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20 years of 'cruisers' - a personal journey pt1

January 26, 2017

Part 1 - Standard Cruisers


Each year this is typically the time I return to the UK after a month or so in the African sunshine and after having caught up with the cruisers of my relative youth - most of which are still at my place in Johannesburg. This, like Denver, is a 'mile high city' and pretty dry. So bikes preserve very well.


Over 20 years I have owned 12 cruiser style bikes, 8 of which I still have - 4 in SA & 4 in the UK. Seven of the twelve can be classed as standard cruisers and the rest as performance cruisers. As these encompass American, British, Japanese & Italian & V-twins, in-line triple, V-4, flat six & V-8, I thought a bit of comparative assessment might be of interest.


Standard Cruisers (see also attached list with key characteristics/specs)


Cruisers probably start off more as a lifestyle concept rather than a ride. Middle aged men looking to live the youth many never had the time or money for and then romantic notions of a band of brothers, camaraderie on the road etc etc. Chill out, have time to smell the roses and do that with your road buddies - Easy Rider !


One manufacturer has understood this more than any other and via its various HOG chapters, Harley has made this dream come true to hundreds of thousands of riders.


In terms of a bike, the key features sought are typically visual impact, easy to ride (most riders are no longer flexible and have relatively limited or distant experience), the potential for individuality and entry to the lifestyle. Ironically, but almost by definition, this same set of attributes often becomes the antithesis for riders of different demographics. So riders of sports bikes, adventure bikes and custom bikes tend not to also be cruiser riders (or vice-versa).


When I got back into riding In 1995 at 40 years old (after a 10 year break) I fitted the bill almost exactly - albeit I did not know it at the time. So in my mind's eye was a Harley - in my case a 'full dresser'. Living in apartheid South Africa at the time made this a challenge - no dealerships & what imports there were, were second hand and very expensive.


The first thing to hit me when I went looking was the physical size of cruisers: long, heavy and with + 1,000cc engines - versus the nimble 500s I had been used to in my 20s. Not being able to find a Harley I liked and could afford, I went Japanese. The Japanese manufacturers all wanted a part of the huge US cruiser market pie and so had started to make bikes targeting the Harley rider. Not necessarily great bikes, not that popular and not cool - but a lot cheaper and on average much more reliable.


So I found a brand new Kawasaki VN1500. Biggest engine around but actually more a Sportster in terms of design than a big twin. Easy to ride, 4 speed box and quite fast. Hard to find Kawasaki after market parts - so added my own one-off exhaust to give it a decent sound. The clutch has never been man enough for the torque, but aside from that not bad. Got me back into biking, but not something you would give your soul for. And of course being a Kawasaki, it did not bring the Harley inspired lifestyle. Like many I have learnt that only Harleys can really do that - so if this is key, do not bother with other makes. The VN still gets a ride 22 years later - but more duty than passion.





After being convinced that I was indeed back into biking I did go and buy my Harley and this did open the door to the lifestyle. It was a 1996 FLSTN Heritage Softail Nostalgia in green and silver and with 1,300 miles on the clock. The looks sold it to me, however, first riding impressions were not that great: heavy, clunky gearbox, slow, poor  suspension & braking. So great on the aesthetics but the rest ......? Another learning experience - that is a Harley! A Mikuni carb and new air filter improved performance, the rest I got used to and learnt to understand that this was all part of the Harley mystique. The lifestyle came in 1997 when  we started the Johannesburg HOG Chapter and my wife also joined in with her Sportster. The FLSTN is now in the 2WheelsMiklos collection in Guildford and I still love it!




I had always been a secret admirer of the Goldwing. However, I never liked how it had morphed into a 2 wheeled car (even more extreme than the Harley Ultra). So when the flat six came out as the naked Valkyrie I really wanted to try it. A few European models were imported to South Africa and in 1998 I bought a nearly brand new one with about 1,000 miles on the clock. What a revelation. It instantly became my favourite bike - fast, sophisticated, good handling (low centre of gravity flat-6) and despite its apparent physical size, actually lighter than my Harley. The after market 6-into-6 Cobra exhausts are straight through and give a unique sound. The Valkyrie has stayed a favourite and so was a natural candidate for one of the 2WheelsMiklos custom cruisers. Even though the Valkyrie does not have a big rider community, it is still one of the great head turner bikes. You always get a crowd when you stop to fill up!




In 1999 we moved to the UK and high on our agenda was to stay riding and continue with our HOG community. So I needed a new Harley. After having ridden the Valkyrie I was keen on a more rider's bike. Fortunately this coincided with Harley releasing one of its most sporty big twins - the FXDX Superglide Sport. Decent twin discs, proper suspension and relatively modest size. I bought it and immediately bonded with it. It could take corners, did over 110 mph but was a Harley. So a blend of the unusual. For 8 years it was my go to bike. Toured Europe and the UK on it and had a blast. Electrical  and other gremlins started to make their appearance felt and one day at Warr's in Chelsea I part-exchanged it on my Crossbones. Apparently my timing was good as it had a major blow up less than a thousand miles later. This was also the first bike on which I started to do make-overs - nice new silver paint job after a ding in the garage.





In 2001 My job took me almost full time to Melbourne - but without my family. Victoria is a beautiful state and I needed a bike to enjoy it. Coincidentally Honda had just released its biggest bike ever - the VTX 1800 V-twin. Long, low (grinds on most corners) and powerful and pretty fast - in the mould of the V-Rod. It was a great bike for high speed touring in the Australian countryside. The only real issue was a relatively short range in a place where the distance between filling stations is long. I saw the interior - outback and mountains, the Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island (even did a track day with the VTX) and a lot more. Mainly riding fast on my own. Of course the cruiser community in Australia is Harley dominated and tends not to be enamoured of Japanese bikes. I fitted Cobra pipes to give it a good roar and after taking it to South Africa changed the paint from black to fire engine red and white. Still a great ride today.




In 2008 I had a real 'back to the future' moment. My FXDX was giving trouble, our local Harley shop had shut so I was using Warr's in Chelsea to help me sort my bike. On one visit I saw a demo FLSTSB Crossbones. With its springer front end, softail rear, tractor seat, floor boards etc it was at long last the retro Harley I had always been looking for. After a part exchange I was the proud owner of a brand new gloss black Crossbones. I am still riding it and it is still my favourite Harley. It goes really well, attracts a lot of interest and grounds with plenty of sparks on most corners. I have done plenty to it: 110 cubic inch motor, Heavy Breather and Short Shot Vance & Hines pipes; saddle bags, rack, tool box and screen plus a very bespoke black and metallic yellow paint scheme. It has covered Europe and the UK and to my knowledge is the only springer to have ever done the Iron Hog (all 28 mainland UK dealerships visited in a weekend in 2013). It is now also an appreciating classic since Harley stopped building springers.




Only one manufacturer might have the muscle to take on Harley in its own back yard - and that is Polaris, especially now that it is putting all its energy into the iconic Indian brand after dropping Victory. In 2014 I saw a new Indian Chief Vintage in bespoke black and white paint at the north Johannesburg dealer, Born to Ride. I was intrigued by the very retro looks (engine and frame) but brand new cutting edge design underneath it all. After a test ride I was convinced. A heavy, long bike but one which wears its size very well. Weight is low down and handling is good. After fitting stage 2 cams, new air filter and fishtail pipes, power and especially torque are great. And the visual impact is huge - in particular the beautiful leatherwork. It probably compares to the Harley Roadking, but based on my riding experience with the Indian, it is a lot nicer to ride than the equivalent Harley. If Indian/Polaris can keep their act together they may start to give Harley a run - but that is a very big if........




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