Hot rodders are an interesting breed in their willingness to compromise a little comfort here or a little handling there in order to achieve their vision of the ultimate rod. Trading a crick in the neck for a chopped roof is something that a hardcore rodder would take in stride. Hot rodders are going to love the new 2010 Harley-Davidson FLTRX Road Glide Custom.
Depending on your needs and wants, compromise isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and with a few notable exceptions, the Road Glide Custom is a really good motorcycle. It’s beautiful to look at and fun to ride. The short windscreen, lowered suspension and gunfighter-style sloped seat give the bike a long, sleek look. The rear fender, with its integrated brake light/tail light/turn signals, three slotted running lights and sculpted lines looks like something straight out of a true custom shop. Even the floorboards and passenger pegs have a custom touch. This particular unit was painted scarlet red with a subtle blue pinstripe and garnered more positive attention than any machine I have ridden in recent memory. For the Custom model, Harley swapped the 17-inch front wheel of the ’09 for a new 18-inch wheel and tire. According to Harley, the overall diameter is virtually the same as with the 17-inch, and any effect on handling is negligible; it is purely a matter of style. As with most of the styling details, I really like the new wheels. In my opinion, this motorcycle is a beautiful example of art-meets-highway. It looks like a Harley, it sounds like a Harley, and carves corners in a way that defies its 800-plus pounds. But as any true hot rodder can tell you, sometimes, to achieve that certain something, you have to make some compromises; and for the sake of style, Harley-Davidson has made a few compromises with the Road Glide Custom.
This was the first of the new breed of Harley-Davidson FL models (introduced in 2009) that I have ridden. In fact, I’ve avoided any opportunity to ride one for fear of what it would do to my relationship with my 2007 Electra Glide Classic. A new frame, improved suspension, Brembo brakes and a 6-gallon gas tank all told my inner me that I’d be wise to stay away. My inner me was right. I picked the bike up about 100 miles from my home and it took nearly 15 feet for me to notice the difference. Seriously. The new chassis is amazing. It handles easily around the parking lot and is rock stable at freeway speeds. Best of all, it steers. In fact, for the first few minutes I kept missing my line because unlike the pre-’09 models, this thing actually goes where you point it. You can dive in low or dive in high and change lines mid-turn almost without effort. The Twin Cam 96-cubic-inch engine produces nearly 93 pounds-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm, so power is never the problem. Of course as much fun as the going is, it doesn’t do you a lot of good unless stopping is the other part of the equation. To this end, the Brembo brakes were another perfect addition. They have excellent feedback, and regardless of how hard I pushed, the Custom stopped straight and true. To quiet things down, Harley-Davidson added a new helical-cut fifth gear to the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission. Overall, I found the shifting to be crisp and precise, with one exception; on this bike neutral was a bit elusive. It wasn’t terribly bad and is something that can be adjusted at the first service, but it was noticeable. Harley makes a point that sixth gear is for plus-70-mph cruising. Though the torquey V-twin can pull it, the motor is much happier in a lower gear up to that point and there is a noticeable drop in rpm when it is selected. The sixth-gear indicator light on the speedo is a nice touch and will help you remember which gear you’re in if you decide you want to climb a hill or make a quick pass.
On the Road Glide Custom, Harley steered from the traditional FL dual mufflers with a crossover pipe in favor of a two-into-one exhaust. I think this was a mistake. Not only do I prefer the balanced look of the twin exhaust, but in this case losing a pipe means the left-side belt-drive cover is exposed. To my eye, this is the one part of the bike that looked unfinished. There’s also a more practical reason to run two pipes. Due to emissions restrictions, these bikes are set up to run pretty lean and therefore fairly hot. Channeling all that heat through one pipe caused a dark brown spot to develop in the chrome about a third of the way back on the muffler. Again, it wasn’t bluing, it was browning. The pipe did produce great power and that wonderful V-twin sound. The exhaust system is the only real difference between this powerplant and the one in my Electra Glide, and by the seat of the pants, this bike felt noticeably stronger than my ’07. The fly-by-wire throttle response was seamless, and losing the push-pull throttle cables really cleans up the controls.
My test Glide had the optional electronic cruise control. It worked flawlessly. Unlike most automotive cruise controls, there is no sense of the computer taking over; no lag, no pause. When you press the switch, the bike is in cruise—period. In all my years of riding, I’ve always been concerned that running on cruise control would remove me one step from paying full attention to the task at hand. After giving it a go, I feel quite the opposite. Being able to give my right arm a break from time to time kept me fresher and made it easier to stay alert. I’m sold, and would highly recommend adding this option if you are in the market for a new bike.
The Road Glide Custom has a much more stretched-out riding position than does an Electra Glide. The handlebar is flatter and a little wider, and the relationship between rider and bike is almost perfect for my 5-foot, 11-inch frame. The first time I rode one was about eight years ago on a chilly sub-40 degree day. I really got to test the shark-nose fairing against the elements and I was impressed at how comfortable I was under those conditions. In my opinion, this is among the best fairings ever built when it comes to protecting your upper body from an angry Mother Nature. There are small but convenient glove boxes on each side, which are great for carrying a wallet and cell phone. The Custom has a new headlight nacelle that eliminates the outer plastic cover. It looks good and has the added benefit of being able to run more powerful bulbs. With the short windscreen, I was anxious to see if the quality of the ride would be affected and I was pleasantly surprised. There is a stretch of Interstate 5 in Northern California where the wind turbulence is so bad that it will rattle your helmet hard enough to give you a headache. It’s a great place for testing wind protection and most bikes fail miserably here. The Road Glide Custom passed with flying colors. Yes, there was more wind and more buffeting than you would get with a taller windscreen, but the flow hits at a good spot and is well within the range where most people will be comfortable.
So, what about those hot-rod compromises I alluded to? Let’s start with that slammed look and shortened shock. Though the 3.5-inches of travel is the same as earlier Road Glides, the type of travel is significantly different. Hit an unexpected bump in the road and this thing can hurt you. At 50 mph, you’ll feel a solid jolt. At 70 mph, you might be looking for 24-hour chiropractic care. It literally bounced me off of the saddle several times. If you carry a passenger the added weight only amplifies the problem. To the credit of the chassis, the bike is always stable, even if you hit a bump on a fast sweeper; but it just doesn’t feel good. Add that cool-looking sloped seat to the equation and any passenger who doesn’t beg for mercy either sleeps on a bed of nails or spends a lot of time on Craigslist looking for the local S&M crowd. Finally, I love the panels that Harley has added to fill in the space between the saddle bags and the rear fender, but the price you pay is the loss of access to the fender supports, which means no place to hook a bungee cord if you want to carry a little extra cargo.
At the start, I said this is a really good motorcycle, and it is. In fact, depending on what you want out of your motorcycle, this one might be great. If you have a hot-rodder’s soul and love to show your ride at the local drive-in burger joint, you’ll love this thing. For cruising around town and on smooth roads, the ride should be just fine. Not cushy, but certainly something most can live with. And it can be ridden, even for high-mile days. The seating position, power and handling all work. You’ll just need to pay more attention to the highway in front of you and be prepared for those occasional bumps in the road. The hot rodder in you will probably consider the harsh ride a small price to pay for the joy it brings just looking at it. On the other hand, if your perfect motorcycle is one on which you can cover mile after mile in all-day comfort, you might be happier looking at the Road Glide Custom from a distance; or you might compromise that slammed look and swap the shocks and seat for those from the ’09 model. That’s the beauty of compromise and the right of any born-and-bred hot rodder.