bike – but you need to try them both.