Twenty-four hours. Around the clock. Twice, if you're the analog type. To push something—anything—for a full day has long been the yardstick for durability. Survive 24 hours of punishment and the rest is gravy. And yet, that kind of stress test is not what this story is about. We knew, as sure as we could know, that the new Harley-Davidson Ultra—our shortened term for what is properly called the Electra Glide Ultra Limited—would stand up to a day of our practically patented pounding. After all, this is a touring bike, not a racer; whatever kind of abuse we could apply to it during a single 24-hour period on the road is nothing like what The Motor Company has already committed during more serious and documented testing. Milwaukee's best and brightest design meticulously (inside their allowed parameters) and test the hell out of stuff. Given that view, the famed ability of Motorcyclist to bust things looked in doubt before we even began.
The Ultra, as you know, sports Harley's latest development of its famed 45-degree V-twin. From the powertrain perspective, the new 103 cubic-inch engine is distinguished mainly by "precision" liquid cooling. Look upon this advance as not so much the end of the world as we know it but instead the realization by H-D engineers that a large air-cooled engine can only take so much before that very design comes to hold it hostage. With power comes heat. Absent the ability to reject that heat, well, there's not much more power to be found. You can go bigger—Harley does in the CVO line—but there is a practical upper limit for this basic design. Liquid cooling allows Harley to up the compression ratio for more power and improved efficiency without the risk of melting pistons or riders' thighs. It's all good.
Now, about our plan. We had the bright idea of basing our adventure out of Tehachapi, California, about two hours north of the concrete tiltup we call an office. The reasons were simple: to give us four different routes from a central point that would avoid LA's notorious traffic and offer us a chance to get away from the maddening masses. That's why you go touring in the first place, right? What's more, we decided that for safety and camaraderie we would have the primary rider followed by a sweep; the Harley carried tools and supplies for itself, but helping hands are always welcome.
Because 24 hours is a brutally long time to stay in the saddle, even on a thoroughly comfortable machine, we broke the test into four segments of six hours each, four routes that varied from 250 to 345 miles. One pair would ride, get six hours off, and switch roles from tester to sweep to do it all again. Regular staffers Zack Courts, Ari Henning, and Marc Cook were joined by Baggers Editor-in-Chief Jordan Mastagni for one stint; newly hired Editorial Director Kevin Smith got his hazing over with in a hurry, coming out to ride sweep on the final stint of the test. Nothing like putting the boss' boss on the 1 a.m. shift, eh?
Our goal wasn't to break the Harley in a day; it was simply to spend an intense period with it, putting on the miles, ogling its new features, and talking about our experiences in the saddle—all while we spin once around on our blue globe.
7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday
The air is crisp and the sun is pouring golden rays over the hills as I ride out of Tehachapi on the first leg of this 24-hour test ride. I can't think of a better way to start the day. As the guy riding during the "good light," I have the honor of piloting the Harley for ace photographer Kevin Wing. That means dozens of U-turns.
Forget what I said before; this is an awful way to start the day!
I was apprehensive about all the about-facing, but get this—the Ultra may well be the easiest bike I've ever U-turned. Unshakable stability and massive steering sweep meant I could execute a smooth reversal with room to spare. You certainly feel every ounce of the Ultra's 900 pounds when you're lifting it off the sidestand, but add just 2 or 3 mph to the equation and the Hog feels like it sheds 400 pounds and sprouts outriggers.
Once Kevin had fired off a few thousand shots, I was released with my tail, Zack, on his long-term Ducati Multistrada. We headed north toward Lake Isabella on Caliente Bodfish Road, a famously twisty, narrow, and dirty thoroughfare. Once again my prejudices were repudiated and much to my pleasure. Once I calibrated my brain to the Harley's handling—it's willing but needs extra time and space to maneuver—I was impressed with how quickly the Ultra glided down the road.
Quick enough to keep a Multistrada rider happy? No, but fast enough to keep him from getting frustrated and at a pace that felt like I was doing the curves justice. Steering is light despite more than 6 inches of trail and all that stuff bolted to the fork, and the bike feels planted while leaned over. Suspension action is excellent. Cal-Bod is a bumpy ride, but the Ultra countered every crack, dip, and frost heave with compliant, yet supportive, suspension. Cornering clearance is the best I've experienced on a bike from Milwaukee, with the floorboards touching down only a few times and only when I encountered big dips mid-corner.
If you're used to a sportbike, the Harley is slow to shed speed, but it does so better than you'd think a half-ton hunk of iron would. Linked brakes help. There is a caveat: The system is unlinked below 25 mph but linked above and remains linked until you let off the brakes, so unless you keep an eye on the speedometer while you're hustling the bike down a canyon road, you never really know what kind of whoa! the lever or pedal is going to yield.
I don't know how the other guys fared, but this 5-foot-10 rider experienced a lot of helmet buffeting when the speedo needle swung past 75. And as it turns out, it's worse with a passenger. A week before this 24-hour "Hog Slog," my wife and I rode the Ultra Glide to Las Vegas and we both ended up with headaches from the incessant battering. It was bad enough that I eventually unbolted the windshield and threw it in the trunk. In my opinion, that adjustable vent below the windshield, said to reduce buffeting by 20 percent, is simply an admission that the batwing fairing has horrendous aerodynamics.
The Electra Glide is too big, too heavy, too slow, and too expensive to interest me, but after all that time in that cushy saddle, I get it. I might not be a bar-and-shield guy right now, but once I shake my addiction to performance (and win the lottery), I can see myself setting off into the sunrise on my own Harley-Davidson.
1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday
I arrived at the Tehachapi rendezvous on my 2013 Road Glide eager to see how the 2014 Electra Glide Ultra Limited measured up. We all know that Harley's entire Touring fleet has been redesigned as part of its Project Rushmore initiative. Who knew the MoCo would ever make so many changes and all at once?
The Ultra Limited definitely looked more aerodynamic. It has been equipped with sleeker-looking saddlebags, bag lids, pizza box, and a completely redesigned batwing fairing with adjustable vent to reduce turbulence for the rider. Harley definitely took a more 21st century approach in the aesthetics department here. No more, "they're boxy, but they're good!" thinking, which is representative of H-D's overall focus from both engineering and design perspectives—outside the traditional box all the way.
I spent a few moments familiarizing myself with the Ultra Limited's new Boom! Box 6.5GT infotainment system at a fuel stop. After about 30 minutes on the road, I completely forgot everything I learned. Am I an idiot? Maybe. But I'd like to think I wasn't the only one scratching the back of my helmet after fidgeting with the touchscreen or toggling the joysticks on the handlebar switches when cruising then completely giving up due to frustration. The other thing I had to remind myself was that cruise control was repositioned to the left handlebar switch housing. Since my wife says I have short-term memory loss (debatable), more times than not I ended up adjusting the wrong function because of this.
Speaking of cruising, I immediately noticed the difference in vibration from the Road Glide. Or lack thereof. After 150 miles, I still felt fresh as a daisy, ready to charge on for the second half of our six-hour stint. After our entire leg concluded—just five minutes over six hours—I didn't experience the pins-and-needles effect in my shoulder blades nor did I need a shoulder rub from my riding buddy, Marc Cook. I definitely didn't feel the need for Advil. The smooth-operating Ultra Limited offered just that: an ultra-plush ride with limited fatigue.
Usually I can't comfortably flatfoot a bagger at stoplights. I also have very tight hip flexors, so I tend to cramp when my legs are spread too far apart for extended periods of time. (Yes, I just said that. Get your minds outta the gutter!) That bowlegged effect we shorter riders (29-inch inseam) experience was gone thanks to the narrower front/wider rear saddle.
One of the biggest things I was looking forward to testing was the difference in heat dissipation from Harley's first-ever liquid-cooled Twin Cam engine. Since it was a fairly warm day (upward of 90 degrees at times), it was hard to tell if the warmth on my legs was caused by not receiving enough air from the too-stiff-to-move vents in the lowers or if the high-output cams and upped compression were the culprits.
The 2014 Ultra Limited offered the complete package that a Baggers reader looks for: comfortable, functional, and definitely stylish. H-D's Project Rushmore addressed a lot of the gripes its customers have made over the years. I know it takes some serious cojones to risk your reputation with HOG faithful. You definitely have this rider's respect, if that means anything…
7 p.m. Wednesday to 1 a.m. Thursday
Well, what could be more American than riding off into a California sunset on a Harley-Davidson? Glowing with patriotism, I pointed the Ultra toward the sinking sun and thundered west. The ergonomics work pretty well for someone 6-foot-2, though the saddle is certainly wider than I need it. No surprise there, I guess.
I dived headlong into the infotainment system, but I didn't find it as intuitive as Aaron Frank had raved about in his First Ride (MC, Nov. 2013). Although, as the sun plunged below the mountains and out of sight, I was pleased to see the screen automatically change to a night setting before becoming blindingly bright—a nice touch.
The face of a frustrated rider. Auxiliary lamps look cool and provide more light, but you
True darkness highlighted another problem: a lack of lighting on the handlebar-mounted controls. (Lighted Hand Control Switches are a $249.95 option, available in H-D's 1,000-page P&A catalog.) I was consistently bailed out by Ari over our intercom: "It's the one on the other side of the rocker from the right blinker" came the melancholy voice, jaded from the same frustrations.
Once at the edge of the Central Valley, California Route 58 snakes into the hills, and with each passing turn I came to realize the highly praised Daymaker headlights weren't cutting it. A quick stop confirmed that they were aimed too low, but unfortunately the adjustment required more tools than we had. It didn't help that the auxiliary lights are mounted so that they can be swiveled side to side but not tilted up or down.
By the return leg of my loop, temperatures had fallen drastically and I was glad for the good wind protection. Buffeting around my helmet at freeway speeds was the only real annoyance. As I blasted back to home base under a nearly full moon, I reflected on what a truly effortless bike the Ultra is to ride. Nearly 1,000 pounds of Milwaukee iron grumbling in a parking lot becomes a modern luxury liner at speed. No vibration, a light touch on the bars even on twisty roads, and a lovely all-American sound whenever you want it.
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.
2014 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
There you have it: the classic cruiser-tourer layout. While the Limited has plenty of legroom and provides enough space between the saddle and the wide, tiller-like bars, the overall riding position is very much in the cruiser idiom, with your weight on your tailbone and spine nearly vertical. Floorboards offer enough room to move around; there would be more without the “heel” shifter.
What more do you want out of a big-inch V-twin? The new “precision-cooled” engine makes traditionally good midrange torque, but the surprise is how flat the horsepower curve is in the last 1,500 rpm. That’s an engine to get on the power and stay there.
||a/l-c 45-deg. V-twin
|Bore x stroke
||98.3 x 111.1mm
||EFI, ride by wire
||Showa 49mm fork
||Dual Showa shocks with air-adjustable preload
||Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS
||Brembo four-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS
||130/80B-17 Dunlop D408F
||180/65B-16 Dunlop D407T
|Weight (tank full/empty)
||80.5 bhp @ 5000 rpm
||95.6 lb.-ft. @ 3800 rpm
|Fuel mileage (hi/low/avg.)
||Vivid Black, Mysterious Red Sunglo/Blackened Cayenne Sunglo, Charcoal/Silver Pearl, and more
||24 months, unlimited miles