Passing through the rust belt near Allentown Pa, I can see the black wall of angry storm clouds racing towards me from the southwest. It seems “thunderstorms and test bikes” are my constant theme in 2012.
First it was tropical storm Earl and the Victory Cross County Tour, then it was an unnamed but equally drenching early summer downpour on the Triumph Explorer, and now this dark ominous mass of 50 mph crosswinds, thunder, lightning and buckets of rain.
I’d left Bergen County Harley-Davidson in Rochelle NJ a couple hours earlier on a 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback, with flight delays and a last minute rear tire replacement having shredded my carefully planned schedule. The storm was so close now I could actually smell the rain. For once, I had prepared for this inevitability by starting the ride with my textile jacket, Darien overpants from Aerostitch and full face flip helmet from Nolan.
Just as I’d made the decision to soldier on through the approaching wall of water, a mental flashback of a 3 minute sphincter tightening ride over the Potomac River during one of the aforementioned test rides jarred me to my senses and I ducked off I-78 in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, coincidentally on the same exit where Sam Adams has a satellite brewery. Sadly it wasn't offering tours, because I would have as soon spent the next hour and a half sampling Boston’s finest home-brews than leaning on an ATM machine in the local BP convenience store while I charged my cell phone (the only unused plug in the store) and searched weather.com to plan my next move.
I knew I’d made the right decision to wait out the storm as soon as I’d finished filling up the Switchback. Even before the full force of the rain arrived, the wind started whipping and twisting the street signs violently to and fro. I’d planned to hang out under the awning, but then the lightning started popping so close that the hair on my arm stood up and screamed at me, GET INSIDE YOU IDIOT!” As I waited for Mother Nature to exhaust her fury on the inhabitants of this Pennsylvania hamlet, I ran down a mental checklist of what I’d learned about the Switchback over the last couple hours ride.
New for Harley-Davidson in 2012, and designed for the rider who wants a “convertible” bike the Switchback can easily and quickly go from mid range tourer to sexy boulevard cruiser (ditching the “road sofa” stigma as well) in under 2 minutes. Thumb a few levers and the backrest is off. Open the hard saddlebags, turn a beefy plastic dial, and pull to the rear and the bags are off. The windshield is even easier. Pull the retaining clip from each side, grab it from the front and pull up and out, and it’s off. (This is basically the same windshield configuration that’s been used since the first generation Road King.) You’ll spend more time storing the components, than removing them.
As easy as they are to remove, I wondered more than once over the course of the 30 day test ride, why HD didn't incorporate some type of simple locking system to deter thieves but, more on that later.
The Switchback is built on the Dyna frame, and features the Motor Company’s 103 v-twin powerplant and six speed transmission. Power is delivered to the 5 spoke cast rear wheel via a belt drive from the air-cooled fuel injected 103 inch v-twin engine. Spent gases are evacuated through the two-into one chrome exhaust on the right side of the bike.
Speaking of chrome, the primary drive cover on the left side of the bike stands out, and not in a good way, as it’s one of the few parts not chromed from the factory. It would look better with flat black denim paint than polished aluminum, but most owners will probably opt for a chrome upgrade from the dealer. The seat is firm and pretty standard as factory seats come. I would eventually log over 9,000 miles on this test ride, with 3000 of those being two up and I learned the seat isn't adequate for long distance riding. To be fair, the manufacturer never intended the Switchback be used as a serious touring bike. It’s more for weekend tours and short overnight hops.
Of course, I’m stubborn and prone to want to do things I’m not supposed to do, which gets me in trouble often. Watching the weather radar on my Android, it became obvious I wasn't going any farther this night. I’d hoped to make Gettysburg and take in the haunted battlefield tours but sadly the ghosts would have to wait for another trip. But, not all was lost as it gave me time the next day to stop in Hershey PA for a few photos and still tour Gettysburg and even spend an hour or so farther south in Antietam Maryland, the site of the bloodiest one day battle in the history of American warfare. (yes, even bloodier than D-Day in WWII because EVERY soldier killed was an American.)
Check another line on my bucket list.
Leaving Antietam I headed south to pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Waynesboro Virginia. It’s at this juncture where the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway connect. The Parkway heads south and Skyline Drive heads north. I would ride the Skyline on the return trip.
The Parkway would be the first test of the Switchback’s cornering manners. I’d read other reviewers who said the Switchback didn't have the clearance of the Road King or Electraglide, and on paper they might be right, but it’s a non-issue because try as I might, I was only able to scrub the floorboards a couple of times.
A few weeks later, riding two along the twisty black ribbons in the Black Hills, I did grind a few more times, but I still disagree with the other reviewers. Despite having less suspension than its big brothers, the Switchback has more than adequate cornering clearance.
Fast forward two weeks, and it’s me and my bride on the Switchback heading to Sturgis. This is all interstate riding. The saddlebags are stuffed full, with a big Kuryakyn bag strapped on the luggage rack. Storage capacity has been sacrificed at the altar of style, as the saddlebags have less capacity than its big brothers. The bags latching system is a bit buggy and will require careful attention to properly secure before riding, as I discovered when I thought I’d latched the bag, only to have it pop open at highway speed. That and the backrest rattles when you’re riding solo (without a bag) so you’ll probably want to take it off for short hops around town.
We leave late (after 5:30pm) and we’re busting our hump to make it as far as we can before stopping for the night. After a couple hundred miles, I notice the rear suspension needs adjusting. We’re hitting bottom at every change in road elevation. With 3.8 inches of travel in the front and 2.1 inches in the rear, suspension setup on the Switchback is adequate but slightly less comfy than HD’s tourers. (The Road King has almost an inch more on both the front and rear.)
The next day we stopped at Four Rivers Harley-Davidson in Paducah Kentucky and despite the service department being busier than a one arm piano player, Robert , one of the service techs took a few minutes with a hook spanner to dial up the setting on each shock a couple of notches.
The retro looking chrome cigar rear shocks are easy to adjust as long as you have the proper tool. Harley claims the nitrogen charged, 5 setting pre-load emulsion shocks perform better than traditional coil over shocks and compliment the redesigned front end suspension.
Compared against the other Dyna models, I’d have to agree with them. Out front, both front 41mm fork tubes use the triple rate springs, but the left features a cartridge assembly instead of a dampening rod which gave HD engineers a way to upgrade the front suspension without the increased weight of dual cartridges.
Thanks to the quick service this stop didn't eat into our schedule and we were back on the road heading towards the great plains. The difference in ride was immediately noticeable for both me and my passenger. Having stiffer rear shocks lessened the overall comfort for her, but it made the bike less prone to hitting bottom at the overpasses. It was an acceptable trade-off for safety sake.
For us, Sturgis is roughly 1500 miles from home. We factor in two and a half days to make the trip. We soon developed a pattern of stopping every 150 miles for fuel. With a 4.7 gallon fuel tank, and averaging between 30 and 35 mpg, the low fuel light consistently appeared at 120-130 miles, giving us another 30-50 miles before we’d be walking.
Iron Butt riders may be laughing up their sleeves at our candy-arses, but the stock seat and stiff suspension had us both ready for a short 15 minute break every couple of hours. Combine that with the 98 degree temperatures we encountered from St. Louis all the way through Sioux Falls SD, and the frequent breaks were necessary to stave off heat exhaustion.
Speaking of fuel, a frequent complaint in the HD forums is the fuel gauge HD uses in the Dyna’s and Softail models. Located in the left side faux fuel cap, the gauge is almost impossible to read unless you lean up and sight directly over it. A simple (but probably not cheap) solution for HD would be to flip the gauge so the arch is an inverted U. I doubt that will happen as electronics has all but replaced mechanical gauges.
On the Switchback the mechanical fuel gauge is actually unnecessary as HD’s engineers included an electronic information / diagnostic module built into the big round speedo on the tank. This electronic gauge can be cycled through current time, current gear and RPM, two different trip odometers, overall odometer, and estimated miles remaining of fuel at current rate of consumption. It’s large numbers easy to read for this 50 year old without reading glasses.
One of the big concerns I’d had when planning this trip was excessive engine heat. It’s no secret that the Twin Cam engine has gotten its fair share of negative press about the heat coming from the rear cylinder. Thankfully, HD didn’t incorporate its Rear Cylinder Cutout function used in other models to this one, as I never liked it on the other models I tested. In the little bit of stop and go riding I did during this test, I never felt the rear cylinder heat was an issue, although it was noticeable (and uncomfortable) during a mile or so duck walk wait to pass through the “Needle” on the Needles Highway in Sturgis, but I’m sure any air cooled V-Twin would have had the same issue.
Up front the headlamp assembly is all new. At first glance you might be mistaken to think that such a large lamp would affect the Switchback’s center of gravity. You’d be mistaken. Milwaukee’s designers went with an all aluminum chrome plated nacelle style housing, instead of heavier steel and it works. The low speed handling of the SB proved flawless with no drag from the headlamp.
The light itself, however, could use a bit of improvement. I don’t know if my test mule just wasn't adjusted right, but the dim setting was as bright (at night) as the high-beams. In fact the way the high beams “split” the road, I was more comfortable using the low beams at night.
Switches on the SB use the new CAN, (controller area network) hardware upgrade. CAN reduces the complexity of the wiring harness and provides improved support for real time data transfer for critical applications such as the ABS. On the left handlebar are the trip, horn, lights and left turn signals. On the right are the flasher activation, engine kill switch, start button and right turn signal. There’s no radio or cruise control to complicate the switches. In lieu of an electronic cruise control, I’m happy to report the standard Harley throttle lock (one of my favorite features) remains located under the right switch housing, where its easily engaged with the right thumb.
A nice feature that isn’t obvious is the addition of ABS, standard on all Dynas for 2012. It’s a simple but effective system utilizing a single 300mm rotor/4-piston front caliper combo, and a 292mm rotor with single 2-piston caliper for the rear. I had the unfortunate opportunity to test it’s ability when a cellphone to ear driver, passing me on the left, suddenly swerved and occupied my lane on the interstate near Council Bluff Iowa. Without time to think, I grabbed a handful of front and a full foot of the rear and gave it all I had, hoping for enough inches to save our arse. The front end dived a little, and I felt the ABS kick in and pulse for what seemed like a full minute, but could only have been a second or two. I still don’t know how we missed her but we did. Without the ABS, that panic stop would have locked up the rear, and more than likely caused me to go down at 80mph on a busy interstate. You can picture the rest.
The remainder of the trip proved uneventful but extremely enjoyable. In every other way the SB proved a capable steed with enough power at highway speed to blow by big rigs when desired and a low center of gravity that kept me from feeling overbalanced at stop signs with a passenger and fully loaded.
At $15,999 the Switchback is an affordable entry level sporty cruiser tour package which should appeal to the “boomerang” re entry motorcycle owner looking for an alternative to jumping out on a bigger (and heavier) Road King, Street Glide or Electraglide. It’s also an obvious choice for the svelte female rider who wants to tour with her husband but also doesn't want the heavier full dressers. The aging baby boomers (whom I fit into) might also decide this is the bike that fits their mid-tourer aspirations.
One thing is for sure, the Switchback, while built for short hops and long weekend tours, isn't afraid of the “epic” rides. After 9000 miles in 30 days, I can attest to it’s adaptability and dependability on any adventure, however long you want it.