Photography by Jeff Allen
There’s no doubt ape-hanger bikes are all about looking cool. And although this bars-in-the-sky style definitely makes some demands of the rider that more conventional cruisers do not, most riders who prefer their fists flying at eye level (or above) couldn’t care less.
Apes are everywhere these days, as are baggers. So, it was only a matter of time before one of the manufacturers took the next step, melding machines from these bookends of the spectrum as Victory has with its new Hard-Ball.
This is the company’s second venture into the tall-bar world, the first being the bagless High-Ball (“Planet of the Apes,” July, 2011). But despite outward similarities and the fact that both machines share the Freedom 106/6 engine and six-speed transmission combination, likenesses are few.
Take their chassis: The High-Ball is built around the steel-frame Vegas platform, while the Hard-Ball shares the cast aluminum structure of the Cross Roads tourer. As a result, the Hard-Ball stretches out almost an inch longer (65.7 in.) while also featuring significantly different front-end geometry: 29 degrees of rake and 5.6 in. of trail vs. the High-Ball’s 31.7-degree/4.7-in. figures. Wheel size also differs, with an 18-inch front hoop and 16-in. rear on the Hard-B and whitewall-shod 16s on the High-B.
“When we came out with the Cross bikes, the success of the Cross Country overshadowed the Cross Roads,” said Victory Product Manager Ben Lindaman. “So, we thought an ‘attitude’ bike or a ‘statement’ bike like the Hard-Ball would be a good chance to bring some attention back to the Cross Roads platform while capitalizing on the success of the High-Ball.”
After I saw the bike in the light (barely—it was dusk) for the first time, it’s safe to say that Victory made its point. The Hard-Ball is a real black hole of badassness. Looking beyond its f-stop-challenged skin (it’s available only in matte black with red pinstripes), the Hard-Ball is sort of a rolling contradiction. How else do you describe a motorcycle that combines the practicality of locking, top-load saddlebags (with 21 gallons of combined storage), ABS brakes, plush deep-dish seats (for rider and passenger) and broad floorboards with the aesthetic appeal of an armpits-in-your-face ape-hanger handlebar?
“Here at Victory, we’re all riders and are all immersed in the culture,” Lindaman says. “We go to all the shows, whether it’s Sturgis, Daytona or bike nights, and everywhere we’ve gone, this is the trend that we’ve been seeing. We want to be out there setting the trends. Victory has the freedom to go where no manufacturer has gone before. A lot of companies are conservative and are afraid to do something like this, so we’re going to take advantage of that.”
Although my seat time was limited during my brief evening test ride, I’m familiar with the Freedom 106-cubic-inch powerplant and was reminded what a sweet- and smooth-running engine it is. Roll-on performance is excellent thanks to its broad torque spread. Claimed output is 97 horsepower and 109 foot-pounds of peak torque. The High-Ball we ran last year on the Cycle World dyno produced 84 hp and 102 ft.-lb. of torque at the rear wheel. Unfortunately, as has been our experience with this transmission, shifts are a bit loud and clunky.
So, back to that handlebar: Victory set the angle on our testbike in its forward, high position, which makes it tough for most riders to reach the outside grip at full steering lock. U-turns are not this bike’s forte. Given time to make the adjustment, we’d like to try the bar in its less-extreme position. Beyond that slow-speed wonkiness, the apes don’t negatively alter the Hard-Ball’s light and responsive steering. Ride quality from the air-adjustable shock and inverted cartridge fork was very good. The plush seat sweetened the deal.
“We know that these bikes aren’t going to appeal to everybody,” admits Lindaman. “This is the trend right now, but we are always looking forward. I’m not predicting that we’re going to keep coming out with ape-hanger handlebars and wire-spoke wheels, but I will say that we are always going to be on the cutting edge of where the industry is going.”
If looking cool with your fists flying high is what you’re after, the $18,999 Hard-Ball flips the bird at convention and forges ahead doing its own thing.