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Harley-Davidson Pan America : A Few Miles More

It has been well documented how Harley-Davidson’s Pan America arrived ready to compete in a very tough segment. Here we attempt to explain why that is a good thing.

Thumbing the ignition I rode away. I have departed Barnes Harley-Davidson many times on many different bikes but never on a Harley that felt like this. The experience was causing a brief shimmer in the continuum. 

The tall stance, the wide bars, the sound of the engine and the feel of the seat. 

It wasn’t what I had been conditioned to expect and yet again it was exactly what I was expecting. I have been riding big ADV bikes for 20 years and the Pan America felt immediately familiar. This was going to be fun. 

If passion is not a prerequisite for this job, it should be. Due to that enthusiasm, I am an equal opportunity admirer of any two-wheeled machine. Any bike, any time. Occasionally an hour in the saddle might suffice but only a couple of bikes over the years have been relegated to that niche and not because any were bad motorcycles but because they were too laser focused to achieve anything but one goal. That accomplished, it was time to get off.

On the other hand, there were bikes encouraged that mythic quick errand for a jug of milk and returning a month later with an interesting story. 

I have always held to the belief that every bike deserves a ride because you never know until you try. The Honda Monkey that is finally going to be sold in Canada, absolutely. The Softail Slim. Loved that bike but is it coming back? A 2005 Kawasaki ZX-12 I would take over just about any of the “big speed” bikes sold since. The departed Victory Vegas that proved Polaris could design a great looking machine, again yes. A Suzuki SV650 has outsized charms in comparison to its price tag. All would find a space in my garage if this were a “money is no object” world. But it isn’t and I am lucky to be able to substitute ownership with an occasional ride on all sorts of borrowed “press bikes.” 

All too often there can be only one bike in the garage. When it came to making a choice and, because it was only going to be one bike, I chose a big ADV back in 2007. I still have it. It was before the ADV craze hit so it was purely a logical purchase and not because everyone else had one. The selection of that bike proved a very good idea. It allowed the exploration of many a rough and remote road.

There comes a point in many of those type rides to consider the wisdom of going further. Especially if you are on your own, and particularly if the bike you are riding doesn’t belong to you (and by that I mean it’s a press bike). Turning back crossed my mind during my time with the Pan America but it was handling Vancouver Island’s logging roads with aplomb. I had dodged four loaded logging trucks by keeping to the far right side of the road. The driver of the first truck (they passed in pairs) motioned there was another truck coming shortly behind him. I also avoided some guy power-sliding his work truck around a broad corner. It was quitting time and dinner or beer was waiting somewhere. Neither rocks, ruts, deep muddy puddles or steep inclines were going to keep him from the task at hand. After his dust settled, the road was mine.

My task became going just that little bit further, always just that little bit further. The Pan America’s large tank had been filled at the last gas stop so I could comfortably get lost for 400 kilometres if it came to that. Inside the hard bags were a few extra granola bars wrapped in the sweatshirt that kept my camera from bouncing off the inside lid of the right-side bag.

I relish being out in the trees and mud and dirt. The only noise was the sound of the Harley’s engine which at stops would turn to silence or the whisper of wind. An ADV was the motorcycle best-suited for all aspects of this ride. A late fall day under a sunny sky with a chill in the air foreshadowing the end of another riding season, the Pan America was fulfilling its promise. 

Realistically, becoming lost wasn’t an option. There was a big lake far below on my right. The water stretched for 50 kilometres so unless I developed a complete lack of directional sense I would circle the lake. The pavement within a radius of 350 kilometres from my home in Victoria I have explored many times but there is always another dirt road at the end of a lonely paved one if you search long enough and this road was another such. If a mishap occurred it would have been my fault and it would have been of the riding not the way-finding variety.

The early corporate promotional images of the Pan America were of it tackling some serious terrain, one wheel in the air. If I had the Pan America’s sizeable presence airborne, tethered by neither wheel to the ground, it would have been by accident. What followed next wouldn’t have been pretty. But with a long travel suspension, the ability to adjust both traction control for going up a steep and rough slope and ABS for coming down the other side, I was confident in the bike keeping both wheels mostly connected to the gravel and mud.

The ride to the edge of the pavement had taken 90 minutes. It was curvy and divided and ended with a long fast run from the main highway with the opportunity to pass other vehicles perhaps not as keen to reach the end of the asphalt. The Pan America sat steady and smooth on the pavement, I was tucked behind the fairing enjoying the engine, anything more than the 150 horsepower would have just been for bragging rights. Leaned over in the corners with immediate and effortless passing power the Pan America was proving more of a sport-touring machine than dualsport. Comfort, yes, speed combined with confident handling, yes, a modicum of wind protection, yes. The gearing left me confused as a taller gear would have been useful for the  higher speed asphalt runs but revs are often a personal preference as many riders like to live within the power band at all times. I would have preferred a lower more relaxed gear for those higher speeds.

When the going gets rough, you need confidence in your ride and the Pan America was showing no signs of strain. The logging road was rough with steep climbs and drops  and I had to stand on the pegs to maintain any speed in comfort. The bars and pegs fell easily to hand and foot. On the lumpier sections, the suspension kept the ride relatively smooth. Confidence and trust in your bike is key. You need to know it will get you out of as well as into the woods. The Pan America will need some time to build that reputation but so far so good for Harley returning to the dirt.

Riding on dirt as a kid was where the love of motorcycles grew. Too young for a licence meant that a ride out of town required following various back alleys and trails and hydro right-of-ways to escape civilization. But from the end of the pavement the road was only as short as the size of the tank and the hours before dinner. For a kid it was the biggest sense of freedom since learning to ride a bicycle. The Pan America joins the grown-up version of the CT70 or other such small dualsports. The tanks are far bigger, the power much greater and explorations can range from hours to weeks. But dirt is still a draw for many riders because this is where it all started. In a one-bike world, the ADV is the answer. 

Giving up my ADV would be tough. The modern bike offers virtually no compromises for street riding and features most of the riding aids dedicated streetbikes possess and often the same power or more. The Pan America is no exception, fitted as it was with Harley’s suite of tech aids. The  fact that Harley-Davidson got the bike so right out of the gate is a testament to just how deeply they must have dived into the intricacies of the segment and understood the expectations. It was beyond obvious that the bike had to arrive as perfect as they could make it. You could argue the styling is perfect. The front end makes an impression and distinguishes the bike from every other option in the category. But it makes the bike look bigger and heavier than it is with the emphasis on the front fairing’s horizontal lines. Some riders want their bike to look big but others do not. 

Looking back to where I began this story, and why some motorcycles seem fitted only for short rides, the Pan America and others in the class offer an explanation. The short-ride bikes weren’t bad motorcycles—in some cases they where extremely good at what they were intended to do, but they were so extraordinarily focused, so single-niche oriented, they compromised just about every other aspect of their existence. Yes, there are degrees of ADV machines but for the most part they do not have compromises that spill over into other aspects of riding. While with the Pan America I didn’t need to compromise my riding style on the pavement or on the dirt  and that is pretty amazing. Dirt, adventure, sport or touring, it is only when you reach into the deepest, most extreme corners of those segments that you might find an ADV wanting—but those are not places most of us want to go.

Most modern ADVs have tall seat heights because of their long-travel suspensions. Some might consider this physical aspect a “compromise.” The Pan America negates this somewhat with adjustable ride height that lowers the seat at a stop. It is so seamless you don’t even know it is happening—like a dropper post on a mountain bike, although automatically. The idea was one of those “aha!” strokes of genius.  No doubt this concept will be adapted to other bikes from competing manufacturers. Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. It’s a minor technology that may well expand the segment’s acceptance.

Is the Pan America the most useful bike Harley-Davidson offers? Are ADVs the most versatile bikes any manufacturer offers? That would be an unreserved, no.  If you are never going to leave the pavement. If you want a passenger to ride in more comfort. If you want to make your bike your own. If you want the feel that only a big air-cooled V-Twin can provide. If you want the bike to be even more accessible. If yes is the answer to any of those questions there are other Harley-Davidsons to think about. Or if Harley-Davidson isn’t your cup of tea, there are other brands and categories to think about. As sporty as an ADV can be, you will never be dragging a knee.

If you have been reading this magazine long enough, you might know I occasionally use the wrong tool for the job. Once, I was almost run off a narrow dirt road and it had begun to dawn on me I might be lost. I had to ask for directions from the only vehicle I had seen for a long time. That happened on a Suzuki Bandit 1250S with hard bags. To be fair, the road had started out paved. 

Another incident of wrong tool for the job was when I had to pull the original Triumph Tiger adventure bike, as big and heavy as it was, out of the trees after a misguided single track exploration. Or getting a Ducati Monster very muddy while following a river bottom road much too far—so far even I realized it was a dumb idea.

But if extending limits, opportunities, miles ridden on any surface and the possibility of getting just a little lost in the woods and knowing you can make it out sounds good to you, the ADV segment might be your best option. If getting there fast and smooth on a long paved road is your thing, or if even short trips are appealing, ADVs work here too. With the Pan America Harley-Davidson has built a machine that slots in as competition to the best in the segment. Give the newcomer props for providing another option to ride that little bit further.

Now, go get lost. Almost.

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #358


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