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Harley-Davidson: Performance roots and back at it

Harley-Davidson: Performance roots and back at it

By John Mendoza

The Harley-Davidson Dirt Road Track (DRT) event at the Bira Circuit in Pattaya, Thailand is the legendary brand’s way of showcasing its direction onto diversifying their model line-up and getting back to their roots in performance and technology development.

Back in the early years, Harley-Davidson pioneered racing team sponsorships with its collaboration with the Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew competing on oval dirt tracks around the country. It was followed through with bikes being developed for hill-climb events, land-speed records, and even circuit racing. The brand’s firm belief in showcasing their products through competition solidified its reputation for reliability and performance, amassing a heavily religious cult following among riders from all parts of the globe.

Over the years, Harley-Davidson’s strength in their customer’s faith in the traditional has led to the brand’s ultra-conservatism with regards to new trends and design. Thankfully, Harley-Davidson’s passion for performance has been awakened and has driven them to put out exciting new products such as the most powerful Harley-Davidson bagger to date, the CVO Road Glide ST, the brand’s first-ever adventure tourer, the Pan America, and the most radical version of the Sportsters the Sportster S.

Harley-Davidson’s first foray into the adventure bike segment, the Pan-America has been updated for 2024 with a new charging system that increases charging capacity by 14% and a larger battery with a 17.5 AH capacity. The fuel map has also been updated for a smoother throttle response, which was the highlight of our comparison ride on the dirt section of the DRT event. Riding the 2022 model back-to- back with the latest Pan America was a revelation on how much a few tweaks can improve a bike. While both models were very stable on the sandy trails, the new model outshined the old with precise and smooth fueling leading to more rider confidence and ease of use.

On the open roads of Pattaya, I was assigned to ride the latest Street Glide. Having ridden several older versions of this model, I was very familiar with it. Riding on the wide five-lane highways, I barely had to touch the bars thanks to its cruise control feature. Although, in this day and age of radar-driven adaptive cruise control, which applies the brakes and controls the throttle depending on the speed of the vehicle in front of the bike, and active suspension,

Harley-Davidson will have to upgrade their equipment and technology to keep up with other premium brands that already have these features in their products. Other than that, the Street Glide is still that big old comfortable couch that takes you places in pure luxury with all the bells and whistles thrown at it.

The huge full TFT and infotainment system displays all the information you could ask for, easily readable at a glance even under harsh sunlight. The controls are very intuitive and the navigation map display ensures that you only ride in circles if you choose to.

The 2024 Street Glide features a new Milwaukee-Eight 117 engine with liquid-cooled heads, distinct from the 117ci engine in models like the Breakout 117 and Low Rider S/ ST. Modifications have been made to the intake and exhaust ports which boosted horsepower by 3 percent and torque by 4. The engine now delivers 105 hp at 4,600 rpm and 130 ft-lbs of torque at 3,250 rpm.

2024 CVO Road Glide ST

The highlight of the Harley-Davidson DRT event, for me, was the track portion where we got to ride the 2024 CVO Road Glide ST (FLTRXSTSE) in a time trial challenge around the Bira Circuit. The Bira Circuit appears to be very similar to our own Batangas Racing Circuit (BRC).

If you’re not so familiar, Harley-Davidson, after a long time, has returned to Circuit Racing with Moto America’s King of the Baggers racing series in 2020. The new CVO Road Glide ST was directly developed from the series race bikes and features a Milwaukee-Eight 121 non-VVT high output engine that boasts a massive 1,977 cc of displacement. It delivers 142 ft-lbs of torque at 3,750 rpm and 126 hp at 5,020 rpm blowing out to a 2-1-2 dual exhaust with titanium mufflers and carbon-fiber end caps.

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As a student of all riding disciplines, I rarely hear or use the words racetrack and cruisers in the same breath. While I do track days somewhat regularly, and have a Harley-Davidson FLSTC in my stable, I’ve never been brave enough to ride the bike on the track for obvious reasons.

The 2024 Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide ST is far different from any cruiser/ bagger I’ve ridden before. It has legitimate racing pedigree, arousing my excitement to try it on the Bira Circuit. The bike is 11.3 kg lighter than the standard CVO Road Glide thanks to its titanium cans, carbon-fiber panels, and lightened saddle bags. Together with its high performance engine, the FLTRXSTSE accelerates like the proverbial bat out of hell (or hog out of a pen) with a very direct throttle feel, giving the rider a seamless connection to the rear tire. If you’re scratching your head about the lack of variable valve timing in the Milwaukee-Eight 121 High Output engine, it is simply because it is derived from the race engines in the King of Baggers series bikes. The behemoth of a power plant is intended for all-out performance without compromise to the even spread of power achieved through a VVT system. It makes the heads lighter, too. What I am perplexed about is the lack of a quick shifter and auto-blipper as standard equipment. I mean come on Harley-Davidson, it’s 2024!

The fully adjustable suspension rides well; both ends feel very planted giving me confidence to dive into corners fast. I wouldn’t have been able to judge how well it would soak up real-world road bumps as we only rode the bike on the smooth tarmac of the track. I wasn’t aware that there were contests for each category of the event, so I just brought one set of road riding gear and an extra jacket with Harley-Davidson branding. I was up against 21 international media representatives from India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, and the Philippines. During the track time trial, I knew it was getting serious when most participants changed into their leathers while the organizers installed data loggers onto the bikes. I won 1st place with a lap time of 1:37; the 2nd placer finished with a 1:44, and the third a 1:47. While I didn’t expect a win as I felt so under-protected with only mesh gear, I did feel quite confident riding the FLTRXSTSE on track. Truth be told, it’s still no sportbike. But, it sure is sportier than any bagger has the right to be so.

Writer, John Mendoza, places first in the international tilt

The power from the Milwaukee-Eight 121 HO engine is undeniably potent although still not as high-revving and flexible as the Revolution Max 1250T found on the Sportster S. If only Harley-Davidson would build a sports-naked around that platform then we’d have a proper tool for the track. Overall, the 2024 CVO Road Glide ST felt more like a muscle car. Massive torque from the engine with loads of character is sure to keep riders entertained, while the aggressive mix of black (or pearlescent white), red, and carbon-fiber is sure to keep the eyes glued, hanging on to every detail.

I love that Harley-Davidson has finally looked back and taken a nod to their old-playbook. Race on Sunday, sell on Monday. Yep, it still works and makes the products much more exciting. I’m so stoked I got to join this year’s Harley-Davidson Dirt Road Track event as it was an eye-opener to the new and exciting world of Harley-Davidson.