The marque is an American icon, but, as Neil Vorano discovers, the rumbling bikes are just as ideal for the open roads of Jordan.
Jordan a second home for Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson motorcycles are built in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the big, rumbling bikes were born on the open road of the US. Some think they're the ideal mount for cruising long, lonely motorways; indeed, it's hard to think of a more iconic symbol of that flag-draped freedom in America than a Harley.
But outside of the US, it's also hard to think of a more fitting second home for Harley than in Jordan. And pulling in the clutch and kicking up the gear lever above the floorboard of the huge Electra Glide I'm saddled on, hearing the thump-thump of the big V-twin underneath me on a winding, open road bordering the Dead Sea, it's very hard to argue that fact. And I'm only starting my journey; the rest of the cross-country tour would prove Jordan to be a true motorcyclist's destination in the Middle East.
Harley-Davidson invited a few journalists to sample some bikes from its latest lineup in the Hashemite kingdom, a wide range of the iconic models that went from its base Sportster all the way up to the hulking Electra Glide. The journey starts out in Amman, at the dealership just on the outskirts of the city. As Claude Abry, an animated French expat and co-owner of the dealership, puts it: "It's perfect for avoiding the traffic of the city."
Abry looks like who you would expect on a Harley: a big man with a goatee, a boisterous laugh and a roughly gregarious demeanor; he's no wallflower by any means. Surprisingly, Abry's shop, which opened in May, is the first dealership in Jordan, as the country only started allowing private motorcycle ownership (above 200cc) this year.
And it's quite a shop: six levels, a large clothing and accessories area (ever important for the Harley lifestyle), a bike elevator and a cafe and lounge fall under one roof. Everything is still shiny and new.
The journey will be as a typical Harley riding group - a roadmaster leads followed by riders who form a staggered formation pack, and a sweeper bringing up the rear. Abry, the roadmaster, gives the twirling-finger signal to start our engines, and the sound of 10 big V-twins churning over and thumping out that distinctive "potato potato" sound from chrome pipes can't help but raise the anticipation for the ride. The group moves out onto the road and makes its way down to Route 65, which will eventually take us south to Aqaba, our final destination of the day.
Our wheels roll over flat, relatively blemish-free tarmac along the way. There's a good mix of winding corners and long, flat straights to enjoy, and as we make our way south, I can't help but feel a tension I didn't know I had lift from my shoulders, almost blown off by the wind rushing by. The Electra Glide I'm riding is cushy, with a big seat, upright position and a high windshield. And I'm doing something I used to scoff at: my iPod is plugged into the speaker system, and I'm blasting out classic rock as I cruise. More than a few times I catch my helmet bobbing to the beat, realising that anyone can see me. The big 1,690cc V-twin is more than powerful enough to keep up - and pass - traffic.
The roads are a perfect fit for these big cruisers, but they're not the only reason why Harley seems a perfect fit for Jordan. In a land teeming with ancient history, the bike manufacturer has a history of its own here in this Middle Eastern country.
King Hussein, the beloved ruler of Jordan from 1952 until his death in 1999, was a sportsman, car racer and famous for his love of motorcycles, and Harleys in particular. Now, his son, King Abdullah II, carries on the tradition. As an avid motorcyclist, he travels the world on bike trips, as well as rumbling down Jordan's own motorways.
Our route winds south, and through the scenery of long, sandy plains and towering jagged mountains we get a chance to switch bikes at petrol stops along the way. There's the Sportster Superlow, with a - true to its name - low seat height and an 883cc twin; a cool-looking, retro, all-black Sportster 1200XL Forty-Eight; a FXDF Dyna Fat Bob, an FLSTN Softail Deluxe; the Electra Glide and a Street Glide, which is similar to the Electra Glide but with a more rakish rider posture, lower windscreen and no cargo box - not to mention a wild black-flames-on-orange paintjob. There was even the Tri-Glide, Harley's three-wheeled cruiser.
But I stay on the Electra Glide, and we continue on south; the traffic gets lighter, the road gets more winding and the scenery gets more bleak. We eventually turn off the main road onto an even smaller road that snakes through the desert - a biker's dream. Though it gets rough and sandy at points, the Glide soaks it up and never feels unstable or heavy, taking the tight curves with relative ease.
We pass through a small town, where the locals come out to the street in curiosity and wonderment at the train of thundering bikes slowly passing by. We're greeted with waves and smiles, especially from children with big, excited smiles. I notice one that holds up a rooster to us as we pass - we feel like rock stars.
We dismount for a tour of Petra, the ancient city carved into the sandstone in southern Jordan. It's one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the world, and offhand, I'm glad we couldn't ride through the tight canyons to see it - the sound of 10 thundering Harleys would surely shake the city to rubble.
It's getting late, so the convoy moves south again on to Aqaba, Jordan's only port city. It's getting dark as we arrive, and there's no time for any sightseeing, either; we're leaving the hotel the next morning at 5am.
I start our return journey on the Forty-Eight. It's a great-looking bike, with fat tyres and a tiny peanut tank, but it's not the perfect mount for long journeys and cold mornings; the seat is hard and, with no windscreen, I was freezing in the chill. But all that was forgotten as we rumbled into Wadi Rum, the giant desert valley made famous in Lawrence of Arabia. The sun is just starting to rise, silhouetting the giant outcroppings of rock against a sky turning a lighter shade of purple; it's magical, and a sight and feeling I'll never forget.
After a stop, which includes a spectacular hot air balloon ride and lunch, we continue on more smaller roads to the mountaintop palace of Shobak Castle, an early 12th-century fortress high above the land. The route is thrilling, rising higher and hugging the side of the mountain and seemingly carved specifically for motorcycling.
Eventually, the road leads back to Route 65 heading north towards our final destination, which has us turn off the road before Amman onto a very tight, hilly course full of ups and downs and switchbacks taken in first gear. The Fat Bob I'm on just isn't made for this, unfortunately; its steering is numb and the wide handlebars make the tight turns laborious. It's made for the open road, not a slalom.
I had a chance to ride all the bikes on this trip, including a short stint on the Tri-Glide, which was comfy, but it just didn't sit well with me: I could never get over the idea of tipping it over in a turn, and its extremely stiff steering would make the switchbacks a chore. The Sportsters, though not ideal for high-speed motorways, are great bikes for the city. The Softail and Fat Bob, both with little steering feedback, are also good for stylish motorway cruising but not so much in the twisties.
But the biggest surprise - and the bike I gravitated to the most after I had tried them all - was the Electra Glide. This towering hulk was the most fun of the bunch in tossing into a corner; a few times I leant in so far I scraped the tailpipes on the tarmac. For such a big bike, it felt light leaning over, much more so than even the Sportster. I suspect that's because the Electra Glide - and the Street Glide, which was just as fun cornering - have a milder rake on the front forks than the rest. While it doesn't exactly sport communicative steering - certainly not like other European touring bikes - I had much more confidence cornering with these mounts than on the rest, even in the tightest, slowest corners. The chassis is stiffer than the last version, too, helping with the handling.
As well, the top box will swallow just about anything you need to carry, a huge convenience. If you need more room, toss the rest of your stuff in the sideboxes.
The huge gates of the Evason Ma'in Hot Springs Hotel signal that our ride is over. Dismounting the Harleys, every rider in the group has a weary, distant stare in their eyes. Our exhaustion is coupled with a sense of accomplishment, that our fatigue is well-deserved. It's a reward for a two-day ride, but experiencing this beautiful country on the back of a Harley has been reward aplenty.