Into the Deep End
I was planning to ease back into the North American motorcycle scene with a project focusing on 250 cc motorcycles. However, due to delays in getting our Suzuki 250 testers, I inexplicably found myself en route to pick up a super-expensive, 838 lb. 2013 Harley Davidson CVO Road King instead.
This, as it turned out, would be my first ride of the season and my inaugural ride on board a bike larger than 150 ccs, after spending more than half a decade in South Asia. Yikes!
Be A MAN!
After getting the complete run-down on the Road King at Deeley Harley Davidson HQ, I managed to excuse our enthusiastic media rep Maria and her colleagues by telling them I had to sort a few things before hitting the road.
In truth I needed the space to mentally prepare to ride the seemingly massive bike out of their parking lot without dumping it in the first corner in front of an audience.
Cautiously, I fired the bike up, hoisted it off its side stand, and hobbled carefully onto the roadway.
A successful exit increased my confidence to the point where I could actually digest a few things about my new ride. To begin with, it’s clear that this is a bike unapologetically designed for large North American men.
The chrome-trimmed handgrips are extra-thick and made for XL hands. Even though the clutch is hydraulic, the size of clutch assembly required to handle the bike’s 118 ft. lbs. of torque demands a manly pull on the oversized chrome-drenched clutch lever. And that lever, my friend, is not one of those wimpy Euro/Japanese span-adjustable numbers.
Thankfully for me, I am a large North American man with requisite-sized appendages to make the ride possible.
Shifting the bike with the heel/toe shifter provides a very positive clunk and gives you the distinct feel of moving some seriously heavy metal in the gearbox.
Due to the heavy clutch, when coming to my first stop sign I overestimated how much pull would be required on the equally large, equally non-adjustable front brake lever – the front end dove, the ABS kicked in, and the King and I came to a rather abrupt, inelegant halt.
The King, equipped with Brembo dual, four-pot front calipers, takes a big initial bite into the 300 mm rotors with fairly minimal lever effort. So it seems that one has to be a strong AND sensitive man to ride this Harley…
You don’t really have to possess much sensitivity to notice that the dual lumps below you have the signature Harley rumble and shake when idling. If you do have some sensitivity though, you’ll notice that this vibration is translated to your right calf via the free-breathing air cleaner cover. The vibes smooth out however, as the RPM increases.
Being the semi-sensitive type, I did also notice a very slight hesitation as I rolled the throttle on; it’s a drive-by-wire system so there is likely a miniscule lag with the system sensors. It’s very subtle and doesn’t affect the riding experience much, other than to note that it’s there.
“Hmmmh, what’s that burnt rubber smell?”…
Oh, that’s my boot melting on the exhaust – feet forward Mr. Seck, this is not the standard riding position you are used to!
I Am The Road King
The Road King is a lot of chrome and steel to be hauling around the city. It’s fine once you are rolling, but when you mistakenly go down a few dead end streets in Toronto’s Cabbagetown and have to turn the bike around with a passenger on board, it’s definitely a workout.
I happily discovered that the heavy clutch action can be alleviated somewhat by leaving the bike in second gear for most city riding and using the buckets of torque the 110 cubic inch motor produces to pull the bike along. The King lugs this gear from a standstill as if a first wasn’t really necessary, and in this gear the motor can be wound up to 100 km/h before you hit the rev limiter.
In a way, the Harley can be seen as a semi-automatic in city traffic.
Getting caught in rush hour traffic highlights the fact that you are sitting on a big air-cooled motor; it starts to get a tad hot. To help counteract this problem, Harley integrated a means of shutting off the rear cylinder at idle and basically turning it into an air pump, making the motor a 55 cubic inch single.
You do this by rotating the throttle in the opposite direction when you are idling at a stop and hold it for a second or two until the cruise control light comes on. I tried this and it seemed to help a bit, along with making the idle slightly more lumpy, which is a good thing in the Harley world.
Of course the cylinder kicks back into action as soon as you roll on the throttle again, or you can disable this system the same way you put it on.
The switchgear takes a little getting used to, but I found the self-canceling signals quite handy. The horn placement I had to think about until the end though, as it is located above the left signal switch and too many times I gave a distracted cage commuter a not-so-effective left turn signal warning – instead of a good blast of the healthy Harley horn.
You don’t have worry about parking the bike downtown at night as it has an elaborate alarm system built in, controlled in conjunction with the key fob. Having this fob means you don’t really have a key, as such, and if you and your fob wander more than a few meters from the bike, the alarm will sense this and engage itself, without the need to lock the ignition. No one will be able to start the bike and, if they try, the alarm will sound.
Isn’t technology wonderful? Yes, until it stops working…
After stopping downtown to pick up some art supplies for my wife Fatima, we were taken aback when the alarm sounded as I tried to start the bike. After mucking around trying to lock and then unlock the ignition, I threw in the towel and called Deeley Harley Davidson.
They explained that sometimes the wireless signal between the fob and the alarm gets fecked up downtown and a system override is in order. This involves a bit of a dance with the turn signal switches in order to punch in a deactivation code. This is all slightly embarrassing as a crowd gathers around you, thinking you are trying to steal the expensive looking motorcycle …
In the end however, the badge does not read “City King” or “Urban King”, it says “Road King”, and that is where the true test would begin.
Studying the Road King, with its smallish 33-litre side cases and comfy-looking seats, day trips and shorter multi-day trips are what Harley seems to have in mind. So Fatima and I planned a three-day trip to visit friends in Ottawa and explore the nation’s capitol.
With rain gear packed in one bag we managed to squeeze some extra underwear, t-shirts, and socks in the other, along with our bathroom kit and digital bits. Everything was packed in plastic bags as the gang at Deeley informed me the bags are not waterproof (and indeed, they weren’t).
There are speakers mounted in the top of each hard bag, and two more in the shrouds in the front of the bike. The CVO Road King is equipped with a very loud sound system, and we even got the “Harley Classic Rock iPod Collection” with the bike.
The iPod mounts in a pouch at the top of one of the bags and it’s neatly controlled by handlebar switchgear. Personally, we don’t get the blaring-the-stereo-so-that-you-can-hear-it-in-your-helmet-with-earplugs-installed thing, but apparently there’s a market for this feature.
The King is definitely in a happy place on the open road; at 120 km/h in 6th gear it revs at less than 3,000rpm, and there is always loads of power on tap if some passing needs to be done. Add to this a well-implemented cruise control and highway riding is very pleasant indeed.
Keeping a moderate pace, we found the King managing a class-average 45.7 mpig, but it requires premium fuel.
The suspension offers a comfortable ride; only the nastiest bumps will register an “ouch”. This is amazing, considering the rear suspension is a twin shock arrangement with only 2” of travel, though the front has a more generous 4.6”.
Rider and passenger accommodations are plush and the rider can open vents in the leg shrouds and windscreen to cool off, when required. The passenger also benefits from a minimalist backrest that’s removable in seconds without tools. Fatima would have preferred a slightly bigger backrest for supreme comfort, but that is where the Electra Glides come in.
The windscreen is beautifully styled to match the bike and can be removed in seconds, like the backrest. As far as functionality goes, it seems like Harley may have wind tunnel tested it to encourage riders to keep the bike below 100 km/h, as that is when some buffeting set in for me. I tried to slouch my 6’ 2” structure down a bit, but it didn’t help much. Really though, what real man would use a screen anyway?
En route to Ottawa, we discovered the best way to enjoy the Road King was to make stops every hour and half to stretch and ease our backsides. The seats are supremely comfortable when you first sit on them but without an Airhawk seat like the one that Zac used for his Switchback trip in the US, 90 minutes is the magic number. The feet forward riding position is also a factor here, as it puts additional strain on the rider’s lower back.
These frequent stops were great though, as we were able to take in at all the interesting places en route and explore and snack along the way.
So Are You Going To Put The Hammer Down, Or What?
The King sports the MoCo’s Custom Vehicle Operations “Explosive Power”, 110 cubic inch power plant. Just so you don’t think Mr. Seck has gone totally soft, I will confess to exploring this area a bit.
First off, I was impressed by the tach’s indicated 7,500 RPM redline – noteworthy for an air-cooled, push rod twin. I remember Buells blowing up when you pushed them that hard for too long at the racetrack.
Interestingly however, when I wound ‘er up, the bike was bouncing off the rev limiter at a significantly lower 6,000 RPM. Like all Harleys and older Buells, it feels like there is more to offer beyond that point and indeed, with some Harley Screaming Eagle software, you’ll be able to unleash the beast further toward the indicated redline. This is for the racetrack of course and naturally you’ll void your warranty in the process.
Hammering through the gears is not a problem and I never missed a shift, but you would never call the box slick. One point of amusement was the gear indicator on the instrument cluster. When rowing quickly though the box, it would get confused and simply refuse to state what gear it was in, as if to say, “I can’t keep up, and I’m not going to get it wrong, so why bother?” When I arrived in top gear however, it proudly displayed the big “6”, without hesitation.
The CVO King is really not about chasing sport bikes though. It’s about having an abundance of power that can be wielded at any time (think old school king, or contemporary mega corporation). It’s a cruiser after all and that’s where its happy place is. Truth be told, I never dragged the floorboards on our Ottawa trip; just tipping the ultra-expensive bike smoothly into the corners, where it held a very clean line, was enough to give my adrenal gland a gentle squeeze, and put a smile on my face.
You can’t review a Harley-Davidson without talking about the look. It’s one of the biggest reasons people buy a Harley. The classic lines of the King are meticulously executed. From every angle, you can see the Harley design team has stressed to get the proportions just right – proportions based on over 100 years of tradition at the Motor Company.
This pursuit of aesthetics sometimes sees form superseding function. For instance, I found the instrument cluster not well placed for a quick read, and its heavy chroming reflected the sun under my jet helmet sun visor at times. Really though, what kind tool wears a jet helmet on a Harley anyway?…
One of the things I love about this bike is the decided lack of faux. Unlike many of their competitors, there are no plastic bits applied to make the design flow or hide the plumbing and rad. The fins on the air-cooled jugs of the Harley are actually required, as opposed to a styling exercise to make a water-cooled engine look more Harleyesque… Harley Davidson, after all, is the original and they are dedicated to keeping it real.
Additionally, the bike exudes quality in every detail. The paint is deep and rich, the chrome plating is second to none, and all the wiring is well-hidden.
I had a unique aesthetic experience on board this Harley in some beautiful farmland between Perth and Richmond, Ontario. There was nothing around to indicate what decade we were in, and with the gorgeous retro controls and gauges, I felt I had been transported back at least fifty years. Truly, it must be this time warping ability that many buy into.
But the buy-in is high. The CVO King starts at a bank-account draining $34,069 before tax, freight, and set up. Yes, the King will have good resale value, and its fuel injection, hydraulic lifters, and belt drive mean low maintenance – 8000 km service intervals after the first service. Plus, you get a two-year unlimited mileage warranty.
Really though, the only way I can wrap my head around the pricing is to put a Road King purchase in the category of buying a piece of artwork and, in many respects, it is.
The potential trouble for Harley though is that they may risk running out of an audience for this kind of artwork. The King drew much appreciation in our travels, but I noted that a great deal of this was from men in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, many of whom I could never see being able to shift the substantial Harley off its side stand. I guess that’s why Harley now makes a trike.
From my perspective, it’s too bad that the Motor Company is so constrained by its tradition that it seems impossible for them to break out of it. There’s obviously a lot of talent in their stables and it would be interesting to see what it could do if it was released in a new direction.
Buell is gone now, so there is room for something new. Or perhaps Harley will simply be content to let likes of Brammo, Zero, and Motus handle the innovation side of the American motorcycle industry, and hope that their old school aesthetic continues to spread into the younger generations?
What the future holds is anybody’s guess, but what I do know is that my days spent with the King helped me understand more of what the Harley thing is all about.
Enjoy the ride!
Cheers, Mr. Seck
Many thanks to the extremely helpful and friendly staff at Deeley Harley Davidson for making this test possible.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
|Bike||Harley-Davidson CVO Road King|
|Engine type||Air-cooled V-twin|
|Tank Capacity||22.7 litres|
|Tires, front||130/60B19 61H|
|Tires, rear||180/55B18 80H|
|Brakes, front||four-piston, fixed caliper|
|Brakes, rear||four-piston, fixed caliper|
|Seat height||605 mm|
|Wet weight*||380 kg|
|Colours||Black, blue, red|
|Warranty||Two-year unlimited mileage|