Try this out for me. Sit back on a chair and pretend that you are sitting on a bean bag, with your legs stretched out in front. Now extend your hands as if you are holding a handle bar just above where your knee is. Not exactly a comfortable stance, right? Now imagine doing a clean 160 kph like that and you know what the Harley-Davidson Night Rod is all about — they don’t make bean bags like them any more!
This episode unfolded on day two of the first media ride organised by Harley-Davidson India. After the nice and fast ride from Delhi and having explored the pristine roads to local forts just before Jaipur, I was feeling quite upbeat and confident. We were returning to the base camp after what was indeed a lovely sunrise ride and we had the breakfast spread on our minds. The road was more or less deserted and I could see Kyle whacking the throttle open and doing a vanishing act on me with the XR1200. I had to follow him. Now, the Night Rod is not your average Harley-Davidson. It is as if Porsche designed a V-twin powered motorcycle. Heck, it is actually just that. So as far as character goes, the Night Rod shares absolutely nothing — let alone DNA — with the rest of the Harley stable. And it goes as if the Allies are chasing it all the time. Soon I crossed the century mark and got Kyle back in my frame, albeit as a speck accelerating even harder. At 120 kph I cursed my idea of bringing an open face helmet for this ride, as it was now acting like a mini parachute held back by the chin strap. I bent down a bit more to make myself more aerodynamic — it’s a tad challenging when you are built like me — and changed another gear. Soon Rajasthan was passing by me as a 150 kph blur and Kyle was certainly within a kilometre away. At 160 kph, wind resistance won and my guts lost. I decided that I won’t win a battle with a straying peacock let alone a cow at such speeds – not when I am seated to watch race day on a bean bag. Knowing looks were exchanged at the breakfast table between Kyle and me. It was a great day to be a motoring journalist. It beats pitting another Pulsar variant with a rocket fuel-powered RTR or some such, to begin with.
But this story will be a pointless if I don’t tell you the initial moments of the ride the previous day. I was expecting to start my day on something relatively small — say an 883 Sportster or a 1200 Nightster. I waited with bated breath as Sanjay Tripathi called out the list of riders and the bikes allotted to them. Night Rods went by, followed by the Fat Boy family and then the Dynas. Then they called out my name and said the unthinkable — Ultra Glide or the Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide. If the name does not inspire fear, the price will, at Rs 35 lakh apiece. You see, I have been trying to justify the price of a Sportster to my wife (just the price of a decent car like the Honda City… it is so much more fun), but the price of a decent two-bedroom flat in a distant suburb is a bit much for Indian enthusiasts to justify. To cut a long one short, I walked up to the monstrous motorcycle — the biggest of ‘em all. She looked like the Titanic on tarmac. I was certain that I will sink like the big ship when the flag dropped for the ceremonial launch. The parking lot was tiled and there was ample sand too… thirty minutes later I was feeling a lot more comfortable on the saddle and with most of the traffic behind us. So what if I used two legs as trainer-wheels and never could find neutral in those 30 minutes. And yes, in those thirty minutes I answered “average kithna deta hai” queries from Maruti 800 owners too.
On the move, the machine is magical as well as majestic. The sheer weight of the bike (427 kg!!!) disappears into thin air as you twist the throttle open and accelerate hard. Suddenly, everything you’ve heard and seen about Harley-Davidsons becomes true. You feel liberated, free and in my case, like a bee hanging on for dear life on a galloping elephant. And I loved it. If I had a little bit of doubt about mechanical integrity of something that looks pretty old, it disappeared 30 km into the ride. You get a lot of motorcycle for your 35 lakh, and I am not talking about weight here. You get a 1803cc V-twin that has more torque than small trains and eye-popping acceleration that can chew slow moving traffic. You’d better be ready to forget the fact that you have a full-spec touring bike with a pillion throne, speakers, antennae, and a fairing that could work as a satellite dish for an entire city. Welcome to India. The few times when I decided to play it safe, I was overtaken by a Splendor Plus with three passengers, doing a neat 70-odd kph! And when I decided not to play safe and did some serious speeds, its four piston Brembo brakes with ABS ensured that I stopped before becoming one with lonely cows that love to come to a halt in the middle of a national highway. First rider change, and I was reluctant to let go of the big one — but there were 11 other bikes to ride and we had just two days to do all that. My next ride was the best highway machine I have ever tried in my entire life — the Road King. It is everything that the Ultra Glide was, minus the weight and the add-ons. The 1584cc twin is lighter by 50 kg compared to the Ultra, and hence so quick off-the block that the first time I rolled the wrist, the motorcycle went to Jaipur without me. Needless to say, the sheepish grin took time to subside. By now, I was getting the hang of riding fat, heavy, fast and shiny motorcycles on a road that is ruled by Ashok Leylands on the wrong lane.
After the lunch stop, I would get on the Heritage Softail, which is what most of this world’s population would identify immediately as a Harley-Davidson. I mean, if someone takes a look at it and utters things like Honda and BMW they should be summarily executed — such is the bling quotient of this motorcycle. All that chrome and leather hides the fact that this is a very easy motorcycle to ride — we are still in the 330 kg plus range when it comes to weight, though. The powerplant, an air-cooled 1584cc unit again feels more mechanical and justifies the Heritage tag pretty well. The only negative was the half screen, which was tailored for someone shorter than my 5’10” frame — and that meant fiery airflow that gave a rough idea of how those wing-walkers did their job on bi-planes. Towards the end of the first day, I was presented with the keys to an orange and black Sportster — the Roadster 883R to be precise. First reaction from the saddle was “Good god, someone is cheating me, this can’t be a Harley-Davidson!” thanks to the bigger machines from the stable that I had been riding. In profile, the Sportster is every inch a Harley though, and I love the peanut tank as well as the staggered exhausts — brilliant. Of all the machines that I rode, it was the Sportster that felt most mechanical of them all. There is ample torque and power from the age-old motor and reliability, rest assured, is built into the package. Time warping does not necessarily mean polluting and time spent by the side of the road waiting for help, right? Again, the seating position could have been better for my frame — and within half an hour my riding enjoyment was being affected by a nasty cramp in the left leg. But boy, was this machine fun to ride! For once, I was riding the bike and not the other way around. I was in control of the proceedings — accelerating hard, braking hard and downshifting and liberating more torque as if there was no tomorrow. Soon I was in love all over again. I knew the Enfield Café Racer back home is going to feel decidedly slow when I return to it. I also know my son may have to forget overseas higher education. The Sportster is not exactly a mechanical device — it is an extension of a rider’s soul complete with its own heartbeat. It grows up during the ride to entertain you, tickle you, laugh out loud with you. It even has mood swings when it scares the hell out of you. If someone tells you that the Sportster is just a ‘small Harley’, stop being friends with him. He is jealous.
That said, I would prefer the 1200 version (Nightster) to the 883R, but if you don’t want to shell out the additional money (Rs 9.96 lakh) then the 883R should be a great motorcycle to own — especially on our roads. Mind you, I didn’t say that this is an ‘entry ticket’ or any of those things — the Sportster is a great motorcycle in its own right and it is entirely up to you to like Dynas, Rods or even the baggers. The base 883L is priced at Rs 6.95 lakh, while the 883R will cost just about Rs 7.5 lakh.
There, I have run out of space and I have not told you how sweet an all-rounder the XR1200 is and how forgiving the Dyna family is. The Fat Boy did get its share of attention, while the sight of the low-slung Rod was enough to give everyone goosebumps — forget the speeds it could manage. It was a magnificent way to spend two days and I sincerely hope this is just the beginning. All of you out there — there is a reason to do well in life after all.