x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Call of the open road

Kevin Hackett swaps four wheels for two to roar through Oman on Harley-Davidson’s new bike range

The mountainous terrain of Oman is an ideal habitat to test out the latest offerings from Harley-Davidson. The American bikemaker's 2014 output features eight new motorcycles. Courtesy Elvis John Ferrao
The mountainous terrain of Oman is an ideal habitat to test out the latest offerings from Harley-Davidson. The American bikemaker's 2014 output features eight new motorcycles. Courtesy Elvis John Ferrao

This will no doubt come across as a very odd statement, but I think getting arthritis early might just prolong my life. In recent months, the fingers on my left hand have started to cause me a great deal of pain at times, and I really must go to see the doctor about it again. One has even started to go crooked. But it’s when I use my left hand’s fingers to squeeze the clutch lever on a motorcycle that I really am reminded of the untimely onset of what’s widely viewed as an elderly person’s physical ailment.

And this means that I’m unlikely to ever own a motorcycle, unless I can sort out those fingers. Which, in turn, means that I’m likely to live longer. It’s a very simple equation.

But once I’ve released that lever, while pain sears through my fingers like there’s a knife gouging at all my joints at once, and I use my right hand to twist open the throttle of a Harley-Davidson, I forget all about it. Instead, my ears and those of everyone in the vicinity are treated to one of the most recognised, most loved and most iconic sounds in all of motoringdom. The noise of a V-twin, air-cooled Harley at full chat is something to be savoured – a deep, guttural, flatulent bellow that defies environmentalists and technology champions everywhere, but reminds us that even in these cleaner, digital times, an engine can still sound like it means business.

The heart of any Harley-Davidson is its engine. While other manufacturers have embraced water-cooling and other noise-sapping construction methods, this American institution has carried on regardless – and its millions of fans all over the planet wouldn’t have it any other way. Neither would I. When I hear that sound and feel the low-down torque catapult me down the roads of Oman, I’m convinced that I could find room for a Harley-Davidson in my life, painful fingers and all. But then I remind myself that bikers are few and far between in these parts, and for good reason. The standard of driving here would put off anyone of sane mind.

But here, in neighbouring Oman, it’s biker bliss – beautifully surfaced roads, epic mountain scenery that makes you feel infinitesimally insignificant and bends. Yes, bends and lots of them. Hills, too, with many of the climbing and descending routes hugging the impressively rugged coastline. This is why untold numbers of bikers head to Oman from all over the Middle East and why I’m riding the roads north-west of the capital, Muscat, with a small group of journalists on a Harley-Davidson road trip. As a gang, we’re not particularly scary, but you’d still hear us coming from miles away. The distant sound of rolling thunder.

These press events present perfect opportunities to contrast and compare, as there’s always a good representation of the current range available for riders to take turns with, compare impressions with and pick over the minutiae with. And I know, after just half an hour in the saddle, that the one bike that I would choose over all others if I had the opportunity is the Heritage Softail Classic. It’s unashamedly retro in its looks, it’s comfortable and powerful and it’s lighter than its Road King brethren. It’s a perfect combination of old-fashioned attitude and touring capability and I really don’t want to hand it over to anyone else. I must, however, as there are new models to try out.

Yes, despite Harley-Davidson’s apparent laziness when it comes to the adaptation of new technology, it does launch new product. In many ways, it’s a bit like the Morgan car company – it’s been building basically the same vehicles for decades, but every now and then comes out with something completely new, something that the purists just don’t get, but something that proves to the world that it isn’t asleep. For Morgan, that moment came with the Aero 8; for Harley, it was with the V-Rod of 2001 – a water-cooled, Porsche-designed engine fitted to a frame that visually was like nothing else that the company (or anyone else for that matter) had built before.

Since that model, Harley-Davidson has been nowhere near as inventive, but its bikes have at least kept the brand’s core values alive and well. And, just a short while ago, it made a stab at the younger end of the market with the entry-level 883 Iron, a blacked-out, full-of-attitude sports bike that looks mean but isn’t exactly fast and isn’t comfortable while cruising like the bigger-engined machines. I passed my test on one and rode one for a few months before moving to the UAE, but it’s not here in Oman, simply because it’s not ideal road-trip fodder.

To be honest, I find the extent of the current range bewildering in the extreme, but new for 2014 are eight “new” motorcycles with more power, better braking, improved ergonomics and tweaked styling. Harley-Davidson says that it’s the largest-scale model launch in its 110-year history and it’s called Project Rushmore.

Part of the Project Rushmore programme is the Dh163,900 Tri-Glide Ultra Classic, a trike, which is actually here on the Oman event, but nobody seems to want to ride it, least of all me. I’m here to experience life on the road with two wheels, not three. To lean into corners and scrape foot pegs on tarmac, not get to grips with an entirely different way of riding. Besides which, I think it looks silly and this brand should exude cool; turn heads for all the right reasons.

After a fuel stop, I swap keys for the new Low Rider and it’s a piece of cake to ride – important for a relative novice such as myself. It’s been two whole years since I last rode and it can take a while to become reacquainted with the idiosyncrasies of travelling on two wheels rather than four. How do you shift down and up through the gears? Ah yes, that will be the left foot – down for first, then up through the ’box and back down again. Which brakes do you use and when? There’s a lot to think about when all that you’re used to is driving cars that normally have automatic everything, but this is why, whenever I get on a bike, I fall straight back in love with it. It’s old-school, analogue transportation and reminds me why the journey – not just the destination – is so important. And the journey through the wilds of Oman is extraordinarily beautiful.

So many bikers dismiss Harleys out of hand, even without ever having ridden one. But to be on a sports bike in this wonderland would be to miss its greatest hits. Hunkered down, riding at the speed of sound does have its attractions, I admit, but here I am, sat bolt upright with my arms outstretched and the cinematic visuals are pouring through my retinas. I wouldn’t swap seats right now for any superbike.

It starts to rain. Rain, the nemesis of any biker no matter what they ride, comes in huge dollops, catching everyone by surprise. Not wanting to spend the entire day soaked to the skin, I avail myself of the waterproofs offered by the support team and carry on regardless. The unseasonably cold and damp weather simply adds to the visual drama and the sense of adventure, but it also makes that left hand of mine even more painful than it already was. Now I wish I was on a bike with fairing that protects the hands from the elements, but no matter. Don’t wimp out, Hackett, it’s only pain.

Roads snake through mountain passes, offering more twists and turns than I’ve seen anywhere else in the region and the noise as we roar through seems to bounce off the hard rock faces and be channelled through our helmets and into our ears. It’s glorious.

We stop for a coffee and a snack and I spy the new Breakout, so I bag its key for the next section. To my eyes, it’s the coolest-looking bike in the range – a sort of halfway-house chopper, with a decidedly feet-forward riding position and a rear tyre fatter than I am. I want one, and that’s before I’ve even started this one up.

The Breakout’s pricing starts at a whopping Dh96,900 – more expensive than if you bought one Stateside – and it’s part of the Softail range, although it looks nothing like the rest. Wanting a piece of the custom action, Harley-Davidson has produced a bike that looks, to all intents and purposes, like it’s already been highly modified. With a stretched-out stance and a 35-degree fork-rake angle, it looks like it would never get around the corners that we’re faced with on a minute-by-minute basis here, but nothing could be further from the truth.

You simply lean, with hardly any twisting of the bars, and the Breakout gets around just fine, even if it’s at a slower speed than other bikes might be capable of on the same bends. Its lean angle, though, is compromised, at 23.4 degrees, and that means peg scraping – unnerving at first, but you soon get used to it. But it’s supremely comfortable and always dramatic, whether you’re looking at it in the car park or twisting open the throttle and liberating all that the 1,690cc engine has to give. It’s a bit of a hooligan, but it’s genteel at the same time, and I adore every second spent in its seat.

And therein lies my problem. I’m too scared of the UAE’s traffic to enjoy a motorcycle and I know that I’d be putting my life on the line every time that I strapped my helmet to my chin. I also know that the arrow-straight desert roads would be a chore and that my wife would probably not enjoy her time riding pillion. But there’s this nagging thing inside, this deep-seated desire to have one of these things – and one day I’ll probably give in to it, arthritis or no arthritis. And if I ever uproot and come to live in Oman, it will be a done deal.

My name is Kevin Hackett and I’m a Harley-Davidsonaholic.

khackett@thenational.ae