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Longest Test: Harley-Davidson XR1200

Large, simple and underdeveloped. But enough about our intern, Ian Stewart, Whit’s XR1200 proves that it’s as much fun as its owner

Big distances on bikes aren’t usually my thing. Having been nominated to ride Whitham’s Harley XR1200 to the south of France for a week, I’m left with mixed feelings. As breathtaking as the French Riviera is, it’s a bloody long way on a bike with no fairing, but then, as a relative newbie, it would at least give me a chance to see what this touring lark is all about, and give me an insight as to why so many people do it. Meeting with Barry and Ben at a petrol station in Dover, I’m happy to see how inappropriate Barry’s Bonneville looks for such a trip – at least I won’t be the one to suffer most. Eyeing the GTR1400 though, my mind fills with worries and concerns. There’s a reason touring bikes look that way, and its silhouette is about as far removed from the XR as you can get. Just a screen would be nice.

Rolling off the ferry into northern France, I’m disappointed with what I see. Isn’t France supposed to be a beautiful country? It bears more resemblance to a scaled-up Lincolnshire, flat field after flat field drifting by endlessly, the scenery barely changing for the first three hours as I desperately try to think of a distraction from how much my neck is hurting from my Shoei trying to push through the windblast at 80-odd mph.

With most Americans not being able to find France on a map, its perhaps understandable Harley didn’t envisage their bike being used for this kind of trip, but to be this inappropriate surely takes some doing. I’m being buffeted so much my head is bobbing about more than that dog off the Churchill advert. Thankfully, the fuel stops are never more than 115 miles apart, but still I daydream about being on the Kawasaki, Ben’s relaxed posture filling me with envy. Anythingabove 90mph for more than a quick blast on the XR just isn’t worth the pain, so you can imagine the glee evident on my face when Ben announces that the route we’ll be taking after Grenoble is a mountain road that would give my agonising neck muscles a break and the bike a chance to redeem itself. And what a road it is.

The N85, known as the Route Napoleon, is now my favourite road in the world. Having mainly ridden on the rutted, over-congested narcolepsyinducing excuse for highways in the South East of England, the N85 hit me like a sledgehammer to the adrenal gland.

We scythe through the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever witnessed, giving no quarter to the tarmac or other road users. My ears pop every few minutes as the road rises and falls. For all the bikes motorway problems, right here and right now, Harley-Davidson’s claims of a sports-style bike are being righteously upheld. Once I get my head around the fact that it needs hauling into corners with a generous dollop of counter-steer, everything clicks into place and I’m left laughing uncontrollably to myself. My confidence growing, corner speeds increase and the right hand peg has a brief but violent encounter with the road, taking me by surprise and kicking my foot off the footrest.

Perhaps I’m just heady from the afternoon’s riding, but for me the bike to tackle these roads is the XR. Yes, it’s not a real sports bike in the true sense of a GSX-R or an R6, but if it’s able to make me feel like an amazing rider due to the lack of ground clearance and interesting handling, it’ll do it for me.

Add to that an engine that’ll pull from tick-over and wide bars, and you have a bike that makes me feel like a cornering hero, so long as the corners in question aren’t too tight. The only gripe I’d throw at it in this scenario is the seat – it’s slanted forwards forcing the rider into the tank, when you really want to be pushed back to give room to move around on the bike. This is the only reason I can come up with why Barry was able to glide his Bonneville down the inside of a left hander I gauge to be tighter than it actually is. At least that’s my excuse as he disappears from view a few corners later, the sound from the Bonnie’s exhaust reverberating off the mountainside.

A new day dawns with the heat that had been steadily building as we head south. The temperature soars to over 40 degrees and, with so much warmth in the tyres, my confidence is sky high; at no point do they ever feel even close to the limit.

Endless left/right combinations come and go and even in the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced I’m having a great time. Even though I’m travelling at speeds probably less than half the velocity of Rob and Niall on the out-and-out sportsbikes, I’m enjoying myself enough not to care. However, I must mention the front brake at this point. I find the lack of power a concern hurtling towards tight hairpins, as it takes a firm squeeze to slow the bike from speed and makes the most appalling squealing sound after a few corners. To be fair, I’m not sure how many XR1200 swill be trying to keep up with a former GP rider on a set of switchbacks.

Rolling through St. Raphael, it hits me why men of a certain age would be drawn towards a Harley. The badge on the tank is something that even non-bikers recognise and gets you noticed by everyone. Beautiful, tanned, bikini-clad women watch as you pass; balding, middle-aged men suddenly get the urge to buy a bike while ADHD-riddled kids stop jumping about and stare wide-eyed into the orange abyss rumbling along. A wry smile sweeps across my face as I disappear from view to stun the next group of unsuspecting French citizens strolling the boulevards.

After enjoying such a great time on brilliant twisting roads in the sun, it has to come to an end at some point. Cannes to Calais in one trip is not a pleasant experience on the XR, but after knowing what to expect from the journey down, this time I’m prepared with a flat on the tank style that makes me look a bit daft, but not end up deaf. Only on the ferry did the fatigue hit me from such a slog, but I’m surprised by how pain-free my knees are, in stark contrast to Rob who I noticed was changing his foot position every few minutes on the motorway.

Lots of UK bikers shun the Harley-Davidson brand. But after five days and 2,500 miles together I can honestly say I enjoyed the whole Hog experience. It’s obviously out of its depth above the

motorway speed limit but that’s not what the bike is for – it’s about putting a smile on your face for short blasts around country roads, or cruising through town feeling like a million dollars. If riding is simply a pleasurable pastime and your fun doesn’t involve regular knee down action, you could do a lot worse than to try a Harley. Don’t be surprised to find yourself falling for the slower pace of biking.

What I love

  • Relaxed riding position makes cruising at anything up to 80mph a pleasurable experience.
  • Thump from the open Termignoni system sounds great and gets looks from everyone as you rumble by.
  • Torquey engine makes overtakes easy, and gives lazy drive from just about anywhere in the rev range.

What I'd change

  • Zero wind protection limits the bike’s practicality.
  • Front brake isn’t very strong and screams if it’s used hard.
  • Firm seat is slanted forwards towards the tank, making me force myself backwards to keep comfortable and to allow myself space to move around.

Rating: 3/5

For: Awesome sound from the Termignonis, head-turning good looks and laid back, lazy engine character
Against:
Poor tank range, brakes overheat easily and cumbersome, slow steering handling

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2009 Harley-Davidson XR1200 Specifications

Price: £7870
Top speed:
122.35mph
Engine:
1202cc, 4-valve, air-cooled, V-twin
Bore & stroke:
88.9mm x 96.8mm
Compression ratio:
10:1
Power:
81.61bhp at 6,800rpm
Torque:
69.95lb/ft at 3,500rpm
Front suspension:
43mm inverted forks
Adjustment:
None
Rear suspension:
Twin shocks
Adjustment:
Preload
Front brakes:
Four-piston calipers, 290mm discs
Rear brake:
Single-piston caliper, 260mm disc
Dry weight:
250kg
Seat height:
742mm
Fuel capacity:
13.25 litres
Colour options:
Black, grey, orange