When you are the editor of a niche magazine, you look for every advantage you can get. I was the editor of Hot Bike, a V-Twin based publication focused on the very best that could be built out of Milwaukee’s most basic technology. At one point there were 14 monthly or bi-monthly titles all focused on V-Twins. Competition was fierce for the coolest bikes, the most interesting tech innovations and, since we all served one OE master, new bike exclusives were a massive accomplishment.
So, there I was, early summer of 2001 at the Harley-Davidson V-Rod introduction. As I sat through the technical presentation the night prior to the ride, Willie G. leans over to me and says, “I finally have one you can’t wheelie!” He smiles at me and walks away. Challenge issued, gauntlet thrown, and face slapped, I spent all night trying to figure out why he said it. What could possibly be so different on the V-Rod that I couldn’t wheelie it? Willie G., the hipster before there was such a thing as a hipster, had gotten in my head, and as I tried to sleep that night, all I could see was his beret-covered head and that smile taunting me. The V-Rod was quickly on its way to owning me.
After the technical briefing and a tour of the proposed accessories for the bike, I was hooked on it. Water-cooled, plenty of horsepower, non-traditional looks, fuel-injection, overhead cams and radial tires on a Harley-Davidson branded bike. Yes, please. That’s when the fierce competition of my little niche kicked all logic or reason out of my brain and let massive amounts of stupidity in.
It was just a few weeks until the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota. That is the rally where the T-shirts that read “I rode mine” or “$15,000 and 15 miles don’t make you a biker” were born. It is a destination that offers some really amazing scenery, both in the bikini and body-painted women wandering the event and the hills and winding roads through the purple mountains majesty of the Dakotas. So, I pulled a few of the Harley brass aside and said, “If you can get me this windscreen, luggage rack and a V-Rod before Sturgis, it will be my ride for the event.” That means a round trip from Anaheim to Sturgis, plus all the places I have to be in Sturgis will be done on a V-Rod. That should make a killer story about the bike.
Now, keep in mind, I have not ridden one mile on the bike yet. No clue as to its comfort, fuel range, ability to strap gear on – or wheelie, let’s not forget the original challenge. The Harley guys were all in immediately, and with that, we finished breakfast and headed out to ride some iron – as Harley calls their press intros. I don’t remember where the intro took place, but I know it was somewhere in Southern California. I remember I spent all damn day on that bike trying to do a stupid wheelie – which, eventually, I did. For me, a mediocre-at-best wheelie, but I did wheelie the stupid thing. And I forgot to assess the bike for ride, comfort and alternate ways to stretch out on the bike on an upcoming 1400 mile each way trip. Nope. I just tried to do wheelies. All day. Look in the dictionary, sometime, for the word idiot; likely it will have my picture of trying to do a stupid wheelie on a really long, low bike that doesn’t really want to do wheelies.
So, fast forward to about six days before I need to leave for Sturgis, and the V-Rod shows up. No windshield, no rack, just a V-Rod. I might have been a bit panicked, but I had to leave the next morning for the Los Angeles Calendar Show in Long Beach, where the V-Rod would make one of its first public appearances. Sadly, I lived in Anaheim, so a long ride wasn’t part of that weekend, just to and from the show. It was quick, the engine felt strong and it liked to rev, so I played drag racer away from traffic lights and enjoyed the immense change from a 45-degree pushrod, air-cooled lump of noise.
Our group was leaving for Sturgis on Thursday of that week and, as of leaving the office Monday, still had no accessories. Here is the thing: you can’t really plan your packing until you know what you can strap down. With a tiny, tapered rear seat and swoopy curved down rear fender that had the taillight square in the center of prime, tie-down real estate, I was getting nervous.
Fortunately, H-D did come through and on Tuesday the accessories showed up and I dashed off to the H-D Fleet Center for installation. The windshield would be a welcome addition, reducing the number of bugs my full-face helmet would kill as we crossed Wyoming by about 95%. The little rack out back would make it possible to secure a small but well packed gear bag with all the essentials for a road trip – thankfully we had a truck going that could take my camera gear and a weeks-worth of clothes. No whining about that. I was there to work, and the humidity in Sturgis sets the stage for a minimum of two showers a day. Fresh, clean underwear is a necessity.
So, we set off on our little 1400 mile trek. You know what I found out right away? I am an idiot. Yes, I had the V-Rod before any of the other magazines, but you know what else I had for the 1400 mile trip? One riding position. There was nowhere to move on that bike. Your feet sat on forward controls and all of your body weight crunched down on the scooped out seat. Try to get your feet on the passenger pegs and all it did was cramp your legs. Guess what else I found out on that trip? 124.7 miles. The best fuel range you can get out of the original V-Rod 3.2-gallon fuel tank is 124.7 mi. Probably would have been good to know that before setting out on a 1400 mile trip. Three times I found that out. I also learned that a Gatorade bottle of gas will not carry you the 20 miles you need to get to Capser, Wyoming, and throwing said Gatorade bottle away was a mistake.
There were some positives, though. When you stop for gas on your way to Sturgis, it seems there are always other bikes at the gas stations, and everyone wanted to talk about the V-Rod. This was a welcome distraction as it made 10-minute fuel stops last closer to 30 minutes, and that gave me a chance to stretch out and get some feeling in my legs and butt from the one riding position offered by the V-Rod. As we got within 250 miles of Sturgis the gas stop sessions became more like an hour and actually made me think the traditional H-D world was going to love this bike.
That was the second thing I was wrong about concerning the V-Rod. Sales of this technically wonderful, quick and stylish machine have never been what they should, showing that the Harley customer is pretty concerned with what others think, not with what makes for a fun, entertaining ride. The new 500cc and 750c Street, based lightly on the V-Rod engine and some technology, should break this mindset – hopefully.
Upon making it home, I had logged some 4200 miles on the V-Rod. I hated its limited riding position. I hated its fuel capacity. I loved its looks. I loved its power delivery. I loved its ease of control at speed. And I especially loved it on a Wednesday night in August when I was heading to a Bike Night in Huntington Beach.
There I sat at a traffic light in the right lane when a GSX-R750, R6 and a Ninja 636 pulled up next to me. Now, having attempted to figure out the wheelie on the V-Rod for a month had taught me quite a bit about how to release the clutch and get away quickly. So, I looked over at the sporty little guys, turned my head back to look down the boulevard for police and snapped my face shield down with authority. I raised the engine rpms to about 6000 and watched the light. Assorted four-into-one pipe shrieks came from my left, but I did not look. The light went green and, with a very minor amount of tire slip to the right, the very long, very easy to launch without wheelies V-Rod jumped ahead of the sporty machines. Inside my helmet, I was giggling like an eight-year-old on his first mini-bike ride. The next light had the same results. I am sure that a better rider on any of those bikes could have embarrassed me, but these were not better riders, earning me a fun story to tell for years to come.
So, in the end, the V-Rod taught me a number of lessons. Think before saying yes. Willie G. is the original hipster. If you want really long gas stops on a trip, take a bike no one has seen before. And the biggest lesson, I still love that bike for what it is, not what it wasn’t.