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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: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special


According to Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich, roughly 80 percent of the bikes his company sells in the United States are touring models. Harley-Davidson sold 168,240 units in the U.S. market in 2015, which, according to my fuzzy math, works out to 134,592 touring bikes sold in a single year. 

That's more than the total number of motorcycles and scooters — of all brands — sold in the United Kingdom in the same period. Which speaks to the value of the touring segment for Harley, and why the company's Project Rushmore initiative of a few years ago was so important. Those big numbers may also help explain why seemingly every motorcycle I see when visiting my home state of Texas is a Street Glide.

They're far rarer here in Britain, though, so when an opportunity came up to spend a day with a 2016 Street Glide Special, I jumped at it. If nothing else, I was eager to see what my Texas brethren love so much about this iconic touring bagger.

First Impressions

There's no denying it looks cool, but upon swinging a leg over, the first thing that struck me about the Street Glide Special was how cramped its ergonomics were. I felt I was sitting in a Smart car. Apparently this is just the Harley-Davidson experience; I've been squished every other time I've ridden a Harley.


It's a strange and counterintuitive thing to feel so contorted on an infamously large and heavy bike. I've ridden cruisers from Indian, Victory, Triumph and Yamaha, and only Harley has ever left me feeling like a dad on his kid's Big Wheel. As a result, I can't help but think that an essential element of the bike is lost on me.

There's an implicit expectation in the Harley-Davidson experience that one should forgive less-than-amazing performance and braking for the sake of "character." This implicit expectation is at the heart of critics' disapproval of the brand. I don't mind it so much; I get the idea of character. But when I'm sitting like this, like an old lady on a mobility scooter, I don't feel cool. I feel silly.

Clearly, though, Harley thinks this rider triangle works, and no doubt it does for many people. I'm a lanky 6 feet 1 inch tall; if you are 5-foot-something, you may find this set up far more appealing.

Engine and Transmission

With history and heritage being one of the selling points of Harley-Davidson ownership, I decided it was appropriate to point the Street Glide Special toward Kidwelly Castle, a Norman fortress built more than 900 years ago.

Like most of Harley's bikes, the Street Glide Special employs a keyless fob system, which I think is cool. However, there's a steering lock/ignition switch that requires a key before the fob can be used, so I'm not entirely sure what the point is.


Nonetheless, once the bike started up I kind of didn't care. One of the primary complaints waged against Harley-Davidson products is that they feel agricultural. Indeed they do; riding a Harley is like riding a tractor. But something the haters neglect to mention is that riding a tractor is awesome.

Even with stock exhaust, the bike emits a deep, maniacal-laughter-inducing grumble at idle. The whole thing shakes with each kick of the pushrods. The experience is visceral. The happy truth of all internal-combustion-engined motorcycles is that you are effectively sitting on top of a metal box of explosions, but here you really feel it. You know it.

Initially, the experience is delightful. You ride around over-revving the engine just for kicks, and fighting the urge to shout: "Look at meeee!" Problems arise, however, when you attempt to use the Street Glide Special toward its stated purpose of touring.

Tackle a long stretch of highway and all that noise and shuddering will get on your nerves. Push the 1690cc air-cooled V-twin engine toward 80 mph and it fights you, desperate to lurch back to slower speeds. Keep fighting to make progress and you'll soon feel the engine's heat on your legs. The temperature was just 6ºC (or 43ºF) on the day I rode to Kidwelly, but by the end of my ride the heat pouring onto my right leg in particular was something close to painful.

The Street Glide Special's six-speed transmission is solid enough, each gear announced with the reassuring KATHUNK we've come to expect from cruiser transmissions. No real complaints beyond my feeling that first is too low and second too high. It's the sort of thing you could probably get used to, though. You'd have to also get used to an aching left hand, because clutch pull is anything but light.


Ride Quality and Brakes

Because the Victory Cross Country and Indian Chieftain were clearly styled to compete against the likes of a Street Glide Special, I frequently found myself comparing my experiences with those bikes to this one. And it was here that, for me, the Harley really fell short.

Suspension was subpar; handling was awkward at low speed and unsteady at high speed. Somewhere in the sweet spot between 30-60 mph, things were OK, but I still felt every bump and imperfection in the road being transmitted to my lower back. Pushing through corners was a full-body effort and, of course, the scraping of floorboards became part of the cacophony of sound when things got particularly twisty.

The weight of the bike never really went away. In some strange sense you can feel it even in the straights. But, I suppose, that contributes to a feeling of surefootedness you might want in a long-distance machine. Certainly within the 30-60 mph window the bike felt solid against an early-spring squall blowing in from the sea.

It was during that sudden deluge, however, that I discovered the Street Glide Special's stock Dunlop Multi-Tread tires are considerably less than great in the wet stuff. Not as awful as the Dunlop Elite 3s that are used on some other touring V-twins (e.g. the Victory Vision), but definitely not great. Feel from the tires was minimal and left me unwilling to lean too far into a turn.


Tires are something you eventually have to replace on a bike anyway, though, so I wouldn't necessarily allow the Dunlops' poor performance to affect my purchasing decision.

The Street Glide Special's brakes are decent enough, if a bit soft, but great googly-moogly does the front end dive when the bike's dual front discs are squeezed. It's a stereotype of cruiser riders that they don't use the front brake, but you certainly couldn't blame someone for such behavior if he or she were aboard this rocking horse. Meanwhile, ABS comes standard and is unobtrusive to the point of taking a fair bit of work to engage.

Comfort and Features

Since the Project Rushmore overhaul in 2014, one of the major selling points of the Street Glide Special has been its all-bells-and-whistles dash, centered around the touchscreen Boom! infotainment system (damn, I thought I was going to make it through this whole review without using Harley speak).

The dashboard is laid out well. However, the dials aren't terribly useful because the numbers are too small and the engine's shuddering blurs vision. The gear indicator is particularly hard to spot, and frustrating because it seems to need a second to think about each gear change. And the dashboard lights showing the signal/indicator are quite possibly the smallest I've encountered. You will need to be Screamin' Eagle Eyed to spot them.


The infotainment screen, though, is easily readable. It features an integrated GPS that is just a little outdated in fluidity and intuitiveness for my tastes. It reminded me of the system in my mother's Toyota Prius. But it's useful enough. The system's touchscreen doesn't work too brilliantly with thick gloves, but that means it doesn't get tricked by heavy rain.

I tend to think of stereos on motorcycles as sacrilegious and didn't spend much time investigating the Street Glide Special's sound system beyond discovering that its radio wasn't very good at holding signal. But the static was nice and loud. The dash has a space to plug in an MP3 player or other USB-compatible, phone-sized device. So, if you're eager to rock out on two wheels you can do so to a playlist of your own choosing.

Moving away from the dash, I will never, ever, ever, ever understand Harley's system for indicator switches. Whereas the vast majority of motorcycle brands place a single switch on the left grip to initiate and cancel signal/indicator lights, Harley places a switch on each side; the left switch for lights on the left, the right switch for lights on the right.

If you have never ridden a motorcycle before, you may think the Harley system makes sense. But, of course, it doesn't. In times when a rider is most likely to be using his or her turn signal he or she will be needing the right hand for throttle control and covering the brake. Adding a splayed thumb to this juggling act just to operate an indicator switch is stupid.

Because Harley-Davidson inspires a cult-like following, I have no doubt some of you will disagree with me vehemently on that point, and will somehow manage to suggest that my dislike of the system has something to do with my living in the country where Karl Marx chose to spend most of his life. You can say that, but you'll still be wrong.


Meanwhile, counter to its jarring suspension, the Street Glide Special's seat is comfy and cosseting. For the rider, at least. Not so much a passenger. If you want to ferry your significant other around, she or he had better be tiny and wearing rubber pants to keep from sliding off the back of the stylistically sloped rear of the seat.

The bike's fairing does a great job of keeping a rider protected from the elements. I was particularly surprised and impressed by the effectiveness of the Street Glide Special's tiny screen. A vent in the fairing pushes air up and creates a nice buffeting-free zone that works even in excess of the legal speed limit.

Panniers are slick and easy to open, but — perhaps commensurate to the amount of time a person would actually want to spend on the bike — aren't very big. There's probably enough luggage space for a weekend getaway, though. Assuming the place you're getting away to is hot and you don't mind wearing the same pair of shorts two days in a row.

Practicality

Practicality? With a Harley-Davidson? Hahahahahahahahahaha!!

I mean, yeah, I guess one could commute to work on a Street Glide Special if so inclined, but it wouldn't be my first, second or third choice of steed for such a job. Equally, it wouldn't be at the top of my list for long-distance touring. It is too heavy and awkward for serious urban use; too hot and shuddering for eating up the miles.


I'm not entirely sure that matters, though, since practicality isn't really a part of the Harley-Davidson mystique. No one buys these bikes expecting Honda reliability and utility; that's not what they're about.

Build Quality

Although I can find some flaws elsewhere, let's not pretend the Street Glide Special is anything other than a gorgeous machine. It looks fantastic. This is a motorcycle upon which any sane human being wants to be seen.

You may not want to pay for a Street Glide Special, may not want to spend your life with one as your only bike, but unless you are a card-carrying member of ISIS there is no way you can truthfully claim to not have at least some tiny desire to be seen on one.

This is true because when it comes to aesthetics Harley-Davidson does all the things right. Paint is deep. The chrome is shiny, but still looks cool covered in road grime. Everything feels sturdy and high-end. Even little things like the numbers on those not-actually-useful dials have a feeling of aesthetic care and attention.

Inevitably Harley-Davidson will have to develop retrofittable infotainment interfaces in a few years, but everything else has the feeling of an object you might want to turn into a family heirloom: something to give to the grandkids once you're done with it.


Final Verdict

Despite current signs of Harley-Davidson's weakening market grip in the face of competition, the company continues to be responsible for roughly half of the motorcycles sold in the United States with engines 601cc or greater. And several of its models remain among the top 10 best-selling bikes worldwide. All of which points to the fact that people are going to buy the Street Glide Special regardless of the fact it doesn't really do what it's supposed to do.

After a day with the bike, my lower back was screaming in pain and I had a headache that lasted into the next morning. Ultimately, I found I could not tolerate more than 60 miles of highway before needing to stop, stretch, and try to regain my bearings. This is not a good motorcycle for touring.

But if I were to tell this to my fellow Texans they would not care. By and large, most of them will not ride more than 100 miles in a day anyway, and far more will ride less. This "touring" bike will mostly be put to use traveling from beach to bar on comfortable weekend afternoons. And that's OK, because the Street Glide Special is a lot of fun in short bursts.

Yes, it could easily be beaten in speed, power, acceleration, cornering, comfort and touring ability by any number of bikes that cost a third of its US $23,200 (£19,645 / €30,895) asking price. But those bikes aren't Harley-Davidsons. And to many riders that's all that matters.

As I say, I get the "character" thing. Ultimately, though, I feel there's no way I could allow myself to pay so much money for a motorcycle that does so little of what I want it to do. But, hey, not everyone uses a motorcycle as their only means of transportation. Some people use a bike just to meander nearby streets, to see and be seen by the local gentry.


And to that purpose I guess I can understand why my fellow Texans, or folks anywhere, might choose a Street Glide Special. There are worse ways to spend your paycheck.

The Three Questions

Any time I review a bike, I try to think of it from a consumer's perspective, imagining that I'm being asked to spend my own money on the bike. In doing so, I always ask myself these three questions:

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
No. As I say, the Street Glide Special is far too impractical, hot and overweight to serve as the all-the-time, do-everything machine that I need. Equally, from a more immediately practical standpoint, it is too wide to fit through my garden gate and into my shed.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. For the first 20 miles or so. It is a huge, stupid, laughing-in-my-helmet grin that helps me understand why so many Americans seem to be religiously devoted to this brand. However, as the miles piled on my grin turned quickly to a grimace. And I have to admit that by the end of my day with the Street Glide Special I was approaching something akin to anger. As I say, the bike simply does not do what Harley says it is supposed to do. It is, however, really great for peacocking around town. Whether you see that as positive or negative depends a lot on your personality and what you want from a bike.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
Nope. Not in any measurable way. The Street Glide Special looks better than a V-Strom 1000 and, of course, it's got the Harley-Davidson badge; it's more likely to help me get chlamydia at Daytona Bike Week. But in all other ways it doesn't measure up.


(Parts of this review were originally published on RideApart)

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**This June I'll be taking part in the Royal British Legion Riders 1000 ride, helping to raise money for the Poppy Appeal. Please check out this page to learn more and donate in support of British veterans, currently serving military personnel, and their families.**

Comments

  1. Reading between the lines, you don't like it at all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've had some people interpret my review that way, but, honestly, you're reading a subtext that isn't there. I don't hate the bike. I enjoy the H-D experience to a certain extent, and understand why others do even moreso.

      I don't love the Street Glide Special, though, because it doesn't meet my expectations of what an expensive touring motorcycle should be. It is underpowered, awkward and uncomfortable in long stretches. That doesn't necessarily make it bad, it just makes it something I wouldn't spend my money on.

      Delete
  2. Really nice review Chris, it's probably the best written explanation for why I just can't qualify a Harley Davidson purchase. The bikes just seem "limiting" in my opinion. If you're a tavern to tavern rider, they're ideal, but if you're an all season touring rider, they just come up short. Like you said, my friends would would probably take insult to that sentiment, but I have a feeling that the "visceral" experience has a lot more to do with their affinity for the bar and shield than true performance measures.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Me, Chris, Me! I want to play!

    "I decided it was appropriate to point the Street Glide Special toward Kidwelly Castle"

    What are two things that are heavy, outdated, and a huge F. U. to the neighbors?


    ReplyDelete

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