Sunday, June 14

JIM WALSH: HOG FLU


"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance", Confucius, 551-479BC.

"Modern" motorcycling is littered with preconceptions, assumptions, and downright bigotry. To be personally confronted with aspects of your own ignorance is very much a two-edged sword, but cathartic nonetheless.

I started my love affair with motorcycles, much like many of you, with posters and sales brochures stuck on my bedroom wall that I managed to either get through someones older brother or by just plain stealing them when the salesman's back was turned. They were for "real" customers apparently. PE400s, TS185ERs, GS1000s, Laverda Jotas, they were all legendary and owned and ridden by legends. At least I thought so. Fast forward through more than 20 years and a succession of sports bikes has given way to comfier, more road oriented machinery. Not a single dirt bike, despite cartwheeling DT100s through fences at Summer camp as a teenager, and desperately wanting to be able to roost my way around something a bit more challenging than a hilly paddock.

I got stuck, you see.

Sports bikes. Road racing. Faster, better handling, stiffer chassis, wider tyres, decreasing model life cycle intervals, until we find ourselves looking at a new Superbike released every year from every manufacturer wanting to be top of the heap, that until very recently was lighter and faster than its predecessor. I let that become the main part of my motorcycling identity.

But that's changed.

I don't know how it happened really. Maybe it was the whole Chopper reality show fad brainwashing we got for a couple of years there or maybe I've simply accepted that fastest from A to B means you miss a lot of the stuff in the middle.

I do know that when I first saw a Harley Davidson Rocker, it came as shock that I was enthralled by how it looked, rather than it's potential road manners. I was still dribbling a little when I was handed the key to have a quick ride a few minutes after my slack jawed posture was spotted across the showroom. An hour out and about proved that Harley-Davidson's response to the Chopper Craze was a whole lot more than just a show pony and I knew I'd be back for more.

Look at it.


Deceptively simple isn't it? The Twin Cam 96B (for Balanced and 1584cc) fuel injected "big block" provides a focal point around which all the latest "Chopper" trends are hung. The Raked out front (36.5 degrees and more than 150mm of trail), skinny 19 inch front wheel, deep, deep paint, oodles of chrome, and that 240 section rear tyre with the cool wrap around mudguard hint at an exclusive (expensive) product built in a custom Chopper garage by a tattooed genius with an English Hammer.

But it isn't. It's that contradiction in terms, a "Factory Custom". It's built be looked at AND ridden. The satin finish that adorns wheels, fork legs and engine, make what is in fact a small number of chromed parts REALLY stand out and the colour matched frame, guards, and footrest hangers lend the Rocker its bespoke quality. There's no extraneous wires or plastic connectors to spoil the mood either, and Harley-Davidson have used hex head and Torx bolts to complete the picture of a very carefully assembled motorcycle.


Harley-Davidson have cleverly used the Softail chassis (solid mount engine) rather than the seemingly obvious choice of the rubber mounted Dyna to make the Rocker ride as solidly as it looks. Taken on looks alone, you'd expect low speed handling to be dire, and anything at highway speed to be hard work. What transpires instead is quite unbelievable. Piloting the Rocker is just like, well, riding a bike. Things happen as they should. There's no flopping of front wheel into roundabouts or a feeling of being steered from the rear by that big phat tyre. The only time I even noticed a handling quirk from the rear, was when the rear would squirm around on the edge of the subsidence so prevalent on rural New Zealand roads.

Even better is the actual experience of riding. Never, ever, have I felt so relaxed in charge of a motorcycle. It is fair to say that the foot peg feelers copped a hammering, but that wasn't because of my latent sports bike habits or charging about everywhere, it's a testament to how together the Rocker feels to ride, be it twisty roads, long straight roads, or fast sweepers. In fact hunting fast sweepers down just for the hell of it became something of a hobby.

Those inadequate looking brakes are frankly astonishing. HD are to be commended, because that tiny disk up front shouldn't have that much power. Unlike the Super Glide I rode a few days before the Rocker, you have to be aware of all that low down weight. Using the rear to load the front and then applying the front brake could lead to some respectable braking for what mounts to just under 400kg of bike and rider.

I've never enjoyed Winter riding this much. I've never enjoyed cruising long straight roads EVER. I'd normally go kilometers out of my way to avoid the Wairarapa's section of State Highway 2. Except on the Rocker. I rather suspect that getting into this type of alert, aware, semi-comatose Zen state (You had to be there. I don't know how that works either) would require significant chemical enhancement at any other time.

I love the way you sit in the Rocker and how the tank mounted fuel gauge, idiot lights, and speedometer are more than enough instrumentation. There is an LCD multi-function display with trip meters and kilometers to reserve, but after a while, pushing that button on the side of the speedo just ended up being pointless. Leaving it on the clock setting so you could check out how the Rocker seemed to slow time as the world rotated past in slow motion was more fun. I was given the Rocker with a full tank of fuel, and rode it on and off over three days, put 9 litres of fuel in and handed it back nearly empty.


Style, substance, fun, relative fuel economy, ergonomics that cosset, a hardtail look with suspension and brakes that work, and lots of foot peg scraping without threat to license or limb.

Startled surprise and ignorance go hand in hand I guess. I've spent a lot of the last couple of years trying many different things in the motorcycling world, and it's slowly turning into a quest to divest myself of baggage. For the last six months, all I've ridden(apart from my own bike) have been products of the Motor Company. Now that HD have acquired MV Agusta I might just head back to my roots. After that, who knows what's next?

Specifications here.

The Harley-Davidson FXCW Rocker tested here comes with Crimson Red Sunglo paintwork, a seat, and some sort of Cosmic Oneness field. Available from Wellington Motorcycles for $27,000.

Thank you, as always, to Pete "I drink Red Bull" McDonald, for the loan of the Rocker and for finally learning how to make instant coffee not taste like reconstituted Donkey Droppings. Thank you to Wellington Motorcycles for yet another Harley-Davidson "fix".