Harley Switchback - Freedom on wheels
It was, in so many ways, the perfect way to spend the day. I was in Margate on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast over the Freedom Day weekend for Africa Bike Week and, much as I enjoy the buzz of the biggest biker party on the continent, I needed a break from the crowds and the constant noise.
The bike Harley-Davidson had given me to play with for the weekend was the new FLD Switchback, so named not because of its roller-coaster ride but to emphasise its mildly schizophrenic nature. It's a tourer, complete with barn-door screen and capacious panniers, that strips down in seconds, without tools, into a stylish boulevard cruiser.
Eminently suited, in fact, to a Freedom Day freedom flight, that saw me cruising the almost deserted back roads inland from the Hibiscus Coast at ridiculously gentle speeds, soaking up the deep green stillness, accompanied by the gentle rumble of the Switchback's 1690cc V-twin and cooled by the breeze of my own passage.
The Switchback is, under the fancy quick-change kit, a Dyna, with all that family's classic styling cues - the fully-enclosed chromed headlight nacelle and suspension, mid-rise pullback 'bars on straight risers, low, low seat (695mm off the tar) and understated 17.8-litre fuel tank.
But you also get cast wheels - 18” in front, 17” at the rear - shod with decent-sized tyres, deeply valanced mudguards and footboards where you'd like to put your feet, rather than skinny 'pegs stuck way out where Peter Fonda would want them to be.
You also get a noisy but very positive six-speed gearbox, a surprisingly light and well modulated clutch and very long final gearing for relaxed cruising - in fact, at the National speed limit the engine is spinning only 2450 times a minute, more than 1000rpm below its torque peak, and in a 60km/h built-up area (there are a few on the South Coast) it power-thuds ferociously, just off idle at 1250rpm.
Boulevard cruising is best done in fifth.
A quick drop to fourth is just a prod on the gear lever away, should you require any acceleration.
And how do we know all this? We know this because the most far-reaching innovation on the new Switchback is in fact the most unobtrusive - an extra rocker switch on the left-hand switchgear, that operates a scrolled menu in the little liquid-crystal display at the base of the speedometer that used to show only the odometer reading.
Now it displays, at your behest, the time, tripmeter or, wonder of wonders, a combined digital rev-counter and gear position indicator. All right, it's a long, long way from the rider's sightline but, as long as you're careful about when you look down, the information is there, and that's a major step forwards.
Much of KwaZulu-Natal is very hilly, and its secondary roads tend to follow the shape of the land, rather than cutting through it as freeways do, with sweetly winding curves and unexpected climbs and drops.
The Switchback loved them.
Cruising between 70 and 110km/h, it was as steady as a rock, its steering light and more than accurate enough for the narrow country roads, and the engine responsive enough to make them fun.
The seating position is relaxed, unstressed, with neither arms nor legs uncomfortably stretched out. The only drawback is that the ultra-low saddle is achieved at the expense of very short suspension travel (only 54mm) which leads to a somewhat choppy ride on poor surfaces and the occasional spine-jarring thump when mass overcomes mobility.
A short blast on the N2 freeway confirmed that the usual big-screen vortex forced my helmet's visor firmly shut at 120km/h and that my head was subjected to fierce buffeting at anything over 140.
The N2 has tollgates, anyway, so I took the next off-ramp and spent the rest of the day ambling through some of the prettiest countryside I've ever seen, letting the bike set its own pace. I stopped only once, at Port Edward, and even though my usual drink is a fruit juice, I found myself enjoying a couple of Beck's non-alcoholic beers.
It was that kind of day; it was that kind of bike.
The Switchback costs R189 000 in plain black, and R4000 extra for the metallic silver paint you see here, but for that you really do get two motorcycles - a very stylish round-towner, and a laid-back tourer with no fancy gizmos that reminds you of a time before freeways, when a road trip was a life-changing experience, and reminds you that such roads still exist.
Er, Harley-Davidson.? D'you mind if I keep this one for a while?
Price: R192 000 as tested.
Bike from: Harley-Davidson SA.
Engine:1688cc air-cooled V-twin.
Bore x stroke:98.5 x 111.3mm.
Valvegear: Pushrod with two overhead valves per cylinder.
Torque:126Nm at 3500rpm.
Induction: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection.
Ignition: Digital electronic.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension:41mm conventional cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Dual hydraulic shock absorbers djustable for preload.
Front brakes:300mm disc with four-piston calliper and (optional) ABS.
Rear brake:292mm disc with twin-piston floating calliper and (optional) ABS.
Front tyre:130/70 - 18 tubeless.
Rear tyre:160/70 - 17 tubeless.
Fuel tank:17.8 litres.
Top speed(measured): 170km/h.
Fuel consumption(claimed): 5.6 litres per 100km.
Price: R192 000.