Cape Town – Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide is in a number of ways a contradiction in terms.
It is still the only motorcycle the Motor Company makes with a frame-mounted fairing, and that makes it automatically the best-handling of the Milwaukee tourers. The police-style shield and the batwing fairing fitted to the remainder of Harley-Davidson’s touring line-up are mounted on the triple clamps; they move with the handlebars, making the steering less accurate, especially at highway speeds, and much more sensitive to blustery sidewinds.
That alone qualifies the Road Glide to be the unchallenged flagship of the Harley-Davidson touring line-up – but that honour is reserved for the batwinged Ultra Glide. Instead the Road Glide is furnished as a one-and-a-half seater, with a skimpy pillion perch (borrowed from the Street Glide) that slopes the wrong way, and no top box.
Which also means no pillion backrest, armrests, rear footboards or speakers, all of which are standard on the Ultra.
The Road Glide does, however, benefit from all the upgrades that came out of the Mount Rushmore project, including new, stiffer triple clamps, uprated 49mm forks with revised damping rates, lighter, stiffer cast-aluminium wheels and revised 32-litre hard-plastic panners with single-hinged lids that can be operated with one hand.
The front suspension, with 117mm of travel, is firm without harshness, its 19” rim giving this huge tour-bus remarkably accurate steering, but the rear suspension has only 53mm of travel (that’s the price you pay for a seat height of less than 700mm) and our bumpy test section pushed it way beyond its limits no matter how much or how little preload we dialled in.
WAY OUT IN FRONT
Nevertheless the biggest changes for 2015 are to the ‘sharknose’ fairing, which has gone through the same wind-tunnel programme as the batwing fairing did a year earlier.
It’s 35mm narrower than its predecessor, with a wide opening across the middle (which put me strongly in mind of a whale shark’s mouth!) that houses two Daymaker LED headlights and two shuttered vents that feed cool air into the low-pressure area behind the fairing, as well as a third ‘post-box’ style vent below the screen.
The handlebar grips have been moved 220mm closer to the rider, but the fairing still has to be mounted way out in front to allow for steering travel, so the white-faced instruments are well below the rider’s eye-line, and the 5.6 inch touchscreen above it that controls the radio and satnav functions (both standard, by the way) is quite a stretch to get to.
The upside is that having that huge fairing further away than is usually the case with Harley tourers creates a relaxed, spacious ambience once you leave the street-lights behind - although the sheer size of the Road Glide can make it a little intimidating in traffic.
I commuted on it for a week but I’m not going to pretend I enjoyed it. The big plan, however, was to use the ‘Glide for a two-up road trip to a rally several hundred kilometres away. Knowing that its pillion accommodation was marginal at best, Harley-Davidson Africa technical guru Serge Konigsberg had fitted the test bike with a quick-detachable backrest, which you can see in some of the pictures and which transformed the rear seat.
She Who Must be Obeyed, never one to shy away from voicing an opinion, was quite comfortable for several hours at a stretch, although she did say she’d have enjoyed a second pair of speakers – perhaps in the lids of the panniers.
The Road Glide Special is blessed with the Motor Company’s High Output Twin Cam 103 cubic inch (1690cc) V-twin, with special inlet and exhaust plumbing that boosts quoted output by 5.7 percent to 138Nm at 2500rpm.
Top speed, crouched behind the big fairing before dawn on a bitterly cold but wind-still morning, was an indicated 184km/h at 4400rpm, which was later corrected to a true 182 by Mr Garmin and his friends in the sky, for a speedometer error of just 1.1 percent.
More importantly, 80 percent of that 138Nm is available from 2200-5100rpm, for effortless, relaxed touring without much need to stir the sweet-shifting if somewhat vocal six-speed gearbox.
So strong is this engine that we actually achieved exactly the same top speed, two up and fully loaded with kit for the weekend, on a brief stretch of dry road during our rally trip.
Because it rained all the way there and most of the way back, making me very thankful for the 385kg Glide’s effective linked brakes and standard ABS. The bike simply ignored streaming wet roads and blustery winds, never once shook its head or stepped out of line. Moreover, none of the electronics gave trouble and our luggage stayed dry in the panniers.
The rally was held at the wrong end of a muddy gravel road, and that exposed this particular machine’s weak point. Not the ride, which was no worse than on tar, but the paint. It’s easy to imagine what the semi-matte ‘denim black’ looked like after a few kilometres of mud, but it’s much harder to imagine what a schlep it was to clean.
Since any detergents containing ‘wash-wax’ or silicon will permanently ruin the paint finish, and scratches, however minute, cannot be polished out, it’s not something you can entrust to a car-wash or valet service, no matter how professional.
You have to do it yourself with lost of hot water, specialised detergents, a genuine chamois leather and lots of elbow grease. The pictures you see here were taken in the light of the setting sun after a full day of painstaking cleaning; it was the first time I’d had to take leave to clean a test bike!
And, seeing that the magnificent gloss-black ‘vivid’ finish is R4005 cheaper, I don’t think it’s worth it. But that’s me; I’m lazy. Colour choice doesn’t detract from the bike’s strengths; despite its somewhat schizophrenic choice of accoutrements the Road Glide is Milwaukee’s most road-capable tourer, the first choice for a long-hauler who does most of his riding solo.
Harley-Davidson FLTRXS Road Glide Special
Engine: 1690cc air-cooled four-stroke V-twin.
Bore x stroke: 98.4 x 111.1mm.
Compression ratio: 9.7:1.
Valvegear: Pushrod with two overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 53.7kW at 5500rpm.
Torque: 138Nm at 3500rpm.
Induction: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection with one 46mm Delphi throttle body.
Ignition: Digital electronic.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by toothed belt.
Front Suspension: 49mm conventional cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Dual hydraulic shock absorbers air-adjustable for preload.
Front brakes: Dual 300mm discs with four-pot opposed piston callipers and ABS.
Rear brake: 300mm disc with four-pot opposed piston calliper and ABS.
Front tyre: 130/60 - 19 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 180/65 - 16 tubeless.
Seat height: 696mm.
Kerb weight: 385kg.
Fuel tank: 22.7 litres.
Top speed (measured): 182km/h.
184 on clock at 4400rpm
Fuel consumption (measured): 6.97 litres per 100km.
Price: R323 005.
Bike from: Harley-Davidson Africa.