I pulled into my buddy Reed’s driveway on my matte black Harley XR1200X…and all I could say was, ‘WTF am I doing here?’
What I was doing there was meeting a few buddies for a breakfast ride, though I wouldn’t be riding my XR. Instead, I’d be on one of the four Big Dog choppers parked there, all owned by an across-the-street neighbor of Reed’s we call ‘Chopper Doug’ – to differentiate him from ‘Baja Doug,’ who lives right next door.
The bikes were exactly what you’d expect when you hear the words Big Dog: Wildly raked-out and wide-tired (and I mean wide-tired…) things with no rear suspension (other than a tiny bit of tire flex) and big-inch S&S H-D clone engines with straight pipes and no baffling whatsoever. Lovely.
Standing there, looking at those hard-tail rear ends, I could feel my body recoiling in horror, my L4/L5 herniation already beginning to spasm in anticipation. Why I let Reed and Baja Doug talk me into this ride was beyond me, especially on the first Sunday of the NFL season. When Reed started one of the bikes an elderly lady walking with her husband on the quiet morning gave us a look that would freeze tequila, all while pointing to her ears. Even more lovely.
To be honest I’d never really ridden a chopper. Well, OK, once, maybe 30 years ago…a garage-built homemade H-D special that barely ran, smoked like a chimney, had no brakes and flexed and shimmied like an old toboggan. I did about a mile on it, which was way more than enough.
So with those lovely memories idling in my head I pulled on my jacket, buckled my helmet, swung my leg over a grey and blue Big Dog, pushed the starter button, clicked it into gear and pulled out onto Reed’s quiet street, hoping the thing wouldn’t kill me before I had a chance to somehow jump off and save myself.
Thanks to the bike’s foot-wide (and squared-off) rear tire and five-foot-long fork, the Big Dog’s low-speed steering and turning manners were easily the funkiest I’d ever experienced. It just did not feel like any motorcycle I’d ridden in my 48 years of riding. ‘Great,’ I thought as I pulled onto a higher-speed thoroughfare, ‘this is gonna be even worse than I thought.’
But five minutes later I was actually smiling, finding myself both surprised and impressed with the Dog’s functionality. It idled nicely at stoplights. Throttle response was pretty good, and its big-bore twin made decent power, too. The turn signals worked, the brakes stopped the thing relatively quickly and were easy to modulate, and the mile-long fork actually offered a pretty nice ride.
My buddy Alan, also a chopper rookie but someone with years of MX and road racing experience, felt pretty much the same. “This is #%$& cool!” he barked when we parked for breakfast, and I had to agree. Turns out these particular choppers, at least, were put together pretty well, and were motorcycles you could actually ride instead of just look at.
Well, almost. On the longer, more stoplight-littered way home, some of the breed’s true nature chopped its way to the surface. The rear end started hammering my back and body in a truly tortuous way on anything but billiard-smooth asphalt. The seat and all-weight-on-yer-butt riding position had my glutes screaming. And as the engine got hotter at lights it didn’t idle nearly as well, even stalling on occasion.
Still, we had a dang fine morning (along with a scrumptious Greek breakfast) and I got glimpse into the world of radical-rake riding. Some of these things are probably reasonably functional, which means if you love the aesthetic of chopped two-wheelers (and a lot of you do), at least you’ll be able to ride without having to jump clear before they kill you.
I’ll continue riding my XR1200X (and other production-spec American vees), but I won’t be saying ‘WTF’ nearly as much when I see someone ride by on a chopper. All Riding Matters, right?
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