I’d heard Harleys before. I’d seen Harleys before. I’d even stood next to Harleys and looked at them with a mixture of lust and disgust. I knew what they meant. Look at me, I’m fantastic. I’m cool. I’m also living in America with very long, very wide, straight roads and practically no traffic in town.
This was London. West London. And I had to go right across the city at rush hour to get it home. Something of a challenge, but I’ll come to that later.
Let’s get on with first impressions. This is a big machine. At nearly 2.5 metres long and weighing in at a very impressive 332kg this is an attention grabber. Decked out in a vibrant deep blue (I actually didn’t know that was possible, but it’s called “pacific blue pearl” according to Harley Davidson) and a whole lot of chrome, with spoked (or in Harley-speak “aluminium profile laced”) wheels, white-walled tyres and leather saddle bags, no one is going to miss it. It looks incredible. This is big, no doubt about it. But instead of being intimidated by it, all I could feel was a rising sense of anticipation and boyish glee. I just wanted to have a go.
There’s no fussing with combinations of brake, throttle and clutch to control the ignition. You just turn the selector on the tank to “on” and press the starter. And the moment you do, true to the Harley Davidson tradition, it barks into life, announcing itself to anyone within 200 metres, before settling to a contented growl. I expected it to be louder from the saddle, but it’s loud enough to make you smile and the sound is all part of the package. And what a magnificent package!
With the 1600cc, air-cooled, V-Twin 96™ throbbing at idle you can’t help but stand and stare at it, knowing full well that you are about to experience a new level of biking. Then swing your leg over the low seat and settle in. Shifting the Road King Classic off the stand is surprisingly easy. Being so low down, the weight is beautifully distributed. It feels like it means business and you feel as though you’re inside it rather than on it. The big screen and wide bars offer a sense of invincibility, as if Harley Davidson is surrounding you with its own brand of protection. And the riding position is sublime. It’s very easy to settle into the slouched back “Harley crouch”, and it is supremely comfortable. And that seat! More of that later too.
Being on a V-Twin is different. There is none of the high-speed vibration of a four or a triple – it shakes. The vibration through the bars at idle will rattle those older fillings loose. Take your hands off the bars and the world evens out. Grab hold again and your racing down a dark corridor with Keifer Sutherland in 24 – it’s all shakey cam living and motion sickness. But that’s when it’s idling. A roll of the right wrist and a twist of the very responsive throttle and the vibrations disappear, replaced with a very physical hum. And the engine sounds perfect. This is visceral Harley motoring.
Now I’ve pontificated about what it looks like, what is it like to ride? Settling in on a bike that is larger than anything I’d ever ridden, in every way (width, length, weight and engine capacity) was an interesting proposition. And this was half past five on a Tuesday evening, and I had to go across London in rush hour traffic. Could have taken the long way round, but I had to do it justice and see how it worked. Switch to “on”, BARK, throb and we’re off, and that throttle is very responsive. There’s no delay when you twist and the clutch was pretty high. I was surprised at first at how quickly this bike moves. When you think of the weight the engine’s pulling, even at 1600ccs, it shifts. Rather than head straight into the traffic a couple of turns of a roundabout were in order and this is where I got big surprise. The balance of weight made it very simple. No wobble, just turn in and ride that roundabout. The balance is a trick Harley have perfected and it’s a good way to start.
Traffic, on the other hand, is not. I’m going to get a few bad points out of the way now. Although a lovely feeling initially, that throbbing at idle really gets to you in the end. It is like Chinese water torture only with an American makeover. The engine, being air-cooled, gets very hot, very quickly when there’s no air flowing over it to cool it. The back of your legs takes a beating from the heat. And it is not comfortable! Filtering requires very, very careful judgement. You sit lower than most bikes so your view is not necessarily as good as it might be. That’s a “traffic quibble” for all low-slung tourers, but I felt particularly low on this. And manoeuvrability for something this size is like asking a Rolls Royce to tap dance. I am reliably informed that the gearbox tends to be very good on the new Harley Dynas, but on this particular bike, neutral was very difficult to find. But once I had got into neutral and then back into gear again, the smallest items on the Road King Classic provided a giggle. The mirrors do their job very well, and written on them is the warning, “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”. That’s true, but those objects also get small pretty damn quickly with a twist of the throttle, laying down 95ft lbs of torque through the back wheel.
The thing about the Road King Classic is that you have to change the way you ride. You really are the centre of attention, so why let it pass you by. People stare. Kids wave. Dads wave. Mums pretend to be interested in something different, but keep glancing at you. Alright, at the bike. So settle in. You plan things differently on this bike. There’s no quick turn, sharp braking, earth-shattering acceleration. It’s a cruiser. So cruise.
Which is what I did next. The best way to experience biking the Harley Davidson way is on the open road. And it excels. Other Harleys have had indifferent responses to the way they handle sweeping bends and twistys, but the Road King Classic does it slightly differently. It does the sweeping bends beautifully, and as long as you set yourself up right for the tighter stuff, despite wallowing when pushed, it’s still fun. But it’s big miles on big roads that this was meant for, and it’s like Mr Creosote with them. It’ll just keep munching. It’s a big ol’ engine with a big-ish tank that’ll take nearly twenty three litres of fuel. Economy is not something you’d expect, but this was not as bad as it might have been. Harley Davidson claim an astonishing sixty four miles per gallon at cruising speeds. I can't say whether that's accurate or not, but there's plenty of range to get from fuel to food to coffee before needing fuel again.
And it’s comfortable. I don’t mean that in a way that simply suggests you could ride for a long time and get off at the other end feeling pretty good. This is a bike that genuinely loves your bum. So much in fact, that it’s like sitting on two large, loving, gentle but firm hands and knowing that your buttocks are all they care about. I have never been so comfortable for so long on a motorbike.
The quality of the ride is sadly spoiled by the fact that the screen, although keeping the wind off your chest, does nothing to prevent the wind-blast battering your head at anything above 45. You’d either have to be very small, or very close to the screen to stop your head from wobbling. And I am and was neither of those things. Interestingly, the Heritage Softail reviewed earlier in the year had the same problem. (Ed: I should point out that we have had forum comments from both owners and renters of the Heritage Classic that suggest not everyone has this problem. So try before you buy)
Riding distances in the rain is not fun on anything, and despite the exceptional comfort afforded my rear by the carefully crafted leather seat, the Road King is no different. And because of the power and weight, it can get a little exciting when the road is wet.
Harley may have fitted new Brembo brakes to the Road King - which is also available with ABS - but hauling a third of ton to a halt is not an easy job and the 32mm 4-piston fixed front and rear brakes just about handle it. Again, it’s all about planning for the route ahead, but the back wheel didn’t step out under heavy braking (or indeed, accelerating hard), and the front tyre felt pretty stable. However, I didn’t feel comfortable with the braking hard at all and especially not in the wet.
Harley have a thing about their finishes. Initially they look great, but over time, they never seem to quite live up to expectations, which is a pity, because their bikes are stunning. The inner sleeve of the slash-up end cans on those cross-over exhausts was already showing signs of wear and tear after only a hundred miles, which doesn’t bode well. The luggage is not as roomy as it looks and although this may be a personal taste thing, the fact that the leather straps on the saddle-bags are attached to a plastic, quick-release mechanism just strikes me as a little tacky, if not to say cheap. And for a bike that starts at £13,995 that’s “unfortunate”. Then again, as a press bike this won't get the level of love and care normally bestowed upon Harleys by their owners, so perhaps it's not as bad as it seems.
The thing is, I don’t care. This was fabulous experience. And that’s what it is. It’s not just a bike you go out on and feel good on. You won’t get the excitement of immensely fast corners, or blistering acceleration, deceleration, wheelies and stoppies. But that’s not the point.
I’d like to thank all those people who came up and asked me questions, asked to get on the back, and insisted they had their photographs taken next to it. I know it was the bike they were interested in, but for those brief, wonderful moments, I felt as though I’d been transported to a film set, and I was the star. Truthfully though, I was more a rottweiler of a personal manager representing the John Malkovitch of motorbikes – not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but you can’t help respect the talent.
I had a very firm view of Harleys. They were big, loud, full of attitude (in a bad way) and ridden by hairy beer bellies. And I hated them. That view hasn’t changed. They’re gorgeous, loud, immensely cool and I have grown a beard to go with my belly. See, I told you I hadn’t changed.
The Road King Classic is bloody big, bloody heavy and I bloody loved it. It might not be the perfect bike and it might not even be the perfect Harley, but for now it’s just a case of finding the one that’s right for me, and working out how to include it as a “home improvement” on the mortgage.