Skip to main content

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…

Review: 2017 Harley-Davidson CVO Limited


Back in autumn Harley-Davidson chose Washington state as the backdrop for the unveiling of its overhauled touring line-up (Read my reviews of the Road Glide and the Street Glide), but the company had considered holding the event a little closer to Milwaukee headquarters: in the St. Croix Valley, on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Had they done such a thing it would have been daring and appropriate.

If you’re not up on your U.S. moto geography, that’s Polaris turf. When Indian Motorcycle employees or dealers from around the world visit Polaris HQ in Medina, Minnesota, they are often treated to the the gentle curves and forested vistas of the St. Croix Valley. So, as I say, a Harley press launch there would have been ballsy. But it would have made sense, too, because the new four-valve-per-cylinder Milwaukee Eight puts Harley on equal footing with Indian when it comes to the battle of which big V-twin is best. Nowhere is this more true than with the 2017 Harley-Davidson CVO Limited, which serves as an example of the very best Harley-Davidson has to offer.


First Impressions

Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) models are the cream of the crop in the motorcycling world; some would say there is no higher level of two-wheeled luxury. The CVO Limited is effectively a really, really nice Ultra Limited – a much-loved full dresser tourer that, to those yet to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson, looks a little like a Street Glide with a top box. For many, especially those unfamiliar with the touring class, the CVO Limited will also look like a land yacht: a two-wheeled version of a ‘96 Cadillac Fleetwood. It certainly ain’t tiny; at roughly 8.5 feet long and weighing 940 pounds wet, the CVO Limited is still smaller than a Smart car, but only just.

If you are a fan of enormous bikes, though, it won’t seem that daunting. I’ve lane-split a Victory Vision through London traffic, so the CVO Limited felt “right” to me. It’s a luxury tourer – the sort of thing designed to carry you and a loved one from one end of Trumpistan to the other without inducing relationship problems – so of course it’s big. But it’s not excessive; it's definitely less of a beast than a Honda Gold Wing.

I’ll admit that the Spiked Olive and Serpentine Green with Carbon Dust paint scheme of the bike I rode didn’t immediately tickle my fancy (I wrote this review a while ago, and since then the color has grown on me –CC). The same sentiment is true of the bike’s overall look. I grew up in the Central Time Zone, so the presence of an integrated top box (aka trunk) on just about any bike makes me think of rotund older men named Jerry who have meticulous lawns and wives called Shirley or Val. Nice folks – good Christians who only occasionally yell at the neighborhood kids for playing baseball in the street – but not the sort a boy grows up wanting to emulate.


That said, it would be hard not to give in to the charm of the green machine’s comfort and practicality. Throw a leg over, nestling yourself into the I’ll-be-here-all-day seat, and the bike lifts easily off the stand (More so than my Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx –CC). The CVO Limited is well-balanced, its center of gravity kept low. Hands fall more or less naturally to the ‘bars, and floorboards don’t get in the way of placing both feet on the ground. I’m 6 feet 1 inch tall, so flat-footing isn’t generally an issue for me, but Harley has put a lot of effort into ensuring folks who aren’t as long in the leg can do the same.

Dominating the lower field of a rider’s vision is a tasteful, well-laid-out dash featuring analogue dials for fuel gauge, speedometer, tachometer, and voltmeter. I’m not entirely sure a voltmeter is necessary on a modern motorcycle, but, sure, whatever. Below the dials is the 6.5-inch touchscreen display that offers a wealth of info, from tire pressure to satellite navigation. Buttons next to the display offer a redundancy that gloved hands will find useful.

Press the starter and the 114-cubic-inch (1868 cc) Twin-Cooled Milwaukee Eight rumbles to life with trademark Harley moxie, albeit slightly more subdued than on “smaller,” less expensive models like the Street Glide. It is a feel befitting of a luxury tourer.


Engine and Transmission

By now you will have heard plenty about the new four-valves-per-cylinder Milwaukee Eight that powers all of Harley’s 2017 touring line-up. You will have heard it runs smoother, quieter, and cooler than the Twin Cam engine it replaces, and that it performs better. But that it maintains a distinct Harley character and Harley focus. Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski says that in designing the new engine the company felt it was important to “stick to our roots: Stump-pulling torque straight out of the box.”

All this holds true of the 114 cu in version that for 2017 is only available on the CVO Limited and CVO Street Glide. The added capacity increases peak torque to a whopping 124 foot pounds, according to Harley, and my ButtDyno™ suggests a few horses have also been added to the mix, pushing things toward the 90+ horsepower range. I referenced Indian’s Thunder Stroke 111 earlier; no doubt many riders will be eager to know how the two match up. I’d say both engines are more or less equal in real-world feel. The Indian V-twin has a mechanical growl that sounds as if it comes from the bowels of the earth and a power delivery that seems to have to travel the same distance, so Harley takes the prize in terms of throttle response. It’s smooth, not snappy or over-urgent, but immediate. Adhering to Europe’s stringent emissions standards (which have been adopted by a number of non-EU countries, as well) places an engine on a tight leash. Which may be why it is so easy to bang up against the rev limiter on the CVO Limited.

The bike’s engine is twin cooled (water and oil) but the presence of lower fairing means it misses out on the additional benefit of air cooling, which you notice. Things get particularly bad when stuck in rush hour traffic. Several miles of stop-and-crawl backup outside Tacoma saw my right leg being roasted. Had it not also been raining cats and dogs at the time, I suspect the engine’s heat would have melted the leg of my waterproof trousers.


Shifting through the gears comes easily; the standard heel shifter is unnecessary. Neutral was almost impossible to find on the model I rode but I’m willing to give Harley the benefit of the doubt here and assume it was a one-off problem with that particular bike (I had seen fellow moto-journalist Damon 
Lavrinc drop the same bike the day before). Squeezing the gear lever requires a decent amount of strength, and riding through the aforementioned rush hour traffic caused serious ache. If you ever meet someone who rides a CVO Limited through traffic on a regular basis, don’t get within reach of his or her left hand; that rider will crush your bones in their grip.

Ride Quality and Brakes 2017

All of Harley-Davidson’s touring line-up received a suspension upgrade for the 2017 model year, so the CVO Limited has been boosted to the point where it is basically impossible to have a legitimate complaint. To unsettle this suspension you need to be trying very deliberately and pushing the bike out of its intended field of use. Even when floorboards are scraping, the bike stays planted. The big Harley is nimble within reason. Certainly its weight is ever-present – you don’t start to believe you’re on a KTM Duke 390 – but getting it to go where you want it to go is easy considering you’re dealing with nearly half a ton of bike.

Weight is well balanced; rush hour traffic may have hurt my hand and burned my leg, but I was able to inch along without having to put a foot down. This, it seems, is something Harley works hard on. Bozmoski says the bike is “great for parade duty,” which is not the sort of thing one normally considers when choosing a motorcycle. But when you think about it, it’s true. When was the last time you saw Miss Illinois on the back of a Triumph Trophy SE? Meanwhile, the CVO Limited remains balanced and steady far beyond the legal speed limit, despite the aerodynamically disruptive nature of a top box.



Adjusting the rear suspension no longer requires a special tool. Harley has abandoned the air shock in favor of an emulsion shock with hand-adjustable preload. A chart in the owner’s manual lets users know which setting to use for which riding situation, e.g., solo rider, rider and passenger, rider and passenger with luggage, etc.

Frustratingly, tires have not been upgraded. The CVO Limited runs on the same craptacular long-life Dunlops as other touring models, which are fine on dry surfaces but unacceptable in wet weather. Having the back end fishtailing on acceleration and across every little road marking caused me to lose a little confidence, and that’s a shame. I know I complain about cruiser/tourer tires so much I probably sound like a broken record. But it's a difference that could do so much to change how we view the genre. It's especially frustrating with a bike like this, where Harley-Davidson has put such an intense amount of effort into making everything else right.

The Reflex Linked Brembo brakes with ABS do not disappoint, however, managing to deliver enough whoa to control all the go. According to Harley, the brakes electronically determine the right amount of braking pressure for each tire regardless of whether you’re squeezing a lever or mashing a pedal. I worried this would affect slow-speed maneuvers, that the machine would be trying to out-think me, but encountered no problems.


Comfort and Features

The lyrics of Willie Dixon come to mind here: “Some folks built like this, some folks built like that. But the way I’m built, don’t ya call me fat. Because I’m built for comfort; I ain’t built for speed.”

Comfort and features are what the CVO line is all about. Enormous, contoured heated seats ensure both rider and passenger will never know what it means to be saddlesore. Six-level heated grips keep hands warmer more effectively than any other heated grips I’ve ever experienced. The dial for the grips, by the way – located inconspicuously on the left ‘bar end – is brilliantly placed. It is exactly where you want that sort of feature to be – close to hand when riding – and easy to understand without being gaudy. It is representative of the level of attention Harley-Davidson paid the CVO Limited. You see it again in things like the lights above panniers that stay on for a few minutes after riding, so you can dig through your stuff in the dark. Or the subtle passenger volume control switch. I’m a sucker for features like this that show real thought.

While we’re going crazy for bells and whistles, I’d like to see an electronically adjustable screen, but the CVO Limited’s old-school stay-in-place set-up works just fine. I experienced no head buffeting, even at spirited pace. Lower fairing keeps the weather off boots and shins but the space between it and the upper fairing allows knees to get chilly or wet in inclimate conditions. Little flaps in the fairing allow a rider to adjust airflow somewhat. Handlebars would need to be adjusted were this bike mine; a nonstop 130-mile run of mostly highway put an ache into my shoulders.


Luggage capacity is capacious, each pannier large enough to hold a Kriega R20 backpack with room to spare. The top box would fit two full-size helmets and a cat. In addition you’ll find compartments in the fairing large enough to hold a phone/wallet/etc.

A three-headlight set-up blasts a spread of light so large and powerful its presence can be felt in the middle of the day.

The number of infotainment options is mind-boggling, all pretty easily navigated via the dashboard’s touchscreen or a pair of less-than-intuitive switches on the handlebars. Reaching the system’s GPS map involves too many steps, and the map itself is not as user-friendly as I’d expect, but overall it’s an impressive set-up. Head over to Harley-Davidson’s website for a full look at the spec sheet. On that sheet you’ll find mention of a “new reverse indicator light,” which suggests the CVO Limited has a reverse gear. That’s not a feature I spotted, so I didn’t get a chance to test it, but it would be useful on such a heavy machine.


Build

The CVO Limited is a tank. A shiny tank with lush paint that sparkles in the sun, but a tank nonetheless. Over the course of the multi-day press ride the lids of its panniers and top box were slammed shut many times by many different people and showed no signs of wear or tear. The latches and knobs that lock cases shut or keep panniers attached are all sturdily built. Again, all of this is said within reason. It’s not the sort of thing you’re going to use to explore the Kazakh Steppe.

They say a Harley is an investment and I would suspect a CVO model to be doubly so. This is an investment that looks like it will last: 100 years from now people will be riding the 2017 CVO Limited to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, carrying an iced case of beer in its trunk.


Verdict

The starting price on a CVO Limited is a buck shy of US $41,000, which is more than my gross income last year. It is a very expensive motorcycle. As such, there’s a part of me that questions the point of even doing a review. To my mind, if a person is going to buy a Harley-Davidson CVO model he or she is going to buy a CVO model, by god, and isn’t really going to be influenced by a review. It’s a purchasing decision somewhat akin to buying box seats at a Minnesota Vikings game. You know damn well there are better-performing teams, more comfortable places to sit, and more affordable locations to drink beer. A person could list “better” ways to spend your money until all the Earth’s air was gone, but your mind would never be changed, because any other thing is not THE thing you want.

So it is with a CVO model. For the person willing to pay Ford Mustang GT prices for a motorcycle, nothing else will do. So, my opinion on the CVO Limited, my verdict, is probably irrelevant. But I rode one, so here it is: for $41,000 I would expect a motorcycle to not have a penny of “Harley tax” on it. I don’t care that a 50-state-legal Screamin’ Eagle Stage III kit will boost engine capacity to 117 cu in (1917 cc), I expect a bike that is pretty much perfect right out of the box. The good news is: that’s what you get with the CVO Limited (as long as you ignore my issues with the tires).

I joke about "Jerry" and "Val" riding a bike like this each summer to visit the John Wayne Museum, but I'll happily admit there's a part of me that wouldn’t mind owning one and joining them on the ride; it is a very good motorcycle.


Rider Stats 
Name: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Slender
Riding experience: 4 years
Helmet: BMW System 6 EVO
Bluetooth: Sena 10C
Jacket: Hideout Touring
Gloves: Held Air N Dry
Jeans: Draggin’ Classic
Boots: Corcoran Jump Boots


The Three Questions

1) Does the Harley-Davidson CVO Limited fit my current lifestyle?
Uh, no. Certainly I do a lot of travelling by bike these days, so the CVO Limited has features I find useful, but I've been able to find those features in bikes that cost and weigh less. The CVO Limited is built for the great North American landscape and good weather; whereas Wales is the sort of place that exacerbates its weaknesses. Also, if I were of a mind to own a bike like the CVO Limited I would choose the Indian Roadmaster, which is just as comfortable, has more features, and costs less.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Of course it does. It's a Harley-damn-Davidson, y'all. Harleys always make me happy.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
No. The CVO Limited looks better than a Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx and has considerably better retail value, but the Triumph is better in all the ways that really matter to me.


Photography by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ride review: Harley-Davidson XL 883 L (aka Sportster SuperLow)

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 agrarian 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...
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 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 che…

Ride review: Yamaha XV950 / Star Bolt

Imitation, Charles Caleb Colton famously noted, is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, the flattery the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 receives from Yamaha's XV950 is enough to make one blush. Put the two bikes side by side, and the inspiration for the latter is undeniable. Yamaha claims its bike has a "new neo retro Japanese look," but that's clearly just nonsense –– lorem ipsom that was used instead of "totally looks like a Harley-Davidson Iron 883."
Certainly the XV950 –– known as the Star Bolt in the United States –– isn't the first example of a Japanese OEM adhering faithfully to the styling cues of America's best-known motorcycle manufacturer. The orthodox members of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson write these bikes off as "wannabes," and tend to be pretty dismissive of anyone who would dare consider purchasing one. But I'm going to commit blasphemy here and tell you that the XV950 is unquestionably the …

Ride review: Triumph Bonneville

"OK," I said. "I want one." "Well, you know, maybe you should ask your wife first." "She loves Triumphs," I said. "Still, Chris. You should give it a think. Go home, discuss it with your wife, give yourself a chance to think clearly. After all, this is one of Triumph's most popular models; there's plenty of stock available."
The voice of reason in that conversation was Drew, the salesman at Bevan Motorcycles. He was doing his best to talk some sense into me after my test ride of the 2014 Triumph Bonneville. I was wild-eyed and yammering like a teenage boy who has touched boobies for the first time. This, my friends, is what the Bonneville does to you. It is an instantly rideable, instantly enjoyable, instantly lovable motorcycle that surprises you in just how good a simple motorcycle can be.

The Bonneville, of course, is a storied machine that's been around in one form or another for 55 years. It is a classic. Partially b…