My wife insists I’m having a mid-life crisis. Her evidence for this is the arrival of a beard and my preference to dress, as she would have it, “like a crazed redneck on the run from the FBI”.
What she can’t assign as evidence of a search for lost youth are my motorcycles, seeing as they’ve been there, variously, for enough years that even she has been forced to grudgingly admit I may just like bikes.
However, whilst I laugh outwardly at these barbs and brickbats, something is happening within which I fear may give her accusations credence.
I’ve developed an unhealthy interest in cruisers.
There. I said it. It’s out there now.
In the last two weeks I’ve ridden a number of Victorys and a number of…and I can hardly believe I’m typing this…Harley Davidsons. For a biker, this is definitely mid-life crisis territory.
Now, the analogy with the mid-life crisis car driver who trades in the Mondeo for an MX5 isn’t quite right because our motorcycling example is likely to be getting off something a lot faster than the cruiser he’s getting on. In some ways a better, but more alarming, analogy is the man who trades in his V6 coupe for the diesel estate, requiring nothing more than comfort and a less fussed drive.
Surely that’s not me?
My issue with cruisers in the UK has always been this: it’s not California, it’s Slough; you are not a Hells Angel, you’re an accountant from Droitwich and that’s not a badass chopper it’s a pile of cheaply made nonsense with all the performance of a paddling pool and you’ve paid £16,000 for it on credit at 11% and a balloon payment at the end.
In other words, you’re no more “free”, despite all the advertising, than you were before you bought it; no more of a rule-breaker and no more of an outsider.
For me, cruisers in the UK, outside of those run by genuine back-patch bike gang/club members, have always screamed “desperate not to look like I conform, despite the fact that I do”.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the ridiculous “Harley Owners’ Group” or, in its laughable acronym, HOG. These are, quite simply, ordinary men who dress up as Hells Angels and ride about trying to look like they’re going to do something more dangerous than check the progress of their ISA on their Blackberrys. Which they’re not.
So; the bikes are rubbish in terms of performance, build quality and value, and the image which surrounds them is knuckle-chewingly embarrassing. Why, then, have I loved my test rides and why can’t I shake the memories of those rides?
First up I rode a couple of Victorys. Vastly better built and better-performing than Harley-Davidsons, and far better priced. Victory is partly responsible for the recent improvements in HD build-quality and performance (as well as a renewed push by HD in to European markets where the old level of quality was generally unacceptable to a customer base which has always known Japanese and German bikes).
The huge Victory Cross, a “bagger”, was fun. Feet way forward, like steering an armchair with two poles. The 1731cc (or, in the Americanised language of cruisers, “106 cubic inch”) motor pulled nicely and whilst the bike didn’t stop like my sports-tourer, it did actually stop in the same county I’d initially asked it to. Handling, when I’d got used to the oddities of the riding position, was a pleasant surprise too, it simply went where you put it without all that tedious rearrangement of body weight.
It was too big though, and too shiny and full of chrome which would need endless cleaning. Next I took out a much (comparatively) lighter Vegas. Longer rake, 21” front wheel, semi-ape bars. This was a lot more skittish thanks to that front end than the bagger but was, to me, a revelation. The riding position was comfort itself, the noise magnificent thanks to the stage one pipes which delivered just the sense of theatre a bike like this needs, and whilst it wasn’t quick in bike terms it was plenty quick enough for blatting cars.
I found myself travelling perhaps 20% slower than usual, not minding sitting in the traffic flow occasionally and generally just not feeling like I needed to rush anywhere. It was a pleasure ride: unstressed, easy and, another shock this, fun. At one point I almost sparked up a fag queuing at a roundabout.
A few days later it was Harleys. Now: let’s get something out of the way. When my mate and I visited the HD dealer for a look, a few days before I went back to ride, it was everything you imagine. Lots of middle-aged, overweight men in tasselled leather trousers and wrap-around sunnies drinking coffee amid a vast array of HD merchandise (most of which they were also wearing). One was even wearing a Stars and Stripes bandana. In rural Oxfordshire. I kid you fucking not.
I almost turned tail and ran on my return but, steeling myself, I went in as arranged and took out two bikes, one after the other.
The first was a 2014 Softail Slim, effectively a 1940s bobber-styled single seat bike with beach bars. It looks, and let’s not mess about here, magnificent. Mine had black stage pipes, slashed shotguns, and sounded great too.
How was it? Honestly? I still grin thinking about it. It thudded along, suspending me 20” or so off the Tarmac, in the most bizarre way. It wasn’t like any other sort of motorcycling I’d done, except on that Vegas.
I knew I looked like a wanker on a Harley. I particularly knew that because my usual nodding rule (nod at everyone, bikes are bikes man) led not to the usual hatful of nods back but to almost none at all. Did I care? Nope. It was a ball from start to finish.
Performance? Throttle response comes by post, the brakes are made from a mix of Marmite and stale toast and you only know you’re steering it because the horizon moves, so little feedback is there from anything.
A problem? No. It just did what it said on the tin really. I’ll tell you what else it did too – it made me grin, and sing. That’s my ultimate Litmus test for bikes. However practicable a bike is it surely needs, first and foremost, to be fun? Otherwise why put up with the cold and wet and danger?
I took a “Street Bob” out next, another fake bobber but with ape-hangers. Didn’t like it as much as the Softail, perhaps because I felt a little more of a pillock with that ape riding position, but it also had that infectious “thud along happily” thing going on.
Now. What’s going on in my head? I have an XR600R inbound, which will slate my dirt-bike thirst (been without one for too long) and provide a great commuting tool, especially in the winter. Am I, therefore, really going to be the kind of idiot who not only owns a cruiser but generally only takes it out as a fun ride not as a daily tool? Am I about to become a twat?
Probably not. At least not yet; but I’m missing the easy progress of at least two of the bikes I’ve ridden recently. Yes, getting back on a 1050cc sports-tourer felt great in terms of performance, and I chucked it in to corners at lean angles beyond my norm just for the pleasure of feeling it go over and carry the speed in again, but…but…buggeration.
The only thing I know is that if I did it I’d be hankering after a BMW S1000RR-Sport within a month. It may be my bike buying idiocy will save me, then, from my bike buying idiocy.
The beard stays though.