Triking One For The Team | Going Gently

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
–Dylan Thomas

I have no great history with trikes.

My first one, red and white, came from Monkey Wards and had a temperamental habit of getting its straight-linked pedals ahead of my fat little legs on steep downhills, whacking me in the calves and tossing me over the high side in a toddler-style Fosbury Flop.

Yeah, I rode fixies before fixies were cool.

I was still a single-digit tyke when dad brought home a pair of Honda ATC 90 three-wheelers. If you recall the zero-travel suspension and solid-axle steering of those adorable deathtraps, it’s probably because you carry a good-sized scar to remind you. In my case, it’s a 3-incher across my left thigh.

Still, when the editor says “break a leg,” what’s a literalist to do? My busted ankle meant scrubbing half the summer’s motor-cycling and testing Harley’s new trike instead.

Since the 2009 model year, Harley-Davidson has offered its FLHTCUTG Tri Glide Ultra Classic, a triple-tired Big Twin for aging bikers with rusty frame gussets. In Milwaukee’s lineup, the Tri Glide displaced the factory sidecar rig, which moved units at approximately single-digit rates. While 2009-’10 tri-wheelers were assembled by Lehman Trikes in Spearfish, South Dakota, the 2011 run moved to H-D’s York, Pennsylvania facility. The current model is thus the first all-Harley, native three-wheeler since the putt-putt 1932-’72 Servi-Cars.

I crutched into Eastside Harley-Davidson’s showroom in Bellevue, Washington, to pick up a zero-mile Tri Glide that retails at $30,499. While they bolted up an accessory rack ($189.95) suitable for lashing on my walking sticks, I eyeballed my new ride. The Tré motorvates with a luscious 103-cubic-inch Twin Cam V-twin. A classic Batwing fairing shields its leather sofa cushion, sumo-grade footboards and steamlined luggage.

It looked fine to me, but GM Scott Cook wasn’t feeling the gimp love.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked Pretty Wife at least three times as I stumped around, examining the beast from all angles. “Is he gonna be okay riding?”

Her Mona Lisa smile was the silent reply of one who pays the life insurance premiums.

Leathered up like The Gimp in Pulp Fiction, we sallied forth directly into the teeth of a late spring storm. The Leisure Glide shares excellent weather protection with its two-footed progenitor. Six-footers will get damp knees and a dribble over the tops of their helmets only. The characteristic it does not share? Being a motorcycle.

The first thing a three-wheeler course teaches you is never put your boots down. This prevents the Massey Ferguson-style embarrassment of running yourself down from behind—like so many of us did on those little Hondas of yore. Still hurts when I limp about it. The first thing you learn on your own is to dispense with the instinct forcing you to steer down the wheel tracks. Just plant your nosewheel on the grease stripe and leave it there.

Second, trikes do not lean. Not even slightly, although H-D’s people claim a round-shouldered front tire is necessary to lighten steering, and because there is a non-zero amount of sideward tire roll during cornering. I grew to dread the notion of heavier steering as I built my arm strength over the next few days. During a hard stop, you stomp the brake pedal with Kenworth authority to haul down car-sized rear tires. Skinnier tires might allow chassis drifting and improve fuel mileage, perhaps at the cost of appearing overly retro—if that’s even possible in this age of Road King Classics and the 48. Bring on the wide whites!

While it’s no motorcycle, the Gimp Glide is every inch a Harley in the universal attention it attracts. On our first two-up foray, a darkroom denizen of the North City Tavern lurched across 15th Ave. to discover whether Harley’s triple threat had reverse. At my admission, he exploded into mirthless laughter.

“Ha! All you Harley guys make fun of my Gold Wing ’cause it’s got reverse!”

I smiled my gimpiest smile. “Maybe we’re just tired of being called ‘bar hoppers’ by Honda riders.”

I let out the clutch, but he stumbled backward before I could gout-test his toes with the rear wheel. Can’t be too harmless, lest they take my rumbling Rascal for granted…

Mumbling casually along on the fly Tri evoked memories of college days on the Palouse. Shifting at 2200 rpm, two hands firmly shepherding the front end, stomping a pedal to slow and “apexing” wherever traffic engineers painted the line: These weren’t memories of my ’86 Yamaha or even my ’52 Beeza.

They were memories of a grain truck.

Or of an army deuce, famous for the emergency brake you couldn’t release (or even see) without opening the driver door. Similarly obscured, the Tri-Brake hides under the right passenger footboard, fouling it upon release. These are trivial things. Real men don’t fuss about buttery shifting. We make our gearboxes do the whining for us. We smoke parking brakes like mesquite chips.

Dick’s Burgers is the PNW’s grunge analogue to the chipper neon of In-N-Out. When Smalldaughter took over the cockpit (the better to get dad to hold a chocolate shake at her elbow), I surmised Harley’s canny strategy for spousal buy-in. The pillion is not only comfier, it also has rear volume and channel controls for the 80-watt Harmon-Kardon four-speaker stereo—the better to keep her chauffeur in line.

Shipyard Larry pulled into Dick’s on a Wing-based trike. He goes about 6-foot-3, with two canes and a patch that reads “IF YOU DON’T LIMP, YOU AIN’T SH*T.” He can’t really ride his chopped Trumpet anymore. We discussed the tough-guy biker topics of kids and dogs. He said his grandkids love trike rides.

At a nearby hilltop park, where I stopped so Smalldaughter could have a swing, I laid down in the grass, trying not to think about my leg, and watched the clouds leave without me. A 50ish voice intruded politely.

“This is just beautiful,” he breathed, gesturing toward the Tri Glide. “What’s it like to ride?”

“It’s …” I thought for a moment about being stuck on this non-bike, about blowing half a summer on crutches, then surprised myself with the truth. “It’s … kinda neat, really.”

Beaming, he flashed vintage orthodontia through last week’s Mazatlan tan. “I knew it! Sure is beautiful…”

Well, it is nice paint. Scratch-resistant Vivid Black—the Viagraest color of all.

The next day, with Pretty Wife riding her small GS, we embarked on a family expedition. A two-ferry peninsular swing brought us to the solstice-timed WetleatherTM Goat Roast on Vashon, where pulling up on more than two wheels risks impromptu corporal punishment. First, the spankings…

With WetleatherTM approximately the only cohort aging more swiftly than Harley’s fishtailed Boomer demographic, we indulge in fewer capering goat dances, practically no streetbike races in the dirt and much more standing around, sipping acacia juice and grumbling like winter bears. It ain’t nowhere near the end of the line, but we can see it from here. For all the good-natured rebukes, I found myself quietly talkin’ trikes to a surprising number of old, bold riders. Stealth sidebars included steering (heavy, and non-counter), mileage (car-like) and the clumsy joys of “heel-and-heel” shifting with a cam walker fracture boot.

The essence of Tri Glide is a prosthesis for riding, like wearing glasses or a knee brace. Jeer all you want, X-Boy, but it’s been a long time since humans jogged to a job where we hunted with spears. We are physically imperfect creatures. We do what we can.

Trikes also excel at summer tramping. Smalldaughter and I stuffed food, clothes and gifts into the trunk; staged camera, water and snacks in the top box; strapped bedrolls, tent and crutches up top; then bailed south toward Portland. Our destination that day was a friend’s wake. Engineered to sound mellow, the Tri held its own at Ken’s memorial rev-off. Even amid a fury of shrieking triples, zinging sixes and ringing two-smokes, all bass notes rise to Heaven.

It was a timely reminder to get over myself. Is the point to be revivified once more by the kiss of the wind, or to look cool while we pass the guy in front of us? Either way, the difference between bungeeing crutches onto a motorized milk stool and never riding anything again isn’t 100 percent.

It’s infinite.

We stole through Portland’s exurbs with the glint of rural freedom in our eye. Holding her arms out like wings, Smalldaughter yelled for more speed, cheering every time we hit a rise in the road. Although the 103 Twin Cam was more than willing to run up our speed, everything—wind protection, mileage, handling, stereo tunes and my attitude—worked better at 60 than 70. Tri Clydesdales do one thing no mere motorcycle can: pull lateral Gs. Squealing with laughter, Smalldaughter braced her arches against the footboard backs as we

slalomed. She didn’t care that we weren’t on a “real” motorcycle.

How much better was that than not riding? All the way better.

Smalldaughter’s enthusiasm matched the endless summer day. Running the lines I used to scout in a beat-down diesel lift truck, we hove east toward Mt. Rainier National Park, where even Ansel Adams couldn’t do the landscape justice. Turning off at Morton, we burbled northward until blocked by a narrow-gauge tourist train at the entrance to Elbe. Behind us, a chubby sportbiker twitched impatiently. Places to go, man! On the way out of town, he wailed past on a double-yellow straight, nearly clocking a farm truck’s grille.

Highway 7 to Eatonville is generously endowed with all-natural curves. Pushing a Tri Glide until its tubular handlebar shakes leaves a rider three options: 1) Slow down (yes, really, and right-damn-now); 2) plow the front wheel into the outside bar pit (sub-optimal); or 3) lean down hard over the inside handlebar and goose the snot out of it at 3000 rpm. If the highway gods and its open differential smile upon you with favor, this will break loose the rear in a brief spasm of golf cart athleticism.

If not, see #2. If Pretty Wife is watching, better stick with #1.

We caught Mister Sporty Pants at the third set of twisties and gave him a shot of our incendiary road floods, which are Harley’s functional equivalent of log truck air horns. His form immediately deteriorated. Somewhere out there is a young man, wearing blue-and-white racing leathers, on whom late-model Suzuki sportbikes are entirely wasted. Although he urgently needed a countersteering demonstration, we couldn’t show him that day. Trikes don’t work like that.

Do as I say, not as I gimp.

Sometimes, on a rural road under the sun, you can feel your personal rings seat as you settle into the rhythm and flow. If you require a state-of-the-art “masterbike” or a sense of personal superiority to bring that through, maybe you’re doin’ it wrong. Backing off the young man on the sportbike, I silently wished him a long, happy road.

Looking straight into the western sun, I nearly missed My Precious sitting pretty behind a bob-wire fence on the outskirts of McKenna. There aren’t many ’39 Ford pickup trucks spatted up in root beer float colors. I’d never even seen an unjunked one outside an old trade poster. I thought about her constant maintenance; pondered “Armstrong steering” and foolish parking brakes, ill handling and puny horsepower; considered the stacks of money I didn’t have. No honkin’ Hailwood Replica but oh my, was she a pretty thing. She could keep me enjoying the road for a long, long time.

Of course, I have no great history with trucks, either.

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