From Street To Track (Part One)
Story by: UWE WACHTENDORF
No subject can divide normally open-minded motorcyclists like the mention of Harley-Davidson. The iconic American brand is so effective at polarizing opinion that most riders will adopt an extreme position, either claiming that they love Harleys – or that they hate them.
The ensuing debate, which typically centres on the incorrect assumption that Harley-Davidson lacks engineering sophistication, often leads to outlandish claims from both sides. I’ve heard them all – the fact is that most who vehemently take Harley to task have either never ridden one or haven’t spent enough time familiarizing themselves with what many feel are their positive attributes.
My experience with riding many motorcycles has taught me one thing: there’s a make and model to suit every desire. And just because someone else’s choice doesn’t align with your own interests, there’s little point in displaying intolerance by raining on their parade. In other words, ride and let ride. However, if I wanted to change the mind of a Harley naysayer by presenting them with one model from their air-cooled stable, it would be a Sportster, specifically the XR1200X.
Not much has changed with the sportiest of Sportsters since we first reviewed it in the October 2009 issue of Motorcycle Mojo. New for 2011 is the “X” designation in the model name, which denotes upgrades to its suspension components and a more menacing-looking paint scheme.
Some may recall that the XR1200 had an atypical introduction to North America. Its 2008, European-only release made it appear that Harley-Davidson was giving North Americans the cold shoulder. The ensuing uproar for local availability was answered the following year, when the Evolution-powered bike that produced 68 kW (91 hp) began to appear in our showrooms.
Whether the delay was a shrewd marketing move planned to heighten domestic demand or the result of legal complications in securing the XR1200 name is immaterial now.
Our more recent interest in the bike was piqued last December when Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada announced an exclusive race series for the XR1200X as a supporting event for the nationally run Parts Canada Canadian Superbike Championship. Similar XR1200X race series that were run last year by the AMA in the United States and as part of the British Superbike Championship have gained in popularity.
On the heels of the Canadian series announcement, Deeley Harley-Davidson presented us with a unique opportunity to break in a production version of the bike, document its conversion to race trim and then actually participate in one of the XR1200X races. It was an invitation that we couldn’t possibly resist.
Looking over the big Sportster and its spec sheet, the XR1200X seemed an unlikely candidate for circuit racing. Even though its “XR” prefix has been the traditional label for Harley’s racing models, and it was styled after the XR750, a legend in flat-track racing, the XR1200X is a portly machine, completely unsuitable for the flat-track circuit because of its size and weight. If Harley-Davidson wanted to go racing, then there really wasn’t any alternative except to put the XR1200X on a road course.
There’s no question that the XR1200X is a fantastic-looking motorcycle. A true naked bike, from its left side it appears to be little more than an engine with wheels. From the right side, there are dual exhaust pipes that end in a pair of mortar tubes that look the business.
Harley-Davidson is a master of reinventing motorcycles through simple, yet effective changes in appearance; with the XR1200X, the change is all about colour. Aside from the leading edge of the cooling fins of its massive cylinder heads, the entire engine and exhaust system is completely blacked out. Were it not for the subtle orange highlights of the pinstriping on the tank and wheels, and the matching spark plug leads and shock springs, the XR1200X would be a completely monochromatic machine.
Fit and finish is high standard, but there are a few awkward junctions in the bodywork, such as the unsightly gap between the tank and the seat, which makes those parts look like they weren’t originally meant to fit together. Then there’s the clutch cable that hangs lazily off the side of the engine; this is a characteristic of Evolution-powered Harley-Davidson models.
As a six-foot-one rider, when I first took a seat on the XR1200X, I found its ergonomics shocking. Seemingly built for a person of strange proportions, my legs immediately felt cramped and my arms uncomfortably stretched. Although I eventually adapted to its riding position, there were other features of the bike that never became tolerable, like the protective bracket for the rear brake-fluid reservoir, mounted above the right footrest, which continuously dug into my ankle, or the soft-touch turn signal switches that never convinced me that I had actually signalled a turn.
The wide, oddly bent handlebar provided plenty of leverage, and I relied heavily on this during hard braking, as trying to clamp the bike’s wafer-thin tank with my legs gave new meaning to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The tall seating position was firm and comfortable enough for urban riding with its many stoplights to allow for stretching the legs. The pillion, on the other hand, was a token gesture to carrying passengers.
The small pad tapers downward toward the rear brake light and is only suitable for emergency use. Given the shape and design of the bike, the ideal solution would be a broad and flat bench seat stretching from the tank to the tail section.
I was a fan of the bike’s instrumentation. It’s extremely basic but suits the theme of the bike; a large, centrally mounted tach that also houses warning lights and an LCD screen was easy to read. The digital speedometer is mounted in a smaller pod to the left, and like the tach, it is backlit in a pleasing orange glow.
Starting the Sportster’s 1202 cc, air-cooled Evolution engine is a mechanically satisfying event. It springs to life with a big shudder and bark that never gets boring. The Evolution is a proven engine, and although it is rubber-mounted in the Sportster’s frame, at idle the vibration is so dramatic that it will liberate loose change from your pockets, blur your vision and cause your socks to sink in your boots.
An inconceivable situation, perhaps, to those who prefer a Japanese inline four, you can bet that the bike was engineered to do just that, as the moment the throttle is opened the vibration smoothes out and it becomes a non-issue. MMM
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