By Surj Gish, with Max Klein
Photography by Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Surj Gish
Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. We had a hell of a time on various touring bikes in 2017, and since it’d been a while since we’d ridden one of Harley’s big boys, I asked Harley-Davidson for one of their touring models, in hopes of doing some kind of epic trip into and beyond the Sierra Nevada before snow closed the good roads, basically playing at being a classical American Touring Rider looking for fall leaves and exceptional ice cream or whatever those guys do, just as we played at being Geezers on Gold Wings (“Wang Dang Sweet Gold Wing” – September 2017).
It was not to be. Shortly after we dragged the gorgeously painted “Wicked Red and Twisted Cherry” Ultra out of the van here in Oakland, things got messy, Deepwater Horizon-style.
Lucky for me, I have Max ride all the press bikes first, in case some unsupervised intern gets distracted by double-tapping Instagram “models” and forgets to… I dunno… tighten all the fucking drain plugs.
Fifty miles or so into his testing, Max found himself riding an unlubricated motorcycle on very lubricated pavement. Someone had apparently left all three drain plugs loose post-maintenance: engine, transmission, and primary.The engine oil plug vibrated loose first and blew its goo all over the rear tire, brake, and a good long section of East Bay pavement.
Fortunately, the plug let loose in a residential area. Max’s wife Allie was on the back for the full king-and-queen touring experience, and had he been cooking through a high-speed turn, this could have been a very different article—like a memorial.
I loaded the Ultra back into the van and took it to Oakland H-D per Mother Motor’s directions, where I asked them to “make sure nothing else on this bike is gonna try to kill one of us. Please and thank you.”
Would Harley-Davidson’s PR folks prefer we not mention this maintenance fuck-up? Certainly. But this is the third Hog in a row to have problems while in our hands, and I don’t mean “problems” like we crashed them—kind of amazingly, in this last case. We’d be remiss in our duties as serious pseudo-journalists if we didn’t tell the whole story, and I tell you what, son: CityBike ain’t no fake news.
Also, this kind of shit makes jokes about leaking oil and bikes that spend more time on trailers than on the road too easy, similar to how, according to Lewis Black, the current administration has made comedians obsolete. It’s no fun for anyone.
Anyway, about the bike. Harley-Davidson calls the $26,399 Road Glide Ultra ($27,499 as tested) “the ultimate mile-eater for the rider who knows nothing’s out of bounds.” Stripped of that hyperbole, we’ll call it a seriously comfortable touring bike for doing big miles.
The Astro Glide uses the MoCo’s newest engine, the Milwaukee-Eight V-Twin (duh). Although the Wrecking Crew has mixed emotions about the M-8 as experienced in the new Softail line, it’s a good fit here: torquey, churning out 114 ft-lb at just 3,250 RPM, reasonably smooth, and generally likeable without being too noticeable. There’s nothing exceptional about it, it just works well in this application.
The touring capabilities are there, too: six gallons of fuel capacity; capacious, secure and easily accessible luggage; seriously comfortable seats for rider and passenger; full frontal wind protection; integrated on-board, voice-activated, infotainment system with 6.5” touchscreen; cruise control; and of course heated… wait… there’s no heated grips?
Come on, guys. Seriously. A touring bike without heated grips is like a Harley without heritage.
Coverage from the bodywork is good, but I couldn’t find my happy place behind the windshield—I always had some buffeting, unless I really slouched my 5’10” frame into the plush seat. Ergonomics are pretty good, although I prefer the more neutral riding position of a Gold Wing or even a taller adventure bike—until I have to put my foot down. That’s where the Ultra’s 28.9” seat height really helps.
But despite the low seat, the bike is cumbersome when stopped or rolling at low speeds. Maybe it’s the frame-mounted fairing, versus the Ultra Limited (and other H-D models) fork-mounted arrangements—it certainly felt top-heavy and tippy in a way I haven’t experienced on other big tourers, regardless of whether the fairing is mounted on the fork or frame.
My opinion of the Ultra’s weight and chassis may well have been affected by having to hustle the big bastard up and down ramps way more times than I’d like, and while I’d love to lean on the line that my fellow moto-journos use to waffle their way out of calling heavy bikes what they are in damn near every review, the Ultra’s 937 pounds (claimed running weight) do not disappear once it’s moving. Sure, it’s more manageable above a walking pace, and it’s possible to hustle the Ultra-long 64” wheelbase through reasonably smooth corners with limited drama, especially if, like us CityBikers, you’re not spooked by the sounds of dragging floorboards.
But it never felt truly stable to me, always ponderous, sometimes fidgety. The MoCo’s similarly-priced and slightly-less-heavy Ultra Limited felt better, at least at speed, and big touring models from other brands even more so.
Visually, the Ultra is classically Harley-Davidson: excellent fit and finish, killer paint, gobs of real metal, and seriously good headlights—an area H-D’s modern motorcycles really shine (groan) thanks to the various LED headlight arrangements in use on bikes from the Softail line upward. Other than the Daymaker lights in the shark nose fairing, a layperson (or non-Harley rider) might even mistake this for a Road Glide or Ultra Glide from twenty years ago.
That’s Harley’s thing—retaining the heritage while modernizing the mechanicals. Some will take issue at my use of the word “modernizing,” but they’d be uninformed and incorrect. While it doesn’t have riding modes and cornering ABS, the Ultra does offer a complement of electronics from ABS to GPS that makes for a reasonably modern experience cloaked in Harley-Davidson’s trademark cool. And that’s where it kind of breaks for me, and apparently more and more, the buying public—although for different reasons.
It’s no secret that Harley-Davidson’s traditional customer base is aging out, and it’s hard for me to see where bikes like the Ultra fit into the brand’s future. If you look at what younger riders are into, interest is heavily weighted toward stripped-down, pseudo-retro bikes like Triumph’s modern classics and Ducati’s Scrambler. If you hit up events like the One Show, Mama Tried or any of the other carefully orchestrated authenti-fests, you’ll also see a pretty significant “chopper revival.”
Where, then, does a heavy, expensive Harley-Davidson touring bike fit into the motorcycling of tomorrow? Even if we limit our analysis to touring riders, a whiz-bang infotainment system doesn’t make this motorcycle competitive in a world of electronically adjustable windshields, electronically adjustable or even dynamic suspension—serious luxury.
Further, despite H-D’s marketing copy claiming the “ultimate mile-eater” title, if that’s what you want, there’s no question that similarly heavy and expensive models from other marques are objectively better at any test by which a bike might be crowned as such. Never mind the new Gold Wing or the latest BMW K-sixteen-whatever—you can pick up a brand new, leftover 2017 Gold Wing for five to seven thousand dollars less than an Ultra, and it will handily outperform the Astro Glide in every possible measure of ultimate mile-eating, except for being a Harley-Davidson.
Editor Surj rides a Buell Ulysses, which vibrates madly at stops and doesn’t even have a fuel gauge…but it does have heated grips!
Max: Lived to Tell the Tale
As Editor Surj mentioned, I had a bit of a rough start with the Slip-n-Slide Ultra. I’m sure it was because of years of joking about Harley’s penchant for making heavy, leaky machines that the bike decided to go all Exxon Valdez on me. Karma’s a bitch, after all.
Or does it go deeper than that? Apparently, Surj has somehow tricked me into riding all these motorcycles first… just in case. I’m beginning to feel like the dude in medieval times that had to take a bite out of the king’s mutton leg to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.
After the Hog had its lubricant malfunction, I was hyper-aware of every little noise, vibration, and shimmy. After all, if it had sprung a leak on my ride home from World Headquarters, I would have been doing 80 down the freeway. Oil would have covered my rear tire like a BP pelican, and if that hadn’t taken me down, the eventual seized motor would have.
Let’s just say that there were some trust issues once we got the bike back, and I didn’t end up putting an epic number of miles on the heavy, yet well-balanced Road Slide Ultra. I did run it about the greater Bay Area, and like other big hunks of American iron I’ve thrown a leg over, it grew on me. The 107 motor is light on vibes but heavy on power and torque, traits I found especially nice when my wife was still willing to ride two-up with me, before the bike’s unexpected Hershey squirts.
Compared to other big hunks of American iron, the Ultra’s weight didn’t disappear as quickly. While other grande tourers (H-D included) get comfortable as low as three to five MPH, this big boy needs double digits before it gets its sea legs. Below 10 MPH or so it required all my attention to keep tracking straight, especially when the rear tire was greased.
It’s a touring machine, and so is equipped with a bitchin’ audio system, GPS, and full hard bags—and two of those three things were done right. Music sounds good and is suitably (annoyingly for everyone else) loud, and who doesn’t love three cases of luggage capable of handling a full load of groceries from Costco?
But the GPS is fiddly and funky, and about as effective as an improperly-torqued drain bolt or three. I used it to navigate to the cul-de-sac the bike would eventually lubricate, and it wasn’t even close. It didn’t find my destination as being in the town it was in—weird, since the neighborhood in question has been there for two decades longer than H-D has had liquid-cooled motors. Instead, the GPS routed me toward a new subdivision about three miles away, and after realizing the error of its ways, I routed myself to the correct location the old-fashioned way: using landmarks and dumb luck.
The GPS—or at least, its bogus data—might have saved my life. The extra distance ensured that the oil floodgates opened as I was approaching a barbecue at 5 MPH, not two-up on the freeway. Instead of cracking every bone in my body, I cracked a beer with my buddies and waited for Surj to show up with the van.
Eventually, I was able to put the basic maintenance failure, lackluster navigation, and low speed weeble- wobbles behind me and just ride the thing. I took it for a run on Mines Road, where I was impressed by how balanced the two-wheeled supertanker feels even in slower turns, and how quickly it exits and transitions into the next. On the return run I hit some road-colored gravel in a left-hander, and slid both wheels enough to fear the worst—but spinning up the 107 and calling on more of that dumb luck, I was able to ride it out and head home to change my shorts.
I wouldn’t choose the Ultra over another brand’s rumble tourer, but it is a gorgeous machine that called me out to the garage each night, simply to take another look at it before sleepy time. It was good-looking enough that my landlady called me to talk about it, and fortunately it had spilled its seed in another neighborhood (sorry Bruce!) instead of my driveway—otherwise that would have been an awkward conversation.
This story originally appeared in our April 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.
Max is the SF chapter Director of the AFM. Insert joke about the king’s mutton leg here. “Insert. Huh huh huh.”