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Relaxed in the Rain – Harley-Davidson Road King

silver road king parked in the misty rain  and trees

The Road King is still a classic Harley-Davidson touring bike, but now a suite of tech upgrades is a welcome addition during unpredictable times.

I took the long way home after picking up a 2020 Road King Special from Barnes Harley-Davidson in Victoria. Not an unexpected response to landing a new test bike with less than 20 kilometres on the odometer even if the weather wasn’t cooperating. Although in the midst of a west coast downpour and seven degrees, I was wrapped in all-weather riding gear so the rain didn’t deter me from spending a few hours riding the back roads. Straight home or the long way, the shiny fresh bike was going to get wet and a little dirty. It was the end of October so odds were it would be mix of rain and sun for the week —you gotta be prepared to get wet.

Bearing in mind the slick new rubber, I was pleased the Road King Special was equipped with Harley-Davidson’s Reflex Defensive Rider System, a new suite of electronic aids including linked ABS and cornering enhanced ABS, torque drag control and cornering enhance torque control, and traction control all of which are intended to keep the motorcycle firmly planted rubber side down. As the Road King Special is powered by the 114-cubic inch engine (1868cc) that propels the muscular FXDR and a number of the other touring and Softail models, a little backup on a slick wet road on brand new tires would be beneficial. Feeling bold, I could have ridden home on a stretch of freshly applied asphalt but why tempt fate on a $28,299 (as tested) bike? 

Leaving the shop the obvious choice was to switch the bike riding mode to “Rain” for enhanced traction control and hit the road —with a combination of common sense and electronics all would be fine. 

There is nothing intrusive about the RDRS system, no mollifying effect on the 120 foot-pounds of torque available for application to the rear wheel. For the most part you will not be aware that beneath a few pieces of bodywork a CPU is continuously monitoring multiple facets of the bike’s movements: lean angle, wheel spin, brake force and power delivery among others, all ready to intercede when, and only when, necessary.

The most obvious asset in the RDRS suite is the linked braking system complementing the existing ABS. Hammer the brakes in an emergency situation and where once you may have lost steering ability you can now complete a safe stop in an even shorter distance or more effectively maintain a riding line through a corner. The linked braking integrates the front and rear brakes as a cohesive system by employing both the front and rear calipers simultaneously under heavier application. The rear foot brake will apply one of the front discs while the front lever will apply a determined amount of rear brake. The most obvious advantage of this feature is having help from the front brakes if the rider was only to hit the rear brake. The linked braking also uses the lean sensor to change the amount and location of front and rear brake pressure while braking through a corner to preserve grip on the tire’s contact patch.

silver road king parked in the the pumpkin patchThe Road King has a pair of front discs and pulling hard on only the brake lever will bring the big bike to a predictable stop without excessive dive due to that application of the rear disc. Initially it may be counterintuitive but repeating the process and learning the limits are worth the time and effort.

The most convenient feature of the new braking system and by far the one with the most relevance outside emergency maneuvering, is vehicle hold control. Imagine stopping the bike at a traffic light on a steep hill while carrying a passenger and gear. A car pulls to a stop a few feet behind. The light changes and you hold the brakes, gently release the clutch and engage the throttle.  That’s a lot to do and not roll backwards. With the hill hold control on the Road King Special the same situation simply requires giving the lever an additional firm squeeze and the brakes lock the bike in place until you have forward momentum. The system also proved handy in other situations. While shooting photos on a narrow road with a deep grassy ditch, I pulled a three point-turn with one of the turns leaving the rear wheel in the wet grass at the lip of the ditch. Spin the tire just to ensure the 366-kilogram bike stayed out of the weeds? Nope, pull the lever firmly and ride out looking like you know what you are doing.


The RDRS is a comprehensive suite of aids watching over the bike’s performance so I wondered whether some of the Road King’s potential customers might shy away from the system. For now the Road King base model comes without the package, saving some money as the RDRS option adds to the price of the bike. There may be some riders who resist the perceived “nanny” aspects of the rider aid system. Virtually all 200-horsepower sportbikes come equipped standard with an elaborate suite of rider aids for the simple reason that some bikes approach being unrideable without a computer electronically providing a buffer between the rider’s enthusiastic wrist or foot and the brakes, tires and engine. 

For the most part cruisers are not going to be flogged, King of the Baggers aside, in the same manner nor do they offer the same razor edge performance limits but does that make the rider aid system on motorcycles like the Road King any less valuable or warranted? Absolutely not. Cruisers are going to be ridden spiritedly in the wet, through unexpectedly tight corners and in the unpredictable real world of other road users. Any edge is always appreciated.

Improved and far more sophisticated rider aids are among the most significant developments in technology over the past 15 years of motorcycle manufacture. The RDRS is a defensive system, it is there to defend the rider, to protect in case of an emergency situation. The traction and torque controls and ABS do not detract from the enjoyment of riding so there is little reason not to have them. ABS was once mainly an option but is now standard on most street bikes (and the root source of many of these other systems) because the consumer expects to have it. As time passes many other features beyond linked braking and traction control will also become expected. Just wait until vehicles can “talk” to one another on the road, knowing the speed, proximity and direction of surrounding traffic. The defensive technology exists and is now making its way into the industry. 

The Road King Special may be a modern machine with modern technology, but it is still the classic. I have a penchant for subtle Harleys. Okay, perhaps subtle isn’t quite right. How about conservatively styled? The Road King in Special trim comes with blacked out engine, pipes, wheels and headlight. It looks great even wet and under a leaden sky, as pure an iteration of the essential Harley-Davidson as you might find in the lineup.  Harley-Davidson hopes the large catalogue of parts and accessories will lure additional purchasing but with the exception of heated grips and a set of driving lights, I thought the bike perfect the way it is. 

The blackout exhaust lends a strong but deep sound befitting the deceivingly muted nature of the  bike. Hit the throttle and it pulls hard, strong and smoothly through the gears. The front end uncluttered by a windshield and very upright seating position require a firm hand on the wide bars once speed edges into the triple digits — here is a comfort versus style argument, and style sometimes wins. The same upright seating position makes for excellent control through the corners, on and off the throttle, taking advantage of the abundant torque. The bike always feels planted and the suspension firm and unflappable leaned over to the point of wondering if and when the floorboards might touch the ground. The very fact the bike feels so solid at speed proves the value of the RDRS. 

The same but different. While the lines have remained familiar, technology has always influenced the Road King’s evolution. Simple changes like fuel injection over carburation, multiple disc brakes over drums, ABS braking over non-enhanced braking, bigger, more powerful and efficient engines were a constant evolution. The 107 engine gained 11 per cent more power over the 103, the 114 increased those gains as does the 131 should you opt to install one of those giant new mills. But as power grows so does speed, acceleration and available torque. The Road King Special remains a classic but has been improved significantly through the years and RDRS keeps pace with those changes. Bigger, more powerful engines are easy advantages to market and define. The advantage of having features you may rarely need is sometimes hard to sell but the ultimate advantage—our safety, and that of our passengers—is not. 

Rest assured when the need for a good old-fashioned burnout does arise and if for no other reason than to prove the untamed beast still resides within, the traction control system can be turned off.

silver road king parked in the fall with a mysterious yet cool rider

John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #351


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