When HD offered to loan me the most over the top bike they produce, I took one look at it and decided it was too much motorcycle for little ol’ me.
Not that it was too much for me to manage y’understand, it’s just that I figured that any machine that comes with an armchair on the back, demands to be shared. I put the word out that the pillion was up for grabs and a friend of a friend, affectionately known as TGB (Thegirlybiker) was first to claim it.
Having stated that the ‘Glide wouldn’t be too much for me, I have to admit to feeling genuine trepidation when I first saw it close up in all its immense glory and manoeuvring it in the car park behind Warr’s glossy Kings Road showroom did nothing to ease my disquiet. However by the time I’d negotiated my way onto the trendy main thoroughfare and across London via Knightsbridge, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, with everything they had to offer by way of dense, bad tempered and aggressive traffic, I was confident I could manage the big beastie anywhere that had a reasonable strip of tarmac on offer.
Wales is my usual first choice when it comes to a well maintained twisty stretch of asphalt slicing through beautiful scenery, but as I said in issue 121, reporting on a glorious August ride to Machynlleth on my first ever Harley, “the Softail Custom isn’t really a B road blaster, there’s just much too much of it for the point, squirt, brake, scrape, accelerate, style they tend to encourage”. And if that was true of the comparatively lithe and narrow Softail, then the gargantuan Glide was likely to be every bit as unsuitable for the conditions as the caravans that clog those same roads in the summer months.
It was Rod Young’s comments about the “Ultra Huge Caravanesque Touring Behemoth Glide” after he attended the 2008 model launch that persuaded me to accept Harley’s generous offer. He wrote, “These bikes are just superb at what they do and I challenge anybody to ride one and not enjoy the experience. Wind up the stereo, set the cruise control, stand up on the seat and wave with both hands as you head down to Morocco for a cup of coffee.”
Now old Mr Young’s a man who loves his motosycles, but as regular readers will be aware he thinks nothing of riding from London to Penzance for a pastie, so his idea of a fun ride shouldn’t necessarily be taken too literally by normal sane folk. Besides I don’t like coffee; but I understood where he was coming from so I was looking forward to accepting his challenge, albeit at a shorter range and more soberly seated.
While I had no intentions of riding to Africa, I decided that given the kind of mile munching the bike was designed for, a short continental jaunt was the least I could do. I’d been promising to take reader John Philip Evans up on his generous offer of a bed in Bretagne, ever since the spring of 2006; and I’d been reliably informed that there were some impressive standing stones near Carnac, which sounded perfect for the “we’re all megaliths together” cover I had in mind.
We only had a few days, so I checked out Brittany Ferries’ routes and timetables and opted for a couple of night crossings. We’d sail out on the 22.00hr Plymouth to Roscoff ferry on the Sunday and return on the 23.30hr from Caen to Portsmouth the following Wednesday; and with cabins booked both ways it meant we could sleep through the crossings and arrive at our destinations refreshed.
Google maps wanted to send me straight down the M4 before hanging a left onto the M5 and although I usually avoid motorways like the plague on a bike, the Electra Glide was so unlike anything I’d ever ridden before, I was planning to follow the rather humdrum advice of the big map in the sky. However, en route to picking TBG up in Kingston upon Thames, I realised that I’d have to ride right past the M3 on my way to the M4, which seemed even more ridiculous than travelling all that way west before turning south. Besides we were planning to have dinner with my friend John in Plymouth, which left plenty of leeway so I decided to ditch plan A and follow the more natural south westerly route.
We refuelled at Amesbury and as I rolled west with Stonehenge on my right and Tom Petty’s “Refugee” creating a beautiful wall of sound in front of me, I congratulated myself on going with my usual instinct and taking the A road. OK the Harley might have felt like it was the size and weight of a car in London traffic, but on the delightfully rolling A303 it was unmistakably a motorbike, and a bike that followed the gentle curves and undulations of the tarmac with a reassuring rock steadiness.
It made short work of the miles and we soon found ourselves joining the last stretch of the M5, where roadworks complete with cameras threatened to slow us to a lower speed than we’d been maintaining on the two lane road we’d just left. Fortunately the cameras where of the forward facing average speed variety so as I was on a roll I decided to opt for a higher average speed and was delighted to discover that the Glide’s enormous presence meant that any of the light traffic that was sitting in the outside lane doing the prescribed 50, quickly moved over allowing us to sweep rapidly past.
After dinner it was a short hop to the ferry. As usual on bikes we were waved to the front, but as I rolled forward and found myself looking down 30 or 40ft of steep metal ramp liberally coated with drizzling rain, I have to admit that my bottle went and I asked TGB to dismount. It wasn’t that I thought her petite presence would affect the likelihood of my dropping the beast, I just didn’t want to have to worry about her when – as seemed inevitable at that moment – I did. Of course once I took a deep breath and fed the clutch in, the Electra glided down the ramp and across the wide expanse of shiny metal floor with ne’er a drama and we’d dropped our gear in the cabin and settled in the bar before the ferry had even finished loading with cars and trucks.
A couple of drinks later we were ready to turn in. I’m sure that if TGB had her fella with her, they’d have been happy to squeeze onto a single bunk and they wouldn’t have needed to change in the shower/toilet either but the bunk beds were perfect for our arrangement and surprisingly comfortable and the bathroom facilities, including the changing space, were perfectly adequate for the purpose.
I slept well and got up in time to stand on the deck and watch the rising sun splash orange paint across the strip of land between the indigo sea and the slate grey clouds. After coffee (for TGB), juice and croissants in Roscoff, we headed west on beautiful empty roads with TGB taking care of the navigation, which left me free to exist in the moment, soaking up the sights, and taking time out to reflect on the whole experience.
And what an experience it was. There I was on a fine day in mid November, I was rolling effortlessly along scenic well-paved roads that were lightly populated by bike friendly French peeps, breathing air that had blown in across a couple of thousand miles of ocean, I had an attractive young woman sitting inches behind me taking care of all the details, and I was riding over seventeen grand’s worth of kilometre crunching cruise machine! OK neither the bike nor the attractive young woman were mine, but the experience certainly was and I was revelling in it.
We rode to the lighthouse at Saint-Mathieu, which appeared on our map to be the most westerly point in Brittany, then turned east and had lunch in Brest before heading out on a fast duel carriageway (N165) towards Carnac. We managed to find a good enough twin room and then wandered around until we stumbled on a cafe that promised to furnish us with moules marinare et frites and fine beers – and gratifyingly they delivered on both counts.
In the morning we rode the short distance to the standing stones and got the cover shot before swinging north to meet up with John in Le Haut Corlay. Following his red beetle as he drove it rapidly along the back roads on the way to lunch, there was no mistaking that he was an ex-police motorcyclist and advanced motorist and I had to hustle the Harley to keep up. Coincidentally we’d arrived on the day that John’s BCFR (Bike Club France) group had their monthly meeting in a pub about 45 minutes or so away. As John predicted there weren’t many bikes there (i.e. just the one – we’d travelled by car too), but it was interesting to spend an evening with a bunch of ex-pat bikers who, refreshingly, normally insist on only speaking French (they only made an exception on this occasion as a concession to my ignorance!) and were enormously enthusiastic about the motorcycle friendly Gallic culture.
The next day John treated TGB to a ride on something a little more lithe, when she joined him on the back of his Deauville for our guided ride to the spectacular pink granite Côte Rosé. She rejoined me on the hog after a coffee break by the quayside in Paimpol and we parted company with John at Saint-Brieuc, when he headed home and we struck out to the east and our late night ferry.
TGB was a bit worried about missing the boat because she absolutely had to be at work the following morning, so with the sun sinking lower in my mirrors we chugged along the N road at a steady 125km/h. I managed to reassure her that we did have time for a short detour to visit Le-Mont-Saint-Michel and grab some spectacular shots before the sun turned in for the night.
Back on course we powered on and ended up in the ferry port all checked in and ready to go with hours to spare. That was another new experience for me, because in the past whenever I’ve been heading back to a channel port, I’ve always found myself, whether alone or riding with a group, having to ride faster and faster, as it began to look increasingly unlikely that I’d make it, only to race across the dockyard moments before they wound the ramp up.
The four-birth cabin we shared on the luxurious Mont St Michel was very posh; and we enjoyed another good kip until the tannoy system gently stirred us as the big boat made its way up the long channel into Pompey harbour. TGB’s boyfriend Andy had missed her so much that he was there to meet her as we rolled off the ferry at 7am! Now that’s what I call true love!
They headed off towards London on his TDM, while I went and found myself some breakfast and reflected on Rod’s challenge – and damn him if he wasn’t right!
The Pillion Position
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re walking around and you have this really uneasy feeling that everyone’s looking at you; then all of a sudden you realise you’re naked? As a biker being on the back of an Electra Glide for 4 days around Northern France, you sort of develop the same feeling that everyone is paying just a little too much attention to you for comfort.
There’s certainly very little chance of a SMIDSY (Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You) on the Glide – there’s more chance that people will just lose concentration as they gawp at the sheer size of the American leviathan and run into you. It’s a vehicular monolith; a statement vehicle which says look at me; it’s the Elvis of the bike world, (and we’re talking the burger-wolfing gold-draped Elvis of his later days here); it is everything that is excessive about America and to be around it makes you realise why the world is fascinated by America. You cannot help but stare in a mixture of wonder and disbelief at the brashness of it all.
As the Electra Glide pulled up outside my apartment on a freezing cold and wet late-autumn morning, I let out an involuntary laugh at the improbable sight of Dave nestled somewhere in the middle of something that is 2.5m long, and causing traffic to back up because it’s taking up so much of the road when parked up. And that’s seems to be a lot of people’s reactions. As a biker in London, you get used to the disdain of your fellow motorist, but the ‘Glide isn’t a motorbike… it’s much, much more than that. It seems to be an emotional prompt that makes children point and stare, dogs bark, bikers slow down to take a look as they pass, and cars to actually let you out in traffic, just so they can sit behind and take a gander.
Despite its length, in practice the ‘Glide is surprisingly snug for a pillion. You don’t sit ON this bike, you sit IN it, and because of that, and the fact that the pillion seat has a backrest and speakers aimed at your kidneys, there’s not a lot of room to move about – you’re sort of sat in a chair, and there you sit. That’s all there is to it. You don’t move with the bike at all. It’s a strangely disconnected experience for an experienced pillion and bears more in common with being a passenger in a car than on a bike.
Also despite a wheelbase length that would make your average family car jealous, it came as big surprise just how close together the rider and pillion are obliged to sit. It’s a little as if the pillion is almost secondary to the cavernous top box and panniers, you seem to be shoe-horned somewhat so that the rider is rather intimately located between the pillion’s legs and the pillion’s legs are forced outward a la stirrups! I would imagine that a male pillion of any larger physical size would have some serious proximity issues with the ‘Glide. Of course, what this also means is that as a pillion, pretty much all you can see forwards is the back of the rider’s head.
After a restful overnight ferry ride from Plymouth to Roscoff, we struck off on a tour of Brest and started to rack up the miles on Milwaukee’s Monsterbike. The roads were fabulous, and the traffic was light, and what is an immovable object at low-speed was actually surprisingly smooth and capable, both at good pace on the A-roads as well as in the twisties. This is not a bike built for throwing about at speed however; an idea reinforced as your hear the footplates scrape when you attempt to take a roundabout at anything above pedestrian pace. To wring the neck of this thing would be to miss the point though. It’s a sightseeing bike. Perhaps the point that the pillion can’t see forward is a good one – it forces you to take in the surroundings and slow down a bit. On a couple of occasions, I’ll admit though, it slowed and got just a little too comfy so that I felt the head lolling and l was soon asleep. I’m reticent to say that this was a compliment to the Harley’s comfort and smooth ride, but I have a bit of a feeling that at times it was just a bit too much of a coach-trip on the back of the ‘Glide to keep me awake.
We stopped frequently on the trip for Les Cafés, Le Gasole et Les PeePees. Despite stopping in a range of places from towns to villages to beachfronts, the Harley always managed to make an exhibition of herself and we’d come back to a gaggle of locals or visitors surrounding her and scratching their heads or taking photos. I lost count of the number of times my pigeon French and lack of ability to ‘talk bike’ let me down in the early stages of some enthusiastic questioning. I took it upon myself to become trip photographer and map-reader as a way of looking busy and keeping interested. Indeed it’s probably worth saying that many of the shots I took were taken from the back of the bike and most involved me standing up/leaning out and generally clambering over the back of the bike, which seemed to do little to disrupt the ride and indeed from where I was sitting/perching it felt stable at all times.
Experiencing the ‘Glide as a tourer is somewhat of a 5-star experience. Harley have added some superb touches to the bike to make life more comfortable. My personal favourite were the inner bags for the panniers; perfectly shaped so that they fitted snugly, they meant that there was no offloading of contents from bags into the topbox, or forcing of undies into crevices at the bottom of the panniers. It was simply a matter of opening the case, taking out the bag and walking into the hotel. Brilliant.
The stereo was neat too. It gets louder as you accelerate, and is impressively loud enough to turn heads in towns when the standard cans don’t do their job of alerting the locals. On a bike that was built to be seen, the choice of our esteemed editor to play a collection of 80s camp anthems was the ideal soundtrack to the arrival of an equally camp looking machine.
And there I think I’ve hit on the point of the Electra Glide. It’s a bike to be seen on, and a bike to see things on. You’re forced from town-mode into touring mode in an instant, and my paranoia about everyone staring was probably because it was such a fast transition for me. From invisibility on my Bandit to sticking out like a sore-thumb and being the centre of attention was an odd feeling, but not a bad experience. Perhaps if I’d grown into the Harley, and not had such a short-sharp shock we would have developed a happier relationship.
The best thing about the ‘Glide and all those people staring though… there’s absolutely no way your bum can look big on it!
A casual leg-over in the cold
(Yet another opinion)
I first came across this flagship when the editor was showing it off to a group of ladies of a certain age. He was letting them take turns sitting on it (ooh-err misses).
Then several days later he gave me a call, “Do you want a go on the bike and oh, take it back to Warrs the Harley dealer… coz it’s cold?” Indeed Mr Frost had visited and it had turned a tad nippy. It occurred to me that the editor had become the perfect candidate to be a Harley owner.
Anyway, never wanting to turn a good gig down, I readily jumped at the offer.
Setting out across sarf Lunon through the evening rush hour was frustrating work. I made the mistake of taking my usual route that involves small roads, lots of ‘em, and five thousand speed bumps, which was not the ideal environment for this particular vehicle.
Having reached home I sat down with a glass of something reviving and thought about the Harley. In my world, probably unfairly, most HDs and certainly the cruiser variety are regarded as a source of fun and at times derision. I say that with a small degree of shame (only a small degree mind you). This machine however is 96 cubic inches. That’s 1600cc in new money and it costs a smidge over £1000 per 100cc. This is a bike that’s built and priced to be taken seriously. So if I was going to do it any justice I would have to take on roads that were more appropriate than inner city speed hump raceways.
The next morning was as crisp and frosty as the one before. It was time to put the liners back in the jacket and trousers, don thicker socks and gloves and head towards the countryside before the bike needed to be back at the dealers. I had a couple of hours. First port of call was down the A2 to Dartford. I was giving the Boy Biker a ride to college, it was a little treat for him to be able to sit back in an armchair and listen to the stereo. From there I headed down some diddlee roads ending up the other side of Sevenoaks. I still had plenty of time to find some bigger roads to go a bit quicker before getting the bike back to Warrs in Mottingham, in deepest southern suburbia. Only thing was the bike was supposed to go back to their other shop in Kings Road, Chelsea. Doh! So a mad(ish) dash ensued to get the bike across town.
So what do I think now? Is it just an expensive joke?
It is extremely comfortable. It is pretty damn smooth. It can get a shift on. It does have a good stereo.
Despite being keen and able to accelerate up and beyond 100 the bike felt a little unsteady at a constant high speed. Front end a little light? If anything could be light on this Harley! Also my head was buffeted around, which caused me to hide behind the screen.
It seemed to be in its element around 70mph, which equates to 3000rpm in top. Reminded me of the power of a diesel, a bloody good diesel mind. I was surprised how quickly it could be hustled through town till the traffic became too tight to find a path through.
All in all it’s a lot of bike that costs an awful lot of money, but if you are not in a hurry and have a big garage, oh and loads of spare cash sloshing around in an off-shore account, this could be bike and image for you.
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