Much conjecture filled the air when Harley recently announced a two-day press ride from Minneapolis to Milwaukee over the rustic back roads of Wisconsin. We were to ride an exciting new model (to be announced) across the state and then arrive at the H-D factory on the weekend of its 115th Anniversary celebration.
What would it be? The new LiveWire electric bike? Perhaps an early glimpse of the promised 2020 Pan America adventure-tourer? More likely it would be the new FXDR 114 street cruiser/musclebike, touted to be a fine-handling, minimalist creature that might be right at home on those winding roads. After all, Harley is shaking things up these days with new and less traditional choices for a changing market—as well as being shaken and stirred by political winds and trade wars. These are unsettled times, and anything might happen.
And so it came to pass that the phone rang in our rural Wisconsin home and Editor Hoyer asked if I would like to fly to Minneapolis and join the gathered moto-press in riding this new mystery bike to Milwaukee.
How could I resist? The route would take us either right through—or within a few miles—of my home town of Elroy, Wisconsin, from which I first radiated into the countryside on minibikes and motorcycles. These scenic, lightly traveled roads were a great place to ride, and I was naturally intrigued with this new lineup of bikes.
The only fly in this delightful ointment was weather. One week before our slated departure, we’d been hit with torrential rains, creating a “hundred-year flood.” (Remind me to call a couple of my older riding buddies and ask if they remember anything like this in 1918.) The streets of Madison looked like the canals of Venice and many small towns—including poor old Elroy—were flooded. Bridges had washed away all over western Wisconsin and many roads were closed. Worse yet, it kept on raining all week. Most unusual. Late August and early September are usually our sunniest and driest time of year, perfect riding weather.
Not this year though. We flew into Minneapolis under threatening skies for an evening tech presentation at the Hewing Hotel, chicly crafted from an old brick warehouse. To our slight disappointment, we learned just days earlier we’d be riding all of Harley’s 2019 offerings from the 117-inch Custom Vehicle Operations and 114-inch Special touring-bike family—Road Glides, Street Glides, Ultras, and Road Kings. As the weather worsened and the detours got longer, of course, this would turn out to be a godsend.
The electric bike, it seemed, wasn’t ready for release and would be put on the market one year from now; the Pan America was even farther down the road. We would, however, get to ride the new 114-inch FXDR cruiser when we got to Milwaukee.
So what was new with the 2019 CVOs and Specials?
Well, there were various subtle improvements in finish, styling, wheel design, and headlight technology, but the centerpiece was the new “Boom! Box GTS Infotainment System,” a touchscreen box of technical marvels that sits before you in the instrument panel and offers improved sound quality, GPS, and connectivity to Apple CarPlay and a wide variety of iPhone apps and services, with possible voice command to all of the above.
I sat through a tech session on all these functions and felt sorry for the Harley engineer who was trying to guide me through it. He might as well have been trying to explain French Existentialism to a farm animal. In French. But then I am among that ever-diminishing tribe who would actually pay a large premium for a motorcycle with no sound system or connectivity. I ride motorcycles to disconnect, and have never had the slightest desire to listen to tunes while riding, even though I play guitar in a rock band. In my bifurcated brain, riding and music are simply two different things, like skydiving and reading a good detective novel. Each interferes with the other.
That said, I found the GPS touchscreen on the new Box easy and intuitive to use (swipe, pinch, drag), and extremely helpful during our next two days of navigating around missing bridges, washouts, and closed farm roads. So maybe even Luddites can adapt…
When we left for the first day’s ride, down the Mississippi to La Crosse, I found myself on a Barracuda Silver Road Glide Special, with the new 114-inch (1,868cc) Milwaukee-Eight engine, which pounds out a claimed 122 pound-feet of torque, 10 percent more than the standard 107-inch Milwaukee-Eight. Harley also claims it’s 5 percent quicker 0–60 mph.
Smooth, seamless, mellifluous, and torquey, the 114-incher is a sort of wish-fulfillment device. How fast do you want to go and how soon do you want to get there? Dial it on. Nothing more could possibly be needed, you think. Then you trade bikes and get on the new red-and-silver CVO Road Glide, with its higher-compression 117-inch engine and 125 pound-feet of torque. It’s a little cammier and more sensitive on the throttle, and it gives you just that much more, like turning your Marshall amp to 11. If the Road Glide Special takes you a theoretical 6 seconds to pass a semi, the CVO seems to do it in about 4.5 sec. It just plain moves out.
Without going into the ergonomic details of the half-dozen bikes I sampled on this route, my basic conclusion is that they are all gratifyingly torquey and smooth, with highly developed engines, and they all handle with unflinching stability and have surprisingly good cornering clearance. The only remaining questions are which one do you like to look at best, how much wind protection do you want, and how much luggage space do you need? And do you want a Harley Touring bike at all? If you do, they really work. I’ve owned four previous-generation FLH models, two Road Kings among them, and these are better in every way.
Except for making you eternally reachable by iPhone, of course. When we renegade types are on the road, we really don’t want to know if the dog threw up on the carpet. We just want to be free to ride our machines, do our thing, and not be hassled by the phone. You never saw Dennis Hopper checking his text messages…
Another thing that was not better was the weather. It rained heavily almost all the way down the Mississippi to La Crosse, but the next day finally turned sunny and cooler. Because of road closings, all our planned routes had to be scrapped, but our official H-D road guides did a good job of lefting and righting to get us through. The only minor glitch was an unforeseen stretch of loose gravel and bulldozed sand on a torn-up county road. We were a bit fatigued when we finally hit pavement again, causing me to remark, “Nothing says ‘motocross’ like an 850-pound Harley CVO Road Glide.” We await the Pan America adventure-tourer…
At one point, we were shooting some photos at a bridge west of Dodgeville when a local woman drove up and warned us not to linger because flood waters were tumbling down the valley and would sweep over the bridge in about three hours. We unanimously elected to move on.
Running a bit behind, we hammered down the interstate late in the afternoon and rolled into a Milwaukee swarming with Harleys of every description. Jinking and dodging through this madhouse, we finally swung into the parking ramp of the elegant old downtown Pfister Hotel. In the roped-off Harley parking area sat a waiting row of new 114-inch FXDRs.
I got a chance to ride one of these drag-style power cruisers around town the next day as we visited the Harley Museum and the Pilgrim Road Powertrain factory, where 1,000 employees build more than 200,000 engines per year. Blasting around the city in heavy traffic didn’t tell me too much about the FXDR except that it’s an arm-stretching blast in a straight line. Not my kind of bike, exactly—I don’t care for a feet-forward riding position—but the Softail chassis (much lightened, with an aluminum swingarm, among other featherweight goodies) turns in well for a drag-style bike and has nice stability on fast exit ramps.
After a visit to the Harley Museum, we all walked down to the banks of the Milwaukee River where a rolling example of the new electric LiveWire bike was brought out for display. Harley’s director of motorcycle product planning, Paul James, explained that only a few functional details were still being refined—and that the bike would be available at select dealers here and in Europe by Labor Day of 2019. “This is our halo model. It will be premium and very fast, and this is what it will look like,” James said.
To me, the bike looked stunning and very, very cool. A true showstopper when seen in real life. If the engineers can get some range out of this thing, I may be a goner.
When we got back to the Pfister Hotel late that afternoon, traffic was backed up at the parking ramp, police cars and black SUVs were blocking the side streets, and the Secret Service had bomb-sniffing dogs checking every vehicle that entered the ramp. We all opened our saddlebags and had them sniffed by dogs that appeared to have no sense of humor. We were told Vice President Mike Pence was arriving for a fundraiser on behalf of Senate candidate Leah Vukmir. The elevators were closed down, and we had to use the back staircase, with security guards on every landing. All a part of life’s rich pageant, and a little historical context for the memory bank.
But when I look back on this trip someday, it will probably be remembered mostly by the numbers: 114ci, 115th anniversary, 117ci, and the 100-year flood. By the 120th, we may be able to add voltage numbers: 110…220, or even 221. Whatever it takes.