Aaron and I arrived at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium to find it everywhere bedecked with the Harley-Davidson logo. This was Aaron’s second press launch, so he was duly impressed. It was my 4578th, but even I was impressed at seeing Harley’s name arrayed all over the inside of the huge stadium – and I do mean all over.
“We gonna ride the bikes in here?” Aaron asked.
“If there is a God, then yes, we shall ride them upon this hallowed turf.”
We both watched as two men with very expensive lawn-mowers literally shaved the sward to a perfection of green. It looked like a very expensive carpet. I genuinely wondered if we’d were about to ride motorcycles on it.
“Do not set foot on that grass,” one of the Harley marketing team said behind us. “It costs like a million dollars to re-turf.”
“Guess we won’t be riding on it then,” I grinned. “Hope all the weed-seeds I brought with me on my boots from Singo don’t take hold. That’d be a right shame…”
We were then introduced to the bikes – two quite good-looking little jiggers which Harley intends for the Learner market after shelving its Street 500 a few years back.
The Street 500 might have been the biggest-selling Harley of all time in Australia, but I was not a fan. Like, a serious not-a-fan. I thought it was woeful for all sorts of reasons, ie. poor build-quality, laughable ground clearance, gutless donk…and then it sold its head off.
I knew why, of course. That badge carries a lot of weight. It is forever cool. But, if you have any knowledge of Harleys long and storied history, you’ll know the badge – which has remained the very avatar of outlaw cool – was not always associated with superb build quality and reliability. There were the AMF days, of course – a literal Dark Age of despair for Milwaukee. Then things started to improve, and barring the odd slip-up here and there (like everyone), Harley builds some damn fine bikes these days, and has for maybe the last decade or so.
So when it produced the Street 500 a few years back, I was at a loss to understand why anyone signed off on that Indian-made assemblage of woe. I rode the test-bike provided to me around the block four times just to make sure I hated it properly, then called Harley and asked it to take the bike back, since it really didn’t want me to write the review I was going to write on it. The marketing manager at the time, Adam, agreed. We laugh about that to this day.
But these new X jobbies were obviously very different. And very important for Harley. Until their advent, Harley did not have a bike in the LAM niche. The Street 500 was there, but it is entirely unclear how many Learners it converted to the bigger Harleys. An informed guess would be not that many since it was canned. And of course, a replacement was needed.
Harley now has two bikes in that niche. And they are not built in India. They are built in China. I shall pause here while all the old grey-beards commence to howling.
Done? Good. Let’s not get into how much of all the bikes we ride are built in China. Or Thailand. Or anywhere that has lower wages and a thriving manufacturing base. Which sure as hell is not us or the USA. Have a closer look at what the Chinese are churning out in the motorcycling sphere and you cannot help but be impressed. And they are only going to get better and better at it – guaranteed.
But hey, if you’re gonna be crazy and weird about how the world is now, that’s a matter for you. I can only tell you what Aaron and I found in our brief and rather furious time on the two X bikes.
Since the bikes were not yet registered, we could not ride them on the road. So, Harley had arranged for us to fang them through the tunnel running under the outside of Allianz stadium, and then put them through a sort of L-plater obstacle course in the car-park outside.
“Is this normal?” Aaron asked.
“This is motorcycling,” I replied. “It’s a different normal.”
And off we went. We rode them back-to-back, so the 350 and then the 500, and we lashed them as hard as we dared on the smooth concrete, and then outside where the witches hats were arrayed – and it was strange and a little bit crazy, and quite a lot of fun. The speed limit in the tunnels is 10km/h. I know for a fact I hit 80 in third a few times.
There’s nothing cruiser about them. The ergos are completely neutral, and that’s right and proper.
I thought the 350 was an absolute hoot. Light, sharp-steering, good brakes, and heaps more bang than I thought it would have. And it looked really cool with its flat-track themed styling. I actually preferred it to the 500 because of the looks. I could also drag-start the 350 in second gear from standstill. I could not do that with the 500. But the 500 was a more substantial bike – and certainly one that would not be out of place out on the open road if you’ve decided to get out of town for a day or so.
Because I am cussed and mad, I would take the 350 out onto the windy bits and laugh my head off. Mad pipe, sticky tyres, pretend I’m 17 again, get HATE tattooed on my knuckles, and start saving up for a Breakout. That’s what the 350 did for me.
The 500? Well, I felt it was rather “sensible”. And that’s not a bad thing. Some people want sensible. I acknowledge that.
Both bikes were surprisingly well-finished, and I did punish both of them among the witches hats with hard starts, harder stops, and brutal downshifts. They did not miss a beat.
On the way home I quizzed Aaron…
B: “So which one did you prefer and why? I really liked the 350, but you can disagree if you want.”
A: “Straight-up, the first thing that came to mind was ‘The 500 is obviously going to be the better one’, but to my surprise, I preferred the 350 as well. It seemed to have a bit more attitude about it. I think it was all down to the gearing. They seemed to have the gear-ratios spot on, and maybe that’s what bought out the engines character. I mean, it pulled a second-gear race-start for me where the 500 put up a protest.”
B: “Yeah, that was crazy, wasn’t it? Gear-ratios, you say? Sure, OK. Here I was thinking it was all to do with an extra injection of mongrel. Did you think the 350 steered sharper than the 500?”
A: “Yes, I think it did, but I’m trying not to be too critical of the 500 in this department, considering we were in kind of a ‘go slow’ environment which would naturally suit a smaller lighter bike, this could all change in the real world on the road.”
B: I dunno. I kinda liked the whole tunnel thing. Made me feel all illegal and anti-social. I would like to ride more subterranean tunnels. Maybe with a battle-axe. Anyway, I thought the seat on the 350 was a little thin. Be a chore to do 1000km day. You have less well-padded buttocks than me. Did you struggle?”
A: “I do lack some rump, but in all honesty, I thought the seat was fair, it was more a shape issue than a padding issue and let’s face it 1000km day on 350 will be a chore regardless of the seat.”
B: “Shape? Oh, please the shape was good. It was one of two things. Either it needed more padding, or I need to spend more time addressing the squat rack. It is almost always the latter, you snake-hipped swine. You OK with them being built in China, or does that weird you out in any way?”
A: “Am I OK with it? Look at it this way, if the conspiracy theories are correct and the Chinese have the technology to spy on governments and military bases all over the world, and manufacture viruses that bring the entire globe to a halt, then sure, I’ll have that kind of genius build me a motorcycle, no worries.And even if the conspiracies aren’t true, we are aware that China is one of the world leaders in technology and engineering, aren’t we?”
B: “Some of us are. Some still think they’re a nation of enslaved peasants and kung-fu monks. Now to the most important question. Which one do you think would attract more girls?”
Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.