Riding south on Harley-Davidson's Road King
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When it comes to picking between these two Harleys, do you want the classic look - or blacked-out urban brawler?
Until now I'd never had the privilege of riding the stunning roads found in the South Island. It's shameful for someone in my position, so when Harley-Davidson offered me the chance to join the 2017 Iron Run, I leapt at the opportunity.
This year's Iron Run would take me from Dunedin to Queenstown, as well as visiting Invercargill and Manapouri.
It was some of the best riding I have experienced. No wonder the Mainlanders hold us visitors from the north with such disdain; I wouldn't want to share these incredible roads, either.
My primary bike for the trip was a Harley-Davidson Road King Special picked up from Dunedin's McIvor & Veitch Harley-Davidson dealership. We were also swapping between the regular 2017 Road King and a variety of Twin Cam Harleys, which allowed us to easily spot the differences between not only the Road Kings, but also the 107cu Milwaukee-Eight and 103cu Twin Cam powered bikes.
With a Black Denim Road King Special beneath me, we set off south on our trek to Queenstown (with a compulsory detour to Bluff for oysters).
These breathtaking routes are some of the world's best riding roads.
The Road King Special roared along with vigour, despite it being new with no kilometres on the odometer when I fired it up.
On the road, it felt much sportier than the Road King I sampled last year in Washington. Along with its blacked-out parts (which are chrome on other bikes), the Special lacks the Road King's windscreen, it has bigger wheels with low-profile tyres, its seat is pinched from the Street Glide and, overall, the bike has an overall more modern aesthetic -- particularly its new indicators and tail lights.
The lack of screen means you do feel more fatigued on a longer trip, such as the media ride to the Iron Run, but you don't notice it in the inner city or on shorter day trips.
The 107cu Milwaukee-Eight engine is the next big thing in Harley-Davidson engine technology; and jumping from the Road King Special on to a Heritage Soft Tail (with the older 103cu Twin Cam engine) highlighted its refinements.
The Eight is less vibey, with its powerband set perfectly for roll-on overtaking manoeuvres on the highway, requiring a downshift or two from the Twin Cam to produce the same results. The other big difference, and one that had me wishing for the Twin Cam on the cold southern mornings, was the Milwaukee-Eight puts out considerably less heat onto the rider. In warmer weather that would be a blessing.
All journos present agreed that the Special was the Road King to have if you were after a Harley to ride aggressively; while the Road King is still the ultimate all-rounder in the stable.
We put the handling of the two Road Kings to a head-to-head test on the road up Coronet Peak. The blast up the mountain was memorable not only for its scenery, but for its back-to-back corners and tight hairpins that tested the cornering clearance of the big 370kg-plus Harleys. Both feature Harley's reflex-linked Brembo brakes with abs, which meant last-minute line adjustments could be made confidently, mid-corner.
While flicking the bikes from side to side was a breeze (both have a stiff chassis) it was the wider Mini Ape style handlebars on the Special in combination with its low-profile tyres that gave it the edge on the mountain switchbacks. It's definitely the more performance-oriented bike of the two.
However, on the highway, I found myself gravitating to the regular Road King. With its windscreen, higher-profile tyres and a less-stiff rear suspension it was the clear choice for our long ride to Queenstown and beyond.
While it shares hard, lockable panniers with the new Road King Special (the Special's being minutely larger), the Road King has an edge over the newcomer on the open road and, importantly, when it comes to pillion comfort.
While you can throw someone on the back of the Special easily enough, the Road King has a more pillion-friendly seat, with a flatter surface and more padding. Pop off the removable windscreen (which can be optioned on the Special) and it has the familiar big Harley feel around town to the harder-edged Special.
Harley-Davidson Road King Special
Price: From $37,995
Engine: 1745cc Milwaukee-Eight V-twin
Pro: Urban bagger look, great handling, refined engine
Con: Not as comfortable on long trips as the "normal" Road King