Touring one of the great national parks on one of America’s finest touring bikes.
– Olympic National Park, Washington
I was amid a small but hardy group of moto-journalists waiting to ride past photographers Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles - each crouched in the mud further down the road, waiting to make us look good. The temperature here was several degrees cooler than it had been at the bottom of the mountain and we were more exposed to the rain. It seems I had brought the British weather with me.
As the intensity of the rain increased, the plink-plink sound of raindrops against my helmet was surpassed by howling laughter from Motorcycle.com’s Evans Brasfield: “Ha! The glamorous life of a moto-journalist!”
His laughter caused a flashback to a moment from earlier in the day, when we had been speaking to Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski. In response to a question about the new Milwaukee Eight engine’s performance in the rain, Boz had levelled the instigating journo (who shall remain unnamed) with a look that suggested a desire to answer not with words but a slap to the back of the head.
“This engine is not challenged by rain,” Bozmoski deadpanned.
Up here, the bike was living up to its billing. Visibility reduced to just a few feet, my waterproof gear began to falter, journos scrambled to the visitor center for cover and coffee; the engine, however, was unfazed. Like Brasfield, it was laughing at foul weather.
But for its engine, the new Road Glide Special looks the same as the old Road Glide Special. It still has that love-it-or-hate-it front end that Harley enthusiasts describe as a shark nose but which I feel more accurately resembles Bender from “Futurama.”
Personally, I kind of like the look, but if someone were to disagree I’d understand why. Compared with Harley’s other faired bagger, the Street Glide Special (first ride review coming soon), the Road Glide Special is the superior overall motorcycle but definitely requires an open mind when it comes to aesthetics.
Ease into the large, cosseting, primarily-designed-for-one seat, and the first thing that strikes you is the tank. It forces a wide splay of legs that may be a tad uncomfortable for the gentleman with tight trousers. The bike’s dashboard dominates the lower half of one’s field of vision with clean dials and vibrant touchscreen display. There’s chrome, but not so much that it is distracting or annoying to those of us who are chrome-averse.
Engine and Transmission
The presence of the new Milwaukee Eight engine is, of course, the big story of the Road Glide Special. Harley-Davidson has chosen to equip all its touring line-up with the four-valves-per-cylinder engine (hence the name) for 2017, leaving other bikes with the same powerplants as in the 2016 model year. In the “standard” Road Glide Special, the Milwaukee Eight manifests as a 107 cubic-inch (1753 cc) twin-cooled V-twin.
“This is the most analyzed motor, I would say on the the planet, but definitely in our history,” explained Bozmoski. “It’s really a new generation for Harley.”
Though, long-time Harley-Davidson fans should not be too worried. Press the starter on the new Road Glide Special and it rumbles to life with a signature old-school agricultural feel. Gentler, perhaps, than the shuddering of the outgoing Twin Cam-engined models, but not so smooth that you could successfully play a game of Operation from its saddle.
This vibration is by design, according to Bozmoski; the Harley faithful expect it.
“Our core customer was telling us: ‘Don’t touch it,’” he explained.
However, it’s no secret Harley is eager to reach beyond its core customer base. To do so, the company felt its new motor needed to avoid some of the tractor clichés of old (though, I still say tractors are awesome).
“Wannabe riders would look at [a Harley’s vibration] and say: ‘Hmm, that don’t look right to me,’” Bozmoski said.
Such is the challenge of many manufacturers, especially those who make cruisers: the people who have been buying the product don’t want change, whereas the people the company wants to lure expect change. So, Harley-Davidson went to great lengths to find a happy medium: a bike that moves a little at idle, that feels like a Harley, but that won’t rattle loose any dental work.
Harley, not surprisingly, feels it has “nailed all of what the customer wanted,” and, on the whole, I’m inclined to agree. No, it’s not a Honda engine; if you want a Honda engine, buy a Honda. But the Milwaukee Eight is a modern, fully functional, does-what-you-expect-it-to-do engine. It feels solid (and according to Bozmoski, it is, with test units having been put through 1.5 million miles of hard testing) and it feels “right” for the cruiser/tourer experience.
Meanwhile, whether it’s the four valves per cylinder or four extra cubic inches in engine size, the new Road Glide Special performs better than Harleys of recent memory. This is a motorcycle you can live with, something you don’t have to make excuses for or describe in befuddling “if you don’t understand you’ll never understand” platitudes. It no longer feels like it’s gasping at 80 mph. Harley’s love of hyperbole goes so far as to occasionally describe the thing as “sportbike-like;” that description should be taken with a block of salt, but performance is noticeably improved.
The rev limiter is found far too easily in first and second gears, but there’s still plenty of oomph to get the bike’s considerable girth (929 lbs. wet) moving in the right direction ahead of most other traffic. Throttle response is smooth, and if Harley-Davidson spent so much time making sure engine vibration would please the faithful you can be damn certain that torque is available pretty much anywhere in the rev range.
Clutch pull still demands an Asgardian left hand, but shifting seems a little smoother. The clunk of first gear arrives with less drama while maintaining the mechanical, “here’s a thing that’s made of metal, by god” sound that I enjoy from a big machine. As I say, tractors are awesome.
Ride Quality and Brakes
Along with the new Milwaukee Eight all of Harley’s touring models have received upgraded suspension for the 2017 model year. And it’s here, even more so than with the new engine, that the differences between the 2016 and 2017 model years are most obvious.
You’re never really going to drag a knee on a Road Glide Special (if not simply because you’d need to be a pretty tall drink of water to touch a knee down before floorboards/highway bars/panniers/etc.), but tipping the bike into a corner induces less skittishness than it once might have. The bike feels well planted... At least when it’s dry.
Awful Dunlop Multi-Tread Blackwall tires are awful in the wet, but that’s not Harley’s fault. The Dunlop touring tires one finds standard on Indian and Victory motorcycles are equally abysmal in wet weather. The real person to blame in this case is the average American consumer, who values tire life over tire performance.
Hitting reasonable bumps with the new suspension no longer requires an immediate phone call to one’s chiropractor, and adjusting the suspension is now considerably less of a hassle.
Hitherto, rear suspension adjustment was done by a special air pump that Harley found its customers were losing and/or failing to understand. Additionally, they weren’t regularly re-adjusting the system, which had a tendency to lose air over time, thereby decreasing effectiveness.
The new system is a good ol’ fashioned hand adjuster. It’s easy to figure out and, according to Harley-Davidson Director of Motorcycle Product Planning Paul James, “the setting will not change over time, as you get with an air shock.”
Maybe it’s the old man in me, but I personally prefer this. I’ll admit to being dazzled by the likes of BMW’s electronic suspension adjustment, but sometimes technological whizzbangery feels like technological whizzbangery for the sake of technological whizzbangery. If your hand is strong enough to pull a Harley-Davidson clutch lever it’s strong enough to turn a knob.
ABS comes standard with the Road Glide Special, with Harley-Davidson using a linked system that electronically determines the right percentage of front and rear brake to use according to road conditions.
“The linked brakes system really goes a long way to making an average rider a great rider,” said James.
Brake performance is at the high end of what I’ve come to expect from cruisers. You won’t be doing stoppies, but the two front discs and single rear disc deliver an acceptable amount of whoa for real-world application.
Comfort and Features
Comfort-wise, there are a lot of things to like about the Road Glide Special, so let’s start with the stuff I don’t like and get it out of the way.
That tank: it’s too wide. I am 6 feet 1 inch tall, so when I spread my legs there’s plenty of space in the knee-to-knee region. There’s probably enough room for your average Olympic gymnast to perform a little jig. Astride the Road Glide Special, that space is occupied by the fuel tank. Female riders may not be bothered, but males will find that keeping their legs that wide open initiates a tightening in the crotch of one’s trousers. Stay seated on the Road Glide Special for a few hours and it causes a certain discomfort.
The standard windscreen left me wanting a little more weather protection, but, you know: Harley-Davidson. Any time you criticize a standard feature on a Harley, the faithful brothers and sisters of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-Day Davidson will run roughshod over you with their trademark-littered talk of customization; you can buy a different screen. And, in fairness, the standard screen, with its unique venting system, was good enough that I didn’t experience head wobble or excessive buffering.
The good news is that the bike is otherwise conducive to hours in the saddle. When I rode the 2016 Street Glide Special earlier this year, the summary of my experience was that I felt it was a touring bike upon which touring would be pretty unpleasant. After just 60 miles of highway riding my back hurt, my jaw was sore from having teeth bang together on every bump, and I had a headache. On the 2017 Road Glide Special I suffered none of that.
Much of the credit has to go to the improved suspension, but it’s also the case that the Road Glide’s ergonomics are better suited to a person my size. Hands fell relatively naturally to the ‘bars (were it my bike I’d make slight adjustments) and I didn’t feel as cramped as I have on many other Harley-Davidson models. The seat is ultra comfy but passenger accommodation is clearly not a priority. See the above statement about customization, though; if you’ve got the money, honey, Harley’s got the time.
The Road Glide Special also has a unique system of moving air through the fairing, which eliminates the back pressure that can come from more traditional windscreen set-ups. I’m not clever enough to fully understand how it works but I do know it works well.
The bike’s easy-to-remove panniers (makes getting to that suspension adjuster relatively pain-free) are just large enough to hold a Kriega R20 backpack. Compartments in the fairing are large enough to hold a phone and wallet or a small bottle of water. Or two chipmunks.
The 6.5-inch touchscreen display delivers a wealth of information, and the infotainment system of which it is part offers connectivity options up the wazoo, including USB hookup, AM/FM/SiriusXM radio, Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio, and GPS. I’ve always felt dubiously toward the idea of stereos on motorcycles, but I have to admit that being able to blare Metallica as I rolled through Tacoma offered a certain joie de vivre.
The two too-tiny buttons to scroll through all these options are located on each handlebar - one on the right, one on the left. The buttons are less than intuitive and I found it mildly infuriating that both buttons are sometimes required to perform a single function, e.g. using the radio.
I don’t understand the point of having the buttons spread across both ‘bars. I guess that’s just a Harley thing, similar to the company’s strange insistence upon putting the indicator switches on each ‘bar. The end result is your right thumb ends up having to do a lot of work while the rest of your right hand tries to keep the throttle steady.
To give Harley-Davidson credit, though, its handlebar switches are better integrated with the look of the bike than similar switches found on competing Indian and Victory motorcycles. And unlike Indian/Victory, Harley is intelligent enough to put the cruise control switch on the left side.
Like every Harley-Davidson (save the Street 500/750), the Road Glide Special is one of the best put together motorcycles you’re going to find. Harley has its fair share of haters (James accused me of being one when we first met) but I’ve found very few people who will criticize the fit and finish of its vehicles. There are no flimsy parts, no switches or compartment doors that make you think: “Well, that’ll break before next spring.”
Paint, as you would expect, is rich and deep. To the extent that there is a certain irony in the fact so many Harley owners are meticulous in their cleaning regimen. As with its engine, the Road Glide Special’s paint is not challenged by rain.
Every part of the bike feels solid and robust. And the experience of watching one of my fellow journalists drop an Ultra Limited, yet not finding a single scratch afterward, suggests there is truth to that feeling of robustness. No, you can’t win the Dakar on this thing, but I have no trouble believing it will provide many happy journeys to South Dakota and back.
As an avowed fan of Indian and someone who’s been accused on various occasions of having a beef with Harley there is a very tiny, tiny part of my soul that feels I’m wussing out when I tell you that the Road Glide Special is a good motorcycle.
The hate-everything rebel teenager in me wants to lock onto the same old things that critics always lock onto - weight, low horsepower, the fact a modern bike looks the same from 100 feet away as one from two decades ago - but the truth is that, looked at through honest and fair eyes, those are tired tropes that are irrelevant to the context. In other words, unless you personally refuse to accept it as such, the Road Glide Special really is a good motorcycle.
Is it $21,000 of good? Well, if you’ve got $21,000 - yeah, maybe. It is a solid, comfortable, well-equipped touring motorcycle that also happens to carry oodles more credibility with non-riders than any other brand. I mean, can you imagine pick-up trucks pulling over and waving by a group of Yamaha FJR1300 riders? Can you imagine children jumping and cheering at the site of a passing Honda Africa Twin?
The 2017 Road Glide Special is a Harley-Davidson that I feel doesn’t need to be “fixed” right away. You can add a better screen and a passenger-friendly seat if/when more money comes along. But you don’t have to immediately invest in products that sound like sex toys (e.g., Screamin’ Eagle Heavy Breather) just to get a decent bike. It’s good out of the box.
It is a bike that is not challenged by rain, and it may challenge your perception of what a Harley-Davidson can be.
Name: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Slender
Photography by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles