Hanging with Harley-Davidson, Croatian Style!

I was fortunate to crack an invite to the Harley-Davidson “Ride, Ride, Slide” World Media Event hosted in the fascinating country of Croatia from the 29th of April to the 2nd of May. Harley took a slightly different approach to this event in that rather than just plonk us on bikes for a blast through the countryside, they allowed us to use the bikes as owners typically would. To me, this makes total sense, especially for an iconic brand like Harley-Davidson. To own a Harley is not just about getting a bike. It is much, much more than that. You are joining a universal brotherhood, and sisterhood, for that matter, that has grown steadily over 115 years! Pick up a copy of HOG magazine, a publication circulated amongst the Harley Owners Group worldwide. What you realise is that the Harley lifestyle, once the preserve of American Harley riders, is now a global phenomenon. There is hardly a place on planet earth that has not, at some point, reverberated to the distinctive rumble of a big Harley V-Twin engine. What an incredible legacy to Bill Harley and William Davidson, whose passion and enthusiasm gave birth to this legendary brand. Some motorcyclists make the error of comparing Harleys with other brands based on function. To do this is to show that you just don’t get it. Harley-Davidson, if they stay true to what has made them what they are, cannot be compared to any other motorcycle. They have, with very few exceptions, stayed with their calling to build the Great American Freedom Machine.

Whilst the essential recipe has remained the same, the bikes have been continually upgraded as they have evolved through Knucklehead, Shovelhead, Panhead, and Evo to name but a few engine derivatives. Each model has managed to gain an almost fanatical following, which is not often, if ever, emulated to the same extent, or so consistently, by other brands. On day one of our Croatian stay we got to ride two of Harley’s latest tourers; the Road Glide, and the Street Glide, both part of Harley’s Softail range. Both these Glides are powered by the powerful, torquey and refined Milwaukee – Eight 107 cubic inch engines. The single biggest difference is that the Street has a handlebar mounted fairing, while the Road has it’s fairing frame mounted. Both variants offer good wind and weather protection, but have distinctly different riding characteristics.

Let me not get ahead of myself. The heart of any motorcycle is it’s motor. The 107 cube Milwaukee Eight mill in these bikes is a gem. For a big capacity V-Twin it is uncannily smooth and refined. A muted velvety rumble makes it’s present felt in a lovely way as it punts you down the road. The torque is available right out of the basement, so there is no need to rev these bikes. The power characteristics are akin to a really good diesel motor, where the response is instant and you short shift on a creamy wave of torque into top gear, [6th], and then just aptly Glide along. The transmission is a trifle clunky, but positive. Consistent with the general “hewn from billet” feel of these bikes. Overtaking is an effortless exercise. Roll the throttle open and the bike lunges past. No sweat!

It is in how they handle that subtle differences between the Road and Street emerge. Firstly, I must tell you that I was pleasantly surprised by the extent of the ground clearance. It is only when you are going at virtual sport touring pace that any part of the hardware starts to drag on the road. This allows really pleasurable riding in the mountains. I expected the Street to be a tad heavier steering since it carries the weight of it’s fairing on the bars. In fact, the opposite is true. The Road, with it’s frame mounted fairing, steers slower, albeit with a wee bit more stability. When the pace hotted up, the Road was definitely my weapon of choice, whereas in the urban sprawl, I found the Street easier to manoeuvre. With their long wheelbase neither can be described as super agile, so U-turn’s and parking require a little planning and thought. I am sure that this is second nature to owners. Watching the Harley support crew move these bikes around proved this point. They tossed them around with an abandon born of a lot of practice. What did amaze me was how good the spring rates and damping is on the Glides. With there trademark low slung look, Harley do not have a lot of suspension travel to work with. What they do with the available travel is phenomenal. The soft tail rear suspension soaks up bumps and keeps things under control, whilst the upside down front forks match them perfectly. Kudos to the H-D suspension gurus.

All the Harleys that I have ever ridden are blessed with handlebars with a really natural bend. Everything just seems to fall to hand. These bikes are no exception. A bit like baby bear’s porridge. Just right! The same can be said for the seats. Harley seats tend to cup your butt. You don’t sit on them, but in them. This spreads your bodyweight over your whole tush resulting in hours before the dreaded “numb bum” sets in. Despite being prone to a bit of lower back ache, probably the side product of capsizing too many times over many years of riding, the seating position on the Glides caused no woes. These are really perfect bikes for the long haul. Point them in the right direction, engage the cruise control, choose your music of choice on the comprehensive infotainment system, settle in and enjoy the ride.

The muted rumble of the dual balance shaft big twin is really soothing. You get the feeling that it is totally under stressed and will keep on running for eternity. The story goes, and yes, it may just be an urban legend, that the first V-Twin motorcycle that The Motor Company ever built ran over 100,000 miles without major attention to the motor. Every aspect of these big Harleys feels anvil solid with beautiful finishes everywhere. The quality of the paintwork is beyond reproach. The black and candy apple red being two of my personal favourites. That said, the matt black looks amazing as well. Speaking of looks, you may realize that I have not attempted to describe these bikes. That is quite simply because all the world knows what a Harley-Davidson motorcycle looks like. You can ask the most random people and they will kind of describe the look. A bit like the motorcycle equivalent of the Coke logo. Part of Harley’s allure is their familiar image.

So it was that we crossed the Croatian countryside in lovely sunshine, traversing farmlands and rolling our muted Harley thunder through quant villages of stone built houses with red tiled roofs. Here and there houses stand vacant, in varying stages of disrepair. I found myself wondering if this was a consequence of the conflict that gripped this now peaceful land over twenty years ago, or whether it is the muted world economy which is driving folk from the countryside to the cities in search of employment. My reverie was interrupted by a lunch stop at a lovely old sprawling country restaurant. Croatian food is hearty wholesome fare. Roast meat, potatoes and the like. With the inner man fortified we swept across the inland plateau and back to the coast, stopping enroute for a coffee at a hotel with a magnificent elevated view over the Adriatic. Exploring the countryside on a big touring Harley is indeed a wonderful experience. Touring Harley style has never been so good. The relaxed demeanour of these big Glides chills you out as the k’s roll effortlessly by. Come up behind slower traffic and you simply roll it on and the Milwaukee-Eight motor responds instantly, no sweat. After a great days touring we negotiated late afternoon traffic back to our hotel. We watched the setting sun paint a silver swathe across the Adriatic as we sipped on a cold one and shared tales of a good days riding.

Our second day was Sportie day. The Motor Company introduced us to two new Sportster derivatives. At our ride briefing, Nik Ellwood, Harley’s International PR boss man reminded us that the first Sportsters rolled out of the Milwaukee factory way back in 1957. What other motorcycle manufacturer can offer a model that has been around for the last 61 years? This is a legacy of a bike company that has been building bikes for 115 years without interruption. How amazing is that? The two new Sportsters being offered are the Forty-Eight Special and the Iron 1200. Both bikes run the familiar 1200 Evo motor. The 48 has the typical fat 16 inch wheels which give them a really aggressive look, especially when mounted on black mag wheels. The Special has slightly high rise bars with forward control foot pegs. This gives the bike a comfortable riding position. I expected the higher bars to put more strain on the lower back due to the more upright riding position. Happily this is not so. You ride with a relaxed arm posture which gives good leverage without the feeling that you are hanging on the bars. The seat has a lip at the back giving support to your tail, allowing you to keep your back straight rather than doing a “hunch back of Notre Dame impersonation”.

We rode the Sporties in typical fashion, cruising the Croatian coastline, stopping every now and then to sip on a coffee and take in the sights.

At a point we turned inland, through spectacular “Game of Thrones” scenery. Sweeping mountain roads allowed us to put the handling to the test. The 48 has serious fork stanchions and a fork brace. Back shocks are progressively sprung with decent damping. Predictably the bike is stable and confidence inspiring. You don’t have to be too banzai before you start dragging the pegs, and then, on right hand bends, the pipes start to drag too. Running a rumbling Harley pace line, we swept down the mountain to our lunch stop in a really quaint Croatian village. We dined at a restaurant that has been in the same family for over 100 years. The Croats are friendly and the service is exceptional. Nothing is too much trouble. Nutella pancakes and coffee put the seal on yet another yummy meal.

The other Sportster model we rode was the Iron 1200. The big difference is a larger diameter 19 inch front wheel. The forks are more spindly, and have lost the hefty fork brace on the 48. The bars are slightly higher too. Mounted around the headlight is a neat handlebar mounted cowling cum fairing. My personal opinion is that the cowling would have looked more at home on the Sportster Roadster with it’s Café Racer styling. The foot pegs have also been moved back to a mid mount. The 48 Special, for me, has a clearer idea of what it wants to be than the Iron. I found the riding position and overall stability of the 48 significantly better. If you choose the styling of the Iron you must be prepared to sacrifice some riding function. “Different strokes for different folks”, as the saying goes.

We retraced our route, this time going down the mountain and back along the coast road. We stopped for photos at a view point overlooking the Adriatic. Stunning! The late afternoon traffic was such that we rode at a sedate pace back to our hotel. I moved the two Sportsters into a suitable position to take some photos. The bikes have paint jobs reminiscent of the AMF era in the 1970’s. For me, the colours and striping are fantastic! I would have a hell of a tough time choosing a favourite. Snapping away with the incredible Croatian scenery as a backdrop to the two handsome Sporties, I just savoured the moment.

A fun element to all our riding was some friendly rivalry between the South African journalists and some of our Indian counterparts. India is somewhat starved of big bikes, so whenever their journos get to throttle bikes with significant cc’s, it is game on! Enter Vijay Rossi and Vishnu Marquez. You will be pleased to hear that your SA journos, ably supported by Harley SA’s Aidan Johnson, who really knows how to peddle a Harley, gave a good account of themselves and kept the SA flag flying high.

Our final day in Croatia was a really fun one. We were bussed to a location just outside the city of Split, where The Motor Company got the local villagers to build a flat track race course. Fiendishly clever, the one end had two turns, creating a short or long oval. Whoever was in the lead on lap one would have to do the long oval, allowing the trailing rider to take a short cut. The result was close racing irrespective of ability. Huge fun was had by all, despite a few low speed get offs. To ensure that we would have some idea of flat track technique, Harley brought in two specialists to show us the way round. The one was the current leader, on a modified Harley Street Rod, of the European DTRA Hooligan Championship, Grant Martin. The other instructor was none other than World Superbike and MotoGP star, Reuben Xaus. Shootamonkey! These boys can ride!

Harley built a gaggle of flat trackers for this sort of event. Every one of the journos would have ordered one on the spot, given half a chance. Take note H-D! With steel shod left boots we were soon slip sliding our way around the oval. It would have required surgery to remove the grins. When the dust settled, literally, it was Leandro from Brazil, who came up trumps. If the truth be told, it was a one horse race. He absolutely smoked us mere mortals. Turns out he won a Brazilian Superbike championship a couple of years back, and still races motocross competitively.

Lunch was another high point. We were taken to a tiny hamlet, population 11, to a restaurant housed in a two hundred year old stone structure. Three foot thick walls, shutters and wooden beam ceiling. The walls were covered in local memorabilia. Swords, rifles, saddles, pistols, even a steel helmet with a bullet hole right through it. Certainly hope the owner wasn’t wearing it at the time! Platters of wholesome nosh had us feasting like kings. Reuben and Grant lunched with us, and we chatted like old bud’s. The motorcycling brotherhood is a wonderful and diverse thing indeed! Tired and content, we returned to our hotel for a farewell dinner on the terrace of our hotel. Swapping war stories, we cemented new friendships and put the cap on what was a truly wonderful experience.

A huge thanks to Aidan and Nik and the rest of the Harley team. These custodians of the Harley-Davidson legacy are passionate about what they do as well as the iconic brand that they represent. Behind the scenes, bikes were washed, moved around and prepared for the visiting journos. We were the last wave. For weeks on end these guys and girls served the likes of us selflessly. To all of them, a heartfelt thank you. The privilege of doing what we do never escapes me. I consider myself truly blessed!