Head out on the highway

The latest Harley-Davidson begs to be taken out on road trips. David Booth is only to happy to oblige, whatever comes his way.

This is assuredly the only time I will get to say this. Indeed, it may the only time anyone of such meagre riding talent ever gets to make such an outrageous claim. And truthfully, it only really happened for the most fleeting of moments, but nonetheless, I can with all honesty - and not even the slightest hint of modesty - claim that I kept up with Scottie Parker on a racetrack.

Now, most assuredly, the circumstances were extenuating. I was familiar with the track in questions; Mr Parker was not. The track in question was the go-kart like "development" circuit at Road America, a layout that rewards fitness (the one attribute I can claim) rather than Mr Parker's smooth riding style. Furthermore, we were riding the new XR1200X, surely the sportiest bike to wear the Harley-Davidson logo, but limited in ground clearance, which greatly favoured my athletic ability to hang off the bike rather than Mr Parker's classic dirt track sit-up-and-beg riding style. But, caveats and exceptions aside, I can honestly claim that I kept up with the nine-time AMA Grand National Dirt Track Champion (and winner of an incredible 94 races) - albeit for a measly three laps - and I'm not going to let anyone forget it.

That Parker - unassailably America's greatest dirt track racer ever to swing a leg over two wheels - was on hand to introduce a street bike points to the XR1200's odd position in Harley's lineup. A pure street bike it may be, but it's styled after the most iconic Harley racer of all time, the XR750 on which Parker plied his trade so dominantly. And, of course, while Harley makes much of the X's upgraded brakes, fully-adjustable suspension and more powerful Sportster engine, the most important thing about the XR1200X, like any Harley, sporting or not, is the styling. And here, the XR is unique in the Motor Company's lineup, styled to emulate Harley's famed dirt track racer (the company has long been a flop at road racing, but it verily owns flat-track racing) rather than its typical custom cruisers.

The tank is squarish, the tail section almost identical to the XR750 and the handlebars wide enough that they look better suited to Parker sawing through Turn One at the Indy Mile than the low clip-ons traditional to road riding. Sadly, however, the 2011 XR1200X is available in only black or white, the orange and black dual tone paint job so traditional of Harley's XR750 dirt trackers missing from the lineup. Paul James, Harley-Davidson's head of media relations, does note, however, that it takes only two parts - the tank shroud and the rear tailpiece - to convert the XR1200 into looking like something Scott Parker would ride.

But then, that's the world of Harley's XR1200X, a motorcycle of mixed messages but unassailable pedigree. It's a sportbike, but it's based on the everyday Sportster. It's meant for high-speed sport riding, but the basic Sportster frame is all but unchanged. The rear tyre is a sportbike standard 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier, but the front is an unusually-sized 120/70ZR18 (for stability, says Harley, but one of the primary pieces of the Vance & Hines race kit for the upcoming XR1200 race series - yes, a race series for Harleys - is a de rigeueur 17-inch front wheel). It sounds like a cruiser, but there is 80hp or so churning the rear wheel and, except for the limitations imposed upon by Sir Isaac Newton's laws of physics by a 260kg curb weight, it actually handles quite well.

It certainly works surprisingly well in the twisty bits on Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin's high-speed Road America racetrack, albeit within the limitations of its power and mass. The suspension, the major upgrade from last year's XR1200, is of race quality - the Big Piston front fork and the piggyback rear shocks both excellent quality Showa items and adjustable for both rebound and compression damping. Unlike the previous stock items, which could get quite bouncy on rough pavement, the new, higher-quality Showa parts work very well over uneven tarmac. Indeed, the suspension is the best part of the XR's handling equation.

Though the 1200's heft slows its steering somewhat, the XR's major handling limitation is ground clearance. Footpegs and even the exhaust system grind far earlier than the Dunlop Qualifiers' traction limit. At a high-speed track like Road America, it meant adopting an exaggerated hanging off style to prevent from grinding the various metallic bits into the pavement. Of course, that won't be nearly as much a limitation in street riding.

And, indeed, that's where the XR1200X shines. The riding position is almost perfect for street duty. The handlebar that is too high for track use is ideal for rolling through the countryside. The seat is comfy and the relaxed handling is perfect for romping through hilly bends. Even the engine, limited as it was at the track by its paucity of top-end horsepower, comes into its own when you're short-shifting around town. Its torque is prodigious, the powerband miles wide and throttle response ideal. Even the vibration, thanks to Harley's novel engine isolation mounting mechanism, is well subdued.

Ironically, all this makes the XR1200 the one Harley that is better received in Europe than in North America. Its sporty demeanour and racier riding position makes more sense on that continent's twisty Alpine switchbacks and high-speed autobahns. Oddly, its styling - so reminiscent of the quintessential Harley racing machine - has little impact on the continental as dirt track racing is but a novelty in Europe.

I do wish Harley would bring back that iconic orange and black XR750 paint scheme to cement that association. motoring@thenational.ae

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