MOUNT ETNA in Sicily is an active volcano and, at 2000 metres high, it’s also the tallest in Europe.
It erupted only last year and almost always has a plume of smoke boldly rising from its crater. So when someone asked me to ride some Harley-Davidsons up it I thought they were having a laugh. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The setting had been chosen by the Milwaukee firm to launch its 2001 range.
It was just as well the scenery was stunning because the changes to the bikes weren’t. Some got fuel injection, one got a lower seat and another grew saddlebags and a touring screen.
But let’s get one thing clear from the start – Harleys will never change radically. They may evolve slowly and make use of new technology where it’s appropriate, but the overall look is derived from 97 years of heritage and isn’t about to mutate. The firm does, after all, sell lots of bikes.
But the performance of their bikes does not match the performance of their sales department. Harleys just are not built for speed, they’re built for cruising, relaxing and posing – and that’s why I got concerned staring up at the towering heights of Mount Etna the evening before the big ride.
Aside from the choice of bike, I knew how dodgy Italian mountain roads can be. So if you’d told me that the following day I’d have one of the best riding experiences of my life, I would have laughed. Before setting off, we’re told the volcano is so high it will be very cold near the top, even though it’s roasting down at sea level. Italian winter weather is a little variable.
We’re also told about the 2001 range. The hottest news is the addition of a " new " model – the Dyna Super Glide T-Sport. Actually, it’s really a Dyna Superglide Sport with panniers and a screen. It was fitted with fully adjustable suspension front and rear last year and became Harley’s best-selling bike in Europe.
The American firm finally realised that if it wanted to cash in on Europe it was going to have to make a few concessions – like get its bikes to go around corners and stop a bit.
According to Harley’s Pat Koppa: " European riders are a lot more switched on when it comes to suspension than many American riders. " The new factory alarm/immobiliser that comes as standard on all Harleys except Sportsters is another nod towards a different spec for Europe. Japanese firms please take note.
The only other Euro change worthy of note is the T-Sport’s panniers, which are made of a Cordura-type material instead of traditional leather. Fuel-injected versions of the Deuce, Heritage Classic and Fat Boys are now global options, too, and cost £500 extra. Oh, and the Low Rider’s seat got lower as well.
When it’s time to climb the mountain, I opt for the T-Sport. Being Harley’s top Euro-seller, I figure it will be the most suitable for these roads. It proves surprisingly easy to ride and is clearly one of Harley’s sportier offerings. It makes a good fist of tackling the road, which amounts to little more than blind hairpin after blind hairpin.
The usual Italian highway code is in operation – there isn’t one. But they still give way to the T-Sport, mesmerised by its appearance.As I round yet another blind hairpin, Mount Etna sweeps into view.
She’s like a Hollywood backdrop as she fills the entire landscape before me. I momentarily expect to see herds of dinosaurs grazing on prehistoric slopes as I slow to enjoy the scene. It doesn’t last long as frustrated Italian drivers honk at me to get a move on. They’ve seen it a million times before.
I notice hooking a gear takes precision. You’ve got to be positive with a Harley gearbox and the clutch is a four-finger operation, too. I eventually reach a dual-carriageway and it’s obvious that this is where the bike is most at home and represents stress-free riding at its best.
I try the adjustable screen on the move, and fail. There’s no fancy automation here – you turn a nob by hand. But it won’t work at speed as the wind pressure forces it to stay in the position it’s already in. It’s only possible below 45mph.
As I stop for fuel hours later I realise my gangly legs don’t need stretching. Perhaps that will change on the Low Rider. This certainly lives up to its name with a seat height of just 69cm (27.2in). It’s obviously been built with Ronnie Corbett in mind and the feet-forward riding position is akin to sitting in a dentist’s chair. Round a corner on one of these and you’ll soon hear the stand and lower frame grind out.
Two or three corners convince me the £10,995 Low Rider (£11,195 in two-tone paint) isn’t at home climbing winding Italian slopes.
It’s better suited to America’s flat, straight highways, so I swop it for a fuel-injected Deuce – Harley’s own " customised " chopper. It’s all chrome and stretched forks and I like its looks. And I should at £13,795 or £14,295, depending on whether you want the injection system or not.
The handling, for a raked out beastie, was good and the torque from the engine as strong as any other model. It pulled up the mountain like a huge pack-horse. If I wanted to look particularly bad-assed, I’d choose this one.Mind you, I might be tempted to opt for the Fat Boy, too. I took one on the run back down Mount Etna and fell in love with... well, almost.
Visors were slammed shut, goggles were pulled down and the sound of zips being fastened blended in with the rising revs of the assembled mass of metal. Two riders set off in front of me, giving me something to chase. Good. It’s more fun than leading.
As I glanced in my mirror I couldn’t help but smile at the oh-so-American warning " Objects are larger than they appear " . But the view they gave me reminded me more of Jurassic Park than Easy Rider. The gang of Harleys lumbered downwards and I just hoped we didn’t meet much coming up the other way. We really did look like a gang and I felt like a complete bad ass... even if my boots were chafing my toes a bit! Let it roll!
Back to reality. Black, volcanic lava surrounded us on all sides and there was little in the way of fencing to protect us from drops of hundreds of feet.
Twist after twist, bend after bend, there was absolutely no let-up and positively no chance to relax and take in the scenery. Spirits were obviously high as I started to hear the familiar scraping of footboards on Tarmac. I could almost hear the giggles coming from under the helmets. But these are expensive bikes to be scraping, costing £13,295 (£13,795 with fuel injection).
A T-Sport kept showing its front tyre and my ego came into play. " No chance mister – this mountain’s mine. " I gunned the gutsy Fat Boy out of another hairpin and was amazed at the torque. I easily made a few lengths on the T-Sport, but its lighter weight came into play as it caught me again on the brakes into – yes, you’ve guessed it – the next hairpin.
Harley brakes have come in for a bit of stick over the years and on a few occasions I found out why. The combination of the heavy Fat Boy together with the forever-downward trajectory led to a few heart-stopping moments as I thought I wouldn’t scrub off enough speed for the next sharp corner. But I always just made it.
All too soon I ended up back at base, laughing, sweaty and buzzing as though I’d been for a fast blast on a sports bike. Mount Etna proves Harleys CAN be fun – you just need the right environment and mind-set to make them so.
Unfortunately for us poor Brits, the decidedly dodgy UK climate takes the glint off the chrome and the edge off the pose. But if you’re happy to keep one garaged until the sun does shine, you will be rewarded by a unique riding experience.