by Glenn LeSanto
Coast to Coast with Harley's Road King
God, according to many aficionados of the brand, rides a Harley-Davidson. What is it that makes the oldest continually produced motorcycle marque in the world so special that people will make such apparently blasphemous suggestions? Glenn Le Santo decided to find out the hard way. He got on a 2002 Road King Classic and set off across America for a 5,000-mile adventure.
Motorcyclists appear sharply divided on the Harley-Davidson issue. They either love them or hate them. Sadly, many of the latter camp have never even ridden one, so their opinion isn’t reinforced by experience. I was once in that camp of firm detractors, and then I rode a Harley and everything changed.
When faced with a 5,000-mile trek from Louisiana to California and back, there seemed only one choice of motorcycle: a Harley. After all, why cross America on anything but the one true American motorcycling icon? A few calls to Milwaukee soon had me sorted with one of Harley-Davidson’s rental companies, specifically the fine folk of Baton Rouge Harley-Davidson who fitted me out with a brand new Road King Classic and a matching rain suit. The hire program is open to anyone with a valid motorcycle license and sure beats fly-drive in my book!
The FLHRCI Road King Classic is one of the ‘fat-wheeled’ Harleys (as denoted by the ‘FL’ in the model name). It sports two big, white-walled tires, as opposed to the skinny fronts on the chopper-styled bikes. It sits midway between the traditional Fifties-styled Heritage range and the famous Electra Glide touring machines. The Road King is a tourer that also makes a good job of boulevard cruising. It has a big gas tank, a wide saddle, footboards and a pair of deceptively capacious leather-covered saddlebags. Like most any Harley, it glitters with deep chrome and luxurious paintwork.
The Road King is one of the Big Twin range, as opposed to the smaller Sportsters, so it’s graced with a 1449cc twin-cylinder engine. That’s 88 cubic-inches in American money. To keep vibration under control, and to stop the engine from snapping frame members and loosening your fillings, the entire motor is rubber mounted. The engine shakes about on its mounts at idle, but is very smooth throughout most of the rev range. It’s only when you work the Big Twin really hard that things start to get uncomfortable, but why bother to rev what has to be one of the punchiest and laziest engines fitted to a modern motorcycle? The correct way to enjoy the fuel-injected Twin Cam 88 is to cruise around using the ample pulling power. The Road King drives hard from very low revs with satisfying ease and produces its peak torque at a measly 3,500 rpm.
Pulling power isn’t limited to the engine department on a Harley. I was surprised by just how much attention the Road King attracted. I’m used to crowd pulling on Harleys in the UK where the bikes are still relatively rare, but I didn’t realize they’d have the same effect in their home country! Riding along the highways and freeways of the big country, I had Stetson-wearing SUV drivers giving me the thumbs-up. Gas pump attendants would come out of their booths to admire the bike. And then there are the women. In the UK, I once had a girl offer me ‘a good time’ in return for a ride on a Harley. Normally quiet and reserved girls become breast-bearing exhibitionists once on board. Weird. In the USA, the H-D badge seems to have the same effect. You’ll often see pot-bellied bikers on the wrong side of 40 with attractive biker babes sitting behind them on their Harleys. Now that’s pulling power!
Harleys aren’t known for nimble handling and eye-popping braking power. In fact they’re known for just the reverse! But things have changed. Modern Harleys have much better braking thanks to the recent addition of four-piston calipers front and rear. Despite the bike’s substantial 761 pounds, the brakes haul the Hog to a stop in an acceptable distance. The suspension, which is air assisted on the Road King, provides a plush ride and keeps the big bike under control. There’s not a huge amount of cornering clearance and the hinged footboards clang down during spirited riding. but the suspension soaks up most of the potholes you’ll encounter.
The Road King is a comfortable bike. The handlebars and footboards are in exactly the right place for the type of riding you’ll be doing on one. I’m a tall rider and many bikes just don’t fit me. Not so the Road King, which seemed to invite me in like an old favorite fireside chair. My only complaint is the saddle which, while nominally comfortable, became an instrument of torture after the first 200 miles. As we were doing as many as 800 miles a day, I was soon squirming in agony, especially as the combination of atmospheric and engine heat conspired to turn the saddle into a sizzling hot plate to roast my butt on. I would rather have had the Electra Glide’s deeper, more touring-oriented saddle for such a trip. I resorted to placing a folded towel on the saddle in an attempt to provide more cushion and a little insulation from the blazing saddle.
Many people questioned my choice of mount for such an epic voyage. “What will you do when it breaks down in the middle of the desert?” they asked. My response was simply that I trusted the Harley just as much as any new bike. That trust isn’t based on sentiment but on experience. I’ve been riding them since 1992, and have ridden several models over thousand-mile distances in short time spans. My 5,000 miles were traveled in seven days of actual riding, and I’m happy to report that the Road King didn’t miss a single beat all the way. The bike worked hard, carrying rider and luggage through intense desert heat – as high as 126 degrees! It didn’t leak oil, nothing fell off and the bike still felt like new when I returned it with a mileage that many owners would take a year to put on the odometer!
I don’t know if God really does ride a Harley, but the Road King is a bike that will munch miles, turn heads, and give an immense feeling of pride to own. What’s more, it will keep its value better than any other modern motorcycle available, not that God needs to worry about residual values.