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Jun / Jul 2012
Easy Rider

Writer: Kevin Hackett

Maybe you’re not that keen on motorcycles and prefer four wheelers, but Harley-Davidson’s new Softail Slim is a welcoming machine for riders moving up to a large engined bike for the first time.

 

Truth? I am terrified of motorcycles. There, I’ve said it. But as embarrassing as that fact is, it’s nothing compared to confessing a love for Harley-Davidson, because most bikers would sooner spit on a Harley than sit on one.

I don’t view them as motorcycles, though. I view them as anachronistic, retro cool objets d’art that happen to have big engines and wheels. And, if you’re wondering why bikes (specifically superbikes) cause me such anguish, it’s that the riding position is hunkered down, meaning you can’t really see your surroundings (not that you’d be able to take in the view once the throttle is opened), they’re uncomfortable and most of all, they offer practically zero chance of survival if you come off at anything like high speed.

Not only are Harley-Davidsons big, lazy and unabashedly old fashioned, they also grunt a lot and would only do some serious damage if one fell on you. Against all the odds, they’re still around making trouble. I could fill this entire page with a list of all the attributes I personally share with Harleys. Perhaps that’s why I have such love for them and can see past their glaringly obvious imperfections.

Here’s another truth. I only took my bike test 18 months ago. And another. After more than a year of living in the Middle East, I haven’t been back on two wheels. So, after these three confessions, it’s probably high time for a dare and as I mentally spin the bottle I realise I need to face my fears and get back on a bike. At least in this part of the world it’s unlikely I’ll come a cropper on a sodden drain cover in the middle of the road while I’m leaning into a corner. So I climb onto a Hog and head for the open road – a Harley’s natural habitat.

You’ve got to hand it to Harley-Davidson, it knows how to milk a design to death. The new Softail Slim model, for all the posturing of its maker, is basically a remix of everything else they have been building for decades. The name is new, as are the handlebars, the seat and the paint finishes – everything else has been seen before. The front end is straight off a Fat Boy, the rear from the Blackline. And yet it still manages to look unique. With its minimal brightwork, this bike is blacker than the ace of spades and stylistically, it’s totally 1950s - if Marlon Brando had ridden the Softail Slim in ‘The Wild One’, nobody would have thought it strange.

With a deep breath, I accept the (imagined) dare and throw a leg over the almost ridiculously low seat. With an engine displacement of 1,690cc, this is a big old lump. Proudly on display, it’s basically a whacking great air-cooled engine on wheels - back-to-basics in impeccable style - something detractors have always said comes before substance.

My brain scrambles as I struggle to recall my training and the procedures for starting the big V-twin engine. As it rumbles into life, it all comes flooding back and that ‘potato-potato-potato-potato’ sound from its exhaust is music to my ears. Nervously, I edge out onto the mad city highway and head for the epic roads that lie just a few kilometres away. All the fear and trepidation vanishes within minutes. It would appear that riding a motorcycle is – ahem – like riding a bike. You never really forget. The Softail Slim feels absolutely right and when I open the throttle it surges forward on a seemingly unstoppable wave of muscly torque, all the while tingling my scalp with its booming, flatulent exhaust note.

The flawless roads are entirely bereft of potholes and other imperfections that can make bikers wish they’d taken the car. The heat of the afternoon sun on the tarmac enables the fat tyres to gain purchase aplenty, which in turn allows me to lean in further while taking the occasional hairpin corner and when I start scraping the pegs, I can’t help feeling like progress is being made here. It’s a small but significant achievement.

The bike steers beautifully, it feels stable at speeds I’m comfortable with and enables me to tackle the tightest mini roundabouts with consummate ease. And as a nod to modernity, it’s fitted with ABS brakes, which do the job of wiping off speed without even a hint of drama.

With very little traffic sharing the vast road space, I’m in my element and so is this gorgeous bike. After a few more hours I’ve made up my mind: I’ll be heading here again soon and leaving the car at home. As much as I love being on four wheels, this Harley-Davidson does something no car is able to replicate, it turns the open road into an adventure. Go on, give it a try. I dare you.

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