Even with a list price starting at $18,999.00, the Road Glide Custom is not quite at the top of the 2010 Harley-Davidson lineup. It\'s the latest in a long history of "Glide" models however, which apparently started with the Hydra-Glide of 1949. That was before my time, thank goodness, because the original \'Glide had a hand shift and foot clutch on the left side -- well beyond my ability to coordinate!
Have no fear though, because there\'s a very up-to-date motorcycle hiding under the Road Glide Custom classic bodywork. This modern \'Glide possesses a sleek style that looks more modern than some of the other retro-focused Harleys. It is one of the easiest Harley-Davidson motorcycles to recognize, with its "Shark Nose" fairing and dual headlights setting it clearly apart. That fairing is also mounted to the frame, unlike the "Bat Wing" handlebar-mounted fairing of the more popular Street Glide.
I have always liked the Road Glide\'s sense of style; it\'s sort of a touring bike hiding behind a custom look. I don\'t know enough about Harley-Davidson history to tell you what the "Custom" moniker adds to the Road Glide; there is no standard version of the Road Glide listed on the Harley-Davidson website, so Custom it is.
I did a little research before I picked up the bike and discovered that the "basic" Road Glide Custom (a paradox in terms, no doubt!) is available in the Vivid Black shown here, a very bright Scarlet Red and something called "Black Denim" which appears to be a matte black version of the bike I picked up.
The very beautiful, thick and high-gloss black paint on this bike is a perfect canvas for the deep chrome accents found on just about everything that isn\'t painted. I hadn\'t been within 50 feet of a Road Glide before I laid eyes on this one, and when it was rolled out of the garage, the first phrase that came to my mind was "work of art".
The black and chrome is perfect -- and perfectly stunning. There\'s no question that Harley-Davidson has the best paint and chrome in the business, and this one\'s a classic example.
Somehow, the bike also seemed a bit smaller than I imagined it would be. The big fairing dominates the styling and its counterpoint is the low, squat, crouched rear that makes the bike look like a jaguar, about to leap forward. Very cool!
The engine\'s the thing on any Harley, with the rest of the bike simply being a showcase for those classic big twin cylinders. Harley still uses the American cubic inch designation, illustrated by the "96 Cubic Inches" printed on the air cleaner. That converts to just shy of 1,600 cubic centimeters for us Euro-bike riders, a volume bigger than most of the car engines not too long ago.
Eight-hundred cc\'s pounding through each cylinder means a big 3.75" bore and a huge 4.89" stroke. That stroke is they key though; it\'s responsible for the huge 93 ft. lbs. of torque this engine pumps out at only 3,500 RPM.
Harley-Davidson apparently does not give out horsepower ratings, but with torque like that, who needs horsepower? An old mechanic once explained horsepower and torque to me this way: "Imagine leaning out of a second-story window and pulling up a load of bricks. Torque does all the work; more horsepower will only move the load faster". I don\'t know if that makes sense or not, but the Harley V-twin is all about torque. It gets the job done at much lower RPMs than anything else in my experience.
On the street, that power translates to 50 MPH at only 1,900 RPM in sixth gear. Add about 200 RPM for each 5 MPH and you\'ll have it just about right -- 55 MPH at 2,100 RPM and you can cruise all day at 60 MPH at a leisurely 2,250 RPM. It can easily lug down to 40 MPH or so in sixth gear and the engine is literally just off idle. Give it some gas and it will smoothly pull right back up again to freeway speeds.
Yet another surprise was the six-speed transmission, complete with the little "6" light that flicks on inside the speedo when the top gear is selected. Does a bike with this much torque and only 2,600 RPM at 70 MPH really need six speeds?
I was thinking more like two would do it -- one for getting it going and the second for everything else. Honestly, I could click the transmission up from second gear to sixth at speeds faster than a jog and have instant power in just about any situation. This makes the bike very flexible and easy to ride, as I\'ll describe in a minute.
The massive six-gallon fuel capacity yielded me just shy of 50 MPG during my mostly country road riding, which is outstanding for an over-800 pound bike. The fairing and the tapered styling may have something to with the excellent fuel mileage I experienced. I noticed the aerodynamics when trailering the bike; my big V8-powered Explorer got almost 2 MPG more with the bike on the trailer than when the trailer was empty -- yet another surprise.
Although the Road Glide Custom has classic Harley looks, underneath it\'s all 21st Century technology. This includes electronic fuel injection, optional ABS brakes (reasonably priced at $895.00) and tubeless tires on very nice cast aluminum wheels.
The Dunlop skins are a reasonably-sized 130/70-18 front and 180/65-16 in the rear. Reasonable by modern cruiser standards, that is... And as you\'ll learn in my "Myths vs. Reality" section below, the tires provided outstanding grip way beyond what I imagined.
Other modern features on the Road Glide Custom include the quiet and smooth belt drive. It sure makes you wonder why other manufacturers haven\'t adopted the belt as the drive system of choice; it\'s light, it\'s smooth, it\'s quiet, it\'s clean and it\'s nearly maintenance free. Sounds perfect, no?
This Road Glide also had the very nice factory cruise control system, another reasonably priced option at only $295.00. It would probably cost more than that to install an accessory cruise control and you certainly wouldn\'t end up with the excellent switchgear that controls the Harley item. Small clicks up and down increment the speed by about 1 MPH or so; perfect for Interstate travel.
The hydraulic lifters and the fuel injection, combined with the near-zero maintenance belt drive mean that there\'s not much to do except fuel it up, check the oil and tires and you\'re off. This adds a lot to the ease of use, reduction in maintenance headaches and the all-important fun factor.
The bike was perfectly reliable the entire time that I had it, and it\'s my understanding from talking to my friends at the local Harley-Davidson dealership that modern Harleys have excellent reliability.
The Harley-Davidson plant in York, Pennsylvania, is only about 45 minutes from my home, but the Road Glide was located in a shop in northern New Jersey, 250 miles distant. I debated whether to simply jump on the bike and ride it home or trailer it back -- the trailer won out. I\'m glad it did, because I think it would have been too much of a culture shock to throw a leg over an 800+ pound cruiser for the first time in my life and try to find my way back home through three states.
And what a culture shock it was! I have to say, the next morning I was as nervous as a plucked chicken. This bike is just so different than anything I\'ve ridden in the past -- bigger, heavier and...what about those floorboards? Never had my feet graced a pair of them.
After all, I\'m a sportbike guy through and through. My very first bike was an Bultaco Metralla ex-racer, complete with clip-on handlebars and a "dustbin" fairing. Up to that point, I hadn\'t been on a motorcycle in my life before, but I just had to own it. The bike was sitting in a shed, covered in two-stroke Castrol grime when I forked over the 250 bucks to the owner, who probably then laughed all the way to the bank.
I actually ended up pushing it along the sidewalk right through downtown Madison, Wisconsin for the mile or so it took to get home, where I cleaned it up, tinkered with it, got it started, figured out how the right-side shifter worked and took off for my first ride. Those were the days...
Now here I was, sitting on a shiny new twenty-something-thousand -dollar chrome-draped loaner straight from the Harley-Davidson factory and there it was -- that exact same feeling in the pit of my stomach, reminding me of the first time I started up the Bultaco those many years ago.
The evening before was spent looking through the clear no-nonsense Road Glide owner\'s manual, becoming familiar with the controls and getting a feel for the bike\'s weight in the garage. The low 26" (claimed) seat height really helps here; this is one of the first bikes I\'ve ridden in a long time where I can put both of my feet flat on the ground. It makes a big difference.
Right where you\'d think the key should go on the steering head, there\'s a big honkin\' doorknob-like thing instead. Turn it to the right to let the gnomes down in the engine room know that you\'re getting ready to put a fire in the hole.
The bike does not have a key, or at least anything resembling a motorcycle key I\'ve ever seen. It does have what might be called a "key" but is actually a barrel-type arrangement similar to what they use to lock up a soda machine. It is only needed to lock the steering head or open the bags and not to start the bike. Don\'t forget to bring it along though -- it also unlocks the fuel tank cap. Don\'t ask me how I discovered this...
Turn that giant ignition knob to the right and you can hear the gnomes sending power to the fuel pump. The dashboard lights flash on and off and when everything settles down, it\'s ready to fire up with a push of the starter button.
And fire up it does -- the big V-twin literally jumps to life like it\'s been Tasered out of a coma. KaPOW!! It scared the daylights out of me the first time I heard it -- I guess it takes a Big Bang to lift those pistons out of their slumber. The engine shakes at idle (myth not busted in this case) and it took me a few days to get used to that, especially when it settles down to an idle as the bike comes to a stop, where the engine feels like it came loose in the frame. All part of the Harley charm...
The shaking disappears instantly as soon as you roll on the throttle though. The vibes are no worse than my old Airhead Beemer and less than the new Ducati GT1000, another myth busted.
So I\'m ready to go and I slowly and carefully pick my way out of the garage for the very first time and down the hill. Momentum takes over, I lift my feet up and...WHERE ARE THE PEGS! Yikes -- the floorboards! I forgot to scope them out in my garage dry run! A quick glance down to figure out where my feet go and all\'s well. Note to first-time cruiser riders: add floorboard practice to the startup checklist!
Feet now planted on the floorboards, I safely make it down the hill and out on to the street for the first time and I was off.
I have to say, that day was a sweat-inducing shock that was absolutely the equal in every way to my first ride on the Bultaco. Having never been on a cruiser before, with no experience in the feet-forward riding position, floorboards or the sit-back-on-the-tailbone seating position, I was flummoxed.
I rode the heck out of it that first day, learning how to ride a motorcycle all over again, and slowly but surely we started to bond.
A few more days brought a series of surprises that busted just about every myth I\'d ever heard or imagined about a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In fact, the reality was so different from urban legend that I was truly shocked in a number of ways:
Weight:There\'s no getting around it, 800+ pounds is a lot of bike. But I honestly only felt it when pushing the Road Glide around in the garage. Once the wheels start turning at anything above walking speed, the bike instantly stablizes and the weight simply disappears. The low seat height helps when stopping, but I had very little trouble with slow-speed maneuvering.
Steering Lock:Also a great help in slow-speed maneuvers, because the handlebars can be swung through a huge amount of radius, which is crucial to maintaining stability at low speeds. The wide bars help here also.
Clutch Control:The Road Glide Custom is the textbook example of everything they teach in the MSF Basic Rider Course. The clutch has a big, wide friction zone, allowing the precise control over the amount of power sent through the transmission and out to the rear wheel. I did find that the slightly notchy clutch feel can be mitigated by wearing a pair of sticky-fingered gloves; I learned this by accident when one rainy day I tried a different pair of gloves with less grip, which makes it more difficult to control the clutch lever.
Fueling:The throttle and fuel injection on this bike combine to give the most precise fueling I have ever experienced on any motorcycle by far. Exact, precise and smooth throttle inputs are duplicated by those mind-reading gnomes down in the fuel/air department. It was a revelation to feel this kind of throttle control -- I\'ve been taught that it just isn\'t possible with fuel injection. Wrong. It is.
Combined with the beautifully flat torque curve, the Road Glide is a joy to pilot. If this precision is duplicated across the Harley-Davidson lineup, I now know why the bikes are so popular with first-time riders. The combination of the low seat, wide-as-Montana steering lock and precise fueling, along with that huge friction zone in the clutch give loads of confidence and help to counteract the weight differential.
But the combination of excellent clutch and fueling -- and the powerful brakes -- are also perfect for experienced riders. This bike makes it a snap to use the lessons taught in the Total Control Advanced Rider Course; that is, slow release on the front brake as you simultaneously roll on the throttle to keep the bike from moving around on the suspension during on/off throttle transitions. A racer\'s tip for smoothness, but it works like a charm on the Harley and makes cornering even more fun!
Noise:Another myth busted. Believe it or not, a Harley-Davidson is quiet! The exhaust on this one gave a nice bark on a fast takeoff, but nothing more than the Ducati. The low RPM freeway cruising speed and quiet exhaust helps make long distances stress-free. Why anyone would replace the stock exhaust with some open pipes -- that most likely also ruins the precise fueling -- is beyond me.
Brakes:The brakes on this Road Glide were simply awesome, albeit with that classic "wooden" feel. So one myth busted and one confirmed. Harleys are supposed to have terrible brakes, right? I had no problems with my habitual two-fingered-cover on the front brake lever, and I never need more than those two fingers to easily squeeze the front and pull the bike down from speed in a flash. It literally feels like somebody threw the bike into reverse.
It didn\'t take long to learn how to use and rely on the big rear brake pedal also, which can actually be modulated for precise control. Quite a surprise to find a set of rear brakes that actually do something for a change.
I never had to use the ABS in anger, but I tried it a couple of times to see what would happen. It kicks in with a bit of vibration and noise but I didn\'t notice any difference in stopping power. Overall, the Road Glide scrubs off speed as quickly as any bike I\'ve ridden, and with less drama because the longer wheelbase keeps it all planted. Squeeze the brakes and the bike hunkers right down and stops. Fast.
Handling:This is the biggest and most surprising myth-buster of all. I had assumed that a big bagger would handle like...well, like a Harley. I figured it would be as different from my Ducati as an F-250 is to a Miata.
Busted to the max! This Road Glide handles way, way better than you\'d think. In fact, try as I might on every one of my favorite back roads, it took me the full three weeks to finally scrape a floorboard. The Road Glide Custom can be leaned way, way over -- surely more than the majority of Harley owners will ever experience.
And it feels great in the turns, with an incredibly quick and silky-smooth side-to-side transition capability, probably due to the low center of gravity. Rolling on that precise throttle out of the corners means more fun in the twisties with this bike than anything I\'ve ridden in a long while.
OK, so not everything was perfectly rosy. I still question the riding position -- I just don\'t understand how the laid-back, sit-on-your-tailbone seat makes sense.
I discovered why so many Harley riders wear only jeans for riding, however -- loose pants help make the riding position more comfortable. Anything tighter prevented me from flexing and stretching, and I\'d end up with lower back pain.
The two-way shifter is an anachronism that was the most puzzling, however. First of all, the rear lever forces the left foot into a completely locked-in position, framed in front and back by the shift levers. I have only a size 10 shoe and I barely had enough room to fit my boot between the two.
Also, it makes no sense to me to have to lift my foot up and use the heel to upshift. On the very first shift of my very first ride, I discovered as I picked up my foot that the bike shifts better by simply using a toe. Pull up to shift up and press down to shift down. I never used the rear lever again and since it\'s easily removable, that would absolutely be the first thing to go if I owned the bike.
Removing the rear shift lever would also free up space on the floorboards. The locked-in-place left foot position means that rigor mortis sets in after about 45 minutes or so, giving me an overwhelming urge to yank my foot out of the trap.
So removing the rear shift lever and extending the floorboards back enough to get my feet planted under my body would yield great benefits for long-distance riding and also help eliminate back strain. How cruiser riders put up with the typical lounge-chair riding position is something I just don\'t get.
I did a quick search for extended floorboards, just to see if somebody made a set with about a 6" extension out the back. To my surprise, all I found were floorboards with extensions to the front -- the last thing you\'d need on this bike, unless you were over 6 feet tall perhaps.
The nicely sculpted seat on the Road Glide Custom looks great, but unfortunately the padding feels very thin and there\'s just not much cushioning in that sculpting. Combine this with the tailbone-down riding position and I was squirming around, trying to find some relief. That\'s when I discovered the trick about the loose clothing. About That Fairing...
The Road Glide normally comes with a low wind-blocking screen across the top of the big fairing, but this one was equipped with the optional touring windscreen. I never did get used to it.
It\'s too tall, which forced me to look through it rather than over it -- the first bike I\'ve ever ridden where I had to look through, rather than over that much screen. This is both annoying and distracting; it gives a sense of isolation from the road ahead, which I found disconcerting and never quite liked. Also, as the bike leans in the turns, the edges of the windscreen fall right into the area you\'ll need to see when cornering, a dangerous distraction.
Besides, the tall screen is so far in front of the riding position that the rider is left in a large turbulence wake. Any speed above 50 MPH would cause severe buffeting on the top of my full-face helmet, enough to shake my eyeglasses back and forth on my head. Perhaps some vents in the bottom of the windscreen might help to reduce the low pressure pocket behind it, but I\'d stick with the low \'screen instead that comes standard on this bike.
I\'m not sure if the Road Glide fairing has an option for lower wind deflectors, but if so, I\'d give \'em a try also. At freeway speeds, a lot of air is directed from up under the fairing, directed precisely at the rider. This gives a nice cooling breeze if you want it, but the extra turbulence isn\'t needed.
That\'s it with the nits though, all of which could easily be resolved by a Road Glide Custom owner.
By the way, the saddlebags are big and sturdy and the design feels a bit old-fashioned, but they work well. I never felt nervous about loading all my camera equipment inside their cavernous interior. The tops of the bags are not hinged; the entire top must be pulled off and it hangs via a piece of textile out the side of the bag.
The bags are easily removed, however, by pulling the pair of Dzus-like fasteners inside. Don\'t lose the fasteners though! I had no problems stuffing the bags full of camera gear, water bottles, gloves, extra clothing and anything else I needed for my adventures.
Just about everything I ever thought, heard or assumed about a Harley-Davidson was proven wrong during my time with the Road Glide Custom. I\'ll admit, as a European sport-touring guy, I had some prejudices against the brand and the lifestyle that seems to go with it.
Like all prejudices, it only takes education to bust \'em, and simply refusing to go along with the black-leather-and-fringe cruiser wear is all it takes to keep just as safe while riding this bike as anything else.
I initially went into this thinking it would be interesting and maybe fun but I\'d never buy one for myself. I came out of it knowing it was interesting and a lot of fun and guess what -- I wouldn\'t mind owning one. And that, my friends, is a giant revelation for me.