My other Harley: 2011 Road Glide Ultra

Earlier this year I completed a motorcycle skills training course, bought a Kawasaki Vulcan, and got my motorcycle license.  I had ridden before back when I was still a teenager, but this time I actually got my license.  Between May and September I rode about 10,000 kilometres- most of that was smaller rides in the 100 km or so range, but I had several 500+ kilometres days as well.  During that time I learned a lot about riding, and more importantly about myself.


How I got here

I learned, for example, that I like a bike that can shrug off crosswinds to a degree.  I prefer carrying things with me when I ride, and enjoy longer trips so long as I can maintain a degree of comfort.  I found that my Vulcan became rather “exciting” at around 120 km/h, and not in a good way.  I found that my butt, hips, arms and hands could quickly, in a matter of minutes, become uncomfortable… and that re-engineering the bike could correct many of those discomforts.  And I confirmed that motorcycling is something I’m going to want to do over the longer term- the reality of riding a motorbike is as fun as the fantasy.  These things led me to start considering a different bike, a more “ideal” bike than my Vulcan, and I started assembling a savings plan to replace my bike in a few years.

I started discussing these plans with Irene as early as August.  Some things happened in my family that made me start thinking more about how short life is, and how easy it is to find it suddenly impossible to do the “one day” things.  Of course, this added a certain amount of frustration to my “one day” plans, a frustration that Irene started to hear from me on a regular basis.  After a few weeks of this, in late September, Irene said “Fine- if you want a different bike so much, you can have one now if we can adopt two kittens”.

Irene had, of course, been hinting about adding more cats to our household for years: that was how we made ElCee’s (LC… Last Cat) name somewhat inaccurate four or five years ago when we adopted Nimbus…. then Coco.  I take full responsibility for Iris, but she had extended our cat family against my better judgement as well.  And for a few weeks Irene had been cooing and goo-gooing over certain kittens at the shelter she was volunteering at.  Seeing the writing on the wall, I surprised Irene by immediately agreeing.  I talked about the kittens that joined our household as part of this deal, one of whom was named Harley in commemoration, in a previous post.

What I got

There is no such thing as the “perfect” bike.  There is a vast selection of really good motorcycles out there, from lots of companies that often compete in very narrow niches.  In other words, the consumer has a lot of good choices, and so the first thing to figure out is what type of riding you do.  Going extremely fast doesn’t interest me, so that removes the cafe racer/crotch rocket bikes from my list.  I don’t go off-road, so that’s another big block of bikes that I can dismiss.  I like a comfortable ride and want some luggage to cart things around easily: so that eliminates hundreds of other perfectly wonderful bike models that simply don’t match my interests.

What does that leave?  Amazingly, it still leaves dozens of models and brands to consider.  Bikes like the huge full-dress touring behemoths such as the Harley Electra Glide, Honda Goldwing, Kawasaki Nomad, and others.  Euro-tourers like the BMW 1300GT and the Honda ST1300.  And countless others that fit in as similar or equivalent, but with unique features appealing to particular individuals.  At this point, the choices become mostly based on emotional responses: which bike would make me feel the happiest?  Pure logic can be applied, but when I find myself starting to invent excuses that push a particular bike to the top of the list, I realize logic is not going to get the job done.

Where did my heart take me?  Well, when I was a kid and was imagining the “ultimate” motorcycle, it was always a Harley-Davidson touring bike.  Back then, that bike was the Electra Glide.  This is a full dress bike, or a “decker” (as in “all decked out”)- with trunk, saddlebags, fairing, lowers, stereo, cruise control, etcetera.  So I started looking at modern Harley touring bikes, and found much to like.  But it wasn’t the Electra Glide I kept coming back to, it was the Road Glide, the “black sheep” of the Harley-Davidson touring bike family.  After much soul-searching, I settled on the Road Glide Ultra, a choice that was cemented after a heavenly road test.


My Road Glide

The Details

I picked the “ugly duckling” Harley-Davidson tourer, the Road Glide, although personally I think it looks great.  It is just as expensive as the Electra Glide, but unlike its better known sibling, the Road Glide has a frame attached (as opposed to fork attached) fairing.  In the picture above, you will note that the fairing (the big cowling on the front of the bike) is facing straight forward while the steering forks are turned- this is what “frame attached” means.  What it also means is that wind blasts push the whole bike around- not just the steering.

Frame attached fairings are, by any practical definition, a better design- but Harley traditionalists don’t like them .  Some claim a benefit to the fork attached fairing because the headlight turns with the forks: if you actually ride a motorbike at anything above walking speeds you’ll quickly see that this is a non-point.  At speed, the front forks hardly move in a turn: the bike leans or counter-steers instead.  Others claim that the fork attached fairing is better aerodynamically because the wind force helps the bike turn- anyone who has ridden a bike at speed in a cross wind with a fork attached fairing will know that this isn’t true except in very unusual circumstances.  So that leaves the matter of appearance: some people  prefer the look of the fork attached “batwing” fairing over the frame attached “shark nose” fairing.  I personally like the shark nose, but… to each their own

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Batwing fairing (Electra Glide Ultra Classic)    vs     Shark nose fairing (Road Glide Ultra)

The Road Glide Ultra is a new-for-2011 trim package for the Road Glide.  I looked at getting a used Road Glide, but when I priced out the features the Ultra trim package includes (trunk, 103 ci engine, the new for 2009 highly stable frame design), it didn’t make sense to go used.  Harley-Davidsons have fairly high resale values, so a 2009 or even a 2006 with low mileage is only a few thousand less than brand new.  Adding the trunk alone would have added nearly $2,000 to that used bike: the engine upgrade is out of the park.  So, in the end I bought a brand new motorbike that is easily as expensive as many mid-range new cars.

It is worth mentioning a couple of things about cost.  Back in my youth, buying a Harley automatically meant spending close to 50% more than buying a comparable Japanese bike.  That was still true well into the ’90s, but during the last decade or so the price differential has disappeared.  A comparable Kawasaki Nomad or Honda GoldWing is within hundreds of dollars (less than 5%) of the price of my Road Glide.  Which leads to the question- are there any practical (i.e.: non-emotional) reasons for buying a Harley versus one of these near identically priced competitors?

In short, not a lot of reason.  But on the other hand, many of the reasons for buying a Japanese or European bike versus a Harley are no longer true either.  The old “Harleys leak” and “Harley engines are unreliable” arguments are based on two or three decade old observations: any Harley built since the mid 80’s have a newer technology engine (starting with the Evolution) that is as leak free and reliable as anything made in Japan.  During the past decade or so, Harley technology has also radically improved: their new touring frame is incredibly solid and stable, their fuel injection and engine computers are first rate, and the Brembo ABS brake systems they use are amongst the best in the world.

That leaves a few things that differentiate a Harley and which aren’t purely emotional.  One big one: many of the pieces on Harley’s are metal, and are plastic/ABS on their competitor’s bikes.  Notable pieces include the fenders, the engine head covers, and the crank case covers.  Hondas and Kawasaki bikes have plastic in a lot of places you just wouldn’t expect, like on the engine itself.  Another big plus for a Harley is the paint: over 4 mm thick with many layers of clear coat, Harley paintwork is without peer.

But the vast majority of the choice will be emotional.  If you like an utterly smooth, virtually silent motor, then  you’ll want to look at a Japanese or European bike.  But be careful: some of those bikes work hard to capture the sound of a grunting, vibrating Harley motor at idle.  Interestingly, once on the road the Harley sounds and vibrations basically disappear.  That road test I took on a Road Glide was the clincher for me- at highway speeds, the Harley was smoother and more “planted” than my Vulcan by a vast margin.  The tar snakes and road irregularities that made my Vulcan hop, jerk, and drag itself around were ignored entirely on the Road Glide.  It was an absolute revelation to me, and that one hour test ride changed my “one day, maybe” into a “I have to have this”.

At the end of the day, I’ve gone through two bikes in one year and blown the cost of a pretty nice car on what is, for me at least, a recreational vehicle.  It doesn’t replace my car, but it does do something for my soul that a car does not.  One thing about Harley-Davidson: their marketing machine definitely recognizes that riding a motorcycle is an emotional experience.  I’ve already been bombarded with welcome letters, club membership invitations, and beautifully printed “touring guides”.  I’m a Harley Owner’s Group (HOG) member, complete with a patch, a pin, and other geegaws: I have this odd sense of belonging that isn’t at all justified.

Where Next

I’ve already put over 2,500 km on my Road Glide, even though it is getting increasingly difficult to find decent days to ride now that fall is fully upon us and single-digit high temperatures are becoming the norm.  I expect to take some longer trips on my bike next year, and am roughing out ideas for biking vacations down the west coast and to visit friends in Edmonton.  I imagine I will probably put more miles on my motorbike next year than on my car.  And that is probably a good thing.


16 thoughts on “My other Harley: 2011 Road Glide Ultra”

  1. I am glad you got yourself a Harley…your Vulcan was a nice bike, but the new ride is much better.

    And for the idiots, sorry I mean people, out there that say “Harley’s leak”…well they need to have actually ridden a motorcycle for a month or so, and not just have read popular mechanics 🙂

    Like you have said, yeah a lot of them leaked…20 years ago, but it’s 2010, things are quite a bit different now.

    And as far as the ‘traditionalist’ who thinks that fork mounted fairings are better…well they probably think that Fox news is the best news source around as well, so you can take that for what it’s worth 😉

    Not to mention that the frame mounted fairings, look way better (in my opinion).

  2. Very nice write up..I’ve been riding an 05 Electra Glide for 6 and a half years now, and an 01 Sportster for 3 and a half years prior to that..Now I’m in the market again, and I have been eyeing an new 2011 have twisted my arm further…..Thanks, Dana

  3. Shane, thanks for your supportive comments- not that I expected you to say “dumb choice- Harleys suck!” Unfortunately I was one of the “Harleys leak” crowd until a year or so ago when I started researching. Back in the ’80s it was true- I remember going to bike shows where the Harleys all had various oil catchers under the engine. But things change, which is yet another reminder to me not to get too set in my ways and opinions.

    Thanks for the comment, Dana. Although I picked a Road Glide, the big thing is that, in my opinion at least, the choice of a particular bike is very personal. Moreso than a car, by far. The best thing I can suggest- if you are leaning towards a RoadGlide and are reasonably serious about buying *something* soon, ask your local dealer for a private road test. Barnes let me go out on my own for an hour, which (for me at least) was an ideal way to make up my mind. If you ride in to the dealer on the Harley you already own, they probably won’t hesitate to hand over the keys 🙂

    The post-2009 touring bikes, and the Glide in particular, have what felt like (to me at least) an awesomely stable road feel. Harley made some significant changes to the touring frames in 2009. I’ve talked to a couple of Electra owners who described the difference between pre-2009 and current road feel as “night and day”. You’d be in a better position than me to judge older touring Harley versus 2009+ models. All I can say is that the 2011 RGU feels amazingly planted: road surface irregularities that pulled my Vulcan around are basically ignored.

  4. Kelly – I have owned an 105th Anniversary bike and have come to the realization I love the look of the Road Glide Custom…..I am opting however for the Road Glide Ultra, with a detachable Tour pak and seat change setup to allow myself that low look when I ride alone or the comfort when my GF rides. I may lower the rear, custom wheels all around later but think this setup gives me the best of both worlds.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Mike- and my apologies for it taking several days to approve!

    I’ve installed the lowering kit (basically, the shocks from a Custom), and have been wondering about making my trunk “quick disconnect”. Is it a kit that can be retrofitted with the Ultra relatively easily? Or is it a custom/expensive thing to get done?

  6. Thanks for your succinct and descriptive comparison. I’m buying a 2012 Road Glide Ultra (to the chagrin of my salesperson who says the fixed frame wigs her out). But all the reviews described positive features of going with the fixed faring. However, the dealerships seem to have a dozen Electras to every Road Glide Ultra so I thought I might be missing something since it’s a no brained for me based on the physics, safety, ease of handling and appearance.

    That’s why I googled the comparison and found yours. Perfect! You confirmed everything I already learned. Harley riders are a very loyal bunch so traditions die hard. But once the RGU is around a while longer my guess is that the inventory ratio will flip.

    Btw, one sales person (pro RGU) told me that she and about ten friends went riding. Only one had a RGU. By the time they reached their destination every other bike had tons of bugs splattered all over their faring but the RGU looked almost clean. I guess the aerodynamics of the shark faring works pretty well. She also said that their is a very noticeable difference when passing semi-trucks on the pro side of the RGU since the wind shear (sheer?) is hitting the full 900 pounds rather than a direct hit to the forks.

  7. Hi, John, and welcome to the blog! Apologies for the delay in your comment appearing- I have to moderate everything here due to a steady influx of spam.

    I’m glad my little article helped. I have over 20,000 km (a bit over 12 thousand miles) on my 2011 Road Glide now, and love it to bits. It is steady and solid on the highway, and fun to ride in all kinds of conditions. I’ve taken a couple of long (2000+ mile) trips without incident and with a lot of joy.

    There has only been one issue: the steering head bearing may loosen during the first few thousand kilometres, and the regular dealer maintenance guides seem to have some inaccuracies regarding how to adjust it. You’ll feel this at low speeds, particularly coming to the stop using the front brakes, as a sort of “rocking” vibration of the front steering- as if the front end was shifting back and forth slightly. On my bike I noticed the problem at about 12,000 km. I had to go back to the dealer twice, ultimately demanding that they road test it before they apply the standard adjustments: once they tested it, they immediately felt the looseness, and corrected it properly.

    Note that the steering head issue isn’t a mechanical failure: it just needs to be adjusted correctly. If you do your own service (I don’t), you’ll likely discover why the service techs short-change this adjustment on the Road Glide: doing it properly involves disassembling a big part of the front end.

    As for the bug thing… well, I can’t confirm that- I know I have a lot of bugs to clean off of my ‘Glides front end after most longer rides 😉 But I can confirm that light to medium rain pretty much skims right past the rider at speed- I generally never have to put my rain suit on unless I’m dealing with a heavy downpour. And I suppose, now that I think about it, most of the bugs are on the lowers and windshield: not much on the fairing at all.

    In terms of aftermarket modifications- I haven’t made many changes. I’ve installed a Cee Bailey windshield, which allows a lower windshield with the same/similar airflow. I was finding that the stock windshield was right on the edge of “look through/look over” height for me. I’ve also installed the rear suspension lowering kit (basically the shocks from the Road Glide Custom) so I can plant my feet a bit more solidly on the ground. The stock shocks had my feet planted flat, but I had trouble when pushing the bike backwards. And I’ve installed softer / padded grips from Avon, just because I find my hands get a bit numb on longer rides.

  8. Love this Blog! I am picking up my 2011 RGU next week and I am coming off an eight year run on my 2003 Road King Classic with 50,000 miles on her. Never had any major problems with the King but I am just in need for something completely different and I love the look of the the shark nose fairing and of course the fixed mount so I can really get rolling into the twisties without feeling like I am in a Mack Truck (think full dresser Electra).
    I am feeling more confident about the little nuances if this bike. I will definitely be checking back.

    Happy Trails!

    Rob Z.

  9. Welcome to my Blog, Robert! Every bike has its uniqueness: even though my experience is limited, I can certainly tell that. I’m happy with my choice, and it is great to see other folks head down the same path and get themselves a Road Glide, but each person who rides will find their own “favourite”.

    One minor update I made to my Road Glide late this season was replacing the stock handlebars with “Heritage” bars. These give an extra three inches or so of pullback when adjusted. I was starting to experience some problems with my upper back while riding, and noted that I was reaching (straight arms) a bit more than I should. So far the handlebar change has been a good one, but I’ll need a couple of longer 8+ hour rides next season to confirm.

    Best of luck with your new FLTRU: feel free to come back and share your experiences once you’ve had her for a while!

  10. Thanks for the insight on the Road Glide, Kelly. It really helped confirm my decision to go with the fixed fork design of the Road Glide. I just took delivery of my 2012 FLTRU in Big Blue! Although I thought it would be tough to part with my 2002 Heritage Softail Classic, which I purchased only two years ago. However, after about 10 miles on the touring bike, I knew I had made the right decision! I, too, like taking stuff along for the ride. The FLTRU has just the right amount of storage.

    I started riding only two years ago. I took the rider course in 2010 and bought my Heritage the same month. I only wonder why I did not start sooner.

    Thanks, again, for the info.


  11. Greetings, Mike! I’m glad you found some useful information here. Having storage on my bike is a big deal for me: I love it for long trips, but even for shorter rides it comes in handy. On how many bikes can you just drop a 12 pack of beer in the trunk on the way home? 🙂 That said, one day I’ll probably invest in a kit to make the trunk removable. It is an expensive upgrade: $1200 or so for the replacement brackets, another $400 or so for antenna and wiring changes, then labour. I can’t justify it today, and I’m not completely sure how often I’d take the trunk off anyway.

    I’m up to about 25,000 km on my 2011 (bought in September of 2010) FLTRU, and she just keeps getting better. I have a big stupid grin pretty much every time I ride. That said, I’m sure the Road Glide is exactly the *wrong* bike for a lot of folks. Information is your friend 🙂

  12. I have a friend that Choose the Road Glide over the Electra Glide as I ride an EG and prefer it over the RG. Since I started on an Electra Glide back in 91, I have gotten use to the heaviness of the batwing. I have tried to ride the RG and found the fount to be light, just didn’t like the feel. We had ridden many miles together and both swear by what we ride. Having gone across country on my bike several times, I can attest to different wind conditions and how they effect the ride. Some swear the RG handles better but to me I just don’t don’t notice anymore the different wind conditions. Like you said that’s why they have so many choices. Nice blog on choosing your Ride and how you got to that point. I can’t see a day where I would want to take off the trunk or side bags. I ride my bike in town and have no issues with maneuverability. Love how the Harley handles in open road to heavy traffic conditions.

    Thanks for the enjoyable read

  13. Hi, Anthony, and welcome to my Blog! The Electra’s are great bikes- I know lots of folks who love ’em to pieces. And there is no question that they have an iconic look: the Electra Glide is what people think of when they think of “big” Harleys. A big part of writing this blog entry for me was showing my love for my personal bike without slamming the other choices out there. The whole “Harley versus Metric” thing in particular bugs me- yeah, I like my HD and had good (for me) reasons to choose it, but that shouldn’t mean I have to put down someone’s GoldWing or what have you.

    Regarding making the trunk removable… I’m still pondering that. The *only* reason I can think of for making it removable is to change the appearance: to make my bike temporarily look like a cruiser. I wouldn’t remove the saddlebags, just the trunk- basically, it would be a temporary reversion to the look of a Road Glide Custom. When I’m just going on a day ride, it might look more “cool”: which is kind of a silly thing, since I’m pretty much the opposite of “cool”!

    I’m probably a year away at least from making any really significant changes to my Road Glide. I’m wanting to a) put some serious miles on; b) pay off the loan 😉 I went on a couple of fairly long rides last year, and have similar trips planned for this season: that’s what I’m focused on rather than changing my ride.

    You can be sure I’ll write up something here when the “upgrade” time comes.

  14. Hi, I also used to ride a Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad (99) and decided on the Harley Road Glide Ultra when I gave that bike to my oldest son. My story is much like yours in the research and decision making process and everything.. very uncanny. I also have the other step child Harley the V-Rod. I have a 2009 VRSCAW and love it even if the Harley crowd holds their nose when I ride by. (they really don’t do that but some of the crowd have said I should get a real Harley not that Honda Davidson to which I reply I have a RGU and 3 Hondas (74, 76, 77) a Kawasaki 650 Ninja and the Nomad and a 883 Sporster that I have passed down to my sons. I bet I ride more than most any of the Harley purists that complain about our non-traditional bikes. I ride to work most days each week, swapping between the different bikes. My only complaint with the RGU is that I am SHORT and it is HEAVY so I have dropped it twice mostly due to poor footing on inclined parking lots. I am more careful now but still have the fear of dropping the baby again. Hope you are still loving your bike.

  15. Hi, Bob, and Welcome to my blog! It is good to find I’m not alone in my “journey” to the Road Glide 🙂 I’m still loving my bike- the only real problems have been issues with service work, which aren’t the fault of the bike at all.

    Interesting that you mention the problem with dropping the bike: I’ve had three incidents where my ‘Glide has ended up on her side- no damage, amazingly. Two were due (I claim, at least) to the really steep driveway at our house combined with initially trying to park the bike alongside the house on the sidewalk instead of in the garage. My car has now been kicked out onto the street, and my Road Glide lives in the garage 😉

    I should point out I’m not short- 5’11”. Once a 900 pound bike starts to go over, there is no stopping it unless you are Superman or something. It’s just basic physics, and for me at least lack of experience / bad judgement on tricky slopes at extremely low speeds. One thing I did was have the rear “crash bars” installed just in front of the saddlebags. Since I did that, of course, I haven’t dropped the bike 😉

    I have a friend with a VRod- a beautiful bike with nearly twice the stock horsepower of most Harleys, and the traditionalists be damned. And some of the most reliable and most durable bikes on the road are Hondas. I likely will never have the collection of bikes you have, but I can appreciate a lot of different rides- if I had the time (and money!), I’d have more than one for sure. I don’t ride to work- riding in rush hour traffic where I live is, for me at least, a kind of torture. But I ride a fair bit- since I got the bike at the end of September in 2010, I’ve put just over 32,000 km on her, and I suspect I’ll be over 40,000 km by the two year mark. I see bikes five years older than mine with less than 10,000 km on the clock for sale all the time, which is to me at least kind of sad.

  16. Hello great read
    I just purchased a 2012 RGU which I pick it up in a couple of days, I havent road a harley for 18 years road honda my last honda was a VTX 1300 retro loved the bike but just to much chromed plastic.The reason lm going harley again is for me is the name im tired of telling people no its a honda. I glad to hear that Harley has come along way cant wait to get on the open road and test out that shark nose

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