2009 Harley-Davidson Tourers - Frame Work

By Jamie Elvidge, Photography by Kevin Wing, Tom Riles

Here we are in Sonoma, California, cornerstone of one of the most famous wine regions in the world, and Harley-Davidson is serving up a half-dozen shades of beer. No one's going to say this company doesn't understand its audience! We're not here to point our pinkies, anyway; we've been invited to hear about Milwaukee's new and improved hardware and sample the goods in the mountains surrounding Napa Valley.

I grew up a stone's throw from these vines, so can't wait to sample the '09 touring bikes on familiar roads. Though they don't look much different, they ride on a completely new chassis that bears no resemblance to the long-in-the-tooth assembly Harley has employed since 1980. Every FL except the Heritage Softail is affected by these structural changes, seven models in all.

"Under the skin, our 2009 touring models are essentially new motorcycles," says Harley-Davidson Vice President Bill Davidson. "We touched everything," adds Project Leader and Touring Platform Engineer Ben Wright. "If it was south of the steering head, it changed, right down to the tread on the tires."

The old frame, which could make the original tourers feel a little rickety, especially when loaded, used over 90 parts. The new frame uses just 40 parts. On the whole, the touring chassis received 450 changes, all born from the engineering team's first move of stretching the wheelbase. The idea was to improve the bikes' stability and tracking without losing the legendary low-speed rideablity.

I'm extra gassed to try it because Harley's FL line and I share a long and colorful history. In 1987, I rode an Electra Glide to Baja and raced it in Mexico's infamous La Carrera Classic, a run-what-ya-brung "real" road race from Ensenada to San Felipe. I won the Unlimited V-twin class, but it certainly wasn't because the Harley was an ace on the winding roads. Racing legend Gary Nixon's bike didn't arrive in time, and he passed me in the mountains in his rental car!

I sample the Street Glide and Road King first, and find an immediate, obvious gain in manageability. The new touring bikes ride tighter from nose to tail. The retuned fork with its increased trail and redesigned triple clamp, along with the bigger 17-inch front wheel, combine to provide a noticeable improvement in steering feedback and stability. The bite feels secure, and not at all squirrelly, thanks in part to the tires Dunlop and Harley tailored specifically for this application. A new, 180mm-wide, multi-tread rear tracks like a champ.

The big test comes when I mount the heavyweight Ultra Classic Electra Glide for a two-hour romp over Mt. Saint Helena and on toward Ukiah on Highway 29, notorious for its steep corners and crappy pavement. As much as I enjoyed trying, I could not make the bike do a single thing wrong-and this with the imprint of an '08 model fresh in my mind from our September issue's touring comparison. The newly minted, robotically welded modular frame, longer wheelbase and wider, longer, stiffer swingarm make a huge difference, providing a safer, more enjoyable ride. Plus the new design allows a 70-pound boost to the GVWR, as well as a slightly increased bank angle.

Another cool improvement on the '09 tourers-and I mean that literally-is the rider-actuated rear cylinder cutout, which the rear jug when the engine is idling. Anyone who's spent time in traffic on a Twin Cam 96-especially a shrouded one-will tell you it's dang hot, and the cutout does help. Plus, the newly designed pipes have been routed further from the rider and passenger, with the left-side pipe replaced by a crossover that increases passenger legroom.

If that race in Mexico hadn't been banned years ago, I might want to go back and try it on an '09 Electra Glide. Maybe now that it handles more efficiently, I might be able to keep up with Gary Nixon in his rental car!

By Jamie Elvidge
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