At first glance, full dresser touring bikes like the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ELECTRA GLIDE series are imposing. Fully fueled, they approach 900 pounds before you even add a rider, passenger or luggage. Lifting one off the side stand for the first time can be a bit shocking! Even mid-weight touring bikes like the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ROAD KING are 760 pounds fueled. The size and bulk of these motorcycles can be intimidating to a rider who’s never sampled one before; yet on long rides, over American roads, bikes like the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ELECTRA GLIDE and the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ROAD KING are the ideal tools for the job. What are the techniques required to master and enjoy these big bikes? We’ve put together a list of 10 Tips For Riding a Touring Motorcycle below.
1. REMEMBER, IT’S JUSTA BIKE, A HEAVY ONE
Sure, they’re big and expensive, and NOBODY wants to drop one - but the truth is, touring motorcycles are still just a bike. All the basic riding skills you use while riding any other street bike will apply here, you’re just dealing with a lot more weight than most bikes. If you’ve never ridden a touring bike before, it will seem huge when you mount up, but after a few hours in the saddle, the bike will seem to shrink and your confidence will solidify. You do need to be mindful about being able to put both your feet down firmly whenever you stop. Avoid parking on a sloped ground where the pavement falls away from one side of the bike. If you’re on a hill leading up to a traffic light or stop sign, make sure you can plant both feet confidently on the ground. This is especially important when riding two-up. You also need to be sure not to set down the side stand on soft ground, or you might find the bike has fallen over when you return to it.
Pro tip: a crushed beverage can set under the side stand will provide a solid footing for the bike even on soft ground by spreading the weight out.
2. WEIGHT TRANSITION & REAR BRAKE USE
Harley Davidson touring bikes have very compliant suspensions that provide a balance of comfort and control but err on the side of comfort. This means that compared to many other brands, HD touring suspension will feel quite soft. If you grab a strong handful of front brake, the weight of the bike will transition forward quickly, and the front end will dive. This transfer then will limit the traction and road holding ability of the front tire, a recipe for dropping the bike if you’re trying to turn at the same time.
So, you need to be aware of weight transfer and minimize it; the best way to do this is by using the rear brake in concert with the front brake. Firmly and progressively applying both the front and rear brake at the same time will “ sit the bike down”, minimizing weight transfer, decreasing stopping distances, and maximizing available traction. For riders who have been told for years never to use the rear brake, this advice may seem counterintuitive, but remember, this is a Harley-Davidson touring bike, the rules are different. Be sure not to stomp on the rear brake, as this could cause a rear wheel lockup. Use the rear brake progressively, feel it begin to drag the rear end of the bike down. Once you get the front/rear brake balance down, it’s a beautiful feeling.
Pro tip: when in parking lots, on gravel and riding at low speed, try using only the rear brake to stop the bike. Most of the time when we see big touring bikes get dropped, its in these situations, because the rider grabbed a bunch of front brake, the weight transferred forward, and the front end tucked. With rear brake use only at these low speeds, you can almost totally avoid this risk.
3. CENTER OF GRAVITY
Harley-Davidson motorcycles typically carry their weight low, which provides confidence inspiring road handling. But once you add a rider, pillion (passenger), fully loaded tour packs and fuel, the center of gravity can change significantly, shifting upwards. It’s up to the rider to “feel” where this center is and to compensate for it when the bike is in motion. The bike will turn in differently and stop differently depending on how much additional weight there is and how high it is on the bike. Experienced riders will adapt to these changes almost without being aware of it, those less experienced might need a day or two.
Pro tip: When you are packing your possessions on the bike, try to keep heavier items in the lower areas of saddle bags.
4. POWER DELIVERY AND ROAD FEEL
The power delivery and road feel of a Harley-Davidson touring bike have been designed with complete balance - there is very little risk of horsepower upsetting the chassis under any circumstance. This has been a cause for ridicule from some corners, from riders who refer to Harleys as “tractors”. The truth is quite different of course, even full-dress Harleys have the power to outpace most road cars.
The performance envelope is limited compared to some other motorcycles, yes, but this is by intent - for what seems a limitation on paper becomes a great advantage on long tours. In top gear at 75 mph, a Harley will be turning less than 3000 rpm, rumbling along all day quite comfortably. The lack of revs keeps things comfortable, the feel lends itself to scenic enjoyment - isn’t that why you’re touring America in the first place? Of course, when you need to move NOW, kick the bike down a gear or two into the meat of the torque curve, and it MOVES. Harleys are lovely things, built for a special purpose - touring enjoyment - and they perform this job remarkably well.
Pro tip: keep the bike in 2nd gear for easier roll-offs from stops, there’s plenty of torque on tap to skip 1st gear.
5. EASE UP ON THE BARS
Touring Harleys have either big detachable windscreens or fairings attached to the front forks (the Road Glide, uniquely, has a frame mounted fairing). This means that as the wind hits the screen, the bars will shimmy back and forth, imperceptibly. This energy is translated through your arms into your back and shoulders, creating fatigue as you fight the wind resistance without even knowing it. If you have too firm a grip on the handlebars when you ride, this is amplified, so try to ride with a relaxed but controlled grip on the bars. You’ll be able to ride longer with less fatigue if you do.
Pro tip: Check that you’re riding with a relaxed grip by making a tiny circle with your forefinger touching your thumb as you ride & grip the bars.
6. CHECK LUGGAGE AT EVERY STOP
With so much luggage capacity (two saddlebags and a top case on the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ELECTRA GLIDE), it’s easy to forget to fasten the luggage clasps securely when you get back underway. Be sure to confirm all clasps are fastened - you don’t want your underwear flying out of an unfastened top case onto the highway at 60mph (don’t ask us how we know this!)
Pro tip: Make your pillion responsible for this task and have them tap you twice on the shoulders to confirm the bags are locked and you’re ready to roll.
7. DON’T BE DISTRACTED BY GADGETS
Full dress touring bikes host a staggering set of features - cruise control, music and communication systems, adjustable suspension, traction and stability control, navigation - conveniences that can heighten the enjoyment of a ride. But they can also be a recipe for distraction, which is the last thing you need on a motorcycle. At just 60 mph, you’re traveling 88 feet per second. So, think of the danger you put yourself and the riders around you in when you start flicking through a menu for a few seconds.
We’ve all done it, all been tempted to tweak the GPS or look at our phones while riding. But please think of the consequences to yourself and others if you allow yourself to be distracted by technology on the bike. If need be, signal that you need to pull over, and make adjustments/take a look while you’re stopped.
Pro tip: learn basic gadget functions with the bike stopped, which buttons to press - then do it with your eyes closed until you have the muscle memory perfect. When you’re on the moving bike you won’t need to avert your gaze from the road if you absolutely must use a gadget, because you know how to do it with your eyes closed.
8. PASSENGER SHOULD BE AT ONE WITH THE RIDER
Pillions need to be good riders too! Passengers should be at one with the rider, and not move unpredictably or they will upset the balance of the motorcycle. They also need to be mindful not to distract the rider unnecessarily while underway. Pillions need to be aware of their surroundings while on a bike to a lesser degree than riders, but they cannot be oblivious.
Pro tip: pillions should gently squeeze their inner legs against the rider and always look where the bike is going when taking corners.
9. PARKING FOR THE EVENING
When you go in for the night, do not leave anything on the bike that you ever want to see again, not even a pair of wet socks. Even in the best of places, things can go missing sometimes, and saddlebags locks aren’t going to keep anyone from getting into your bags (except you, if you lose the key!) Pack for organized repeatability - know which items go in each saddlebag, what goes in the top case, and stick to your method. It will save you lots of stress trying to remember if you’ve packed something or left it behind in the room.
Pro tip: leave your saddlebags unlocked on the bike at night, that way anyone who wants to see inside can do so and quickly move on without breaking your clasps.
10. CONSIDER COMING IN A FEW DAYS EARLY
If you’ve committed the time and money to go on tour, you don’t want to have the trip spoiled because you made the wrong motorcycle choice. The Harley-Davidson touring motorcycles all have small differences... some have windscreens which can be detached or swapped out for different heights, some have floorboard footrests and others pegs. Pillion comfort is supreme on the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ELECTRA GLIDE models, but some passengers prefer the more open air feel of the HARLEY-DAVIDSON ROAD KING or HARLEY-DAVIDSON HERITAGE SOFTAIL. It’s little things like this that can make all the difference in your enjoyment of a big tour. Visit a local dealership with your pillion and sit on the models you’re considering for your tour, check out the differences in luggage capacity and other features.
Pro tip: Consider coming in a day or two before your EAGLERIDER TOUR starts and hiring the same model of bike for local riding around your arrival city to see how you get on - this small investment could pay huge dividends in the enjoyment of your tour.
If you’re looking for more resources to help you prepare for the ride, here is the list of recommended reading: