Born to be mild

Last updated 12:30 18/01/2013

HANDSOME BEAST: Harley has resisted the urge to upsize for the sake of it, so this Harley-Davidson XL1200CB feels like a mid-size cruiser.

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OPINION: Ah, now I remember why I don't book press bikes over Christmas-New Year. The rain is persisting down, trees lashing, I've missed a few decently sunny days doing the seasonal social thing and now return-date looms without a festive ride beneath my belt. I'll just have to pick a date and cross my fingers . . .

That said, this Harley-Davidson XL1200CB should be a relaxing prospect whatever the weather. It's nominally a Sportster, though I always associate that name with a more conventional riding position than this XL's cruisy format, with long, lowish lines, forward-mounted "highway" pegs, and the lazy curve of these bars. But the "Sportster" tag refers to the engine, the 1200 donk that once would have seemed large, but is now seen more as mid-size in cruiser-speak where its big brother's 1.7-litre capacity has already been exceeded by a number of others, capped by Triumph's 2.3-litre leviathan.

Once upon a time Harley delivered the biggest boys; now it's resisted the urge to upsize for the sake of it, so this Sportster variant really does feel like a mid-size cruiser, its naked basis little heavier than the 883, and I'm glad of that as I back it out of the garage.

These aren't mid-size saddlebags though. The bolt-on items look the part, in embossed leather with chunky silver buckles - though those are for show, with a stud fastener front and back plus an over-stiff plastic latch under each buckle to do them up. Lift the lid to find a much smaller capacity than expected. They'll take more than you'd think but need packing with care; fortunately I was heading out for only one day at the beach.

The mighty motor beneath that seat may not be Harley's biggest, but thumbing the starter button fires an instantly recognisable Harley soundtrack, the engine accessed via an equally familiar clunky gear change and soon I'm under way.

I've not gone far when I need to stop though, for wind off the screen is hitting my helmet amidships, and created an annoying buffet entirely at odds with the bike's relaxed persona. Fortunately the simplicity with which this screen can be adjusted - or removed - shows some design genius at Harley Headwaters, for two simple clamps each side unclip and I simply slid the whole screen up the forks, and pushed the clamps closed.

Back up to speed and I found the wind still hitting my helmet, but high enough to reduce buffet. Were the bike mine I suspect I'd often leave the screen home - or search for an equally efficient one that better suits my height.

This matte-black finish is matched by equally restrained spec, with a single speedo up front carrying a small array of idiot lights. There's nothing else; no clock, no tacho, no flim-flam at all and I rather like the pared back character that still stresses cruise-ability.

This tank carries 17 litres and that meant only one stop required, at which I discovered the fuel light comes on early and I needn't have bothered, though I was glad to ease my bum for despite the comfy seat, even my naturally cushioned posterior won't stand too many hours in the saddle at a stretch.

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By the time I stopped the rain had too, the sun coming out as we cruised the long straights east toward the Coromandel, the bike eating up the kilometres, this generation of engine as flexible as you need for open road cruising and easy overtaking, all without gulping down too much fuel.

Arrived at Thames, I pointed the Harley's nose north as the road skimmed the coast, now tunnelling under the flaming red of summer's pohutukawa, then clinging to the cliff as kids ran and splashed to my left. Traffic was as slow as you'd expect from a holiday coast at Christmas, and I passed where I could. Where I couldn't I discovered the plus side of a cruiser - it feels right at home curving seaside roads at a sedate pace while its rider admires the view. And after all, this isn't a bike designed to hustle through those bends, the long wheelbase and lazy curve of the bars stable rather than agile and discouraging an overly gung-ho approach, though the engine was happy to pick up the pace and ground clearance well up to the job of a few more briskly tackled corners.

Things got less happy when the road twisted up and away from the sea, climbing green hills to ascend the crests before winding back down, the seal bumpy and heaving and the bike's over-firm shocks doing little to cushion my spine, the jolts exacerbated by one's upright seating stance. By the time I reached Whangapoua I was more than ready to climb off and eat lunch at a friend's bach under a shady umbrella overlooking the beach, occasionally hearing that evocative "tik, tik" as the engine cooled.

The suspension hadn't softened any on the way back but I now felt at home on the bike, its laid-back persona suited to a sedate post-lunch coastal cruise to call in at the speedway on the way home. Where I discovered this luggage is apparently unlockable; with the Harley rapidly lost in a sea of parked bikes their contents were far from secure. I'd do something about that were the bike mine.

And were I to put a cruiser in the garage it'd be tempting, for the XL1200CB is a handsome beast, with those black-laced wheels and fat tyres, the Black Denim paint and mini-ape bars, the traditional look without the traditional weight. But I'd opt for the $17,150 bare bones version and enjoy the equally traditional Harley cruiser feel without the associated hefty hit to the wallet.


How much? $17,150.

Engine, transmission: Air-cooled 1202cc Evolution V-twin, five speed transmission, belt drive.

Power and torque: Power N/A, 98Nm at 3200rpm.


How big? 2215mm long, 710mm seat height, 1521mm wheelbase, 251kg dry weight, 17-litre tank.

Suspension and brakes: Front forks and rear coil-over shocks, dual piston front, single piston rear brakes.

Wheels: 16-inch spoked wheels with 130/90-16 front and 150/80-16 rear tyres.

For: Harley cruiser style in a more compact and lighter package than bigger 1.7 siblings.

Against: Cruiser format belies Sportster model tag.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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