My mate Karl is keen to buy a motorbike so is renting a few to try them out. It costs around $120 to hire a Harley like this for the day, which is much cheaper than I expected, so we went for it.
I started on the VRod, which is Harley's new engined beast (Evolution engine which makes 115 BHP). A bit light on power compared with my Blackbird at home (160BHP) and the VRod noticeably didn't "nearly pull your arms off" as I had been told it might. However, it was pretty powerful and plenty enough power really, though it drank petrol.
Slow speed handling was difficult but that was really me rather than the bike. With practice these bikes will handle well at slow speed. For a sports bike rider, the idea of putting your feet out in front of you instead of beneath you, and a sitting position more like sitting on a toilet than sitting on a horse, the Harley took a bit of getting used to. The gearing was odd too. You don't use 2nd gear for any slow speed handling on a harley. I tried this on my first turn out onto a main road and stalled it. I expected to drop it at this point but the weight is so low slung it was ok. It didn't help my familiarization moments that I had cleaned my crash helmet visor in the shower (to prevent making and mess elsewhere) and just used shower gel (nearest soap to hand). It left a smeary mess on the visor.
When we finally got onto the open road (395 North) things were busy. The Reno Aero Races were this weekend and we got stuck in the traffic from that. The aero races are aircraft races around an aerial circuit, which is apparently a big thing here. Anyway, heading north to Susanville we encountered some clouds and what looked like possible rain. I was beginning to regret leaving my waterproofs at the Harley dealer and certainly my fleece. We found a Starbucks at Susanville and not before time. 80 miles in pretty cold conditions and my fingers were white. The vibration on the VRod is quite something too but that is perhaps part of the whole Harley thing, like the roaring 'potato potato' sound from the exhausts pipes (which clearly irritated some of the locals in some small towns we went through. After taking a leak at Starbucks I noticed in the mirror that I'd grown some thick black dandruff - apparently the foam inside my old crash helmet has decided to make an exist in particle form! Thank goodness for short hair and easy hairwash opportunity!
From Susanville towards Quincy the pretty way. The first 30 miles were a real treat, real sweeping roads through the forest. Views of Lassen Peak (10457 ft), an active volcano which last erupted in 1915, were something else, even from a distance. It is clearly a very big mountain and looked it especially from the lower 'ground level' vantage point than I'm used to here.
Stopped in Quincy for a coffee, another 80 miles done. At least we tried to. All the coffee places were shutting up at 14.00. In the end we got one in a pretty groovy looking health food shop there, in time to witness a huge ridepast by a pack of Harleys, and to see dribs and drabs of a similar BMW pack we heard about.
From here we switched bikes. My turn on the Heritage Softtail Classic. Riding position was different again, with higher handlebars and running boards to put your feel on. You also need to stay in 1st gear with this bike, and it felt a bit heavier too, having a fuel tank in the normal place rather than the odd VRod low stowed fuel with false tank above to ensure the right look.
I was surprised with this much more classic air-cooled Harley. It was clearly slower than the VRod but it felt more comfortable and definitely more authentic. I hadn't expected authenticity to make any difference to me but the bike had a fairly simple design and was very competent at what it did - munching miles. I reckon I had this to 90 at one point (though mostly stayed less than 70) and it liked the high speed just fine. This was unlike the more VRod which was more twitchy at speed, perhaps not helped by the solid wheels which caught the wind, and the fact that it isn't designed with a screen in mind, so aerodynamics are hardly optimized.
We made it back, and I was certainly a bit relieved to have not dropped either bike. I've been riding motorbikes, quite big ones too, for more than 10 years and I was quite nervous about dropping these big beasts. It was Karl's 2nd ever ride on a bike bigger than a 125cc and he really didn't show it. Rode well all day and only suffered the same slight unnerved slow speed handling problems as me. He'd done a MSF course which combined with some good road sense left me no concerns at all about riding with a novice.
On the way out on the VRod I thought that if I had a million quid I'd get me one of these. After riding the Heritage, I think part of my million would go in that direction instead of the VRod. If I wanted a quick bike, I'd get something else (probably Japanese) or perhaps the BMW RG1200. But to cruise around on US roads, a Harley would be quite nice, though their cult image would put me off.
Before we set out I thought that some animosity was often apparent between Harley riders and the rest but on the roads, Harley riders were waving to Japanese bike riders. Even the Harley dealer was particularly sympathetic to the plight of the sports bike rider trying out a Harley. I'm inclined to think that the 'Harley versus the rest' issue is perhaps bigger in the UK. Today we were all just bikers of one sort or another (well, sort of, some of us were making more than our fair share of noise!).