Yes, as a matter of fact, it is like riding a tractor.
That’s the criticism so consistently levied against Harley-Davidson motorcycles: that there is something agricultural to the experience. And I can now say from personal experience that all those critics are right. But I can also say those critics are leaving out a key piece of information, which is this: TRACTORS ARE FUCKING AWESOME!!!
It’s a tractor that hurtles forward with roller-coaster intensity, a tractor that goes really fast, a tractor that makes you feel like Brock Lesnar in a children’s ball pit. A tractor from the Land of Bad-Ass, with which you can sow the seeds of awesomeness.
But let me back up a bit…
‘Good Lord, how could anything be better than this mind-blowing sex machine?’
A few days ago, I decided to take the day off, solely for the purpose of getting a chance to ride around and finally make use of the free breakfast coupon sent to me by local Suzuki/Honda dealership Thunder Road. As I was gearing up, I suddenly decided that since I was already heading west, I might as well push a few miles further and check out Swansea Harley-Davidson –– Wales’ first and (as of this writing) only full-on H-D dealer. The place had opened up in March, but due to my deep animosity toward Swansea, I hadn’t before made time to visit.
I went simply with the desire to look at the bikes –– nothing more. I wanted to see the Iron 883 in person, wanted to see if it could even pass the very first test of any motorcycle I would consider at the moment: Is it thin enough to fit through my garden gate?
Any bike too big to maneuver into the relative safety and shelter of my garden is too big for me too own right now. The good news is it appears –– though be it from visual guesstimating –– that a Harley-Davidson Sportster, whether in 883 or 1200 form, passes the gate test.
The next question I had was: would I even want to ride a Harley? In all my (limited) motorcycling experience, I’ve only ever ridden in the sit-up-and-beg position of a standard/naked: a Yamaha YBR125, a Suzuki GS500, and now a Honda CBF600 SA. The riding position of motorcycling’s most-iconic and sometimes most-divisive brand was an unknown to me.
I had heard all kinds of horror stories about Harley-Davidson dealers, with some people claiming to have not even been allowed to touch bikes. So, I was very timid in wandering around the shop (side note: it has air conditioning, which is very rare in Wales, so Swansea Harley-Davidson is my new favourite place to go on a hot day), doing my best to not even breathe on the machines. Eventually, I was approached by sales executive Paul Chapple, who asked if he could help out.
“Well, uhm,” I said nervously. “Would it be, uhm, alright if I were to, uhm, sit on the Iron 883 over there?”
“Of course,” he said. “Sit on as many of the bikes as you’d like. Though, you’ll get much more sense of a bike if you try out one of the demos, take them out for a test ride. That way you get the sound, the feel, the whole experience. That’s what these bikes are all about.”
What?! A test ride?!!
I had always been conditioned to believe that H-D dealerships were run by dicks. But here’s Paul offering me the keys. After a tiny bit of paperwork, we were outside and standing next to an XL883L SuperLow –– effectively the same machine as the Iron 883, with more chrome and a lower riding position. He explained the basics, suggested a route and left me alone.
Perhaps Paul understands that a man needs a little alone time for his first Harley experience.
“Fwahwahwahwahwahwahwah,” growled the bike as I started it up.
“Oh, my,” I said to myself. “See. This. This is why Harley-Davidson sells so many of these things.”
The bike shuddered and growled. I remembered the slogan for Victory Motorcycles – “Ride one and you’ll own one” – and thought to myself: “Good Lord, how could anything be better than this mind-blowing sex machine? This thing is amazing!”
KAKUNK! I put the bike into first gear. I instantly understood the comparison to a tractor. There is no doubting gear changes on a Harley. Sometimes I’ll be riding along on my Honda, will shift gears but not hear or feel anything, and think: “Did that shift take? What gear will I be in when I let out the clutch?”
This would never, ever happen on a Harley. Never. Ever. People half a block away will hear your gear changes.
The second thing that makes one think of a tractor is the fact it feels as if you are being pulled by one when you twist the throttle. Acceleration on my trusty CBF600 SA is quick but relatively gentle –– agreeable. On the glorious devil tractor that is the 883, I felt I was being launched. It was terrifying for half a second, unnerving for two seconds, and super-amazeballs awesome for every second thereafter.
At the A484 I brought the bike easily up to 65 mph and shouted above the roar: “I’m on a fucking Harley!”
I felt giddy and excited. I was laughing and whooping. It occurred to me that this bike was adhering to my friend Lucky’s first rule of motorcycles: it should put a huge smile on your face. This thing was making me grin so big it hurt my face.
What I Loved
I loved the pull of the bike. I can’t think of any better way to describe it; I felt I was hooked to some sort of industrial device that was aggressively dragging me from one place to the other. With my bike, speed and movement are more fluid –– you think about being in a place and you are just there –– but with this terrible-wonderful machine the movement was felt. There was no doubting I was on a machine. I was sitting on an engine.
It reminded me of an old drunkard I used to know in Minnesota who worked in construction. As a party trick he would pull down a large, industrial plastic barrel from his pickup truck. He would light a stick of dynamite, set the barrel over it, then sit on the barrel. When the dynamite exploded it would send him 10-15 feet into the air and he would laugh with the full of him. This is what I felt. I was on that dynamite barrel.
I loved, too, the machine’s distribution of weight. Although the 883 is a good 100 lbs heavier than my CBF600 SA, that weight is lower to the ground, meaning the bike felt steadier. Possibly not as nimble, but definitely more solid. Within just a few minutes of being on the bike I felt at home enough to filter through traffic.
Indeed, the whole experience felt intuitive and natural to me. It felt right. In fairness, I suspect this may have a lot to do with the fact that in the United States I always chose pickup trucks as my mode of transportation. I prefer, it seems, a rougher, more industrial ride. Though, I have to point out that the seat on the 883 is markedly comfier than the one on my Honda.
I loved the constant drone of the engine, and the way it shuddered and growled when at stops. It reminded me of the 1969 Ford F250 I drove in high school. And indeed I felt a deep awareness of the fact that a Harley was the sort of machine that could help me get a girl.
“Jenn would really dig this,” I thought.
What I Didn’t Love
With all of the above said, I have to admit that I don’t think it very likely you’ll see me cruising around on a SuperLow. It is an incredible machine, but, it turns out, not quite my kind of machine. First of all, it felt cramped. I am 6-foot-1 and – as the name suggests – the SuperLow was not designed with me in mind. It is targeted at shorter riders. I kept trying to push the seat back, trying to give myself a little more legroom. On the afternoon of the test ride there was pain in my left knee that I think may have come from being cramped up on the bike.
Additionally, there was some lower back pain that I think may also have originated with the 883. A major issue I had with the bike was the question of how to sit on it. Slightly slouched forward? Slightly leaned back? I wasn’t sure. No posture felt exactly right. Thanks to getting lost while out on the ride, I spent a solid hour on the 883, and toward the end of the experience some of the initial luster had worn off.
To that end, I can’t imagine myself being able to tolerate particularly long rides on this bike. It would cause me physical pain, and I wonder if perhaps the constant roar and shudder of the engine might get on one’s nerves after a while. Perhaps not. Perhaps it would just become part of the experience. Hard to say.
Perhaps, too, suffering all that wind would become acceptable –– after I had developed strong forearms. As is, however, the 883 wasn’t terribly pleasant at high speeds. I found myself hanging onto the bike with almost the same level of strength I’d need to hang from a chin-up bar. In motorcycle training, I had ridden naked bikes but for some reason the wind on this machine was considerably worse. Again, this may be an ergonomics thing because I was the wrong size for the bike. And, obviously, Harley-Davidson sells windscreens.
One thing Harley-Davidson does not sell, however, is a particularly good solution for the heat that comes off the engine. I was wearing high-quality motorcycle trousers and the temperature was no more than 20C (68F) but heat was pouring onto my leg as I rode. I’d be a little concerned about riding such a bike in anything other than British weather. That said, the air-cooled engine did make that strangely therapeutic “tink-tink-tink” noise of cooling when I stopped to take pictures.
As I say, by and large I was enamoured with this machine. I felt instantly an understanding of why some people hold such a strong allegiance to them. But I felt I could understand, too, why some people are equally critical. It is a motorcycling experience that spurs an emotional response: if you like the Harley-Davidson riding experience, you’re probably going to really like it; conversely, if you don’t like it, you may really not like it. For my own part, I really liked it.
The Harley-Davidson 883 answers a number of questions to the affirmative –– Would it fit in my garden? Yes. Does it put a huge grin on my face? Definitely. –– but I’m a little uncertain on the last of the questions I’d ask of any new bike: Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Comparing the Harley-Davidson Superlow and the Honda CBF600SA is, admittedly, a pretty apples-and-oranges exercise. The wind protection, antilock brakes, good gas mileage, dashboard information, additional horsepower, and lower asking price make my Honda appealing – though I’ll admit that the emotional draw of the Harley-Davidson is considerably greater. Based on my budget and needs I think that if given the choice I might just stick with the Honda.
Maybe. But maybe not…