Irrational Adoration: Best Western and Harley-Davidson Press Tour

I throw the Harley-Davidson Sportster Nightster into the corner, hard and fast enough that it wobbles on Quebec’s pavement chop.  I shift my weight, press the inner peg, hang off a bit, and ease on the throttle.  This will pass, stay relaxed, but sometimes a little active intervention helps – we throttle on out of the apex to a scrape of a peg.   A long straight and the little Sportster’s needle brushes 160kph, this Harley-Davidson/Best Western press tour hasn’t been going to plan, but thundering down the straight and setting up for the next corner I can’t help but crack a smile.

I need to make time and the Sportster is up for the challenge in an odd grin and bear it sort of way.  More time means more phone calls, and a chance to salvage a plan to ride across Canada that has descended into the pit of poorly written situation comedy.

Three days earlier the Harley-Davidson Best Western FAM tour started out perfectly with a decidedly upscale and friendly stay at the Best Western Orangeville Inn and Suites, a beautiful late summer’s morning, a fleet of new Harley-Davidson motorcycles to choose from and the laughing camaraderie of fellow journalists.

We pull keys out of the bag, luck of the draw sees me receiving a key for the “Red Rocker”.  Not being a “Harley guy”, I mistake this for a nickname.

Even leaving Orangeville is dangerously cinematic – after pulling out of the hotel, a Volvo comes along side us at the stop lights.  Overflowing the open windows is Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild.  Did Harley-Davidson hire this man in the mom-mobile?  His inadvertent soundtrack for this line up of bikes is to fitting to be anything but coincidence.

Less than a half-hour later the Buell Ulysses XT earmarked for my ride from Quebec, QC to St. John’s NFL and back to Vancouver, BC is lying on its side with a journalist prone on the ground beside it.  After it’s established that the writer is uninjured and the police won’t be pressing charges against him, there is the thunderclap realization that my one month journey is endanger.

Then my video camera with dramatic footage of the aftermath fell out of my pocket while riding the wounded Buell back to the hotel.

After that my ride becomes an Ontario spanning game of tag, as I try to regain the press junket by lunch.  On the freeways the Rocker C proved no easy rider, at 120kph I’m being stripped from a bike that has clear cruise the strip and show off the chrome intentions.  I crave corners, until I realize the Rocker C’s 240mm rear rubber acreage and rakish forks ensure it has a turn-in that could be measured in geological time.

When I do catch up, another journalist tries to sell me on the Rocker, “Look at it, it’s an out of the box custom.”

I look, all I see is endless hours in a garage cleaning and polishing for a run to the coffee shop.  Harley-Davidson culture eludes me, until it doesn’t.

As a group we ride on, rural Ontario wrapped in late summer warmth.  Then the heterodyning rumble of v-twins the reaches into your soul striking a resonance of satisfaction.

The smell of cool water as you pass a lily-covered pond reminds you to find the joy in the scenery.  The scent of fresh hay as you pass massive rolled bales can, cynicism aside, transport you to another time.  There are buildings that by western terms seem as old as Canada… If only there were more time to stop, to not lose all these sights, if only because memory can be violated by the grinding reality of being stuck behind a school bus.

To be picturesque, you’d write something prosaic like, “In the late afternoon sun we ride through Ontario’s farm lands with the scent of fresh cut hay taking us back in memory to our childhoods.  We chance upon a school bus, disembarking children laughing as they return from the first day at class.”

Reality is a distinctly less “Hallmark”.  We’re stuck behind the great yellow maggot of a bus blocking our way in an onslaught of heat.  Periodically it stops, and at a grindingly slow pace, sullen human grub-lava emerge lumbering slowly out onto the streets and away.

Yes, I have seen the offspring of chronic obesity and they are slow moving.  Reports of Ontario’s growing weight problem are not understated.  Hint, Tim Horton’s is not a dietary staple.  Nor is chain restaurant poutine, but that doesn’t stop us in Montreal.  It’s a consolation indulgence for having lost my MacBook Pro’s charger somewhere between Belleville and Montreal.

The trip’s discord has left the bikes a jumble in my mind.  Excepting the V-Rod, they all seem like minor permutations of the same theme; a different set of forks here, a different seat here, a change of handle bars, more chrome or less…  The Goldberg philosophy of product design is utterly confusing to a non-Harley-centi, but there is something for nearly everyone.

There’s an apt analogy here for Best Western, a company with variation in their hotels equaling that of the Harley-Davidson line.  At the chain’s core though, there is a constant theme of comfort and cleanliness.

The Best Western offers something for every taste, be it the steak-and-eggs comfort of the Belleville off-ramp, the posh Orangeville property, or the over the top “Istanbul was Constantinople” opulence of the Best Western Europa in the heart of Montreal – complete with tile mosaics and water god fountain in the lobby. I’ll dare say there are few hotels as unique in North America.

Hopscotch-ing constantly between bikes, our hog-scotch across the provinces of Ontario and Quebec hasn’t showcased much beyond my tall man’s intrinsic discomfort on a fleet of foot forward bikes obviously meant for short legs, vibration, and a desperate lack of wind protection.  I would kill for a windscreen.

Then, on the outskirts of Montreal, the Best Western point man Marcus Gamo received a call not of “the Buell Ulysses is ready and being shipped to Quebec City so you can do your cross country odyssey” variety.  I wish I was surprised, but (to steal a phrase) I’ve been having “a series of unfortunate events.”

So excuse me if I’m taking out a few frustrations on the Sportster, but trust me, the bike is giving as good as it gets.

This particular Sportster Nightster has been lowered, so at 6’2” I look like a Shriner in Buell motorcycle gear and to get more leg room I’m periodically resorting to sitting on a curving pillion seat that a cat would slip off of.  With a six-year old girl’s bicycle frame wrapped around a Harley-Davidson Thunderstorm engine, topped with an Orange peanut of a tank and abusively thin seat the Sportster’s not been dealt the best set of cards at the table.

Ergonomics have put me into a face first, flat back, old school aero-dynamic tuck.  Positioned like this everything feels fast.  Or maybe that’s because on another long straight it is, as I see just how much speed I can leech from the engine.  So much for this entire cruising thing.

Well, the Sportster doesn’t speak to ambling along much anyways.

The suspension was obviously sponsored by the Dental Association of America in an attempt to bolster profits.  It’s deftly tuned to ensure your fillings require replacement, but using jack hammering action to do it.  Over Montreal’s roads I’m standing on the pegs more than the KTM 990 Adventure – pity the airbox on the left-hand side keeps pressing into my thigh.   Stop lights provide little respite as the shuddering vibrations set your teeth chattering.

And yet, as irrational as it sounds, I adore this bike. Something I’ll refuse to let on to my fellow journos… in person at least.

There is some real spirit and soul to the Sportster – a throw on a leather helmet, worn jacket, goggles and flat-track sort of romanticism.  There’s also a purity, this is simple stripped down essence of Harley-Davidson.  There are no airs of being a custom, no pretense of bad boy mystique, just the essentials of “go” done the American way.

And go it does.  The engine is peakier, the gearing shorter, the bike lighter, so the Sportster has the drop on its brethren.  If there’s corners involved, the gap will open in a nonce.  Yes, the engine is still a huge wrought and cast piece of volcanism and mass, but set low in the Sportster it provides a ground skimming centre of gravity. Narrow tires provide quick and easy tip-in.  You won’t drop a sportbike, but the handling is no barrier to the fun and at the end of a well executed series of corners you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

In the end, despite all the rough bits, it’s the Harley-Davidson Sportster that sets the trip right for me. Mark Twain said, travel is the death of prejudice.  If so then this trip the Sportster Nightster laid low my preconceived notions about the Harley-Davidson brand and unveiled the joy at it’s core, separating the machinery of Harley-Davidson culture from the heart beating in it’s machinery.

Follow the link to learn more about the Best Western Harley-Davidson Ride Rewards Program.

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