Fat Boys and Softails – Wild West Part Two

posted in: Motorcycling, Outdoors, Travel | 7

We never talked about doing this trip in a car; the plan was always to ride. It’s the old clichés – riding a motorbike provides a sense of freedom, the wind in the face, a feeling of being at one with the road. There is a huge difference in the things you can experience when riding as opposed to driving. In a car or RV you would never notice the subtle (and not so subtle) changes in temperature as you climbed to high altitudes or descended into valleys. You would also never notice the different smells as you sailed past ranches and farms and through parks – such strong whiffs of pine, lavender, the pacific ocean, and weed(!).

Robert Pirsig says describes it better than me in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

Our bikes in Joshua Tree National Park

LincsGeek and I joked the other day that if I took over from Henry Cole on his bike show on television (which I would obviously be more than happy to do should the vacancy ever arise), that I would only be able to review a couple of bikes… the lowered F650GS that I own, Harley Davidson Sportster, and now also a Fat Boy. Having short legs is such a nuisance when it comes to riding a motorcycle, but so far it hasn’t stopped me! To make sure I picked a bike that would fit we headed to our local Harley Davidson dealer before making our decision to have a sit on a few. It just so happened that Lincoln Harley Davidson were holding an open day that included a free hog roast. This was the dealer who loaned me that Sportster Nightster 1200 for our Top Down trip back in 2009 and made my dream come true – such a nice bunch of people. We ate meat with apple sauce and sat on bikes, although not at the same time of course – could you imagine the mess on the chrome and leather?!

I didn’t bother with the massive bikes but having already been advised the Sportster, even the 1200, was much too small to make the distances between fuel stops on the Wild West tour, I had to try something that was much bigger than anything I’d ridden before. I started on the Heritage Softail, which felt massive. I could reach the floor but it felt like my legs were stretched so wide I’d get a groin injury every time we stopped. I reached forward with my left leg to flick up the side stand – no chance, I simply couldn’t touch it even with the tip of my toes.. One of the sales assistants suggested that the Fat Boy might be a better option, and pointed one out. It has the same frame and engine size as the Heritage Softail but with a lower and narrower profile, I was hopeful. I sat on it, and immediately felt the difference. My feet were almost flat on the floor, and this time when I reached forward to the side stand I was able to catch it with my toes and pull it towards me. I practiced a few times, and while it was right at the edge of my reach I could do it. That was it, I chose the Fat Boy.

LincsGeek's Heritage Softail in Utah

Unlike me, who had dreamed of riding across America on a Harley since the age of about seven, LincsGeek wasn’t sure about riding a Harley at all. They are simply not his kind of bike; he likes his Tiger and I think if EagleRider had one available he’d have chosen that. EagleRider do have various Hondas and BMWs available, and now also Triumphs, but Tim at The Lost Adventure and I managed to persuade him that this particular tour through iconic American scenery did really require an iconic American bike to go with it. Yes, anything else would have been smoother, faster, lighter, better handling and better at cornering, but it would not be quite right. So he sat on a Road King – the most iconic Harley of them all.

He looked great on it! But watching the expression as he picked it up off the side stand I asked an obvious question. “Is that a bit heavy?” It was, just a little bit. Again the sales assistant saved the day – we had told him what we were doing and he was excited for us, we weren’t tricking him in any way! He suggested the Heritage Softail, the bike I had just decided against. It was considerably smaller and lighter and would mean not having to worry about weight. LincsGeek could ride that easily and we were both set for our trip.

On arrival at EagleRider in LA it was clear they knew exactly what they were doing. There were two very neat lines of bikes, and once we’d signed a couple of forms and handed over a small deposit (it took a couple of minutes), we went outside to find the bikes with our names on. Each bike had a set of leather panniers for our bits and bobs (the Fat Boy’s were smaller than the Heritage Softail Classic’s but there was still plenty of space) and a screen added for comfort. Our luggage went in the support van, there was no need to carry everything with us. We were shown around the bikes to make sure we knew where all the important switches were, and given plenty of time to sort ourselves out.

LincsGeek nearly in Utah

Jeff, our tour leader, gave us a briefing about our first days riding along with some instructions on group riding, and we were soon on our way. I was so nervous! The first hour of our ride was on the freeway to get us out of Los Angeles, which allowed everyone in the group to relax and get used to their bike before we turned off onto the kinds of road we’d be riding for the rest of the trip. You’d be surprised how much that first 40 miles just being fast and straight made me feel better – it was an hour of me feeling reassured that I was an experienced motorcyclist and I knew how to ride, I had nothing to worry about.

The roads were awesome. There were of course the long and straight roads most people would picture, but also plenty of curves too. We rode up mountains and down deep into valleys. We rode across deserts and through towns. We took tight bends and steep hills. And that was all on the first day! The Fat Boy and Heritage Softail were made for this kind of riding and we both relaxed into it knowing we’d picked the right bikes for us to do this trip.

I loved my bike. Considered a small bike, the smallest in my group with a not-so-tiny 1.6 litre engine, it was very cool to ride. The riding position was very different to my F650GS, with my arms and legs way out in front, but after initially bringing my feet up to the wrong place a few times I soon got used to it and found it very comfortable and relaxed. As for the performance of the Fat Boy, well it’s not going to win Moto GP any time soon but it had plenty of pull for the riding we were doing – you just have to turn the throttle a long way to get there! I loved the way it cornered; it kind of “lolloped” into the bends in such a laidback way, it was impossible to do anything other than sit back and enjoy. I was the only lady rider in the group, all the other wives/girlfriends were riding pillion, which made me feel a tiny bit special! A few fellow riders commented on how natural I looked on the Fat Boy, and how confident I was riding, which brought a big smile to my face – I was in my element.

Riding out of Momument Valley (taken by Jeff)

(That’s me at the front in that picture, with LincsGeek behind, riding out of Monument Valley – it was taken by Jeff.)

We were certainly noticed as we rode along – we are in so many other people’s photographs as people stopped to snap as we rode into town. We didn’t realise until we were sat having a drink and another large group of Harleys passed us what a rumble we created – we could hear them from miles away and then as they rode off into the distance. I loved that we were part of something like that – a bike train making its way through the American Wild West.

LincsGeek liked his bike, the Heritage Softail Classic, too. He found it easy to ride and comfortable, and a few miles after leaving LA he started using the heel-shifter for gear changes up the box. I think it was partly because it was a novelty and partly so that he didn’t scuff the toes of his new summer lightweight denim motorcycle boots bought especially for the trip (TCX X-Street – I need a pair)! He quickly got annoyed by the screen on his bike though. Mine was perfect in that I looked straight through the screen a couple of inches below the top. But for LincsGeek, the top of the screen was directly in his eye-line, meaning he either had to try peering over the top which didn’t work very well, or hunch down beneath it which would be very uncomfortable. His solution? Unclip it and chuck it in the van. For the rest of the trip he did without the screen, and said that the breeze was nice below 50mph and it gave his arms and hands a superb workout above that, as he had to hang on for dear life to avoid being blown backwards off the bike. The bikes seemed more clunky and mechanical than we are used to, particularly the gear change which needed a fairly hefty foot. LincsGeek also found that the engine was ideal for cruising along at speed and had reasonable low-down torque, but he was amazed at how little power such a big engine could produce in reality. He’s not used to riding this style of bike! He easily flatfooted both feet when sat on the bike with bent knees – he’d have managed even if the bike was quite a bit taller, and the weight was also fine and he had no problem manoeuvring it around. One thing he never quite got used to was the indicators, which unlike many bikes had a switch each side to operate the respective indicator, and were cancelled by pressing the same switch again if the auto-cancel hadn’t cut in by then; he much prefers the single switch and manual cancel. Finally, once he was used to the bike and we got to some nice sets of bends, LincsGeek found another major difference between his Tiger and this bike – the foot boards scrape the tarmac when you start to have more fun… The lean angle is very limited and eager riding soon means you hit the limits of the bike’s cornering abilities.

Me on my Eagle Rider Harley Davidson Fat Boy at Malibu

The biggest problem for me wasn’t the weight, and it was very heavy but I got used to that quickly (and used to asking people for a push when I parked up on the slightest of inclines), it was the heat. The oil cap is right by the seat on the rider’s right of the bike, and I simply could not clear it thanks to my short legs. I ended up with a red and sore inside thigh from sitting on the hot chrome. LincsGeek suggested strapping it up numerous times but a) I didn’t want anything on it, b) I’d not have fitted my jeans on over the top and c) I chose to ignore him! It’s all healed up now, though, so no lasting damage thankfully. Oh to be just a few inches taller as no-one else seemed to have the same problem.

I mentioned in part one the other day that one of the key plusses on going guided was that the support van towed a trailer with a spare bike on it. It was a good job really as LincsGeek’s bike broke down as we were riding across a high altitude mountain pass. It was gradually losing power uphill for a while until it eventually couldn’t get up any incline even in first gear. At a previous stop the guides thought it was because of the altitude but this confirmed it was more serious. Mike, the support van driver for the first half of the trip, stopped the van and unloaded the spare bike. LincsGeek’s didn’t even have enough power to drive it onto the trailer so there was man handling involved. Coincidentally, the spare bike was also a Heritage Softail Classic but in black, and the handlebars were further forward and higher (we adjusted them that evening). LincsGeek set off on his new working bike but a few miles later the side stand spring broke – eek! Mike gaffa taped it up to get him going again but when he met the rest of us at rest down the road he had to get someone to untape the stand so he could get off. It was amusing to the rest of us and LincsGeek still had a smile on his face when he arrived, but I think Mike was a bit frustrated with the whole thing especially because shortly after setting off from fixing the side stand his van had a tyre blow out which he had to fix at the side of the road. Still, the perks of going guided meant there was no break in our tour and we could all get on to the next hotel where the side stand was fixed, handlebars adjusted, and all was well again. The spare bike became LincsGeek’s ride for the rest of the trip, and we picked up a new spare in Las Vegas.

Allister arriving on the spare bike after his broke down

We are both pleased we chose the bikes we did but it doesn’t surprise me that should we ever go back to the States to ride, and we are definitely going to do that one day, LincsGeek has already said he’d choose something else. I think I’m the same. We’ve done the all American tour on the all American motorcycle, and thoroughly enjoyed that combination of road and ride. But we’ve done that now, and next time we’d go for something lighter and more nimble, allowing us to ride a bit more like we would at home.


Read the Wild West Series


7 Responses

  1. Shybiker

    So cool! I’m glad you had this fun experience. Rentals are almost all Harleys but if I had to choose, I’d go with something lighter and better-handling. Plus, Harleys have reliability issues.

    • Splodz

      Thanks! It just had to be a Harley for this trip but yes you are right, other bikes are more reliable, lighter and very much more nimble.

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