2018 Harley-Davidson Street Bob – First Ride
Bare-essentials big twin may be best of the bunch
“Llibertat,” is a word moto-journalists became pretty familiar with during last month’s Harley-Davidson press ride in Catalunya. The English version of the word – “Freedom” – has become central to Harley’s marketing efforts, with its new “Freedom for All” slogan having been introduced in August. But the word had particular meaning and weight here, just one week before a vote on independence from Spain.
Catalunya and Castilla are two regions of Spain that have never gotten along particularly well. The latter is home to Madrid, Spain’s capital, and it is from there that the government had declared Catalunya’s planned referendum on independence to be unconstitutional. By the time we mo-jos had shown up to ride several of Harley’s all-new Softail lineup through the Pyrenees foothills, Spain’s central government had already shipped in police officers from other parts of the country to put a stop to the 1 October vote.
In every town and village there were homemade placards declaring support for the referendum. Graffiti was omnipresent. Banners hung across streets. 20-foot signs had been erected in the hillsides. Everywhere, the word “Llibertat” was to be seen. It felt very much as if the region was on the verge of revolution.
For all of Harley’s talk of freedom and independence, however, the company generally likes to avoid conflict. So, it’s unlikely that our being there at this significant point in history was intentional. But it certainly felt appropriate – especially when riding a Harley-Davidson Street Bob. Maybe it’s the bike’s stripped-down nature. A Street Bob consists of little more than the basic components of a motorcycle: engine, frame, wheels, and very little bling. Maybe it’s the rumble of that engine; the Milwaukee Eight V-twin feels particularly potent in this application. Or maybe it’s just the fact that the ape-hanger handlebars mean your fist will always be raised in defiance.
Whatever the reasons, the Street Bob arguably represents the claimed spirit of Harley-Davidson – and to a lesser extent the spirit of motorcycling – better than any of the Milwaukee brand’s other models. It also happens to be ridiculously fun, and one of my all-time favorite bikes.
Harley is no longer using the word “badass” to describe its motorcycles. Possibly that’s because Indian started throwing the word around with enthusiasm back when it released the Chieftain Limited. Now it seems the buzzword is “sinister.” At our pre-ride briefing, every blacked-out thing was described as sinister. Sinister pipes. Sinister ‘bars. Sinister engine covers. It made me giggle; the word “sinister” gives me a mental image of some mustache-twirling old-timey villain, like Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate from The Great Race.
The Street Bob is not really sinister. It’s definitely cool, though. And that’s one of the few first impressions of the bike that holds true over time. Whereas other initial judgments will be challenged; seat time will change your opinions. For example, you may be looking at those high handlebars thinking: “Those will make for a terrible riding experience.” Nope, you’re mistaken.
Maybe you’re simply looking at the badge on the tank and thinking: “There’s no way I can have fun through the twisties on a Harley.” Again, you’ve missed the mark.
Or maybe you’ve actually sat on a previous-generation Street Bob, brought your feet up to the pegs, and thought: “Good Lord, I’m so scrunched up! There’s no way I’d enjoy riding this thing.” Man, you are just so wrong.
I say this a lot when talking about Harleys, because the brand name carries bad mojo in the minds of some riders, but this is a motorcycle you should definitely test ride before forming a solid opinion about it. Harley wants you to come in and test ride its bikes, so why not do so? Hell man, do it even if you’re not that keen on cruisers; an afternoon spent riding bikes is never wasted. And if you approach the Street Bob with an open mind it might surprise you.
The Street Bob is only available with the 107 cu in (1753 cc) version of the Milwaukee Eight V-twin – the same powerplant found in standard versions of every Harley big twin now, from the Street Bob all the way up to the Ultra Limited. You won’t care that there’s no 114 (1868cc) version. Despite being the least expensive of the MoCo’s big twins, the Street Bob serves as one of the best platforms for the engine. So much so that after stepping off the ostensibly more powerful Heritage Classic 114 some moto-journalists asked if the Street Bob had been tuned differently; its engine is so much more responsive, so much more fun.
The reason is not different tuning but less mass. There’s no heavy fairing or luggage to weigh the bike down and create drag; it’s just you sitting on top of an engine, laughing your head off. Yeah, all that unbridled freedom will roast your bits in traffic but, you know: metal box of explosions – what do you expect? And underway, you won’t notice and won’t care because happy happy fun times.
The fueling of the Milwaukee Eight is close to flawless. Power delivery is torquey, and although there is a certain amount of deliberate rumble at a stoplight (Harley says market testing showed its customers expect a bike to have at least a little bit of shake) it is not the sort of thing that will annoy you when spending all day in the saddle.
The transmission is the smoothest I’ve experienced on a Harley. Reps I spoke to say it is the same gearbox as when the Milwaukee Eight was introduced in the touring lineup last year but I swear things are smoother now.
More Grins Per Mile
The Street Bob is by no means a sport bike, but certainly the 297kg (655 lbs) motorcycle is more nimble and fun than you might suspect. The weight is kept down low, which means it’s surprisingly manageable, and mid-set pegs give you a little more wiggle room when it comes to lean angle (28.5 degrees on both sides, according to Harley’s own spec sheet). Though, you will still touch down when traveling at thrice the speed limit through winding mountain roads.
The ergonomics of the bike put you in what GQ’s Rich Taylor described as an “angry monkey” riding position: perched on the engine, fists up and ready to fight. It’s certainly unique and, admittedly, feels a bit awkward at first. For me, the experience is reminiscent of the 1967 stop-motion short film Vicious Cycles: surreal, ridiculous, and almost as if there’s no bike there at all. You feel like you’re hurtling through the air.
The riding position allows you to get your elbows up and work the 'bars in an almost off-road style, which makes steering surprisingly easy. I know there are some folks who vehemently refuse to accept such a claim about ape hangers, but these are my actual, honest experiences. Combined with an upgraded suspension and all-new chassis it makes for a bike that is quite nimble.
Shame, then, the brakes don’t quite support the enthusiastic riding the rest of the bike inspires. You’ve got a single disc up front and a single in the rear. They're a little wooden and difficult to nuance, though the rear somewhat less so. You will need a good squeeze of them both when riding into a corner in a way that – in fairness – isn’t appropriate. In other words, the engine, chassis, and riding position will make you want to ride like a loon, but you have only yourself to blame if you actually choose to do so.
Also Good As Intended
The above comments address how hilariously fun the Street Bob is when ridden with a sense of urgency and disregard for personal safety that Harley-Davidson never intended for the bike, nor has it ever implied. It’s just happy coincidence that this motorcycle is so good at other things. So, let’s talk about what it’s like to ride the Street Bob in the manner that the overwhelming majority of owners will choose. The phrase “bar hopper” has all kinds of negative connotations these days, but that’s part of the target audience for this model. Let’s call it instead a “parlour prowler” – a motorcycle for folks rolling from one ice cream parlour to the next. Or, perhaps, speeding from one revolutionary hangout to the other – a leather satchel full of propaganda slung across your shoulder.
A single seat, no weather protection, and a 13.2-liter (3.5 US gallons) tank all suggest short riding intervals in an urban setting. The Street Bob handles this duty admirably. A new monoshock rear suspension does a far better job of absorbing the imperfections of city streets than on Street Bobs of the past. Yes, if you beeline for a foot-deep pothole your spine will suffer the consequences, but if you’re realistic about what the Street Bob is you’ll have few complaints.
At more relaxed speeds you can lean back, coming out of “angry monkey” stance, stretch your arms out, and cruise in relative comfort. I wouldn’t choose a Street Bob for an Iron Butt challenge, but you can reliably burn a tank of fuel before needing to stretch your legs. Just keep your speed down. The engine will have no problems with long hauls on the motorway/interstate (a welcome change from the days of the Twin Cam 103), but you will get tired of fighting wind blast; sitting upright like that turns you into a kind of sail, which gets tedious above 65 mph.
As you’d expect from a bike with a selling point of being “stripped down,” there aren’t a great many bells and whistles to talk about. ABS is optional in the United States and standard for those living under oppressive European regimes. And… uhm… that’s pretty much it.
Keen observers will notice the absence of a clock on the new Street Bob. Harley has “hidden” all the rider information on a tiny digital display that’s integrated into the clamp. I’m not a huge fan (What’s wrong with a clock?), but the set-up isn’t as bad as I was expecting. Everything is there – speedometer, odometer, tachometer, gear indicator, fuel level, clock, and fuel range – and it’s not too hard to see.
Better Than Ever
As I say, the Street Bob, for its aesthetics and innate coolness, is one of my favorite bikes – certainly one of my favorite Harleys. Early this summer, Harley brought me to Dirt Quake and after my too-safe riding style ensured I would not be competing on the second day, I took a 2017 (Dyna) Street Bob out for a spin along the Norfolk coast. I fell deeply in love.
I loved it so much that I started to entertain insane notions of trading in my Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx to buy one and somehow suffer through all the challenges that would create. I don’t own a car, so my bike is my life. I use it to go everywhere, in all weather – in a country where the average summer temperature is 19C (66F). The Street Bob is not the right bike to choose if you need a do-everything all-the-timer. But it’s soooo cool that I fell into a long period of telling myself I wouldn’t care.
“I’ll just wear really, really good gear,” I told myself. “I’ll get a luggage rack for the thing and strap a 30-20-20 combination of Kriega bags to it when I need to travel. I’ll wire it to power heated gear. I’ll get really good at avoiding motorways. I like tea, so I won’t mind stopping every 100 miles or so to refuel. Yeah, I’ll be miserable for eight months a year, but I’ll look cool.”
Ultimately I was able to talk myself out of the action by focusing my attention on how much I dislike the Twin Cam 103 engine. Now Harley has eliminated that issue, while also improving how the bike rides. I miss the twin-shock Dyna look, but once again I find myself daydreaming of trundling everywhere on a Street Bob. In being reborn as a Softail the Street Bob has managed to keep most of the elements I loved about the previous model while eliminating or alleviating the stuff I didn't like.
Fun to ride and great to be seen riding, the 2018 Street Bob is better than ever and easily one of Harley’s best. If you're looking for llibertat, whether in Catalunya or California, Barcelona or Bakersfield, this is a great motorcycle to help you find it.
Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical Build: Lanky
Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
Jacket: Harley-Davidson Sully 3-in-1
Body armor: Knox Venture armored shirt
Gloves: Aerostich Competition Elkskin Roper
Jeans: Pando Moto Boss 105 Indigo Reg
Boots: Indian Motorcycle Spirit Lake by Red Wing