From Street To Track (Part One)
No subject can divide normally open-minded motorcyclists like the mention of Harley-Davidson. The iconic American brand is so effective at polarizing opinion that most riders will adopt an extreme position, either claiming that they love Harleys – or that they hate them.
The ensuing debate, which typically centres on the incorrect assumption that Harley-Davidson lacks engineering sophistication, often leads to outlandish claims from both sides. I’ve heard them all – the fact is that most who vehemently take Harley to task have either never ridden one or haven’t spent enough time familiarizing themselves with what many feel are their positive attributes.
My experience with riding many motorcycles has taught me one thing: there’s a make and model to suit every desire. And just because someone else’s choice doesn’t align with your own interests, there’s little point in displaying intolerance by raining on their parade. In other words, ride and let ride. However, if I wanted to change the mind of a Harley naysayer by presenting them with one model from their air-cooled stable, it would be a Sportster, specifically the XR1200X. Not much has changed with the sportiest of Sportsters since we first reviewed it in the October 2009 issue of Motorcycle Mojo. New for 2011 is the “X” designation in the model name, which denotes upgrades to its suspension components and a more menacing-looking paint scheme.
Some may recall that the XR1200 had an atypical introduction to North America. Its 2008, European-only release made it appear that Harley-Davidson was giving North Americans the cold shoulder. The ensuing uproar for local availability was answered the following year, when the Evolution-powered bike that produced 68 kW (91 hp) began to appear in our showrooms. Whether the delay was a shrewd marketing move planned to heighten domestic demand or the result of legal complications in securing the XR1200 name is immaterial now.
Our more recent interest in the bike was piqued last December when Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada announced an exclusive race series for the XR1200X as a supporting event for the nationally run Parts Canada Canadian Superbike Championship. Similar XR1200X race series that were run last year by the AMA in the United States and as part of the British Superbike Championship have gained in popularity. On the heels of the Canadian series announcement, Deeley Harley-Davidson presented us with a unique opportunity to break in a production version of the bike, document its conversion to race trim and then actually participate in one of the XR1200X races. It was an invitation that we couldn’t possibly resist.
Looking over the big Sportster and its spec sheet, the XR1200X seemed an unlikely candidate for circuit racing. Even though its “XR” prefix has been the traditional label for Harley’s racing models, and it was styled after the XR750, a legend in flat-track racing, the XR1200X is a portly machine, completely unsuitable for the flat-track circuit because of its size and weight. If Harley-Davidson wanted to go racing, then there really wasn’t any alternative except to put the XR1200X on a road course.
There’s no question that the XR1200X is a fantastic-looking motorcycle. A true naked bike, from its left side it appears to be little more than an engine with wheels. From the right side, there are dual exhaust pipes that end in a pair of mortar tubes that look the business. Harley-Davidson is a master of reinventing motorcycles through simple, yet effective changes in appearance; with the XR1200X, the change is all about colour. Aside from the leading edge of the cooling fins of its massive cylinder heads, the entire engine and exhaust system is completely blacked out. Were it not for the subtle orange highlights of the pinstriping on the tank and wheels, and the matching spark plug leads and shock springs, the XR1200X would be a completely monochromatic machine.
Fit and finish is high standard, but there are a few awkward junctions in the bodywork, such as the unsightly gap between the tank and the seat, which makes those parts look like they weren’t originally meant to fit together. Then there’s the clutch cable that hangs lazily off the side of the engine; this is a characteristic of Evolution-powered Harley-Davidson models.
As a six-foot-one rider, when I first took a seat on the XR1200X, I found its ergonomics shocking. Seemingly built for a person of strange proportions, my legs immediately felt cramped and my arms uncomfortably stretched. Although I eventually adapted to its riding position, there were other features of the bike that never became tolerable, like the protective bracket for the rear brake-fluid reservoir, mounted above the right footrest, which continuously dug into my ankle, or the soft-touch turn signal switches that never convinced me that I had actually signalled a turn.
The wide, oddly bent handlebar provided plenty of leverage, and I relied heavily on this during hard braking, as trying to clamp the bike’s wafer-thin tank with my legs gave new meaning to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The tall seating position was firm and comfortable enough for urban riding with its many stoplights to allow for stretching the legs. The pillion, on the other hand, was a token gesture to carrying passengers. The small pad tapers downward toward the rear brake light and is only suitable for emergency use. Given the shape and design of the bike, the ideal solution would be a broad and flat bench seat stretching from the tank to the tail section.
I was a fan of the bike’s instrumentation. It’s extremely basic but suits the theme of the bike; a large, centrally mounted tach that also houses warning lights and an LCD screen was easy to read. The digital speedometer is mounted in a smaller pod to the left, and like the tach, it is backlit in a pleasing orange glow.
Starting the Sportster’s 1202 cc, air-cooled Evolution engine is a mechanically satisfying event. It springs to life with a big shudder and bark that never gets boring. The Evolution is a proven engine, and although it is rubber-mounted in the Sportster’s frame, at idle the vibration is so dramatic that it will liberate loose change from your pockets, blur your vision and cause your socks to sink in your boots. An inconceivable situation, perhaps, to those who prefer a Japanese inline four, you can bet that the bike was engineered to do just that, as the moment the throttle is opened the vibration smoothes out and it becomes a non-issue.
2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X Spec Chart
|MODEL||2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X|
|Engine Type||Air-cooled, 4-valve, 45 degree V-Twin|
|Torque (claimed)||100 N-m (73.8 ft-lb) at 3700 rpm|
|Bore and Stroke||88.9 x 96.8 mm|
|Fuel Delivery||Fuel Injection|
|Final Drive Type||Belt|
|Front Suspension||Showa 43 mm inverted fork with adjustable compression, rebound damping and preload|
|Rear Suspension||Twin Showa shocks with adjustable compression, rebound damping and preload|
|Wheel Travel||Front: 125 mm (4.92 in.), Rear: 89 mm (3.5 in.)|
|Brakes||Front: Two 292 mm discs with 4-piston calipers,Rear: One 260 mm disc with single-piston caliper|
|Wheelbase||1524 mm (60.0 in.)|
|Rake and Trail||29 degrees/132 mm (5.2 in.)|
|Tires||120/70-18 front; 180/55-17 rear|
|Weight (wet)||259.9 kg (573 lb.)|
|Seat Height||795 mm (31.3 in.)|
|Fuel Capacity||13.2 L|
|Fuel Economy (claimed)||6.19 city/4.44 hwy L/100 km (45.6/63.6 mpg)|
|Fuel Range (estimated)||NA|
While riding the big V-Twin, I quickly discovered that the engine’s sweet spot was around 3500 rpm, just shy of where it makes its maximum torque. From there, it struck a nice balance between smooth running and having plenty of grunt to pass anyone with a simple twist of the wrist. Off the line, the XR1200X felt like it could pull tree stumps out of the ground, but most impressive for me was how quickly the Evolution would build revs. It spooled up quickly and continued to pull hard right up to the rev limiter without losing its breath. With a relatively low redline at 7000 rpm, it also meant that during hard acceleration, I had to be constantly ready with the shift lever.
Clutch action, on the other hand (pun intended), was not for the faint of heart or weak of wrist. It took a can-crushing grip to pull the lever in repeatedly, especially in stop-and-go traffic. Although gear changes were always positive and light in feel, finding neutral was practically impossible at times, undoubtedly, at least in part, due to the newness of the gearbox.
The only significant mechanical change to the bike this year is with its suspension, now a fully adjustable Showa system at the front and rear, which allows you to tune compression and rebound damping along with spring preload. The new suspension offered a surprisingly decent ride on less than perfect roads; although the wheels tracked the pavement over irregularities and the ride was firm enough to provide moderate sporting prowess, there was still enough bump absorption to take the edge off bigger hits.
Their heavy touring rigs aside, it’s a rarity to see an air-cooled Harley with dual front brakes. This concession to aesthetics results in uninspiring stopping performance for most of their single-disc machines. The dual four-piston fixed calipers that grab 292 mm floating rotors on this particular Harley make extremely good news – I would go so far as to say that they felt the strongest of any stock Harley-Davidson I have ridden, which is almost every model that the company builds. With a measurable amount of feel at the lever and the ability to slow the Sportster’s substantial 260 kg (573 lb.) mass, they bordered on sportbike performance. It was only the lack of ABS – standard or optional – that somewhat dampened my enthusiasm for the brakes on this machine.
With my truncated test and photography completed, it was time to give the XR a street-to-track makeover for the inaugural race of the Harley-Davidson XR1200X Cup. At Deeley Harley-Davidson’s race shop, I met Thomas Morin, the person tasked with performing the conversion. Morin is the crew chief for Ruthless Racing, and also Deeley Harley-Davidson’s Racing Fleet Co-ordinator; he is very familiar with the XR as a race bike, having spent time working on the bikes in the British version of the series.
The 13-motorcycle grid that will line up for the first race includes our press bike; it is a modest size, but for the first year of a Canadian race series using a big V-Twin, it’s also a decent start. To enter the series, racers are required to purchase an XR1200X – it has a reasonable list price of $13,049 – after which they receive a specially designed race kit for the bike assembled by Vance & Hines and supplied by Harley-Davidson. The kit, which Morin had begun to install, comes nicely packaged in four boxes and includes: front fender mounting hardware, a steering damper, a new seat assembly and subframe, a fuel ignition programmer (the original oxygen sensors are removed and the ECU programming must be modified to work without them), a race number plate kit, a belly pan kit, oil cooler relocation hardware, a stainless steel Vance & Hines exhaust system, and a 17-inch front wheel to replace the stock 18-inch unit. All-in, the Vance & Hines kit is valued at around $3,800, but it’s provided to racers without charge on the condition that they participate in each of the series’ seven rounds.
Methodically, Morin tore into the still-new XR and disassembled it piece by piece. The exhaust system was the first to go, followed by the bike’s tail section, including the bodywork, lighting and rear shocks. To relocate the oil cooler, the engine oil was drained before the cooler was unbolted from the left side of the frame. Morin then stripped the handlebar of its components and removed it as well, along with the headlight, fuel tank and airbox. Finally, he removed the wheels, the swingarm and the rear engine mounts.
Unfamiliar as I was with the machinations of the racing world, it seemed barbaric to me that a brand-new motorcycle was being so ingloriously stripped of its components. However, as I observed the reassembly process, I quickly changed my mind. Aside from the components included with the race kit, there are optional parts the XR Cup rulebook allows to be replaced, and clearly, Morin had learned a few tricks during the British campaign. One example was the first component to be reinstalled, a set of replacement engine mounts made of polypropylene instead of rubber. Their intent is to help prevent the engine from twisting within the frame and causing adverse handling, a worthy modification even though it will result in more vibration for the rider.
With the new mounts in place, the swingarm, which had spool mounts for a bike stand welded to it, was remounted. The 17-inch replacement front wheel and stock rear wheel were installed; however, they were now shod with Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC1 tires (Pirelli is the exclusive tire supplier for the series). Next there was a substantial, but optional upgrade: a set of newly developed shocks by Canadian manufacturer Elka Suspension. Considering that the bike was to be pushed much harder than its design intent, the shocks promised to give the XR desperately needed aid in the handling department. Capping off the wheels, shocks and engine, protective sliders were installed to minimize damage in the event of a lowside crash.
Morin moved to the front of the bike and reinstalled the oil cooler with longer oil lines. Now located where the headlight was originally mounted, the cooler was partially concealed and protected by the perforated number plate. Part of the mounting hardware for the oil cooler is a modified steering stop that greatly limits the range of front wheel movement. Two more optional parts were then fitted: a flatter handlebar, which is a matter of personal preference, and braided brake lines. It’s the only improvement allowed to the existing brake system, and will help it to stand up to the high demands of a race track.
The brushed stainless steel race exhaust system was fitted next, along with a pair of optional rear set pegs. In the final stages of the conversion, Morin bolted the lighter, replacement subframe, which holds an overflow bottle in place, added a flat racing seat, and swapped the air filter. The final touch was installing the custom repainted bodywork that was beautifully designed with a Canadian motif that makes the bike look as stunning in its race guise as it did as a production model.
The completed bike with a half-tank of fuel weighs in at approximately 240 kg (530 lb.), a substantial weight savings over stock, but still no lightweight racer. Morin claims to have Dyno-tested the XR1200X in race trim and found it to produce 68 kW (91 hp) at the rear wheel, less power than an inline-four sportbike, with half its displacement. When I asked Morin if he had built me a winner, he looked at me to gauge if I was being serious. There was no need for him to reply. We both knew that my odds of coming anywhere but a distant last in the upcoming race wouldn’t change even if he had carefully disguised a MotoGP machine to look like an XR1200X.