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Common Tread

First ride, long ride: Cross-country on the new Fat Boy S and an Iron 883

Oct 09, 2015

Want to fall in love with riding cruisers? Ride one across America.

Years ago, in one swift, internet-fueled rage, I bought an affordable cruiser online. I strapped a bag onto the back and rode across the country by myself.  I brought a paper map and stuck to back roads and small towns. I stayed in one-floor, park-in-front-of-your-room motels. I lingered at gas stations. I discovered the barrage of incoming friendliness a motorcycle rider is subject to (anywhere outside of a big city). I basked in the glory of meditative riding that the open road offers.

I fell in love.

This year I revisited the trip with Laura Heidenreich (she joined me earlier this year on our Vietnam motorcycle tour, as well). I jumped at the chance to ride the new Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S, updated this year with the massive 1801 cc Screamin’ Eagle Performance Twin Cam Engine.

2016 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S
The 2016 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S. Photo by Chris Force.

I chose it partly because it came standard with features I was interested in for the trip: cruise control, ABS, and a security system. And when I say “partly” I mean, barely. What I really wanted was its iconic style. The Fat Boy S is not a lot of things. But it is a great looking Harley-Davidson. And if you like black bikes, this one is blacked-out really nicely, with solid black wheels, black bars and risers, black fork shrouds, and a fantastic black headlight and shroud. No one does this look better.

Laura, who rides a vintage standard, had been looking to put more time on a cruiser and wanted something from the Sportster line. She chose the Iron 883, also updated this year with new looks, suspension, and saddle. She chose one of many sissy bars available from the Motor Company to give her more options for securing her luggage and to complete the look she wanted. I rode the Fat Boy S stock.

Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and Fat Boy S
The addition of a sissy bar to the Iron 883 added options for carrying luggage. Photo by Chris Force.

We departed from the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee and headed southwest to St. Louis. Within two minutes of pulling into our first gas station for a fill up, a driver ran up to me, drooling over the bike. He perfectly recognized the model and asked specific questions about it. It was the first of a dozen similar conversations I was about to have on this bike as I rode across the country. The Fat Boy has a following.

We snaked comfortably west through Missouri, staying well off the slab. We both easily settled into our bikes. We rolled in and out of small towns, small roads, small lanes. Everything felt small. Except for me. I felt enormous.

I’m not a small rider. And on top of a 739-pound bike with a fat rear tire, I felt like a portly package. The Fat Boy S doesn’t dart into corners as much as it lazily rolls into them. In their stock position, it’s easy to scrape the floorboards turning onto an on ramp or pulling a U-turn in a gas station. It forced me to take a less aggressive riding style in the corners. But we didn’t choose long farm roads to rip corners. We came to cruise. And that we did.

2016 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S
Entering Arizona. Through-the-bars photo courtesy of the Sena 10C. Photo by Chris Force.

On several back-to-back 400-mile-plus days, the Fat Boy S toured like a champion. The riding position sits you straight up, with less of the slouch-backed lean you find on a Dyna. My feet planted straight below my knees on the boards and the bars are slung low and back. It’s a comfortable and classic feel. The saddle has that wide, sofa-like comfort Harley-Davidson is so great at.

The hydraulic clutch feels heavy, solid, and smooth. The control positions are nearly flawless, indicators, high beams, and cruise control are all found easily without having to move the palm of your hand. Everything works intuitively, no need for a manual here. In the rare times I had to use it, the horn (which is the best sounding stock horn I’ve heard) could be hard to find, but I imagine it would become easier if I had more reason to use it.

2016 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S
The solid front wheel is one of the defining design elements on the Fat Boy S. Photo by Chris Force.

The electronic throttle control is smartly paired with the rest of the bike. It’s firm, even, and requires a generous twist. For this style bike it feels right. In a corner you can grab a fist full of throttle and not feel a twitch. The bike is well balanced and seems to have endless torque. Like riding other Harley-Davidsons, I found myself upshifting into sixth more out of guilt, where the bike cruised along at low RPMs with ease.

2016 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S
The author hamming it up for the camera. Photo by Chris Force.
And over all, that became my expectation of the bike: easy. When we hit patches of traffic on the highway in a rainstorm, the Fat Boy S handled confidently. The ABS-equipped brakes were precise and that fat rear tire loved stopping. In a long stretch of rolling gravel back roads in Oklahoma, the bike’s suspension just ushered me along. It felt fantastic.

Wind battered us outside of Palm Springs, Calif., but the bike remained stable. Crawling up into the mountains of Arizona was relaxed and enjoyable. There is an incredible 13-mile stretch of Route 89a outside of Sedona so great we rode it twice. Rugged forests give way to a stunning canyon with bright red rock formations. As we rode 4,500 feet to the top, I began to really curse the floorboards that obnoxiously reminded me of their presence by screeching along the pavement in even the subtlest of lean.  For a bike that seems so painstakingly considered and carefully crafted, their lousy position struck me as an oversight.

2016 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy S
The wide rear pillion pad made a sturdy platform for luggage. Photo by Chris Force.

Also, the bike loathed finding neutral, and at a dealer stop along the way several of the reps said they experienced the same. Most of the time, I turned the bike off while in first.  Had I had spent more time at stoplights during city riding, this would have become a major issue, and at one toll booth I imagined the attendant rolling his eyes as I fussed for what seemed like 10 minutes, trying to get the green idiot light to come on.  Getting this resolved would be one of my first tasks if I owned this bike. My personal preference would be to ditch the floorboards and move the controls forward, as well. There are abundant parts and accessories available for this model, so it would be simple to do. Besides that, the bike is just so easy to ride, and even better to look at.

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883
Laura liked the style of the Iron 883. She's definitely not in Chicago any more. Photo by Chris Force.

Cross-country on an Iron 883?

As we rode across the country, more than a few fellas remarked with awe that Laura was riding the Iron cross-country. Its 3.3-gallon tank and 883 cc engine don’t scream “cross-country tour.”

At five feet, nine inches tall, Laura wasn’t sure how it would fit her. Her previous big tour this year was on a Ducati Hypermotard with a 33-inch seat height. The Iron comes in under 26 inches. But she loved it.

“The bike was immediately comfortable,” she said. “I was surprised by the fit. I didn’t feel too big for it. I felt like I was ‘in’ the bike. I thought with longer legs I would be cramped, but the mid-controls are placed perfectly for me. The lower riding position made me feel less top-heavy and more confident. When we were really in the wind, the riding position made me feel more stable.”

With an engine twice the size, I pictured spending a lot of time squinting to see the Iron in my rear view mirror. We spent most of the trip cruising at 65 mph, and Laura was always comfortably at speed.

“I was able to crank it to get on the highway right away, it was nice in corners, and easy to move in parking lots,” she said. “It just felt light to me and easy to handle. And the power was never an issue for this trip.”

The saddle was the only thing she found to be uncomfortable. Laura brought an Airhawk seat pad. She didn't use it much at first, but by the end of the trip she was using it all the time.

“I love the way the new saddle looks, but after about 70 miles on it, I need a break," she said. "For shorter rides and around the city, I love it. But for longer rides, comfort is something to consider. Also, I had to move my hands to reach the stock positions on the turn signals. So those and the saddle would be things to consider tweaking.”

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883
The Iron 883 in action. Laura took off her jacket for the low-speed photo pass, but otherwise we always wore our gear. Photo by Chris Force.

On the days we rode over 400 miles, Laura was happy on the Iron and impressed with its versatility, “I could easily imagine riding this at home in the streets of Chicago. But it also did well in the mountains of Arizona. At 70 mph on the highway, it felt great. It was just really adaptable.”

We carried a fuel bottle for confidence in areas where there might not be gas stations, but we easily got 150 miles out of the Iron 883’s small tank.  As we pulled into Los Angeles, I could tell Laura wouldn’t part with her bike as easily as I would. So I had to ask her: “If you could have a Ducati Scrambler, a Triumph Bonneville, or an Iron 883 waiting for you when we get back to Chicago, which would you choose?”

“That’s a really hard one,” she said. “The Iron 883. I love the looks. Being deeper in the bike makes me feel more control, both for city riding and also for weekend trips. It’s so flexible.”

Try riding across country and not falling in love with a cruiser.