Thursday, February 26, 2009

Riding an Electra Glide in Blue

We got the opportunity to test out a 2008 Harley Electra Glide in the Smoky Mountains. Who could pass up a chance like this? We picked it up from Eagle Rider in Maryville, TN on a day when the weather was a perfect 85 degrees. I had ridden older Electra Glides and Road Kings, but this was my first time on a new Harley with the 96 cubic inch engine. I hit the starter, and the Harley roared to life with a pulse of power that really gets your attention. I always loved the sound of the Harley starter. Most people love the exhaust, and it is very sweet, but that Harley electric start has a sound of its own too.

Pulling out on to the highway tapping the brakes to test the feel I was amazed at the sensitivity of the front and rear brake. This bike will stop on a dime, despite being nearly 800 pounds. But there are no worries about accidentally locking the brakes, because this bike is equipped with Harley ABS.

You have to eat pancakes for breakfast when in the Smokies, so I made the obligatory stop for some bad carbs. My wife and I ate our fill of blueberry pancakes with smokiest saltiest bacon I had ever tasted. We were eager to put the bike through its paces, so I followed her to drop our car off at the place we were staying, and we headed out to test the big touring bike on a combination of mountian roads, interstates, not to mention heavy stop-and-go traffic in Gatlinburg.

We headed up US 321 North to Newport, TN, avery fine two lane road with long sweeping turns at the foot of the Smokey Mountain National Park. The Glide cruised like a Cadillac, lazily cruising about 60 mph in 5th gear. I tried to get it into 6th gear, but there is no need for that overdrive gear under 70 mph. We cruised through the little town of Newport, where we picked up US 70 East. This road took us through the mountains to the hamlet of Hot Springs, NC. We stopped at a market for my favorite beverage when visiting North Carolina -- Cheerwine! I'm not real sure what Cheerwine is, but I know i gotta have one every time I go to the Carolinas.
Electra Glide in Blue

From there we headed up NC highway 209. Calling this road a highway is being generous. We tested the bike on a narrow progression of switchbacks that had me gearing down to first a few times. These roads are better suited to a much smaller bike, but the big Harley handled with relative ease on these slow turns, with plenty of torque from the big v-twin to extend the front forks when powering out of the turns. The 96 engine has a longer stroke than the 88, so you have even more of that traditional Harley torque.

Even with a passenger, this bike is stable and comfortable on a narrow curvy road. We seemed to ride endlessly through the mountains. The population is sparse and the towns are few and far between in these mountains on the NC/TN border. Finally we came to a store called Fergusons, where we stopped for more Cheerwine -- hmmm....I think it's a cherry cola. It must have been that salty bacon that made me so thirsty. At Ferguson's there was a stray dog. The owners were trying to find his home, but it seemed to us that the friendly golden retriever knew he had found his new home right there under a John Deere parked out front. Ferguson's is a general store in the tradition of farming communities from decades ago. They have everything in there. I felt like I had been through a time warp waking into that nice store.

American Classics

Next was lunch in Maggie Valley, and up the mountains to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Up on the Parkway, the elevation is 4000 to 5000 feet. This was early July. On an overcast day when it was a muggy and sultry 90 degrees at lower elevations, but the temperature on the Parkway was in the 40's. The 96 Harley engine loves cool air! It is a hot-natured beast that really comes alive when breathing crisp mountain air. The bike accelerated so strongly, and I really regretted that the speed limit on the Parkway is 45 mph. I admit I cheated a good bit, opening the Harley up on some of the longer straights. We hit some fog, and looked over the vistas to our right, where we could see summer thunder storms moving in from the west. Unfortunately, when we reached US 441 at Cherokee, NC, west was the direction we had to turn.

US 441 from Cherokee NC to Gatlinburg TN is the Smokey Mountain Parkway, rising to elevations over 6000 feet. It gets chilly up there, espeically in the rain. After we got suited up, we headed out into the down pour -- and the lightning! I don't mind rain much, but being caught in a lightning storm on a bike gives me concern. We headed across the Smokies, winds gusting, small tree limbs blowing into the road, and huge raindrops pelting us. My goggles fogged up making it very difficult to see. I pulled off the road to wipe them, sitting still in the down pour. The elevation got higher and higher, the temperature got cooler and cooler. Lots of bikes were pulled off, sitting in the rain, waiting on it to stopped. It is probably safer to stop and wait in the rain that to ride in a downpour such as this, but we pressed on.

Finally, at the top of the summit, Clingman's Dome -- elevation 6643 - temperature 42 degrees on July 2, 2008 -- and pouring rain! It's all down hill from here. As we descended into the Tennessee the weather cleared, the temperature rose, and we soon found ourselves in Gatlinburg, at a muggy 85 degrees. We headed back out to our condo for a shower and a beer and some dinner. We still had one more day with the Glide, so we collapsed into sound sleep, looking forward to more riding the next day.

Day 2 found us meeting Carol, my wife's best friend since second grade on her 1200 Sportster and her boyfriend Tommy on a softail EVO. We headed out to find more roads that criss cross the mountains. We took the three bikes out to find the Cherohala Skyway. This road runs east to west across the mounatins from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC. The elevation gets above 5400 feet at one point. It is a relatively straight road, where you can take some long sweepers at high speed. I finally got the Glide into 6th gear coming down the NC side, hitting about 80 mph, when a coyote ran across right in front of me. The traffic was pretty sparse up there. I think the coyote was wating on a bike to come by so he could play chicken.

From Robbinsville, it is just a short ride over to the world famous Tail of the Dragon! This is a road that motorcycle riders from all over the world want to ride. I found it somewhat underwhelming. 318 switchbacks, crowded with thousands of bikes. Fast sportbikes overtaking you and passing on blind turns, it is an accident waiting to happen. We saw one bike down. Locals tell me crashes are a daily occurrence on this road.

Overall the Harley Elecra Glide Classic is a very fine motorcycle. It is bargain priced compared to the Ultra Classic. The only thing you get for your extra money on the Ultra are fairing lowers and lights on the rear tourbox. The 96 engine has a bit of a heat problem in stop and go traffic on hot days. The heat will swealter you. I'v heard stories of the rear cylinder getting to 350 degree plus measured at the cylinder head. That is HOT! The Harley is not well suited for city traffic on hot days, due to this heat problem. So keep it on the highway and enjoy the ride!

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