Harley-Davidson know what works and they stick to it.
Their extensive range of chromed low riders and classic tourers are all variations on an existing theme. The American giants are experts at taking a successful formula and reworking it to reveal a ‘brand new bike’. The new Blackline is no exception. Theoretically, the vintage styled Softail should stick another feather in the Yanks’ heavily adorned hat. But having ridden it, I seriously doubt it.
The Blacktail uses the tried and tested air cooled, 1584cc big twin and it is undeniably authentic. Harley have been producing twin cyclinder powerhouses since the turn of the last century and a hundred years of experience isn’t to be sniffed at. It looks the part too. The classic hardtail lines hide the horizontal rear shocks which (are supposed to) offer the kind of comfort you want to feel, but not see. There is typical Harley-Davidson quality everywhere you look. Their claim that their paint finish is twice as thick as the competition is believable when you cast your eye over the hand finished 18.9 litre tank and all the usual gleaming chrome has been banished in favour of a fuss-free look with attitude.
The rear 144mm tyre wraps around a black wire wheel and nestles beneath the chopped rear fender. Up front, a 21 inch wheel pulls the raw look together and even the ABS system is neatly discrete. Split drag bars and a lone speedo dial add yet more character to the ‘slammed’ theme, which is all fine and dandy…if you’re willing to cope with a ‘slammed’ ride too.
There are a fair few bikes on the market with unusable real-world power. But rather than worry about losing my licence, I’m more concerned about my back. And legs. And arms. And neck. I’m all for exploiting the Blackline’s deliciously torquey lump, but not if it means I’ll need physio for a week afterwards. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. The footpegs are kicked out in front as you would expect, but I’ve barely left the Harley-Davidson dealership and I’m already fidgeting and becoming increasingly annoyed.
Pootling towards the highway at a sensible, law abiding pace, I just can’t find a natural riding position. My legs feel oddly splayed and I’m gripping the handlebars, either pulling myself forwards or leaning backwards trying to find a compromise, like a sort of horizontal press up action. I push my bottom further back to extend my legs. Although my lower limbs feel instantly less cramped, my bum’s now resting on the lip of the aftermarket seat and there’s a real danger that it’ll just drag over the shiny black mudguard.
I know Harley don’t build bikes with African rumps in mind, but they do build bikes for Americans don’t they? I want to tuck my legs behind me to relieve some of the pressure on my lower back, but there’s nowhere to rest my feet. Concerned that I’ve been holding up the traffic with my mobile gymnastics, I attempt to sneak a quick glance in the mirrors, but need to flap my elbows to get a good view. So far, I’m not exactly compatible with the Blackline’s low slung, forward reaching, way-too-extreme and unadjustable riding position.
Moments later, a clear motorway beckons so I open the throttle. And instantly shut it again. The pressure from the invisible hand of Nature is pushing so hard against my chest that I reluctantly slide into the ‘slow’ lane and chug reservedly along 120kph. The Blackline is supposed to have a serious attitude, but right now, I’m the one with the issues.
A woman in an Audi is hogging the middle lane, so I do the right thing and move out to pass her on her left. As the bike rides over the worst example of Belgian asphalt, my spine jars and I actually yelp ‘ouch’ out loud. Still, at least I won’t have to go to the gym tonight. My core muscles are working so hard I’ll probably have a six pack by sunset.
The Blackline is making me rethink my whole philosophy on bikes. Normally, if it’s got two wheels and an engine, you can’t fail to find the fun. But today, I’m struggling to find enough positives. Not in the styling, not in the performance and not even in the handling. But in the rideability. It’s really, really poor. At the cornering location, the Harley tips into bends quite obediently with a little persuasion on the drag ‘bars. The raked out front feels distant and lazy at first, but the handling isn’t too bad, although it’s obviously restricted by the limited ground clearance.
Despite the 1,670mm wheelbase, slow speed U turns are surprisingly manageable and it’s probably the only time during the day that I don’t feel like getting off the thing. The four piston brakes ( front and rear) are on the spongy side so you’d need to use both anchors to get yourself out of a tight spot, with Harley-Davidson’s advanced braking system kicking in as a backup should you need it. There is more technology in the hands free fob. You can use the cylindrical key to lock the bike, but the fob arms and disarms the Blackline’s electronic security system when you approach, or leave it. It works just fine, as the photographer discovers when he tries to move my wheels while I’m out of range. The fob’s somewhere in the bottom of my bum bag, so I stride back, thrusting my pelvis towards the general vicinity of the bike until it stops panicking.
I have had many memorable rides on Harley-Davidson big twin motorcycles, but if the Blackline happened to be the first model that you ever rode, you would avoid the American marque like the plague for fear of crippling yourself. It’s a shame, but the Blackline is a bad example from an otherwise impressive manufacture.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: £12,999 Harley-Davidson FXS Blackline ABS
Engine: 1,584 cc Air- cooled, Twin cam 96B, V-twin
Torque: 125Nm @ 3250 rpm
Transmission: chain, 6 speed
Dry Weight: 294 kg/ running weight 306 kg
Seat Height: 655 mm
Fuel capacity: 18.9 litres