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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

Ride review: Victory Judge

Beautiful but flawed.
I used to be a delivery cyclist. Clocking up roughly 40 miles a day, darting through traffic, dodging buses and hitting gaps you would not imagine, I could push upward of 30 mph and stop on a dime. I'm not bragging when I say this, just being honest: on a bicycle I am really good. Probably better than you. And even though I now have an office job, I still cycle every day to work. I tell you all this as preface. 

Recently, I was zipping down Paget Road, a steep hill that is part of my daily commute. Without pedalling I can hit 24 mph on that hill (my bicycle has a speedometer). This morning being dry and sunny, and with me in a good mood, I'd reckon I was going close to 35 mph when a cat decided to jump out in front of me. Which initiated a sequence of events that all occurred in less than 2 seconds: 
  1. The cat stared at me in terror. This particular fellow, however, did not appear to be blessed with the reflexes for which cats are so famous. He chose instead to just stand there. 
  2. This left me as the responsible party, so I quickly shifted my weight to allow for a hard stop, firmly applied the brakes -- front first, easy on the back -- and...
  3. The back wheel locked and went shooting to my left side. It wasn't just a wobble; the rear wheel kicked out a solid 30 degrees. 
  4. But ability, experience, speed and sheer luck righted me. 
  5. The noise of the skid, meanwhile, awakened in the cat the sudden ability to act. 

Had he not leapt out of my way at the very last second (I felt his tail on my leg), he might now be dead and I might have come off my bike. I would now probably be covered in cuts and bruises; I might also have a few broken bones. And this, my friends, is why I make such a stupid big deal about anti-lock brakes. Because cats happen.

You can have an incredibly experienced rider in perfect conditions and still a domestic pet has the potential to mess everything up. In the words of Aaron Kaufman, if you're gonna have a lot of "go" you need a lot of "whoa."

Therein lies my only real criticism of the Victory Judge: there is just not enough "whoa." The single-disc front brake is spongy, demands a full-handed grab to be deployed and is overall not as effective as you need it to be when you're sitting astride a 700-lb. motorcycle. The rear brake is more substantial but the combination of both still leaves you covering a lot of ground before coming to a stop. Add to this the fact the brakes are not anti-lock.

The uncomplicated view from a Judge
I know that cruisers are notorious for having brakes that don't compare to those of sport bikes but I have ridden both Triumph and Harley-Davidson motorcycles that had better stopping power. I am not the only one that feels this way, in a recent review of the Judge Motorcycle.com singled out brakes as the biggest problem.

It is a heartbreaking problem because otherwise the Judge is a very, very nice bike. I mean very nice.

Like all Victory machines it is beautiful to look at. Pictures simply do not do these bikes justice. In the flesh, there is something about them that induces staring. You follow every line, take things in from dozens of different angles, hold your hands close to the massive Freedom 106 engine to feel its aura. The bikes are made by a Minnesota company and as someone who was raised there I can feel that spirit coming through. Indeed, at one point I actually heard in my head the voice of a Minnesota girl saying: "Oh, hey. This is classy."

The Judge is, in my opinion, the toughest-looking of the bunch. Although it remains very much a piece of moving art there is something about it that makes you want to push the bike, makes you want to find situations where it might suffer a scrape, a ding or some dirt that never really washes away. It is a bike that looks like it will age well even when given tough love.

That's a personality that continues once you press the starter. Especially if you have the Stage 1 exhaust, as did the demo bike I rode. Dude. Get the Stage 1 exhaust. That is a sound you will never get tired of. The sound is not of the annoy-the-neighbours variety but a low, devilish growl that causes all kinds of involuntary whooping when you first hear it.

On the move, the bike has great, usable, power that is delivered in long gears. That is to say, you can go a hell of a distance in first before feeling the need to shift. I found that when launching the bike from a stop it was happy to be pushed to 40 mph before even beginning to audibly signal that I should change gears. Unfortunately, sound and feel is all you get; there is no tachometer. Though, I've checked the accessories catalogue and Victory will happily sell you one if you are so inclined.

The bike has six gears but the first five are so efficient that the highest gear almost feels unnecessary. Though, I didn't get a chance to push the bike up to British motorway speed (i.e., upward of 80 mph), so it would likely be useful there.

Similarly, I can't speak to the effects of wind blast at that speed, but at 65 mph I found myself perfectly comfortable. Wind hit my chest but the massive headlight seemed to block out the roughest of stuff. After-market screens of all sizes are available from Victory but none of them look very cool. They might as well have "Grandad" printed across the top. If I had a Judge, I'd probably invest the time and energy hunting down some Arlen Ness bullet fairing for the thing.

A slightly blurry photo.
The camera man may have been shaking with excitement.
And while you're hunting down expensive after-market gear, you might as well fork out the cash for a new seat. As is, it's pretty comfortable for one, but the passenger accommodation is useless unless you're toting around a child. Actually, no. Most of today's children are obese. They wouldn't fit. A Furby maybe. If you roll with a Furby as your homie, then no worries. Anyone else and you'll need something more substantial.

According to the aforementioned Motorcycle.com review, Victory is changing the rider triangle on the Judge to be more in line with that of its other cruisers, which means pushing the pegs forward 3-4 inches. That's a shame because the seating position on the Judge I rode didn't give me that notorious cruiser back ache. For a 6-foot-1 rider such as myself there was still plenty of room and the closer pegs allowed me to sit a little more as I would in a chair. It may be that Victory has some sort of kit that would allow you to move the new Judge pegs back to the position of the old Judge pegs.

Overall, the riding experience is pretty intuitive. It is different, obviously, than on my 600-cc Honda sport tourer but those differences are quickly and easily learned. It moves into corners with an ease you might not expect of such a heavy machine. Though, I will say the weight never really goes away. It is wholly manageable and not a cause for concern, but it is not something you forget about. "Sprightly" would be well down on my list of adjectives to describe the Judge.

Which brings us back to those awful brakes. When I first drew back on the front brake lever I felt nothing and experienced panic at the thought they might not be there. By grabbing hard, though, I was able to get a tiny bit of mushy, unhappy "whoa" that struck me as little more than icing on the rear brake's cupcake. The brakes simply are not adequate.

And as I say: that is heartbreaking because it is an otherwise fantastic bike. I find it devastating to admit to you that there is no way in hell I would own one in its present state. In two years, Victory will have to equip all its new bikes with ABS to adhere to EU regulations. Maybe then I'll give the Judge another look. In the meantime, I'm sorry to say, it's off the list.

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