A few laps on The Motor Company’s newest racing motorcycle.
A lot of things change in this world. Flat track racing isn’t one of them. It’s the longest-running form of motorcycle racing in the United States, spanning the greater portion of the last century. And no other factory boasts the legacy, not to mention race-winning pedigree, that Harley-Davidson does. The Bar & Shield brand has earned upwards of 37 national championships using its venerable finned 45-degree V-Twin. This year, the American brand has departed from air-cooled power and re-armed with the water-cooled, eight-valve XG750R.
The Motor Company invited Motorcyclist Magazine for a quick taste of what true American muscle is about following Saturday night’s Sacramento Mile in Northern California. We’ll start by saying we didn’t get to pitch it sideways at over 120 mph around Sacramento Expo’s narrow blue groove. After all, Harley-Davidson had some respect for our well-being. Smart. Instead, we headed south, to nearby Lodi Cycle Bowl under the watchful eyes of the Vance & Hines crew and three-time AMA Grand National Champ Kenny Coolbeth.
With the bike still dusty from Saturday night’s 25-lap main, the Vance & Hines crew topped off the fuel tank, ran though the engine’s MoTeC diagnostics and data acquisition, plugged in the remote engine starter (real race bikes don’t need no stinking electric-start) and gave us the green light. Before cutting us loose, Coolbeth gave us some helpful but breif tips: throttle on the right, brake on the right foot, have fun!
Although built for competition exclusively off-road, as expected this Harley-Davidson feels very much like a street bike. That is, a road bike with no kickstand and no front brake. The seat is low and swept back, as is the handlebar, and the iconic teardrop-shaped fuel tank remains sizable. The footpegs are offset with the rubber-coated left higher than the sharply cleated right for added cornering clearance at lean through, you guessed it, left turns.
Modern fuel-injection ensures near perfect idle as the wine-bottle-wide pistons bang up and down inside the wider, 60-degree V. The Twin emits some natural engine vibration but from the saddle it really wasn’t bad. Squeezing the cable-actuated clutch lever reveals a well-weighted pull, and it takes a steady hand during release. Even so, you can detect some judder as the motorcycle creeps forward. It’s an uncompromising bike. Learn to ride it, learn to respect it.
Initially, with 19-inch wheels turning, the XG feels odd. Yes, its lower and more compact from wheel to wheel than its road-legal Street 750 sibling. But the chassis feels stretched—especially in the ergonomics department via its long orange gas tank. Right away it’s clear that second gear will be the speed of choice around Lodi’s dusty but still incredibly grippy, almost pavement-like surface. Although the engine is mated to a six-speed gearbox in stock configuration, for competition, the V&H team only use the first four gears with a top speed right around 130 mph.
Unless you grew up riding dirt bikes, operating a motorcycle without a front brake is an odd experience. It’s even weirder when the bike is fitted with a sportbike-style radial-mounted four-piston Beringer caliper paired to an oversized floating cast iron disc—in the rear. Set up with almost no pedal free play to say the rear brake was touchy would be an understatement. Hover your foot over the pedal and the 140/80-series DT3 tire was instantly locked. Not exactly the most effective stopping power. Kindly, the Vance & Hines crew lowered the pedal making it more useable. It still took a light touch and a lot of getting used to, but we could see how it might have worked well when shedding momentum from 130 mph heading into turns at the Sacramento Mile.
Smooth, deliberate engine response is a prerequisite of a good flat track bike. And the twist grip on this Harley doesn’t disappoint. Although digitally fuel-injected, the transition between on and off throttle is linear and as well-calibrated as it gets—just like a perfectly jetted carburetor flowing race gas. This aids in smooth loading of the link-less rear suspension and boosts a precious racing commodity: initial grip.
As a whole the XG has a cruder and more rudimentary feel compared to most production motorcycles. To be expected from a factory race bike. As rpm increases you feel vibration through the chassis and handlebar as if the machine is alive. At a slow pace, the XG feels a bit like walking a pit bull through the mall, with its leashed choke collar the only thing holding it back from attack. At 7,800 rpm, that attack comes. The powerband morphs from its pussy cat smooth bottom end, with an uncharacteristic (at least for a dirt track bike) power hit.
At this point, you better be holding on. The punch is so aggressive that it literally causes the bike to stand straight up in a 10 o’clock salute over Lodi’s tacky surface. If the 100-horsepower XG750R can’t cut it in racing, maybe it has a future on the stunt riding circuit. The XG’s heart beats more rapidly for another 3,700 rpm, delivering even more tire-smearing power before the rev-limiter steps in at 11,500 rpm. We weren’t brave enough to flirt with it though.
Considering the Twin’s punchy mid-range, it proves entertaining to give it the business off corners—overpowering the Dunlop rubber and causing grin-inducing slides, even if it’s not exactly the fast way around the oval. The bark from the over/under shotgun-style exhaust pipes is more tinder for the smile fire—this thing sounds wicked from the saddle.
A few times we manage to get it right, and the XG leaps off corners. You can feel the reinforced box-section swingarm biting into the surface and launching the motorcycle down the short straight. As the engine spools the chassis winds up like a compressed spring and the steel frame begins to oscillate. This delivers the type of sensation of riding a bucking bull. It’s fun, in a macho way, but also serves as a reminder of how much cojones the three-rider factory team has to race it at full-tilt alongside 15 other guys.
Visceral and stimulating in every sense of the way, this orange racer embodies the spirit of Harley-Davidson. It remains true to its simple steel shoe racing roots, with a modern twist. Sure, the G-bike has big shoes to fill. But by leaning on contemporary tech, the Motor Company factory, with the help of the tuning aces at Vance & Hines, plan on crafting a road-based competition weapon for years to come. Still, as history proves, some things never change: you still need guts to ride ‘em fast.