The first cut is the deepest!

by TONIO DARMANIN

I was meandering through the selection of bikes at Gordon’s showroom, deciding which bike is next. My eyes fell on a big chrome badge with the tag line “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” … I suddenly knew what my next ride was going to be.

In the same way a car enthusiast fantasises about driving a Ferrari for the first time, many bikers dream about their first experience on a Harley. It is not so much about the actual model but rather about the myth, at least from my point of view.

Once I experience a brand or even a model that is new to me, I normally spend time researching and delving into the heritage as well as the technological development to better appreciate and understand. My involvement in bikes has brought about a completely new set of challenges which have sparked a fresh impetus of enthusiasm in me and I must admit, I’m lovin’ it.

I had never looked beyond the image of Harley Davidson but the fact that I suddenly found myself with one of their machines in my garage – and apart from experien­cing it and ultimately having to write about it – led me straight to my desk where I typically lost myself in another world, the Harley world.

An amazing history starting way back in 1903 that simulates a rollercoaster ride, reaching breath­taking highs but also bellowing down to the pits of bankruptcy, only to bounce back up again to the present state of relative success.

The HOG legends, the riders, the image, Hells Angels, bandanas and tattoos are all things one automatically associates with this brand but at the same time the engines, the technologies, the developments and the uniqueness of the products… now you start to understand how I spend a good portion of my time!

Having absorbed as much information as possible, I can view things from a different perspective. Back at the garage, I take a closer look at the 2001 machine that was originally bought in the UK. It is an entry-level Harley, a member of the Sportster family and physically smaller than its siblings in the Touring, Softail, Dyna and VRSC families. The Sportster was originally conceived as a racing bike over 50 years ago and although considered to be a custom bike, it does not have a chopper styling.

With looks to die for, this nearly new model being tested was unsurprisingly “customised” by the previous owner… particularly the touches of chrome that are mandatory on any Harley.

The Sportster has a solid rear wheel and 21-inch spokes in front, cruise-height bars and forward set pegs. The seat height is relatively low and the minimalist saddle is barely adequate for the backside of the driver and reduced to an uncom­fortable perch for the passenger, a perfect excuse to ride solo.

Starting up is possibly the best part of the experience with the deep burbling of the engine developing into a ferocious growl on the twist of the right wrist, a trade mark of the brand. Clunking the gearbox into first gear, releasing the clutch and moving away slowly, it took some adjusting to the position of the pegs, and on driving off from a stationery position my feet occasionally ventured to the conventional position, only to find an alarming void.

The next thing one needs to get used to is the vibration. Being a pre-2004 model, the engine was still rigidly mounted directly on the frame with rubber engine mounts being introduced only on the more recent models. Conscious of the cause, the effect is eventual numbness of the hands and progressively of the backside. In addition, the position of the pegs does not allow you to transfer your weight to relieve your backside by changing position. Nor can you anticipate bumps in the road by shifting your weight onto your feet but have to sit there and let your back absorb the best that Maltese roads have to offer, not adequately buffed by the low and stiff rear suspension.

It is powered by the 1,199cc, 45 degree, V-Twin, air-cooled Evolution engine which is not the most inspiring in terms of record-breaking performance but is sufficient for carefree cruising.

This engine reversed the negative reputation that Harleys were acquiring by being extremely durable, reliable and well sealed for oil leaks. Handling is fine but it would seem that the ground clearance is quite low and could therefore result in the “grinding out” when bending aggressively.

Although not the most impressive bike I have ridden, it is still one that I probably enjoyed most. The character is unique; all the shortfalls work in unison to make riding it addictive. I found myself riding for hours, late into the night, irrespective of weariness and discomfort. Not a bike designed for long distances but possibly an ideal machine for cool Maltese Sunday cruising. Whatever the case, the Harley bug is sown and I look forward to experiencing different models from this brand.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on July 7, 2008
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