I know nothing about motorbikes. But that’s a Harley Davidson, right?
Sure is. But don’t mistake Harley Davidson as being just a motorbike manufacturer. H-D is part of America’s cultural fabric and up there with iconic American imagery such as Bald Eagles, hot dogs and Walmart. But 2023 is a big year for the big hog builder as it’s celebrating its 120th birthday.
Happy Birthday! But what Harley is it?
The ‘Road Glide’. An iconic grand American touring bike that we’re pretty sure the Founding Fathers rode to sign the Constitution of the United States. Put simply, it’s a big, heavy, powerful mile-muncher with a monstrous V-twin engine slung below a squidgy seat and panniers on the back to carry your pants. It’s designed to be pointed at the horizon so you can endlessly pound the black top in search of a new frontier. But this particular Road Glide – the ST – is special. Why? Well, it’s a performance bagger.
What the hell is a performance bagger?
A hot rod Harley inspired by the awesome and increasingly popular King Of The Baggers (KOTB) race series. If you haven’t watched KOTB grab some snacks immediately, fire up the Tubes of You and prepare to fall down a deep, dark rabbit hole.
See, where you’re used to seeing pint-sized people race motorbikes that are sporty-looking, King of the Baggers pits a grid of race-prepped American V-twin cruisers against each other. They’re ridden by big-name riders who lean over at hilarious angles and bash their baggage against each other around some of the States’ most legendary tracks such as Laguna Seca. If there was a car equivalent, it’d be V8 MPV racing with F1 drivers. Sounds pretty neat, right?
Sounds amazing. But how’s that related to the ST?
Well, the Road Glide ST is inspired by Harley-Davidson’s Screamin’ Eagle race bikes. Just like how a Porsche 911 GT3 is inspired by its race car sibling, the ST has taken race look and feel and transported it into a consumer product. Compared to a standard Road Glide, the ST skews its positioning to favour performance rather than touring ability. Which may sound oxymoronic for a bike that looks like this, but trust me, it really works. Especially if you’re looking for an easy way to put a smile on your face.
It looks like it wants to rob me of my lunch money.
There’s no way of mistaking that this thing means business. And there’s a reason the Hell’s Angels favour Harleys rather than Honda Cubs. And this particular spec of ST (finished in the sort of black that can suck out your soul) looks sinister and pseudo satanic. And therefore brilliant. Especially with matte bronze accents that draw your eyes instantly to the 117ci Milwaukee-Eight.
The engine. It’s H-D’s largest narrow-angle V-Twin good for 105bhp and 127lb ft of torque from a car-like 1,923cc displacement. It’s a beast. But the intimation tactics increase when you notice the ‘Heavy Breather’ air intake attached to the side that’s the size of a German Shepherd’s head. As you may have noticed, the whole design of the bike has visual purpose and clout. Harley’s team have worked hard to slim elements to make the tourer appear less cumbersome on the eyes, hence the low-profile engine guard and tank console.
It’s also a single-seater as standard, stripping the passenger seat and footpegs, removing unnecessary weight and making it appear more svelte. The twin saddlebags are the same standard size as any other Road Glide but because of an increased ride height (15mm) the maximum lean angle has increased.
Lean angle? On a Harley! Are you mad?
Nope. This is a bike Harley wants you to push that bit harder and get on its sidewalls. In fact, physics encourages you to get there too.
But it looks like a nightmare to manoeuvre?
You’re not wrong. Unsurprisingly, it’s the weight of the thing that prangs you out first. To most people a heavy bike is generally seen as something like a BMW GS. But at 382kg, the Road Glide weighs half as much again as the BMW GS; meaning if you drop it, you’re going to need a rugby team to help you pick it up.
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Then there’s how you sit. With your arms stretched out far, bum back and legs forward, the first few miles are very interesting if you’ve never ridden a tourer before. A low seat gives you confidence as your feet are never far from the floor, but when you’re rolling, they’re in front of you on flat floorboards which are comfortable yet alien.
It doesn’t matter how many YouTube tutorials you’ve watched of US Traffic Cops twizzling Harley’s around cones like they’re on a BMX, low speed manoeuvrability is hard. And daunting. But it’s better than its Street Glide sibling. The Road and Street Glide ST are the same bike aside from the front fairing. The Street Glide has a traditional ‘batwing’ fairing mounted to the handlebars adding mass to the steering as you have to move the whole dash while turning. On the Road Glide the shark nose fairing and bars are separated which makes moving the 382kg beast that tiny bit easier.
So what’s it like to ride?
Theatrical. And as soon as you’re above 3mph, you can completely forget what I said in the last paragraph. It really is amazing how things change as soon as the Road Glide is rolling as the weight drops away and physics takes over (I’ll save you the lesson in angular momentum, gyroscopic precession and force equilibrium), completely changing its character and easing your prang.
The drama starts firing the Road Glide ST up, which is an event in itself: the starter motor whines, there’s a vast, deep intake of breath and then it rocks itself into life as the pistons start fighting and it’s topped off with an undeniably Harley, bassy bark from the exhaust. Kicking forward to select first engages a gear mechanism that has real heft and shifts with a mechanical clonk of a prison door closing – it’s not quick but is deeply satisfying to use.
With a roomy 64-inch wheelbase, low centre of gravity and an increased ride height, the ST requires less initial steering effort and input at corner entry. It’s not exactly sportsbike eager on turn in, but when it does it’s positive. As standard you get the same beefy non-adjustable 49mm Showa Dual Bending Valve fork as other Road and Street Glide variants, which keeps it remarkably flat and composed under braking and acceleration.
Out back there are new twin Showa shocks with a quick-adjust manual preload knob. If you want to, you can option the Screamin’ Eagle Öhlins Remote Reservoir Rear Shocks, nearly the same pieces of kit on Kyle and Travis Wyman’s KOTB race baggers. If we’re being honest, they should be standard as they’d set the bike further apart and really show its intention and race track DNA.
Massive amounts of torque and a load of weight mean the twin discs Brembos up front with four-piston calipers need a positive and lengthy pull on the brake lever to slow the thing down. The positioning and set up means you’ll use the rear brake a lot more than usual, but the brakes and ABS are linked which gives confidence if things get near the limit.
What’s it like to do big miles on?
Well, given it’s probably the closest thing in the bike world to a car, pretty simple. It has a full dashboard with analogue clocks for goodness sake. And a full car-like display. OK, the 5.25 full colour touch-sensitive (in biker gloves) TFT screen might look like an old Tom Tom, but it’s effective. And there are massive speakers to bang out your tunes at 70mph on the motorway.
On the left and right of the handlebars you have two deep, flip-up cubby holes handy for storing your phone, wallet, and keys. Plus, a USB charger. Behind the Robocop front lights (which eat bugs and keep you out the wind) there are two vent holes either side and one flap which gives much needed ventilation as that huge engine pumps out heat like a Victorian factory. It’s then absorbed into the frame and black paint then radiated upwards, keeping your undercarriage toastier than a Chinese buffet hot plate. In a shock to no one, it sits on the motorway with exemplary ease (it is a tourer after all) as you can set the cruise control and do 250 miles on a tank, covering big miles quickly.
How much is the Road Glide ST?
Prices start at £29,895… which is car money. It’ll also prevent a large majority of people from even considering it. But I encourage two-wheel enthusiast to have a go if you can, even if you’re not a Harley fan. If you’re wanting a bike to do big miles this might be a characterful left-field choice – fundamentally it’s an old muscle car on two wheels: brash, powerful and developed around a nuts engine which puts a smile on your face.
But it’s also far more entertaining, engaging and competent in the twisties than its weight, width and length would have you believe. It’s at home doing big miles thanks to an accommodating seat you can sit on for hours, decent ergonomics and a meaty engine. Put simply, Harley’s icon has been upgraded and modernised for the better. Here’s to the next 120 years.