Okay, let’s be frank, Harley-Davidson and racing are not two terms we usually use in the same sentence. Like elephant and ballerina, or Donald Trump and subtlety, they’re not a natural match. True? Let’s just put a little dent in that perception.
If you’ve not watched it before, we recommend YouTubing American flat-track racing, and don’t blame us if you get addicted. You’ll very quickly pick up what these bikes are about and why people like them.
You may also notice that Harley-Davidson is the dominant force, and has been for decades. Okay, to be fair, your average street Harley has as much chance of winning a race as the rest of us have of becoming Supreme Leader of the Intergalactic Empire, but it’s the thought that counts and there’s no denying there exists a strong heritage.
Harley has every reason to shout about its racing success and the mystery is why these efforts have been so patchy. You would’ve thought they’d be making a big song and dance about this right from the early ’70s at the very least. Sure, there was some connection made in the advertising and corporate bumph over the decades, but I would have expected a whole model line named after famous racetracks. Hell, even Honda had a go at it with the Ascot series.
Harley had a crack at the race-replica market with the relatively exclusive XR1000 series, launched at Daytona Beach in 1983, but its appearance didn’t really make the race connection. It did however boast a stock bottom end with race-derived top end.
It wasn’t until 2009 that we got to see something that really looked like a flat tracker from the company – enter the XR1200. Underneath the paint, we’re talking about a fairly typical Evolution-series Sportster. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, the bike was introduced to Europe in mid-2008, but it took a year for the company to release it here and at home.
As I’ve suggested, this was no race monster, despite the war paint. It did nevertheless receive some very welcome upgrades so it at least had some claim to being a performance machine.
The Evo powerplant received a lot of attention, with the company claiming it had been blessed with ‘precision-cooled’ cylinder heads. It may sound like a crock, but there was in fact an additional oil flow through the heads to help dissipate heat. In addition, the bike gained a substantial oil cooler. Anyone who has hammered a pre-2009 Sportster engine to within an inch of its life can tell you they do get tired and emotional, so the upgrade made a whole lot of sense on something that invited hard riding.
Its engine had a 10.0:1 compression ratio along with more aggressive cams for a Sporty, and fuel injection. All up, it was said to be good for 90 horses – a lot in Harley terms and more than enough to get you into trouble.
Like the engine, the frame received a fair amount of attention, with a new design for the main section, allied to a cast-alloy swingarm. Suspension was by Showa, with a 43mm USD fork and twin shocks with adjustment for ride height on the rear.
You actually got twin discs with four-piston calipers on the sharp end (with another disc and single-pot caliper on the rear), so there was decent braking on offer.
This was one of the taller Harley seats on offer at the time, at 774mm unladen. Fuel capacity was a bit light on (such is the price of style) at 13.5 litres, and the bike was in no danger of blowing away with its 254kg dry weight.
Instrumentation was dominated by a big analogue tacho, with a smaller digital speedo off to one side. The big distinction between this and the XR1000 was, this time around, the bike actually looked the part.
Road tests of the day were generally very positive, though as the miles climbed complaints about the rear suspension started to filter through. It seems the combination of short travel and mediocre specs made it a bit of a trial on patchy roads and particularly through bumpy corners.
Move on a couple of years to 2011 and we get the ‘Mark II’ version, the XR1200X, pictured on these pages. It carried a lot more black paint around the engine and pipes, and shamefully the orange colour scheme from the first model did not carry across. Engine, frame and transmission spec was largely left alone.
However, there was one very important upgrade: the suspension. Up front we now got the Showa Big Piston fork, plus a much-improved set of shocks, also with full adjustment.
The front brakes also came in for a change-over with new calipers (still four-potters) and floating rather than solid-mounted discs.
I spent most of my riding time on the second version and had an absolute ball. It’s a good-looking thing in the flesh, though I’ll confess for having a weak spot for the looks of the first-gen in orange.
THE BIG EASY
As a ride, it’s big and easy to access. In the second gen, the suspension does its job well, providing fairly sharp feedback and a real sense of security. It’s still firm and that, combined with the fairly thin seat, means it’s never going to be a fabulous tourer.
Steering is about medium when it comes to the rate it actually turns, but the effort is low thanks to those nice wide handlebars. Ground clearance is decent and much better than average for the brand, while braking power and feel are respectable.
Performance is such that the 90-horse claim is entirely believable. It likes a few revs to get off the line cleanly and from there it’s all about mid-range. Top speed is nudging 200km/h, though top-end performance really isn’t what this thing is about. Think more along the lines of belting through a set of bends with minimal need for gear-swapping and you get the idea.
Speaking of gear-shifting, the five-speed action isn’t particularly slick but is fine for the task.
Maintenance should be very straightforward and cheap on this bike, with the final cost depending on how hard you ride it. Overall, it’s very accessible fun.
And the numbers? Prices seem to be hovering from about $11,000 to mid-teens. In fact, they seem to have stayed in that area for a good example.
Unless we’re suddenly hit with a flat-tracker craze, I don’t see them as being a big money-spinner, but if you care for it you should be able to get your money back.
In the meantime, you can always pretend you’re Jay Springsteen.
TYPE: Air-cooled, two-valves-per-cylinder, 45-degree V-twin
BORE & STROKE: 88.9 x 96.8mm
COMPRESSION RATIO: 10.0:1
FUEL SYSTEM: Sequential fuel injection
TYPE: Five-speed, constant-mesh
FINAL DRIVE: Toothed belt
CHASSIS & RUNNING GEAR:
FRAME TYPE: Steel cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION: Showa 43mm USD/43mm Big Piston with full adjustment
REAR SUSPENSION: Preload-adjustable twin shocks/fully adjustable twin shocks with piggyback reservoir
FRONT BRAKE: Nissin 292mm discs with four-piston caliper on fixed/floating discs
REAR BRAKE: Nissin 260mm disc with single-piston caliper
DIMENSIONS & CAPACITIES:
DRY/WET WEIGHT: 254/263kg
SEAT HEIGHT: 774mm
FUEL CAPACITY: 13.5L
WHEELS & TYRES:
POWER: 67kW (90hp) at 7000rpm
TORQUE: 100Nm (74lb-ft) at 3700rpm
PRICE WHEN NEW: circa $16-17,000 (plus on-road costs)
Article by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen. Photography Ellen Dewar