I spent a lot of time riding Harley-Davidson bikes this year, most of that through the middle west of America. In Illinois, in the tall grass prairie. In the heart of a broad expanse of carefully plotted lands made functional by laying down long, straight, level grids of asphalt.
It’s a place where few motorcycle journalists live. We have a lot of flat road between here and almost everywhere else in the country.
This year I rode a Fat Bob, straight west, to the edge of South Dakota. Almost 1,000 miles before the slightest elevation or twist. I rode southwest to California on a Fat Boy S, again almost 1,000 miles before the first elevation in New Mexico. I am surrounded by vast, flat, land.
From where I live in Chicago, you can ride about 200 miles to the Driftless Area, which climbs to an elevation of nearly 1,800 feet. If you’ve got time for a 400-mile round trip commute you can reach some great twisties.
Other than that, we don’t have a lot of hilly riding opportunities here, or roads with great turns (we spend a lot of time “bombing” off-ramps and Lower Wacker Drive). We also don’t get to ride all year long. Winter lasts what seems like six months here. We have to do this thing called “storing our bikes.” It’s a long process that involves a battery tender, depression, and heavy drinking.
When you mix a short riding season with a lot of flat land, you get a different riding culture. We have neighborhoods here and we have a big bar-hopping scene. Midwesterners love staring at parked bikes and drinking on patios. We like riding in our street clothes. And we savor the chance to take trips, gathering up a group of friends and going to places with names like Wisconsin, Missouri, Ontario, and the you-pee of Michigan—most of which start with a couple hundred miles of unavoidable slab.
With these ingredients you get a riding culture that leans more “culture” than “riding.” Not to say we don’t have great racers, a track scene, good off road options, and some amazing custom builders. But our strength in the Midwest are our long, wide-open roads. Our Route 66. Our camping spots, our roadhouses, our diners. We don’t ride mountains. We don’t need to lean our bikes too much. It’s a place where cruise control is often the most desirable tech upgrade to your bike. And that’s fine. There is no right way to enjoy riding.
If you spend any time outside of the big cities of America on a motorcycle you will notice something often: a shit-ton of Harley-Davidsons. Especially in the midwest. It’s an environment perfect for cruisers. To not understand the cruiser motorcycle is to not understand the midwest.
Are other bikes fun? Hell yeah! And you should ride those too. If I lived in a place with year round riding, a backyard full of mountains, and more organic juice bars than dive bars I’m sure my riding skill would be different. I would want different things out of my bike. And I might actually want to go to a track someday. Then things like, you know, reliable brakes and sporty ergonomics would matter.
But if you are a rider and haven’t rode a Harley-Davidson across America, I think you’re missing out. It’s the ride these bikes were designed for. And they are absolutely fantastic at it. Are there things about Harley-Davidson that suck? Of course. Same goes for all other bikes. And are there other great cruisers out there? Yes, absolutely. But Harleys are just so damn fun.
My time on Harley-Davidsons this year was great. I met lots of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And I was reminded at how enjoyable long stretches of wide road can be when you let yourself experience it.
Are there other bikes I’m looking forward to riding? Of course. I almost certainly won’t take a Harley on my next tour. I’ll try something new, that I haven’t done before. Because, somehow, riding motorcycles and doing new things go so well together. Because there are so many awesome bikes out there, and I want to try to ride them all.
Have some fun out there.
Photos: Brian J. Nelson and Chris Force.
Chris Force is a new contributor to Lanesplitter. He likes to ride motorcycles and have fun. He doesn’t understand all the fuss about tacos and knee dragging. Follow him and his adventures on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can email him reasons why he should ride a sport bike at firstname.lastname@example.org.