The first order of business was finding a route. Our original plan called for picking up the Harley in Milwaukee, swinging northwest to collect the new Indian Chieftain at its Minneapolis home, and then heading down the Mississippi River to Memphis. Kind of a Huck Finn meets BB King road adventure.
But with winter closing in like an artillery shell and a tight five-day travel window, it didn’t look good. I told Editor Hoyer, “We can make it to Memphis, but we’ll have to speed back home on the interstate across the Illinois flatlands, and it’s getting cold here in the Midwest.” I suggested that the return trip could be quite grim, leaving us in a frozen state of existential madness.
“Why not,” I suggested, “ride these bikes on their home turf? The western Wisconsin hill country between Milwaukee and Minneapolis has some of the best motorcycling roads in America. We’ll never be more than a day’s ride from either factory, and we can cruise past my house, in case I forget to pack my long johns or something. Also, we can stop in La Crosse at Dave’s Guitar. One of America’s great guitar shops.”
There was just the briefest pause on the phone and then he said, “Sounds great.”
Hoyer and I are both constitutionally unable to ride past a guitar shop without stopping. He’s a much better guitar player than I am, but I know more complete songs because my garage band does actual gigs. I’m basically a “rhythm guitarist,” which is ̕60s code for “the worst guitar player in the band.” In any case, we both considered this guitar-friendly route ideal. But back to motorcycles.
|Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special
Speaking of which, I’ve owned several Harley baggers and was quite anxious to try the new Indian. Many of my riding buddies—even those who never look sideways at anything but a sport or dual-sport bike—have been quite impressed (as I have) with the engine design and overall nostalgic grandeur of the reborn Indian. The Indian name, though somewhat battered by past attempts at revival, still seems to project a certain magic, even among riders who were not yet born when the original company closed in 1953. I was five.
And then there was the Harley. I’d never taken a road trip on a Street Glide, either, and was curious to see how the truncated windshield and bar-mounted fairing worked—along with the various updates and improvements on this latest Special version from the “Project Rushmore” family redesign. The Street Glide Special isn’t one of the partially water-cooled versions (this technology is used on the heavier Ultra models), but its 103ci engine is still tuned to crank out more torque, delivering an extra 6.7 pound-feet on the CW Dynojet dyno versus the last 103 we ran. Also, it had stouter (49mm) fork legs, improved rear suspension with mechanical spring preload adjustment, linked ABS brakes, a subtly redesigned batwing fairing with a new vent for less buffeting, a nice touchscreen GPS system, and enough on-board communications and music options to send an old Luddite like me back to Owner’s Manual Graduate School.
We began our trip on a sunny but frosty morn right in front of Harley’s famous Red Brick headquarters in Milwaukee. Hoyer, who was picking up the Indian at a nearby dealership, was about two hours late because someone at the shop accidentally put the “proximity” key fob in the Velcro-closed slot where the accessory backrest mounts, and the key vanished into the center of the motorcycle. No problem. Photographer Jeff Allen and I had many extra cups of coffee from Harley’s magnificent Keurig machine in the lobby.
Jittering westward, we exited I-94 as soon as possible, dropping south on the two-lanes and taking Highway 106 cross-country through Fort Atkinson and Albion to the Egan homestead near Cooksville. Here, we realized I had not forgotten my long johns, as I was already wearing them, and continued onward.
My first stint was on the Street Glide Special, and I was quickly reminded that the cruiser/bagger riding position is…different. You have to swing your feet well forward to make them land on the floorboards, the bars are wide and forward, and much weight is on your tailbone. The low, slammed seat on the Street Glide accentuates this position, as if you’re doing a toe-touching exercise, but you adapt and begin to feel comfortable on the excellent seat—and with the batwing fairing that keeps the wind off your hands and upper body and makes a 51-degree autumn day feel like a perfectly rational time to ride. Surprisingly good wind protection, with no chilling updrafts—or dreaded “beard lift”—from under the fairing.
I opened the new anti-buffeting vent in the fairing and, well, the buffeting ceased. Carving through the curves west of Fort Atkinson, the Harley felt agile and easy to ride, with neutral, natural steering input and thankfully excellent cornering clearance on a couple of sneaky bends I always overcook. Civilized, but very settled and connected suspension, with none of the spinal jarring Harleys of yore dished out over hard bumps. It’s easy and fun to hustle this thing down a winding road.
Engine power and torque didn’t feel dramatically different from the last 103-inch six-speed I rode, but this drivetrain has always been in the more-than-adequate class, at least at sea level. These bikes aren’t intended to reach Hayabusa-like top speeds, of course, but to generate gobs of easy torque and a relaxed top gear cruise at the quasi-legal speeds most people ride, and the Street Glide does this nicely. And it sounds good doing it. The Harley has such a pleasant, full-throated exhaust note, you have to wonder if anyone will bother replacing the mufflers. Seems the stock-exhaust-off-a-Lawn-Boy days are over. This thing sounds good, cruising or on-throttle.
“Overall, the Indian has a smoother, more watch-like quality than Harley’s Twin yet still has its own distinct and visceral personality.
By late afternoon, we were into the steep hill country that is southwestern Wisconsin. We explored some local back roads then descended at sunset into the little Swiss community of New Glarus. We found lodging at the Swiss-style Chalet Landhaus Inn then dined on such things as Sauerbraten, Wurst, and Spaetzle at the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant just up the street. All beer, of course, came from the award-winning New Glarus Brewery, which could be seen towering castle-like in the nearby hills. After-dinner beers were served at the ancient mural-bedecked Puempel’s Olde Tavern, where my favorite Limburger cheese is stored inside two sealed jars, as if it were nuclear waste. I love the stuff and often make this bar a riding destination for lunch.
Back at the hotel room, I turned on TV weather and discovered a storm system that looked like an evil black cloud of flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, lurking just to the west. Luckily, this played itself out during the night and we awoke to nothing more violent than gray drizzle. Time for me to get on the Indian Chieftain, at last.
As with the Street Glide, it takes a good effort to yank this big baby up off its sidestand, as these are both 800-plus-pounders when fully fueled, and the Indian shares the Harley’s big-bike clumsiness around gas pumps and parking spots. Once rolling, however, both bikes quickly straighten up and fly right.
To start the Indian, presuming you have your proximity key in the neighborhood, you simply push a black button in the center of the tank and then hit the usual starter button on the handlebar. That done, you are greeted with one of the most pleasant symphonies of mechanical and exhaust sound on any contemporary motorcycle. Maybe an industry best.
The exhaust has a full, mellow resonance at idle, and on the road it has an almost liquid double-knocker sound with a subdued rhythmic valvetrain click that reminds me of the Eisemann magneto on our old Piper Cub. Or maybe a train going soothingly down the tracks. Hard to describe (without sounding even crazier), but in five days of riding, I never got tired of listening to it.
Sound is nothing, of course, without fury, and the Indian’s big 111ci counterbalanced V-twin lays down a smooth and unbroken carpet of effortless torque, moves out smartly, and accelerates easily around slower traffic. In town, downshifts on the precise shifter feel good but are almost unnecessary, given the engine’s flexibility. Overall, it has a smoother, more watch-like quality than Harley’s twin yet still has its own distinct and visceral personality. Both bikes are geared similarly, turning a relaxed 2,500 rpm (roughly) at 65 mph.
Riding position is similar to the Harley’s, but the Chieftain’s bars are wider and the seat bolster moves you a little closer to the tank. Being a medium-tall person, I could have used another inch or two of seat room to slide back. The all-leather, lightly befringed saddle is well shaped and comfortable, though both Hoyer and I agreed that the Street Glide’s saddle was a slightly cushier and better place to be at the end of a long day. After one three-hour stint on the Indian, I also began to develop muscle cramps in my upper back, which I thought might be due to the very wide bars. But that, as my drill sergeant used to say, sounds like a personal problem.
For wind management, however, the Indian’s fairing takes first place in the comfort wars. The fairing provides good hand and body protection, and the electrically adjustable windscreen is quiet in all positions and gives you anything you want, from a nice breeze around your neck and a clear view over the top to full coverage with the screen up. At any setting, you can ride quite comfortably with the face shield raised on your helmet, even in the rain. The Indian is also warmer than the Harley in cold weather, but we’d need a summer trip to tell you how they both work in the heat.
As we crossed the Wisconsin River at Lone Rock and headed north through the hills toward La Crosse, the roads dried out and we were able to push the bikes harder. Like the Harley, the Indian steers intuitively and feels nicely planted in fast curves, swinging back and forth and changing direction easily. In slower turns, it feels a bit heavier than the Harley and not quite as agile, slightly more committed to its chosen line. On the Harley, you can change your plans more abruptly, which may have something to do with its shorter wheelbase and (very slightly) lighter weight.
Coming down out of the hills we turned north on the Great River Road, rumbled into La Crosse, and immediately stopped at Dave’s Guitar Shop. There, Hoyer fell in love with a stunning Collings I-35 Tiger Eye Sunburst electric. He didn’t buy it, however, because our saddlebags scarcely had room for another pair of socks. Which brings up luggage space.
Harley this year came up with a great new latch system on its classic saddlebags—a single inner front lever that can be lifted to swing the top upward on its outer hinges. It’s a one-handed deal, and you can actually sit on the bike and get something out. The Indian also has clever one-handed latches with a center button and lift handle—and they lock electrically! Bags on both bikes hold about the same volume, which is to say they’re moderately small. If you’re used to a BMW (or a KTM or Buell Ulysses, etc.), you’re going to have to learn to live a lot more simply on the road. That, or get a luggage rack.
Leaving Dave’s, we motored north out of La Crosse and stopped for the night at another of my favorite places, the Historic Trempealeau Hotel in the little village of Trempealeau on the banks of the Mississippi. The inexpensive rooms are simple as something out of Gunsmoke—bed, dresser, and a bathroom down the hall. Downstairs there’s a good restaurant with a view of the river and a warm bar with many classic tap handles. Out front, barges pass by and freight trains from the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe hurtle up and down the river’s edge, periodically reminding you that Americans still make things. Like the two great motorcycles parked outside.
The next day we rode up Highway 35 to Alma, viewed the river valley from the high bluffs, and then swung southeastward on beautiful roads through the locally famous Mindoro Cut, the nation’s “second largest hand-hewn road cut.” Don’t ask me what the largest one is. Very pretty spot, though, and an impressive job, done by early settlers who needed to get their wagons through.
Evening caught us near the interstate east of La Crosse, where cold and darkness drove us into a slightly tired roadside motel, where it soon became apparent that missionaries from the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company had never made it this far north.
That evening, Editor Hoyer got a call from Harley-Davidson telling us to cease riding our Street Glide and the Ultra Limited camera bike. There was a voluntary recall on the new hydraulic clutch system, covering two issues (a potentially porous master cylinder casting that could let air in the system and an incorrect clutch release plate on the assembly itself) that could keep the clutch from fully disengaging, even with the lever pulled all the way in. We’d had no issues with our bikes, but Harley was taking no chances. The La Crosse dealer would haul the two Harleys and riders to my place the next day, and then the factory would send a truck over the following day.
So, Hoyer and Allen rode south in a truck with trailer, while I had one of the best days of my life, riding the Indian 150 miles south over rural roads flanked with full autumn color, down through my old hometown of Elroy, and on to our current digs south of Madison. Everyone stayed at our house that night, Barb made a great lasagna dinner, guitars were played, and we returned the bikes to Milwaukee the next day. I rode the Indian back to the dealership. End of trip.
So, ignoring the recall for the moment, how did these two bikes stack up? Is there a winner?
I’m a longtime Harley owner (and Wisconsin boy), but I would have to give the edge to Indian on this one. The Chieftain’s big, smooth, flexible, and beautiful engine has upped the game here; its fairing is quieter and more useful in daily riding, it handles nicely, and seating comfort is almost as good. This is one impressive motorcycle, and it also has the novelty factor on its side; you don’t yet see one everywhere.
This, of course, can also be a disadvantage for those on the road. Harley has a great tradition of continuity and a thousand dealerships scattered across the country, and Indian is still building up its dealer network. So you go a little farther out on a limb, traveling cross-country on an Indian. But it’s a very appealing limb.
How you feel about the looks and design of these two bikes is another matter, naturally. But whichever you prefer, it’s still nice to see the Indian name return, painted on the tank of a charismatic, finely engineered American motorcycle from a major company with staying power. May the Harley and Indian Wars resume, to everyone’s benefit.