I am a man of many vices, and near the top of that list is torque. It’s why I love V-twins and electric motors, and it’s also why a kind gentleman from Harley-Davidson had to give up his pants at a gas station.
[Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson needed us to ride the new Touring line so badly they flew me to Seattle, put me up at two hotels, and risked me piloting a half-ton ode to Americana in the rainy northwest. They also gifted me a hanging dopp bag with a base layer and snacks inside. I ate the snacks, but I’m giving away the bag and base layer.]
Despite this love affair with torque, the Harley-Davidson touring/cruiser scene doesn’t hold much appeal. I like my bikes small and nimble, mainly because it matches my size. There’s no hate. I’m just uninterested and ill-equipped. So when Herr George sent me an invite to try to out Harley’s latest Tourers and—most importantly—the new Milwaukee-Eight V-twin engine, I hesitated for two reasons.
First, at 155 pounds of pale blogger physique, a half-ton motorcycle is a chrome-infused recipe for disaster. Secondly, my institutional knowledge about Harley is equivalent to what I know about Heinz — just enough to be dangerous in a conversation, but scratch any deeper and I might as well be talking about tomato-paste products.
I can understand the appeal of many bikes, so when I donned my decidedly non-H-D approved Aerostich and threw a leg over a completely kitted out Ultra Limited with a price tag just shy of $40,000, I hit the road with, if nothing else, an open mind. I’m clearly not the demographic, nor would I have the tenacity to attempt to ride the heaviest bike in Harley’s lineup on my own, sans trikes. But within the first 30 minutes I got it.
Forget the Barcalounger on wheels cliche. This is a level of presence and kit that only Harley-Davidson can do right. It’s the everyman’s two-wheeled Bentley.
Like Bentley, H-D has one of the richest histories in motorsport and fetishizes its mechanical heritage sometimes to a fault. But where it differs, massively, hugely, more than any other brand in existence maybe save Nike, is that people get Harley-Davidson tattoos. That’s a level of passion and commitment few people, let alone international businesses, can match. I’m not ready for a new batch of ink, but I can’t imagine another bike I’d want to take across country. Like, tomorrow.
Let’s talk about the engine. Because, admittedly, it’s a big deal (for Harley). It’s the new twin-cooled Milwaukee-Eight, a 1,745cc (107 cubic inch) behemoth with four valves per cylinder that wouldn’t be out of place in Damocles’ locomotive.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this engine to H-D. It’s only the ninth (yes, ninth) engine in Harley’s history, and it’s designed to serve many masters.
The engineers fitted a new 55mm throttle body and improved the airflow to boost torque throughout the range. That’s giving owners the power they wanted, particularly in the hotted up 113 guise. But they also don’t want to charbroil their legs at a stop light, so the pipes and cats were pulled away from the rider.
You’d be forgiven for not seeing any of this because, well, that’s the point. The real improvements came from one part hardware and two parts software, to both keep the design the same and still deliver the Harley “character” that customers demand. So just like the bike it’s nestled inside, the engine is masterly refined in its lack of refinement. And it’s damn good fun because of it.
Torque comes on in an unbridled wave until the rev-limiter kicks in—always too early and necessitating a Herculean pull on the clutch lever to get into the next gear. But no matter where I was in the rev range, the torque propelled my chrome-laden, two-wheeled ode to technological cognitive dissonance forward with purpose.
Then there’s the suspension, which has undergone its own makeover to ridiculously good effect. It’s supremely plush, with reworked internals up front and a new hand-adjustable rear setup, that, across the board got high praises from the jaded cadre of journos in attendance. For a bike of this size and weight, it balances hustle and wafting well on the backroads, and even riding through a series of minor monsoons, there were very few sphincter-puckering moments. Except when it came to the brakes, maybe.
Despite having Brembo calipers up front they don’t instill the kind of faith I was expecting. Part of that is due to the rock hard, mileage uber-alles tires and some slick asphalt, but also because rear-braking is what all the good old boys do, and combined with the linked braking system and ABS, a shift in riding styles got things hauled down far more quickly. I learned something new.
As for the kit, a comparison to Bentley seems fitting again. There are heated grips (with six levels), heated seats (two levels for both rider and passenger), a touchscreen navigation and infotainment screen, and so many switches and toggles that I had to get at least two quick tutorials on the joysticks and I consider myself reasonably good with new interfaces. Oh, and it has lots of speakers. And I rolled with the most inappropriate music possible. Do not knock barreling through the fog up a mountain blasting Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” until you’ve tried it.
Speaking of the mountain...
We stopped for a photo shoot, the weather had turned south again, with rain and fog and a park service that recently repaved the road. I dropped the bike while turning around because I’m incapable of moving 1,000 pounds of metal at under 5 mph. Surprisingly, it only took me and a helper to get it righted and seriously, there wasn’t a scratch I could find. The Harley moniker of “built like tanks” applies. But this isn’t the embarrassing part that may go down in Harley press trip history.
Back to torque. I love it and the Milwaukee-Eight has it in abundance. So I enjoyed it. Third and fourth gears were my favorites, and with the mass of the Ultra Limited combined with all that twist, how could I not want to bounce in and out of the sweet spot and hit the rev limiter at every opportunity?
Of course I do. Unfortunately, that blows through a lot of fuel.
When I got to the entrance of the state park with 15 miles of range, I mentioned to the kindly Harley-Davidson crew that, I had assumed we’d be making a fuel stop considering this is a train of knuckleheads enjoying a thirsty oaf of an engine.
Naturally, there are no gas stations in a state park.
Paul James, a Harley product manager and God Amongst Men, says no problem, grabs my bike, and says I’ll meet you at the top of the mountain. I feel like shit since I’m one of a few that had to stop for fuel. But it’s a 10 minute ride down the mountain and this can’t be the worst he’s had to endure during his tenure of dealing with tools like me.
I grab his bike, head up the mountain and notice something on the screen. James’s phone is still connected. I pop open the cubby in the dash (it has a cubby in the dash!) and his phone is there. Shit. I pause for a moment and think, “it’s a quick ride down the mountain, he’ll be back in 20 and it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Wrong. His wallet was in there, too.
According to my Holy Savior Paul, he asked one person to help him out and was kindly told to fuck off. He eventually nabbed the manager of the gas station, who, having apparently encountered similar situations in the past (I love the Pacific Northwest), was fine with something as collateral.
James gave up his Aerostich pants. Filled up the bike. Drove back up the mountain. Swapped bikes. Went back down the mountain, again, and the kind soul at the gas station asks, “So I guess you want your pants back.”
I am an asshole. But in my defense: the Lords of Torque forced this to happen.
After a few hundred miles and few more bike swaps, the appeal of the genre began to gel. Despite the weight and the wet and the skittering of tires and no traction control, a few of these Cruisers lulled me into a mutually beneficial groove. The bike was taking care of me as much as I was taking care of it. And the act of piloting that much mass with that much grunt has an undeniable sense of empowerment.
But as always, it comes at a price.
The very first bike I rode clocked in at $40,999. That’s the full boat CVO Limited with every toy imaginable and a few I’m still trying to wrap my around. Take a step down in trim but with the same CVO engine goodies and you’re looking at $37,799 for the CVO Street Glide.
Shockingly enough, the most fun I had was with the slightly smaller Tourers, including the Road Glide Special ($23,999) and the $18,999 “entry level” Road King. Consider that every Harley is an (art)work in progress and that the aftermarket is built to serve, it’s a lower cost of entry than most clubs, and has a better quality of people to boot.
That, combined with the make-it-yours-and-make-it-awesome aesthetic may be as close as some of us get to owning something arguably bespoke and timeless. It’s about presence and attitude, sure, but it’s also about self-assuredness and the allure of taking on the road.
I might not “get it,” but at least now I understand.
Damon Lavrinc is a veteran of Jalopnik, Autoblog, Wired and other places. He writes about technology, bikes, and when he can, both.