x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Test drive a Harley-Davidson without ever leaving the showroom

A complete stranger to anything with two wheels, James Langton goes to Dubai to ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle nowhere fast.

James Langton gets to grips with the Harley-Davidson Softail Night Train on the simulator at the company's Dubai showroom. Pawan Singh / The National
James Langton gets to grips with the Harley-Davidson Softail Night Train on the simulator at the company's Dubai showroom. Pawan Singh / The National

There are three pretty good reasons why I don't own a Harley-Davidson. Oddly enough, the views of Mrs Langton, who once rode a Honda 50, do not figure among them.

In order of precedence they are: that the price of even a quite modest bike would cover the annual school fees of the youngest and make a contribution to the costs of the other two at university.

Secondly, that to ride around on the roads of the UAE without the protection of the largest, strongest steel box possible seems tantamount to committing suicide. Which is illegal here, by the way.

Oh, and lastly, I don't know how to ride a motorbike.

Yet here we are at the Harley-Davidson showroom on the Sheikh Zayed Road, with six lanes of traffic thundering by outside and the rumble of the Dubai Metro overhead.

You can tell it's a Harley showroom because there is a massive dude with a scarf knotted around his skull sprawled in a corner next to something made of chrome. And that Angie, the local marketing manager, is blonde, dressed entirely in black and has a nose stud. Also, there are quite a lot of bikes and most of them look a bit scary.

We are here to experience Jumpstart, which is Harley-Davidson's way of letting you test one of their bikes even if the only prior experience you have on two wheels comes with a wicker basket and a Mickey Mouse bell. It is a motorbike that does everything a bike should do - except move.

Angie leads the way to the workshops at the back of the showroom. On the way she picks up a brochure. The models have names like "Street Bob", "Cross Bones" and "Rod Muscle". The XR 1200X promises "X-Rated Fun." I just want a promise that it won't hurt.

In a corner of the workshop is a bike mounted on its stand; the rear wheel resting on rollers.

That's it? Angie nods. The set-up doesn't exactly conjure up images of the open road, of roaring along empty desert highways, or twisting into mountain hairpins. On reflection, that's probably a good thing.

We are joined by Harley-Davidson's master technician. His name is Kannan and he sports a chain with a little gold bike and a 'tash and sideburns combo like that worn by Samuel L Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. It feels like it would be rude to ask if he has a last name.

Kannan strides over to the Jumpstart set-up. The bike looks low to the ground, but also quite big, if not on the scale of the gigantic crimson Electra Glide tourer on the other side of the room. Asking all sorts of important technical questions seems like a good way to stall for time. Starting with, what kind of bike is it? "All the details are in the brochure," Angie says brightly. "Or you can look them up online." (Later, I do just this and see that the bike is a Softail Night Train, with an air-cooled, twin-cam engine that displaces 1584cc with torque of 117Nm @ 3,200 rpm. I still have no idea what any of this means.)

Somehow I am now sitting on the bike, with Kannan helpfully pointing out the controls. It feels oddly a bit like sitting on a horse, except a lot more complicated. There is a gear selector for the left foot and a brake for the right. The left hand controls the clutch lever and the right, the throttle, whose anti-clockwise twist seems, for some reason, counter-intuitive.

Suddenly it seems like a very good idea that the bike can't move.

A large chrome knob in front of the handlebars twists a quarter turn to the left and a red light comes on. Kannan points to a button on the right handlebar. Suddenly the master technician seems to be miming, that is his lips are moving but the only sound is a monstrous roar. For a car driver, the nearness of the engine is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The bike feels as if it has a life of its own; that you don't so much ride it, as tame it.

Kannan points out the gear changes. Pull in the clutch lever, flick the foot control up (or is it down?), increase the throttle. Release the clutch, gently. Gently! The engine races ahead and then, inevitably, the bike stalls. There is silence and the faint scent of hot oil.

We try this several times until a ragged change up to top gear and 100kph is achieved. "It takes about three days to get used to it," Kannan says sympathetically.

On the road, the engine would be cooled by the rush of air, but sitting stationary it is beginning to radiate heat.

I catch my leg against the exhaust pipe and feel a burning sting through the jeans. It feels like a rebuke. The bike has won.

That's really all there is to Jumpstart. Afterwards, I talk to Angie about the reality of riding a bike in the UAE. You can pass the test after a few weeks' training, but the driving school bikes are the sort of machines you most often see delivering pizzas. Making the jump up to a Harley is a whole new ball game.

Hence the very real value of Jumpstart. "You have to feel comfortable before you purchase the bike," explains Angie - and she's talking about a lot more than just the price tag.

As for this easy rider, the only practical alternative to four wheels would seem to be the wife's old Honda 50. Like the bikes I sometimes see thundering towards the horizon on the Sheikh Zayed Road, riding a Harley-Davidson seems a long way away.