Tours of Victory
I don't get very excited by cruisers. They are heavy, slow, don't handle as nicely as other classes of motorcycles and can be very uncomfortable due to poor ergonomics and lack of wind protection. So when Sean "Dirty" Alexander called me up and asked if I wanted to help ride a pair of Victory cruisers from LA to Seattle, WA, I was only mildly excited.
But I got a bit more interested upon seeing the two bikes at California Speed Shop, where Will Tate maintains Victory's West Coast press fleet. Instead of the stripped-down boulevard machines I was expecting, the Kingpin and Hammer we were to make our journey upon were outfitted with saddlebags and windscreens. They
also had beefier suspension and brakes than I was expecting. This could be interesting, I thought as I decided which bike to ride back to MO.
I plucked up the Kingpin, as I needed something with a wide passenger seat and a backrest I could strap my dufflebag to for the first part of my trip to my house in San Francisco. The Kingpin looks like a very functional touring cruiser. We tested the slightly more upscale Kingpin Victory Deluxe here in 2004. The 2005 model we tested uses the same "Freedom" 92 cubic inch engine and five-speed gearbox. The 2006 model uses the 100 CI engine with a six-speed overdrive, which is in the 2005 Hammer.
After wiring up my satellite radio receiver to the battery and strapping my duffle bag to the backrest on the Kingpin, I sat down on the broad, well-padded and supportive seat. The handlebars were angled upwards so high that my shoulders started to strain almost instantly. I dug an allen key out of the MO toolbox and dropped the pull-back bars as far down as I could without them touching the gas tank. Much better! This was a bike I could ride for a few miles, at least.
The Kingpin was equipped with a huge windscreen and big, locking, leather-covered hard saddlebags. The bags are a funny shape, making them suitable for smaller items or clothing. A Goldwing it's not. The windscreen is a high-quality item with sturdy brackets and just four bolts connecting it to the attractive mounting brackets, making it easy to remove. The high screen and low seat meant that 5'6" me was looking straight through the windscreen rather than over it. Luckily it's free of distortion, providing a clear view.
When it was time to roll, I fired it up and pointed it at I-5 for the first 400 mile leg of my journey. As with any motorcycle, the first things you notice on the Kingpin are its weight and the pull of the motor. For a heavyweight cruiser, it felt solid rather than heavy. The motor revved freely, made nice sounds, and pulled strongly, with no carburetion glitches, from almost any gear. The clutch pull was light and engagement was smooth and easy. The gearbox shifted easily, if not butter-smooth. The heel-toe shifter helps with that, though. Who buys cruisers for silky-smooth gearboxes, anyway?
With rational steering geometry and a nice, low center of gravity, the Kingpin proved easy to hustle through typical 405 LA afternoon traffic. As I watched the odometer click over, I gained confidence in the big V-Twin. Soon, I was lane-splitting fast enough to pass a few bewildered regular commuters on their bikes as I headed towards what I knew would be a grim, hot slog up the flat, straight, cow-poop scented superhighway.
Usually I hate riding up I-5 because the high-speed windblast makes my radio hard to hear and tires me out. But with the nice big windscreen, I was able to crouch back there with my faceshield up, my NPR friends nice and loud in my earplug speakers. And unlike a Goldwing or another bike with a large, fixed fairing, the windscreen still allowed enough air to my torso to blow through my open Aerostich and cool me off.
Of course, the cruiser seating position is the limiting factor with a cruising tourer. With all your weight settled firmly into the cupped saddle, your tailbone and butt-cheeks start to ache after an hour. After two hours, you've lost all feeling as nerve damage sets in. Flipping the passenger floorboards down and crouching on them, jockey-style helps, but only until your legs start to cramp up.
But who needs to sit on a motorcycle for more than an hour and a half, anyway? In hot-weather riding, you want to stop every hour to re-hydrate and soak your t-shirt and bandanna. And the claimed 4.5 gallon tank is only good for about 120 to 150 miles before the low-fuel warning light comes on, depending on how fast you are pushing that plexiglass barn-door through the hot atmosphere.
So here's the old saw: we don't buy cruisers to handle, do we?
To push said door, the 92 cubic inch engine has plenty of power. The engines on Victory's cruisers are really very good. With its boxy, muscular look, smooth-shifting transmission, faultless carburetion and a broad and flat powerband that always seems to have enough oomph, no matter what gear or throttle position you are in, the Freedom engine is an excellent powerplant by any standard, cruiser or otherwise.
Handling isn't bad either. The wide bars offer enough leverage to overcome the long chassis and raked-out front end. The big inverted forks have enough travel to deal with bumpy corners, but like most cruisers the rear shock, even though it works through a rising-rate linkage, still lacks the travel and damping to deal with the choppy, tight stuff. And don't forget you have to pay the price of having a heel-toe shifter and lots of legroom with a chronic lack of ground clearance. Don't be in too big a hurry to get on and off the freeway or make a hasty U-turn; you'll leave a lot of aluminum ground into the pavement.
So here's the old saw: we don't buy cruisers to handle, do we? And don't get the wrong impression: for a cruiser, the Victory feels solid, stable and responsive at legal and even extra-legal velocities. It's in the very tight stuff, when hard parts start to drag, and in very high speed sweepers, when the bike starts to wallow a bit, that you notice any deficiencies. I hate to use the modifier "for a", but I have to: for a cruiser, the Kingpin handles quite nicely.
A day on the Kingpin got me home from LA with not too much wear and tear on my body other than some sunburn on my face from riding into the setting sun and a sore lower back and ass. The following evening, a roar of an unmuffled V-Twin announced the arrival of Dirty and the Hammer for an overnight stay before we continued together to Seattle.
I would ride the Hammer the rest of the way, so I checked it out on the morning of our departure. The Hammer is a powerful bike visually: from the Toxic Green paint to the ridiculously fat rear tire and the chic v-shaped handlebars, the Hammer screams "look at me" to everyone who sees it.
Or hears it. Victory thoughtfully installed the free-flowing performance mufflers on the Hammer, just to make sure we didn't fall asleep while riding. They make a loud, deep and rumbling sound. And there's extra go to match the extra decibels: the 100 cubic inch engine makes appreciably more power and torque than its 92 CI little brother. The 100 incher also gets a sixth gear, useful for cruising (ha!) along while returning maximum fuel economy.
The Freedom engine is an excellent powerplant by any standard, cruiser or otherwise. With more go, you need more woah! So the Victory peeps added an extra one of those most excellent Brembo four-piston calipers, along with another floating 300-mm disc. Steel-braided lines are standard: one trend I'll never complain about. The front suspension is also upgraded: it has the same size tubes and sliders as Victory's other models, but with cartridge internals.
Victory thoughtfully equipped this bike to tour, also. It had a cool bikini windscreen with mounting tabs to stow the passenger seat cover in case one of us got lucky and picked up a svelte hitchhiker-ess. ("Dear Penthouse Forum. I never thought I'd be writing one of these letters, but...") It also had a pair of the smallest hard saddlebags I've ever seen. They were about big enough to hold a loaf of Wonder Bread each, and used Velcro® rather than locking latches to hold them down. Don't overstuff them: the lids will fly open above 75 MPH!
But almost everything I needed for a two-day trip would fit in my tankbag anyway, so I plopped myself onto the seat to start our journey. I noticed the seat was smaller and firmer than the Kingpin's, but not by a lot. The lack of floorboards also takes away a bit of comfort, but adds a bit more ground clearance.
And to test that, we headed north, across the Golden Gate, to the twistiest chunk of pavement I can think of, Highway One to Stinson Beach. It's not just twisty, but bumpy and cracked as well. The Hammer did quite well, giving me lots of confidence with the firm, well-damped front end and killer brakes. As with the Kingpin, the Achilles heel of the Hammer is a lack of ground clearance. Even a moderately brisk pace that would leave me dead last on a Sunday morning brings a symphony of scraping from both the Hammer's forward-mounted foot pegs and the Kingpin's non-sparking, aluminum floorboards.
I also assumed that the immense, 250-section rear tire would make the big green bike handle like the pickup truck the tire was stolen off of. I was mostly wrong about that. It does slow down steering and requires much more effort to hold in a turn. It also helps you
comprehend what "understeer" means. But it doesn't particularly require you to countersteer, because every motorcycle requires you to countersteer. Bicycles, too. The difference is that the Hammer requires a conscious effort to steer. Once you understand how a motorcycle steers it's not a big deal in most instances.
After a nice breakfast and some photos, we find ourselves on US 101 for a long ride to the Oregon border. Dirty and I ride the next 300 miles on the pleasantly scenic highway, experiencing fast, four-lane freeways and winding, two-lane roads through dense coastal fog. The Hammer proves a fine traveling companion: the small screen gives me better wind protection than what I'd expect on a sportbike, creating a pocket of relatively quiet air to enjoy the jazz tunes or high-brow commentary coming from my earplug speakers. The rumble and roar from the pipes is only annoying to those behind me, which is why Dirty rides in front.
Just south of Eureka, we ride through a hollowed-out tree, which makes us hungry, so we stop and eat some of the largest cheeseburgers I've ever seen. After we mount up and start riding north again, I notice we haven't filled the bikes for some time, and that my fuel light is glowing merrily. I know the Kingpin should be almost out of fuel: with the six-speed overdrive transmission, the Hammer gets slightly better fuel economy and can go further. I try to get Dirty's attention when I notice he's busy coasting
to a stop. But before I can react to this, the Hammer also coughs and runs dry. No sense letting 800 pounds of momentum go to waste: I allow the bike to coast to a stop by the side of the 101.
Sean is beaming as he pulls off his helmet: "I like having motorcycle adventures." I decline to comment on that and tell him I hope there's a gas station at this exit, and we push our bikes the 50 yards to the off-ramp. Coasting down after Sean, I notice the huge rear tire doesn't let the bike roll as fast. I don't want to roll down the center of the off-ramp at eight miles per hour, as there is a crest behind me that would hide me from fast-exiting motorists, so I'm in the paved drainage ditch to the right of the lane. The ditch is shaped exactly like the huge back tire. I can't get out of it, and here comes a big city bus. I can't get out of the ditch and out of the bus's way! Stupid friggin' tire! This is not how I want to die!
The driver gives me some slack and refrains from running me down, and I push the Hammer the last few yards to a saloon, next to a Harley Fat Boy. The owner, a jolly local radio DJ, sees us pushing our bikes and makes a show of intoxicated Harley-owning smugness: "You should have bought a Harley!"
He does like the Victorys, though, and especially admires the big rear tire on the Hammer. Another local offers the last gallon of fuel in his gas can, as there is no gas at this exit. We fill up the Hammer, and it roars to life. But the Kingpin, despite having the same amount of gas poured into it, doesn't want to start. We try everything: filling it with more gas, push-starting it down a long incline, and we get nothing.
After an hour or so of hand-wringing and trying different things, the Kingpin miraculously fires up after we shock it into life with a few sprays of starting fluid. We thank our new friends and head for Grant's Pass: another four hours away, though cold, dark fog.
US 199 is a great road, or at least I think it is -- it was too dark to see much of it that night. It winds from the coast to Grant's Pass, over mountains and meadows. It's fun at night; it must be a blast in the daytime! The Hammer is great for maintaining a quick pace on unfamiliar roads, and I'm able to keep Dirty in sight. Soon we are north of Grant's Pass, picking a fleabag hotel for our evening's stay. We go to sleep around one AM.
The next day is smooth sailing: just 300 more miles of bland Interstate highway though the pretty mountains and valleys of Oregon and Washington. After a lunch stop Dirty is ready to ride the Hammer once again, and I get back on the Kingpin for the last 90 miles. The seat is noticeably more comfortable than the Hammer's, and the floorboards are definitely better for the freeway. We get some photography done at Boeing field, and then it's a fun romp through 20 miles of stopped, rush-hour traffic in 90 degree temperatures to get to our destination.
How can motorcyclists tolerate not lane-splitting in these conditions? Why do the AMA and ABATE obsess over helmet laws when lane-splitting is illegal in 96% of the states? I've written extensively about how American motorcyclists are mostly mere owners rather than riders; now I understand why! Why sit in a traffic jam on a motorcycle when you can sit in an air-conditioned car? In any case, the traffic jams were just the last few miles of our journey, and we were headed for home after our 1200-mile journey.
I've never ridden so far on a cruiser, and thanks to Victory it was a good experience. The Victory cruisers are ideal touring companions -- for cruisers. They have all the power, braking and features you'd expect from heavyweight bikes in this price range. They sound good and go even better. They are comfortable, reliable, and well-built. Their only weakness -- if you consider this a weakness -- is that they're cruisers. They are limited by their shape, motor configuration and chassis design to be low-speed scenery-enjoyment devices. Of course, we do like to enjoy scenery when we travel, but a better-handling sport-tourer or standard would let us enjoy the scenery or make it blurry when we need to. And if America is about choice, why would we deny ourselves that?
Speaking of choice, Victory deserves a big hand for giving heavyweight cruiser buyers a choice in American V-twins. For less than the price of a Harley Road King, the Kingpin provides an excellent motor, brakes and chassis while still retaining the rumbling authenticity of the American cruiser experience. And with the Hammer, for a mere $16,899 you get a snarling, mean-looking custom with all the credibility -- and more rideability -- than custom choppers costing twice as much.
The Kingpin is a very good bike. It's comfortable, handles well, has adequate storage and does everything you ask of it, if you know what to ask for. But if you ask me, the Hammer is the one I'd like to own. It's got show-stopping looks, handles pretty well, is comfortable enough to ride a few hundred miles, has a really good motor, and is just plain fun. And that's why we buy motorcycles.