Harley-Davidson Pan America - First Ride
By Dan Jones - 30 Jun 21
HARLEY-DAVIDSON - PAN AMERICA FIRST RIDE
The day is here, I finally get to go on a press launch and I’m excited. For the past few years, I've experienced bike launches vicariously through editing the photos and video that land in my inbox, and hearing from Ross, our editor, but, with the shit-show of a year we have had, Ross retired from the 'Shed and relocated to Devon in search of a more off-grid life tinkering in his new workshop and more accessible country roads.
The obvious replacement would have been Stew, the most qualified of adventure riders of the BSMC crew, having ridden for 12 months down through the Americas on the actual ‘Pan American Highway’ from Alaska to Ushuaia on the Harley adventure bike’s biggest adversary, the BMW GS.
But, with Stew in LA finalising the imminent grand opening of our new venue out there, I was next in line to take up the opportunity and I jumped at it.
I’m not so much a track-day speed-demon, I lean more to the travel and adventure side of motorcycling. That’s what gets me excited and inspires me, loading up my bike with everything I need and riding to some mountain ranges, off the beaten tracks of Europe for a few weeks. For me there is no better feeling.
Now, this isn’t gonna be packed with maths and figures on the technical details of the new Pan Am because. You can google that, or read it in Bike magazine. This review is about my experience of riding the bike, and how it made me feel, and the experience of being on a manufacturer's press launch.
THE PAN AMERICA AND IT’S RECEPTION
Since the Pan America was announced, it’s definitely been divisive. Some people were welcoming and open-minded of Harley-Davidson’s foray into a new market. Others, not-so-much, questioning the wanting of a piece of the pie that ‘wasn’t theirs to have’ or being capable of seriously entering and most of all contending with. The bold aesthetics reinforce some of that negativity and inspires a love or hate reaction. It was definitely a talking point here at the 'Shed.
This bike is a huge deviation from the niche Harley-Davidson have dominated and appealed to for decades, upsetting the status quo amongst one of their most valuable assets besides their bikes, their die-hard following. On the flip side, a lot of the non-Harley riders see an insular brand muscling-in on an aspect of motorcycle culture that wasn’t previously earned, but times are a changin’ and to keep relevant, companies need to diversify. We’ve already seen that with their other stereotype breaker, the electric Livewire, although that model is now being divested from the H-D stable into it's own brand.
I could see both viewpoints but leaned towards the positive. I see an incredible brand trying something new and appealing to a different rider, but not only that, coming in with their own take on the adventure sector.
I respected that and it was certainly refreshing and exciting to see a company think a bit differently about who they are, what they want to make, and disrupt the sometimes tiresome beaky aesthetics of the current offerings. A big sway for me was their launch video back in February which was a refreshing documentary format highlighting some unknowns to me - the history of HD and their experience in off road racing in the Baja back in the 70’s, and real, promising R&D that’s gone into this new bike.
I personally really like the look of it. The bluntness of its features are aggressive yet refined but most of all the utilitarian feel of it all is what appeals to me most. Above everything, for me, it needs to function for what it was designed for, and that’s adventure — to chew up long distance miles, with the capability of carrying everything you need as your home away from home, on any terrain you might want to throw at it, having fun along the way. On paper it’s my kind of bike.
Now, let’s get back to the actual launch. Fortunately I had a buddy to ride with and an ‘alright’ one at that. It turns out that Charley ‘Long Way’ Boorman was booked on the same day as I was, so we decided to road trip up together to the location of the launch, set in the middle of north Wales at Lake Vrynwy. A place that is well known for adventure riding, for its beautiful scenery, twisty roads and more importantly off road tracks. After 4 hours of catching up and dad jokes, we arrived at the hotel.
We drove up the H-D flag-lined driveway to check in. We met the team and could tell they were excited for what they had in store for us. A full takeover of one of the most beautiful places I’d seen in the UK, looking over a lake which looked like the inspiration for Microsoft desktop background, with sweeping hills and valleys. This launch was important to them and they’d clearly pulled out all the stops. We’d worried that the weather was going to drench us as it had the group of journo’s the day before, but we got lucky and the clouds had broken revealing a brilliant blue sky.
Soon after arrival we were ushered up to the ‘HD campfire’ to meet everyone else, and more importantly the bikes. Charley had already seen and ridden one briefly around London the week before and on the ride up he said it looked better in real life. That’s true. Even though I was a fan of how it looked, I did fear that it’s bold aesthetics and design were potentially more in favour of trying to carry over the form aspect of their iconic Road Glide, than being something that actually felt right in an adventure bike. Having a walk around and a sit on it soon quashed that worry. It’s well proportioned with enough meat up front to house the tech filled cockpit and wind deflection, which then tapers-off into a nice place to sit, stand and strap luggage. Build quality looked good throughout with no badly thought out fixtures or fittings that I could see. If I really had to find something, maybe the rear brake reservoir could have been tucked away a bit better to avoid clipping a boot on it along with the bolstering of the windscreen fittings. Set at the higher level it was prone to a bit of wobble, but neither of those things are anywhere near dealbreaker territory. In fact, I’m just mentioning them as I feel obligated to list a con, which feels a bit like scraping the barrel, as for me there weren’t many that made me wince.
The proper ride of the bike is planned for the next day, however HD have a little something planned for tonight; a slow race/balance competition. The rules are simple. Two riders head to head, 50ft from the finish line, last one over the line wins and a foot down will get you knocked out (of the competition I mean, like I said, they’re trying to shake the leather clad brawler demographic stigma!). Finally all those filtering skills learned in the notoriously painful traffic jams of the Blackwall Tunnel could be applied and maybe even give me an edge!
I actually thought it was a bit weird for our first experience of the bike to be one of straight up on the pegs, finding a balance point and clutch controlling 50ft as slow as we could without getting a feel for how it rides generally. But, that I think was a stroke of genius from them. I think everyone, including me, maybe expected a typical grunty engine that may take a bit of time to adapt to, being bolted into the geometry of an adventure chassis. Instead, the bike fired up with more of a purr than the synonymous chuggy burble we’d usually expect from a Harley-Davidson and a wind of the throttle felt incredibly smooth.
The pressure was on in front of my new friends, but to my surprise the biting point was easily predictable to manage and with a dab of rear brake to hunker it down, within a few seconds I was stood up on the pegs, gently coaxing it along with way less effort than I’d anticipated. This bike is big, no bigger than any other adventure bike but big nonetheless, and being able to control it in that way spoke volumes to me. That's what I mean about the stroke of genius. For a first experience on a bike to instil such confidence in it under a more technical riding situation, only made me more excited for what it had to offer in more common uses out on the open road or off the beaten path gravel tracks. Well done HD.
Anyway, I won my first heat and awaited the next, but campfire burgers called with buckets of beers, which distracted people somewhat, so the competition faded away into a good old hangout and chatting about motorbikes.
However, that confidence gave me a spark, so much so that I challenged Charley to our own slow race. It was all going fine until I noticed we were neck and neck with only about a foot between us as the finish line grew closer, making the nerves kick in at maybe beating him. Although, a distraction occurred as I saw him weave toward the side rope and I inadvertently backed off the throttle just enough to stall it. Despite using my best ‘bicycle at the traffic light’ balance technique, right leg flailing for balance whilst trying to start it again without putting a foot down, I surrendered and allowed him his glory. It would have been fun to beat him but he’d have only blamed it on his legs!
As the sun started to set, we watched it for a bit, took in the sights of Lake Vrynwy, said our collective ‘aaah’s’ and gathered around the campfire to discuss how ‘nice it was to be out of London’ and ‘how lockdown was for us’ whilst bumping elbows with new acquaintances. Then bedtime.
I woke bright and early, excited at the thought of riding through Wales in the hopes it would fill a void I’d been longing for for over a year and a half of actually riding motorcycles properly on some good roads.
We made our way to the front of the hotel, where parked out front were a row of shiny new Pan Americas, in each colour way. These versions were the specced up ’Special’ versions with quite a few extra features over the regular model. These include the usuals like heated grips, centre stand, crash bars etc, but one of the standout and most interesting features is what HD are calling Adaptive Ride Height (ARH). This is a new thing that’s quite techy as it’s function is to cleverly lower the ride height of the bike at standstill, how quickly it does so is calculated by the electronics depending on how aggressive or smooth your braking is. Unladen seat height stands at 890mm (with a ground clearance of 175mm) although that drops to 855mm when at a stop, lowering to a point that could make all the difference in whether you’re on tip-toes or flat footed.
This is an industry first, not just for Harley, and is quite a neat little trick up its sleeve which may intrigue the shorter rider who may be put off by the height of adventure bikes. The feature-heavy ‘Special’ version of the Pan America comes in at about £1500 more than the standard model which is £14k so for £15.5k, you get a lot of bike for your money.
The ride out was led by Dakar legend Mick Extance who operates his own off road experience company in the same area, so we knew we were in good hands for worthy routes to test the bike on. Soon after meeting, Mick told us to pick a bike and saddle up, so I went for the flagship orange and white. That was until Charley barged me out of the way muttering “orange is my colour!”. I backed off laughing and jumped on the dark grey one, more my style anyway.
We pulled out of the hotel forecourt and down the driveway, acquainting myself with positioning, controls and instruments along the way. Just like the night before, I was immediately comfortable on the bike and everything felt solid and sturdy as we made our way along the road surrounding the lake and into the hills.
It was the first time I’d been able to open up the throttle and work my way up the gears, and, as anticipated, the changes were smooth and accompanied by a purry whine as the mechanicals of the all new 150bhp Revolution Max 1250 engine did their thing. The roads had dried from the downpours of the previous days so I set the rider mode to ‘road’ as I got used to the bike.
We meandered through the twisty B-roads presenting the perfect opportunity to test the handling, something I was skeptical about, given how big the bike looks. It handled the corners really well delivering precision on the lines I chose, albeit with a little more counter steering at slower speeds than I thought would need to be given. Whilst handling was great and did everything I wanted it to do, it’s not ‘flickable’, but then again I didn’t expect it to be so much a country road carver as other bikes on the market. It was, quite keen to stand up rather than maintain lean more than usual, especially when powering round or accelerating out of the bends which was something echoed by other riders.
As the ride progressed out of the forest, the route before us transformed into snaking roads cutting through the beautiful Welsh valleys. There are five modes to choose from on the Special - rain, road, sport, off-road and off-road plus. This was the perfect opportunity to flick the mode button into the ‘sport’ setting, which can be done whilst riding. They should rename it to ‘Beast mode’! I expected a change in performance and behaviour, but not to that extent, and it really did make a difference. Throttle response was sharp and aggressive and unleashes the full power capability of that engine. The suspension firms up and with slighter twists of the throttle, the bike just wants to go and pull you along with it. Acceleration was certainly a smack in the face if you’re not ready for it but, what else would you expect with a 1250cc twin.
Just as important as making the bike go, is being able to make it stop, and the Brembo braking system delivered a fine set up. The new radial monobloc four-piston calipers with 320mm twin discs up front delivered a progressive feel throughout. In fact for me, it was one of the best braking setups I’ve ridden with just the right amount of feathering capability and bite, giving great stopping power and feedback.
We pulled over, had a drink, and stretched our legs while we swapped first impressions, which were pretty much unanimously “yeah! It’s good isn’t it!”, accompanied by wide eyes and raised eyebrows. As the group removed their helmets revealing surprised grins, we had a look around the bikes with a now more informed outlook on the machines that brought us here based on what is ultimately the most important thing, the ride.
We got back on the bikes and followed Mick through more of the amazing roads that Wales had to offer, stopping for sheep along the way and smiling at being out of central London, enjoying the ride and saying mental "ahh’s" inside my head. Damn it’s good to be back on bikes again.
We took a turn-off and followed Mick up a gravelly track which indicated we were about to start the part of the ride that had me most excited and intrigued, the off-roading. I was still in ‘road’ mode which at times made the ride feel a bit squirmy under the rear wheel, so again I flicked the switch and put the bike in ‘off-road’ to see how the behaviour and response of the bike changed. This rider aid made a lot of difference to how it performed, by restricting power in the high RPM range and also limiting the traction control’s intervention allowing it to spin up a bit more. Suspension dampening is also increased to help soak up the change to uneven and shifting surfaces, and all of a sudden the bike became much more manageable as we teared up the hill and into the forest. There is another off-road mode called ‘plus’ which reduces the rider aids to their minimal settings. Traction control intervenes at an even lesser level and ABS braking switches to front only, allowing for experienced riders to have additional control over the bike for more aggressive riding.
With the bike now a bit more predictable on these unknown grounds, I stood up, nipping the tank with my knees and loosening up my arms. Ergonomics felt excellent for me, a rider just shy of 6ft, and it felt comfortable riding in stance position. As I got used to the ride on this terrain, I took the opportunity to try and provoke the bike into situations that make these rider aids kick in and see if it was noticeable, but the electronics on the bike are extremely intelligent and borderline magical. Traction control kicking-in wasn’t like the usual, obvious power cut to the engine I’m used to, it’s extremely refined, forgiving and progressive when you do give it a bit too much gas on the shift surfaces. Same with the ABS, it’s a clever setup which manages harsher braking, even off-road really well with barely any of that pumping feedback which sometimes can throw your stomach into your throat when applied aggressively on gravelly descents. The tyres fitted to the Pan America were the Michelin Scorcher Adventure tyres and although I did feel they were more of a road bias at first sight, questioning whether they would require a bit of caution on the dirt, they actually held up really well. The alternate options for it are the much revered Anakee Wilds, again from Michelin, which are a much more aggressive knobbly for those who want to really push the off-road capabilities and confidence of the bike, but given our 60/40 mix of terrains, the dirt not being too waterlogged, the Scorchers worked great.
As we delved deeper into Mick’s playground of tracks, hills, whoops and puddles, my opinion and love for this bike grew. Skepticism about how it would handle on tricky ground faded away quite quickly as it seemed to just lap up whatever I wanted it to do both in terms of terrain but also how I wanted to be able to control it. It felt unphased, obedient, and planted as we navigated through some tight and narrow trails, often having to duck under branches, which despite much repositioning of my body, held it’s own weight when I wanted it to and came with me when I didn’t. A lot of this I think is down to the really well thought out geometry but also clever weight distribution of all of the components. They have clearly been on a quest to find the all important sweet spot to achieve a quite remarkable centre of gravity, much of this owed to material choices such as aluminium fuel tank, and lighter weight magnesium engine casings. That was the part of the ride that stuck in my mind and solidified this bike in my head as a really capable adventure bike for me.
I loved riding these tracks so much that I had another run around the obstacle loop, and made my way back to the group. This is where I had a ‘whoopsy’. I pulled up as the side of the track, reconvening with the group, laughing to the others at the fun I was having, and was caught off guard momentarily by the amount of lean the bike needs to sweep the side stand out fully. Without realising, a rock under my right foot rolled and I dropped the bike. Normally I’d have been able to catch this weight, but, with five healing broken ribs (yes from another whoopsy the month before) I had to succumb and let it go. Not ideal, but shit happens. At least it gave us an authentic look into how the bike takes the inevitable mishap. On It’s side, the bike lay perfectly on its crash bars, front and rear with not a scratch or even mark of dirt elsewhere apart from the bar end. Simple design working perfectly as intended. Nice one. This also presented another opportunity, how easy is it to lift the bike up again? Extremely easy, as it happens. No sooner than I had got to my feet, clutching my rib, one of the other guys had already whipped it up back onto its wheels. This bike was ticking all the boxes we could throw at it.
I dusted myself off, sucked up the jibes, and we got back on the bikes to make our way back through the forest and back to base. As we enjoyed the roads that we had ridden earlier in the morning, I couldn’t help but smile. I was in the middle of the countryside with the sun shining, riding motorbikes again, muddied up and having a great time. That was something I’d been thinking about and longing for over the past year or so. I reflected then on the bike I was doing it all on. I was excited pre-ride about this bike which surprised me as I didn’t think that a Harley-Davidson could ever do that to me. However, I went in open minded and in doing so had all of the misconceptions that surround this bike blown away. I’m currently making a list in my head of what my next bike will be, of which touring, off-road capability, performance and fun is high on the the check list. I can confidently say this bike ticks all of those boxes and more for me and certainly makes the shortlist of favourite bikes I’ve ever ridden.
While I was there it became clear to me, after the ride when asked how I found it, the Harley-Davidson team didn’t want a sugar coated response in return for their wonderful hospitality. They knew they’d built a great motorcycle, and enjoyed seeing people return from the Welsh valleys with the same astounded reactions that I had, pulling up back at base with a smile. They were deservedly relishing the fact that I was another person knocked from my perch on the fence and into their garden. It’s a nice place to be, and finally they offer something in their line-up that gets me excited. And that makes me happy too.
It’s for sure that one of their goals with the Pan America was to convert new people to their brand, and I’ll happily say, mission accomplished.
Whether this is the right adventure bike for you is best discovered by taking one for a test ride, which I'd urge you to do. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Want to know more? Here's the launch event video that made my ears prick up and begin to pay more attention.