Back in 2016: Northern Spain on a Harley Davidson

I wrote this back in 2016 for the Zenith Motorcycles blog.

I’m reproducing this here mostly because a few friends asked why I skipped out Bilbao in the write up of my recent trip.


June 2016

There is only thing more boring than other people’s holiday snaps: other people’s travel blogs. So I’m going to keep the “travel” bit to a minimum, and hopefully write about things of a more universal interest: motorbike reviews, reflections on gear and just a few thoughts about places and activities which might be cool.

Why not a ferry?

I had a spare few days and a much loved friend who is currently living in Northern Spain invited me over. My initial plan was to ride the Shadow to Portsmouth or Plymouth, get a 24hr ferry over to Bilbao or Santander and carry on touring on my own wheels. This proved logistically impossible due to the surprisingly high cost of the ferries (we’re talking c. £200 one way with a few weeks’ notice, perhaps they are cheaper booked several months in advance), and inconvenient sailing times, as well as having to lose 48 hours stuck on a boat. Another option was a ferry to St Malo in northern France but that would have meant an intense 500 mile dash along French motorways with a possible overnight in Bordeaux, not ideal given my plans.

The plan which made the most sense was a dirt cheap EasyJet flight to Bilbao from Stansted and a hired bike.

Stansted Airport motorbike parking

I’d not left my own bike parked at a UK airport before so I posted on a few forums and looked at YouTube. The consensus was: it’s fine. So if you are looking to leave your bike at Stansted for a few days here is how:

  • ride to the airport as normal (North Circular followed by the M11 from North London for me)
  • once you get into the airport’s own road system follow the signs for the short stay car park
  • the signs may also direct you to the RED car park or Zone Q
  • once you arrive at the car park, simply ride past the barrier unless you’re on a Goldwing or Victory Vision, in which case get a ticket
  • the motorbike parking zone is well signposted (shock horror!) and there is plenty of room, and is a short walk to the terminal

I left my bike locked up with a disc lock on the front, chained to some railings with an Almax Immobiliser III on the back and covered with an Oxford Aquatex cover supplied by Zenith Motorcycles. I wrapped my helmet in a classy Lidl bag and chained it to the bike under the cover. On my return a few days later, it was absolutely fine, and getting away from the airport in the middle of the night following a delayed flight couldn’t have been easier.

Hiring the Harley

This was a remarkably painless experience. Initially it looked like the only motorbikes local hire places had on offer were adventure bikes, and following my slightly traumatic experience of riding one through the epicentre of an 5.4 Richter scale earthquake in Greece some weeks back, as well as being a through and through cruiser rider, I wasn’t keen. Eventually I found a Bulgarian website called motoroads.com which has generally good reviews and facilitates motorbike hire around Europe. And the best bit is, most European cities it offers hire in have cruisers available!

It turned out that the local supplier was Harley Davidson Bilbao, operating out of Basauri, a town to the South East of Bilbao. The dealership is 20 minutes walk from the metro and so reachable from Bilbao Airport in about an hour.

I’d inputed my driving license and other details on the website and when I turned up, after a bit of paperwork I was presented with a shiny but intimidating as hell 2016 Harley Davidson Road King.

REVIEW: Harley Davidson 2016 Road King

Weighing in at 800+ pounds and 1690cc of heavenly joy, the Road King is no plaything. In London I ride a VT750 Shadow Spirit C2 and in most cases it’s the biggest bike in a given situation. I approached the hog with trepidation, caution and respect. Having previously ridden a Harley Davidson Street Bob from their recent Dark Custom line up and indeed tried out a friend’s 1800cc Honda Goldwing, I’d dealt with an engine that size or more before, but I was unprepared for the bulk hiding beneath the cruiser skin. The oddly named Street Bob is heavy but it’s a stripped down city bike and the Goldwing is a boat cum living room sofa on wheels. In the case of the Road King, the muscle is there to carry the weight, but the weight is not down to the comfort or the luxury, it’s down to the bike’s grunt.

The Road King disappeared from the Harley line up for over a year, so there was a certain degree of excitement among fans upon its return. New for the 2016 model is the 103 cubic inch oil cooled engine coupled with a 6 speed transmission, electronic throttle control, more comfortable bars sitting further back, a windscreen removable without tools and easy open Rushmore hard saddle bags, with plenty of room for luggage.

Setting out east and headed for San Sebastien, the Road King came into its own on the motorway right away. At the Spanish speed limit of 120km (about 75 miles) per hour it’s a real mile eater. The stability, wide wheels and big screen make the speed and distance travelled almost imperceptible. Looking down at the odometer, I was surprised to see that I’d done 30, 60, 90km. It felt like so much less. Overtaking lorries and other slow moving vehicles was effortless and the Road King’s presence was sufficient to ensure that car drivers gave me plenty of room. Long sweeping bends were pleasant and the relaxed sitting position was very comfortable. The Road King certainly makes one feel regal on the big open road.

But then came the town, the taxing one way system of San Sebastien and the multiple traffic lights. With 6 gears, the King freaks out in anything resembling a real life city traffic situation. The torque available is enormous and the bike can’t decide how it’d prefer to deal with a roundabout at low speeds. Screaming in 1st and 2nd and almost stalling in 3rd or 4th, the power delivery was all over the place. Braking is inconsistent. Fine slowing down on the motorway, but dealing with a sudden hazard, braking on a red light facing downhill, negotiating tighter corners… not amazing. The ABS does its job, although that’s more useful due to the bike’s ergonomics.

When I rode the Street Bob, I compared its ergonomics to an American meal: tasty and well prepared but so much of it, and not really built with the rider in mind, but rather to look big and impressive. The same seems to be true of the Road King too, there’s just SO MUCH of it. I’m 6ft tall, and it’s a cruiser, and yet the seat feels a little too high even to someone my height. The gear change lever and the rear brake are a rather long way away. So that’s when the ABS came in useful: braking downhill on a red light, struggling to make full use of the rear brake due to the bike’s ergonomics and consequently overdoing it with the front brake.

The instruments are rather small in contrast to everything else being massive. The speedo is sufficient, but the gear indicator, rev counter, odometer and reserve tank indicator are all digital and housed on a tiny display controlled by a toggle trigger on the left handlebar which lets one switch between the 5 or 6 bits of data in a cycle. This isn’t very helpful. There are also little green blinkers to tell you that your indicators are on, but they are so far down the petrol tank, they are pointless because you just can’t look that far down whilst riding.

Harley Donsostia seafront

But the beast is impressive. Rolling majestically down the street in San Seb barely in 2nd, the looks of respect and approval from car drivers and other riders registered. Pedestrians noticed me, most bikers nodded. The look is a major part of this bike and on that count it can’t be faulted.

I met up with my pillion and she hopped on the back. The bike barely registered the additional weight, and she tells me the passenger floorboards and the seat were comfortable. A backrest would definitely improve the pillion’s experience and the torque in low gears can feel a little intimidating when moving off or accelerating.

Then came the most challenging part of the ride. We got lost looking for our pension up a mountain, and the iPhone’s map was not much help. Imagine being on a 350 kilo 1700cc cruiser with a pillion on tiny mountain paths?  Gravelly little lanes, bushes, grooves in the tracks, potholes every few meters. For the rider it was hell. But miraculously the bike didn’t seem to care. There is so much power, the Road King can rip through just about anything, like a tank. The problem is that it shows as little regard for the terrain as it does for the rider. Sure, it’ll batter its way through the worst set craters this side of the Moon. What you as a rider do to cope with it is up to you. I was on the brink of giving up but the Road King roared on. Thankfully eventually we found the well disguised mountain retreat and enjoyed a well earned slice of tortilla.

More riding followed over the coming days, and the outcome was usually the same: the bike is majestic and regal on big open roads but in town the riding experience is less than enjoyable although it is impressive to onlookers and the hog’s presence is undeniable.

I am not a Harley convert. But I really do see the point.

Riding in Northern Spain

To date I have not ridden in a more motorbike friendly environment. It turns out that the Spanish buy the largest proportion of new motorbikes compared to cars, and have the third highest household motorbike ownership in Europe. There are plentiful motorbike bays everywhere and the gender split seems to be roughly 40/60, i.e. the highest proportion of female riders I’d seen. The police are very relaxed and car drivers give riders plenty of room. This is not surprising: according to recent research, if 10% of all road users switch to motorbikes, congestion is significantly reduced. And that’s roughly the proportion of PTWs to cars in Spain.

One challenge is road signs. In the Basque Country they are bilingual and in some smaller locations in Basque alone. To someone who has a rudimentary grasp of Spanish and none of Basque this can be confusing, especially since place names can be completely different in the two languages. For example San Sebastien is called Donostia in Basque. One needs to be paying attention not to be thrown by this.  Another challenge is posed by tolls: there are a lot of them, motorbikes are not exempt and the amounts they charge are not round, so having plenty of small change in the top pocket is useful.

San Sebastian is a lovely town, perhaps best known for its amazing food. Due to its “Gastronomy Club” tradition the area has the highest proportion of Michelin stars per head of population in the world and the food is great whether you are eating at a posh restaurant or a street tapas stall. A 1930s motorbike themed bar called Moto Club is a great biker friendly hangout. The beaches, cathedrals and scenery are stunning. A quick trip across the border to France and the resort town of Biarritz with its active custom motorbike scene is a possibility too if the weather is clement.

Moto Club Cafe

In contrast Bilbao is a working commercial and sometime industrial centre. The clear highlight is the Guggenheim gallery which attracts some excellent exhibitions on top of its solid permanent modern art collection. Arguably it’s superior to its older sister in New York. And has anyone reading this been to the one in Venice? The building is astounding too as is the 50 ft dog sculpture covered in living flowers which sits outside. Bilbao is also known for its shiny ultra modern award winning metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster. Further to the west of Bilbao is Santander, a beautiful seaside resort city with interesting nature, architecture and harbours.

Accommodation is generally no problem: simply rocking up at a town and selecting a hotel, hostel or pension works. Hostels start at 15 Euros a night for a shared dorm and pensions at around 50 Euros for a private en suite room.

 

For a relaxing few hundred coastal miles with great culture, beaches and food, Northern Spain is the ideal destination. With or without a 2016 Harley Davidson Road King.

Craft beer San Seb.jpg

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