1 a.m. to 7 a.m. Thursday
The phrase "middle of the night" kept running through my head, even though I knew that my stint started well past the midpoint. Maybe middle as in "no-man's land." What a strange feeling to drop into the Ultra's cushy saddle after an abbreviated sleep cycle following six hours aboard my long-term KTM as sweep rider for Jordan. I didn't get more than half a mile before I had my heart in my throat: A nearby bridge crossing went totally black as the misaimed headlight failed to illuminate my path. Zack wasn't kidding.
Sometimes what you see is as important as what you feel. I had the chance to follow Jordan for a full six hours across a route I wish I'd ridden myself on the Ultra, including a good freeway stretch and a graceful loop up California Route 33 from Ojai and out into Lockwood Valley. From behind, it was clear the Harley was handling the bumps well and showed not a single unexpected wiggle. The pre-2008 version would wobble vigorously; once, I got to see both sides of the bike as it tank-slapped for another rider. The rework in '08 was a huge improvement, and Harley's tweaks for this year have pushed it further up the scale.
Because of my route, the time of day, and the fact that we couldn't make a quick fix to readjust the worm-seeking headlight, I took it easy on the few curves dotting my stint. As I expected, the Ultra worked fine. There's enough cornering clearance that you don't have to keep those limits in mind the entire time. Its ride motions are muted and fairly predictable, with the hard bottoming common to the short-travel versions of the FL series nowhere in evidence. I don't think they are, but the Ultra's wheels feel lighter; the bike turns with ease, and the hoops follow the pavement with accuracy.
Ari must have been our boy in the barrel for aerodynamics. Tall Zack had few problems. Ari's about an inch or so taller than me, but I'm definitely shorter in the torso, which makes me sit lower on a lot of bikes, especially cruisers. That must have put me in the sweet spot for the Ultra, since I had no problems with turbulence behind the screen. As Smith and I rolled east toward Barstow and a short run on Highway 66 well before sunrise, it was clear just how good the Ultra is on the open road. Punch up cruise control, settle into a comfortable slouch, and watch the moonlit desert slide by. In the daytime, with more to see than bugs flitting through the headlight beam, the ride would have been brilliant.
As we turned south and then west around Joshua Tree, I had the first seriously cogent thought since dinner the night before: Where we all had focused on the Harley's new hardware, especially the liquid-cooled engine, linked brakes, and other hard-parts tweaks, the pieces that left the biggest impressions might actually be the smallest. The engine feels just like a Harley's, maybe a bit smoother and even more refined in terms of throttle response. I could tell the engine kicked off less heat, but the difference isn't night and day. Know what I dig? Top-loading saddlebags with simple, effective, one-finger latches. Nobody does this as well. Nobody.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Smith and I stopped for fuel just outside of Palm Springs, took a photo to mark the end of the 24-hour tour, and I didn't think badly about the two hours of traffic between there and home. I was tired, sure, but only because of the crazy hour. Mentally, I was whipped; physically, just fine. With a little espresso drink and a full tank of gas, we were ready for more. Another day in the saddle. At least.