Back around 1986 I picked up an FLHTC, a dresser. I already had a 1978 FXE but wanted something I could safely and easily take my boys on long trips with me on. The FXE just wasn’t suited for hauling young passengers so I opted for a bike that would allow me take them cross- country in relative comfort. It served its purpose, having taken them to Pikes Peak, Sturgis, Florida and all through the south. I didn’t like the fairing nor the radio, which I eventually refused to use. The boys eventually moved past riding with dad so I took the dresser to the dealership to have them sell it on consignment.
After about a month, the owner said he would make me a good deal; trade my dresser in for a new 1997 Road King. The deal was actually quite good, so I took him up on the offer. I have always felt that the only two bikes Harley makes that are decent are the Sportster and the Road King, although I do not like the Twin Cams, so when I say “Road King,” I mean Evo ‘Kings. With the detachable windshield the Road King isn’t such a bad bike.
That was almost 20 years ago and over 100,000 miles later. During that time, the bike has been a spare bike for many who have come to visit as well as a spare bike for Englishman, every time his Shovel failed him or he needed more passenger room. I never understood him; he’d borrow the bike then complain about the seat or being seen on a Road King as if he were dressed in drag, but always asked to borrow it again later. Not sure if it’s growing on him or if he just got tired of complaining, but he hasn’t complained lately about riding it. Hopefully it’s the former.
I had been using the Road King as my winter bike. With fuel injection it starts up very easily in cold weather (I’m talking 20 degrees) and with the windshield on it breaks the ice-cold temps for short commutes in the winter. Once the warm weather gets here, the Road King pretty much hibernates during the summer. This year Kurt borrowed it on our trip to Florida, then back up to The Smoke Out. Then Kurt went on to California, then Vegas. Englishman ew in and picked it up from there on his way to Sturgis with Ricky Bongos.
When I got the bike back, the clutch cable had to be replaced because it had dried out and stiffened right up. You needed gorilla grips to activate the clutch. The tires needed replacement and the fuel gauge was still broken (if you read the trip Kurt took you know the story). So it had been through a lot this past summer, with everyone riding it except me. And I don’t mind. At least it’s being ridden and helped Kurt see America the way he wanted to.
So Biketoberfest was coming up and we were deciding who would go and how. What we settled on was Debo and Kari flying in while I would ride if I could find the time. The Sunday before Biketoberfest, hotels were cancelling reservations, and Debo and Kari found themselves without a room while the state was still cleaning up from the hurricane. About 5pm Sunday Debo finally found a hotel on A1A so she booked the rooms. I decided to go the next day, Monday. The temps were cold, like frost and around 32 that morning. Rain was popping up all over so I knew it was not going to be a nice ride like going to The Smoke Out. The Shovel was not ready for a long trip and I didn’t have time to get it ready. The Digger, with the S&S 124 was still at Steve’s. The Knuck, well, let’s just say it wasn’t ready and wasn’t going to be ready soon. The Road King had fresh oil, new tires and was ready at any given moment, so I packed my gear and took off on the ‘King.
It was cold, bone-chillin’ cold when I left at 6am. I planned on leaving at 4am, but I didn’t want to ride on patches of ice that early so I waited until an hour or so before sun up. I made it to Atlanta, Georgia that day. Jumped out of bed at 4am, packed up and was on the road by 4:10. Temps were around 42 but dropped to the high 30’s by the time the sun came up. Once in Florida things warmed up, but rain developed near Ocala. No big deal.
I posted some pics on Instagram, or maybe Debo did, I don’t remember, but one comment stuck in my head and prompted me to write about this trip. He said it would be interesting to compare the long distant trips on a luxury liner like the Road King to a bare-bones chopper like my Shovel. I actually was doing that along the way anyway, so I said to myself, “why not?”
FLH’s are built to be ridden on long trips, but that doesn’t mean they are better on long trips. I hadn’t taken the Road King on a long trip since 2000, so it had been a good while since I went cross-country on a touring bike. All my trips have been on the Shovel, Knuck, 124 or Indian so the differences were noticed immediately.
The first thing I noticed was the high center of gravity on the Road King compared to my other bikes, which for the purpose of this write-up I’ll use the Shovel for comparison, since that’s my main hauler. The Road King, once packed, has a very high center of gravity, which makes the bike feel not only top heavy, but less stable. The Shovel on the other hand, feels much more sure-footed, with all the weight sitting low. In terms of stability, I have to give it to the Shovel, hands-down.
The long bikes are meant for the highway. The long wheelbase on long, straight roads makes the bike feel and act like the true “Road King.” Comfort is amazing, but given the fact that the bike is custom- fitted to my legs and reach, it’s no wonder comfort and stability are inherent to the design of any chopper, if done right. The Road King doesn’t feel as road-worthy as the Shovel, with the short wheelbase and high center of gravity. Round two for the Shovel.
The Road King has a starter and is fuel injected. It’s always an easy start, 100% of the time– especially in the cold weather. The Shovel is a kick-only. In the summer it’s 98% reliable on the first kick. However, once the temps start to drop, starting becomes a little more difficult in the mornings. Not a huge edge, but the edge goes to the Road King.
This is where personal taste makes all the difference in the world, shifting. The Road King is bone stock 5-speed tranny with a 1:1 ratio in 5th; hand clutch, foot shifter with neutral hidden somewhere between 1st and 2nd. The Shovel is a six-speed Baker, N-1 drum, with a true overdrive, hand shifter by the oil tank and foot clutch. I personally prefer the hand-shift, foot-clutch set up over conventional stock. All my bikes are set up with a hand-shift, foot-clutch and there’s a reason for it; I like it better. The Road King will remain as-is as far as shifting goes, and one reason is that when guests come to visit, not all of them can use the foot-clutch set-up. So by the narrowest of margins, I give the edge to the Shovel.
This is where the Road King claims a huge advantage. With a five- gallon gas tank, I can go over 150 miles between stops. Englishman said he went 200 miles. With the windshield on, sitting on a plush cushion, 150 miles seems to come too soon. Plus with a speedometer, something I don’t have on my other bikes, I can hold a steady 80mph between stops. I like riding with Debo, Englishman, Fab Kevin and Kurt, but riding solo is the way to go if you want to make the best of your time. Gas stops were short, milestones long and it worked out. Edge to the Road King.
On the long bikes the bike exes when you go over a bump, so even though it’s in a rigid frame, the ride is not bad at all. The longer the wheel base, the more ex. Good for the rider but bad for the bike where it stresses the neck area. Still, with Fab Kevin type gussets and support, stress is no problem. The Road King had stock shocks (more on that later). Given the weight of a Road King and the short wheelbase, the shocks made the ride comfortable over the “highway to hell” in Michigan and the other bumps along the way. I’m going to have to call this one a tie. Different bikes, different set-up and geometry so what works on one probably doesn’t work on the other. The worse case scenario would be to hardtail a Road King, but why would anyone do that?
The Road King has a stock 80 cubic inch Evo. With over 100,000 miles on the clock, the power is actually pretty good, impressive for the weight of the bike and light displacement. An over drive transmission would make a huge difference, I think. I’m not sure the 80 cubes could handle any load under an over drive gear other than perfectly straight roads and no incline. Once you started to go up an incline, you’d have to down shift to make the grade.
Having said that, I am putting an S&S 124ci Evo in the Road King and swapping out the gear-set with a six-speed overdrive set. That will eliminate the fuel injection but allow me to manually adjust the fuel to my liking instead of using electronic devices to meter fuel like the Power Commander. A new exhaust, 2-into1, only on the right side, no left side nonsense, should maximize the power. A few other cosmetic changes to freshen up the Road King and make it more to my liking. It still won’t replace my Shovel, but should I decide to ride to Biketoberfest next year and I want to get down there fast, I’ll put the Road King to task.