First Ride: 2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

The secret progress of the FLTR.

Photography By Tom Riles

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide - First Ride

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide - First Ride

Life is about the journey. Destinations drive departure, but what you find along the way is at least as important as where you are going.

Harley-Davidson touring models like this FLTR Road Glide have long provided an excellent platform for life's more interesting journeys. They have a tenable size and easy gait that make them approachable around town and a pleasure on the highway.

But there have been a few ongoing complaints, primarily relating to chassis behavior. Which is why the big news for 2009 is a new frame. This is a complete redesign to improve handling, simplify manufacturing and produce a more dimensionally accurate structure to hang all those other road-ready elements we have become so fond of.

A primary effort of the redesign was to create a stronger torsional relationship between the steering head and swingarm pivot, and aft of that, with the rear axle. Forged frame elements in key areas mate with deep stampings and steel tubes, all leading up to the investment-cast steering head and a large sheet-steel backbone. A reduction in the number of welds and an improvement in (and automation of) the welding process lead to better dimensional stability. The new swingarm with forged pivot section is also stronger. Four rubber engine mounts replace the previous three (the main two are "lifetime" units), which helps reduce the effects of engine shake at idle. The rear subframe is now bolted in place rather than welded, easing repair and allowing greater flexibility with the platform in future model variations.

The "backward" triple-clamps (steering-head axis is in front of the fork tubes) introduced a quarter-century ago remain, but are redesigned to be stiffer and provide slightly longer trail. Suspension front and rear is recalibrated.

What couldn't change? Twin Cam 96 power, of course, but also the 6.0-gallon fuel tank. "Because it was redesigned in 2008, the 11th commandment for the engineering team was, 'Thou Shalt Not Change the Fuel Tank!' " said Ben Wright, touring project lead.

Wright was one of many staff engineers on hand at the Sonoma, California, press introduction to give us insight into the changes to the line. Another was test rider/engineer Matt Weber (leader of the team that made the XR1200 work so nicely), who discussed the dynamic effect of some of the touring chassis alterations. He talked about the increased torsional stiffness and improved steering response, and related how the ABS was retuned to work better for hard trail-braking; how the engineering team made sure that if an aggressive, skilled rider did the right thing during emergency inputs, the bike would respond in the correct manner; how they "asphalt surf" the frames during testing at maximum lean angle to see how the bikes behave.

It struck me while talking to Weber that the precision in language he used to discuss these things and the clear smile on his face as he described the process of working on and tuning the touring models and the rest of H-D's lineup made him definitely the right man for the job.

This has been the evolution of the Harley-Davidson Big Twin, tuning every inch of the riding experience and hiding technology within a very classic motorcycle silhouette. We've seen this in the progressively better running and shifting leading to the overall improved performance of the bikes. The EFI and throttle-by-wire (as on the Glide here) always respond how you expect, the clutch pulls are lighter, the brakes are better.

Out on the road, it takes but a corner to feel the difference in this new chassis. Steering is much more precise and the weavy hip-shake the previous touring models used to get in fast, bumpy sweepers is gone. Suspension tune is surprisingly taut and controlled. Mild inside-bar pressure holds the Glide on its cornering line, and trail-braking doesn't "steer" the bike, which is just right. "That is a pet peeve of mine—the brakes can't affect steering," said Weber. He added that they tune the chassis so that inside bar pressure is a means of giving the rider better front-end feedback. I asked if they had a figure, a spec for the amount of pressure. "Yes, we have a spec..." he said with a grin. Oh, secrets!

Wind protection from the frame-mounted, stereo-equipped fairing was a bit too good during the warmer parts of our midsummer riding days, and the windscreen's top edge fell right into my 6-foot-2 line of sight. Buffeting at freeway speed was more than I'd like on what is an otherwise capable big-mileage machine. A 3-inch-taller accessory screen is available for $170, and shorter deflectors in various heights run $115 to $150. A wise investment, because shorter riders also complained about buffeting from the stocker.

As for the rear of the bike, it should be noted that the 180mm rear tire (now on a 5-inch-wide rim instead of the old 3-incher) was specified at the behest of the styling department, but engineering exists to make whatever styling wants the most functional reality it can be. Added benefit of the larger tire is increased load capacity. In research, H-D folks went to events where people rode in on their fully loaded FL touring machines, and much to their surprise and even dismay, to a bike they all were quite overloaded.

"I'm still in counseling after seeing how our customers load their bikes!" joked Wright. Hence the increase in GVWR by 100 pounds, although because the bike gained 30 pounds (shame on you guys!), the net increase in carrying capacity is a still-useful 70 pounds. Yes, I'll have another slice of pizza... Bags and top trunk (where applicable) are rated to carry 5 pounds more each.

Two-up riding is very pleasant on the Glide, although with 43 psi in the air-assisted shocks, the rear is much stiffer than the front. But chassis attitude and turning response remained very good on a short, two-up run. Maximum shock pressure is 50 psi (recommended for two bodies on board), up from 35.

And while the TC96 engine has very fine running qualities, it makes just enough power (65 hp on the CW dyno) in stock form to propel this 787-pound machine down the road solo, but feels a bit labored with the load of an extra person, even with the shorter-this-year (by two teeth at the rear pulley) overall gearing. Maybe I'll skip the pizza after all. The Cruise Drive transmission, meanwhile, skips no shift and supplies a satisfying mechanical action, from the thunk into first to the click into the overdrive sixth gear. Cruise control is standard on the FLTR, a $270 option on some other models. The anti-lock brake system fitted to our testbike is a $795 option.

Engine and exhaust heat have been an issue in the past, and to counter this, the exhaust pipes are re-routed to eliminate the over-engine crossover, reducing heat felt by rider and passenger. California models this year get a catalyst in the collector of the 2-1-2 system (hello, emissions-legal accessory mufflers...); in 2010, all models will be so equipped. Further, the Rider Activated Rear Cylinder Cutout System released mid-year in 2008 is applied here and can now be toggled on and off. Activated, the system automatically cuts rear-cylinder spark at idle when the bike isn't moving, to reduce engine heat near the rider.

There was apparently no heat control used regarding the color of our testbike... That, friends, is Mirage Orange Pearl, a name that runs off the tongue like a liquid and seduces the eyes of Harley-Davidson's core Baby Boomer customer like magic, if public response to the our Glide is any indication. As ever, finish is superb. You can get Vivid Black for $18,599, while the other more colorful hues like that of our orange bomber are $19,049.

In the end, the outside image remains quite traditional, but underneath is an ever-improving riding experience. The Road Glide is a very comfortable, easy-to-ride motorcycle in the Harley-Davidson touring tradition. But now it gives you a more solid position to make decisions about where you want to go, taking life's curves with confidence and composure. So the next time your heart aches to make that left turn onto a destinationless highway in the warm afternoon sun, you can do so with the ease and certainty that the journey will be a long and pleasurable one.

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

2009 Harley-Davidson Road Glide