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Common Tread

Riding a thunderstorm: The Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special

Feb 25, 2022

I met a guy recently who said anytime he did something in his life that his mother didn’t like she would simply say, “Hmm, interesting.”

That might sum up your first impression of this motorcycle, a massive and strange-looking Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special race bike equipped with Superbike tires and carbon fiber saddlebags. For the uninitiated, it was forged in the basement of a Milwaukee warehouse by a crew of Harley employees (already with day jobs at the factory) who were keen to take on the MotoAmerica King of the Baggers championship, which became a three-race series in 2021 after a one-off race in 2020. The Motor Company brass then hired MotoAmerica Superbike racer and Daytona 200 winner Kyle Wyman to develop and race the bike. From conception to its hulking state, it is interesting, if nothing else. Even more so the closer you look.

Harley Road Glide Special racer front three quarter right
If Hagrid from Harry Potter were a racing motorcycle, he might be the KOTB Road Glide Special — enormous, loud, and would look appropriate with a leather vest. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Up close

It’s hard to know where to start, but the basic specs will give an idea of just how bizarre and intimidating this machine is in person. The wheelbase is around 64 inches, approximately matching the standard Harley Road Glide that donated its frame for this project. It weighs about 640 pounds. The engine displaces 131 ci — that’s 2,146 cc, or 1,073 cc per cylinder — and the seat is 36.4 inches tall.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike saddlebags
According to King of the Baggers rules, “The lid must be functional and lock in closed position. Each saddle bag must be able to enclose a 13.6” x 5.4” x 9” box and be at least 2200 cubic inches of volume. Material is free.” Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

It’s huge, in other words, not to mention having all sorts of strangely proportioned parts and angular pieces sticking out here and there. That sky-high seat, for starters, was built by piling layers of foam until Wyman figured it was tall enough to accommodate where the footpegs would need to be. That was its own concern, because where the footpegs needed to be wasn’t near the frame, so the left footpeg mount is welded directly to the engine case. With the rider’s body up and feet back, the fuel tank was way too flat for a racer’s liking. Enter “the pommel,” a 3D-printed block mounted at the back of the gas tank so that Kyle Wyman (and eventually his brother Travis, as well) would have something to grip with their legs while riding in anger. A flat handlebar was bolted to the top of an Öhlins fork to pitch the rider forward and offer more control. Plus, it matches the piggyback Öhlins shocks that suspend the rear wheel and jack up the Road Glide Special’s stern.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike swingarm detail
Idler gears direct the chain around the trick swingarm, and the lower rear portion of the frame, which was not allowed to be removed in 2021. That changes for 2022, and so too may the extra sprockets. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

As with most factory-built race machines, it’s covered in all sorts of exotic parts and odd little modifications. For example, in the gaping, manta-ray mouth of the fairing, where a typical Road Glide’s headlights sit, there’s a radiator for the engine oil. That’s because an air-cooled engine cranking out more than 150 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque (at the rear wheel) desperately needs airflow, and having the radiator in front of it was a problem.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike front wheel detail
In 2021 the bike used Accossato calipers, but the team moved to business-partner Brembo and in 2022 will upgrade to 330 mm rotors for more stopping power. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

On the topic of air cooling, at some point in development the team realized that oftentimes the placement of the horn on stock Harley touring models disrupts the air flowing over the engine and helps cool the rear cylinder. A horn is unwanted and illegal in racing, but without it the rearward jug was getting too hot. So they built a scoop, nicknamed the “horn fang,” to direct air to the back cylinder, and supplemented it by extending some of the cooling fins.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike cooling scoop detail
The “horn fang” cooling scoop pushes air to the rear cylinder. Note the custom extended fins, too. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Maybe my favorite piece of kit is the swingarm, which started life as a 400-pound chunk of aluminum. After 382 pounds of that metal was milled away the team had a piece that was as stiff as the stock unit. And, crucially, it offers the swingarm angle needed for good mechanical grip as well as hosting the idler gears necessary to keep the drive chain away from the rear of the frame. Footpegs were chopped, saddlebags and bodywork were made out of paper-thin carbon fiber, and countless other tiny details were sorted out over the course of the 2021 MotoAmerica racing season. In the end the team, and Kyle Wyman, won.

At speed

There really isn’t any doubting that the series, and the subsequent machines built to compete, are a little off kilter. Still, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to wonder what this bike feels like to ride. Luckily for the curious, Harley-Davidson offered us a leg up onto this Clydesdale of a motorcycle at Inde (pronounced “indy”) Motorsports Ranch in southeastern Arizona.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike left side at speed on race track
Now here’s a gentleman with some “sport” to go with his “touring.” Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The Inde circuit was perfect, actually, because anytime I ride a priceless work of competition engineering in front of the nervous team that built it, I always prefer to do it on a 2.75-mile, 21-turn track that I have never seen before and with as many blind corners as possible. Someone from the Harley team also mentioned that this was the bike’s last outing before going to the company museum, which made me feel even better.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike rear brake pedal detail
Notable in this photo: The charred leather on the pipe from an unfortunate rider’s leg reaching for the ground; the sawed-off footpeg; the intake snorkel fashioned from carbon fiber. Also, respect the gratuitous usage of blingtonium billetoxide. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Just climbing aboard the bagged beast was an ordeal. At six feet, two inches tall, I could barely touch the ground with one foot. It’s the height, y’see, but also the girth. One of the reasons the bike has to be so tall to achieve 55 degrees of potential lean angle without dragging parts is that it’s fairly wide in the middle. I haven’t had that many people helping me set off on a two-wheeled vehicle since my parents first took the training wheels off my bicycle.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike right side at speed on a race track
A glimpse of the belly pan shows how wide the engine is at the bottom compared to a sport bike, and therefore how far the rider’s feet are from each other. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The cockpit is typical of a race bike in many ways — zombie remnants of the standard switchgear on the handlebar and tape holding pieces of plastic together. Then again, most race bikes don’t have holes on the inside of the fairing where speakers used to live. Instead of the Boom! Box Infotainment screen from a street-legal Road Glide, this bagger racer uses an AiM MXS 1.2 unit with a five-inch TFT screen and the capability to capture and display piles of data. 

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike cockpit detail
As awkward as the pommel looks when the bike is parked, it’s the perfect addition at speed. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The engine started life as a Screamin’ Eagle 131 Performance Crate Engine from Harley’s legendary Parts & Accessories catalog. In its current state, the team calls the 131R racing mill “similar” to the accessory engine which, after hearing the description, feels generous. Along with all of the fiddling with ergonomics and brazing on longer cooling fins, the pistons are different, the cams are more aggressive, and the fuel injectors are beefier in order to flow more delicious gasoline to those enormous and thirsty cylinders.

2022 Harley-Davidson Pan America on a race track leading the King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike
Kyle Wyman showed the press around Inde Motorsports Ranch on a Pan America ADV bike, shod with sporty rubber. He said the PanAm would need some work to match his laptimes on the KOTB bike, but "the press" was 10 seconds off the race pace so the street bike worked for him. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

That’s just the mechanical trickery, mind you, the team is constantly tuning, learning, and retuning the engine based on racing and testing data. All of that tinkering has led to a refined feel from this mutant engine, which I benefited from while blasting around Inde. In some ways the smooth throttle response and linear thrust makes sense, what with mammoth engine internals and a naturally torque-rich power delivery, but it is especially good. Harley says this bike has no less than 120 foot-pounds of torque on tap anywhere in the revs, yet even picking up the throttle mid corner, knee on the ground, the chassis stays composed and neutral.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike AiM dashboard display
Shift lights illuminate at the top of the dash, which is a helpful mental trigger, especially for an engine with a redline around 7,000 rpm. Surprisingly, like showroom Harleys, the gear-position indicator works by calculating engine rpm and speed, so if I missed a shift (and I did) there was no point looking at the dash for help. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the most impressive thing about this monster: how good it feels carving through corners. Flicking from side to side, it feels just about as tall and heavy as it is, and it can get ornery if you ham-fist a quick transition, but peeling into curves and settling onto the edge of the tire is a surprising treat. The tires are standard-issue MotoAmerica Superbike slicks, with a 200-width bun out back. Just watching a rider climb aboard you can see the rear tire flex and distort under the mass, and I thought for sure it would feel gooey and unstable at speed. It doesn’t.

A top contender for worst thing about the bike, practically anyway, is the transmission. It’s a typical Harley gearbox, in so much as you can have it done fast or you can have it done right. Where a typical bagger ride might employ a slow and calculated swing from gear to gear, with a puff of Marlboro Red in the middle, that doesn’t cut it in racing. Shifts have to be deliberate and forceful. Fortunately, it is also a typical Harley gearbox in so much as it’s sturdy. Each Wyman brother reiterated at least once that you can’t hurt the transmission, so go ahead and try if it’ll avoid missing a shift.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike riding at camera on a race track
The hammerhead face means wind protection is pretty good. For 2022, the bikes will have a similar height windshield but a lower cut of the plastic behind it, so that riders can tuck lower and still be able to see. Photo by Kevin Wing.

It wasn’t the best or worst, but my favorite part was the straightaway. Not because this bike is eye-wateringly fast — with my 200-pound self on board the power-to-weight ratio was similar to a 420-pound bike making 115 horsepower. We’re talking Triumph-Street-Triple fast. But the spectacle is terrific, sitting way up high and pounding out forward motion like a magic carpet on top of a thunderstorm.

2021 Harley-Davidson King of the Baggers Road Glide Special race bike right side profile
Bagger royalty, in profile. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

To that point, you want good brakes and, in keeping with a factory-prepared race bike, the 300 mm discs and radial calipers are as sharp as an aged cheddar. Yes, it’s a lot of weight to slow down but what’s unusual and unnerving about the braking experience has more to do with the long wheelbase. Where most performance bikes (with good tires on a dry track) will easily lift the rear wheel with the front brake, this bagger will more likely lock the front wheel. That’s according to Kyle Wyman and one particular missed downshift of mine on corner entry. It’s precarious, and for that reason Wyman uses a heavy dose of rear brake to slow the bike and avoid losing the front end. Unique challenges for a unique machine.

In the end

Have you ever ridden an elephant? In my limited experience, it is worse than riding a horse in many ways. It’s harder to get on them and farther to fall, they eat more, and they are slower. It’s ungainly and peculiar. But damn, there is something regal about it, too. Feeling those colossal joints thump into place with each prehistoric stride and seeing a landscape you thought you knew from a different perspective is remarkable. 

It could be that riding this King of the Baggers Road Glide Special feels significant for the same reason. Because it’s rare, and because unfamiliar feelings are the ones we often remember. And I guess I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s interesting. Not necessarily in that motherly, disapproving way, but in the truest sense of the word.

2021 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special racer
Price (MSRP) NA
Engine 131 ci (2,146 cc), air-cooled, eight-valve, V-twin
final drive
Six-speed, chain
Claimed horsepower (more than) 150
Claimed torque (more than) 150 foot-pounds
Frame Steel tube
Front suspension Öhlins FGR 250 43 mm fork, adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 5.1 inches of travel
Rear suspension Öhlins remote-reservoir shocks, adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 3.2 inches of travel
Front brake Brembo four-piston calipers, 300 mm discs, no ABS
Rear brake Brembo four-piston caliper, 300mm disc, no ABS
Rake, trail 26 degrees, 6.5 inches (varies with setup)
Wheelbase 64 inches (varies with setup) 
Seat height 36.4 inches (varies with setup)
Fuel capacity 6.0 gallons
Tires Dunlop racing slicks; 120/70R17 front, 200/60R17 rear
Claimed weight Class minimum 635 pounds (varies with fuel load)
Available Unlikely
Warranty NA
More info