Is Harley’s aggressive new Roadster bold enough to stick two fingers up to Victory’s more powerful Octane?
ometimes everything just clicks into place and right now I’m having one of the those moments, cruising down familiar country lanes with a mile-wide smile on my face displayed for all to see from my open-face lid. I’m riding the new Harley-Davidson Roadster, and look like I’ve just stepped off a page from a Roland Sands catalogue: cool retro jacket, lightweight gloves, open-face lid and shades. With the sun on my skin, I’m feeling a million dollars. Not all bikes inspire this feeling, but Harleys do – and the new Roadster is one of the best from the world-famous brand that I’ve ridden in recent years.
The styling is not over the top or garish, there’s just enough chrome to catch your eye, and I really like the retro vibe. It’s unmistakably Harley. Then you notice the sportier elements, like the inverted fork, lightweight wheels, and the fact that it’s sat higher, like a Sportster with heels. There are some lovely detail touches too; ribbed seat, rear indicators that incorporate the rear lights, the Milwaukee USA logo on the top yoke, and a neat new dash. The smart clocks feature a large analogue rev counter with digital read-out below, and you can scroll through the information via a mode button on the left bar. It’s tidy, smart, sporty and functional – top marks to the Harley. Every time I gave the Roadster a second glance I’d notice something new, or find myself wondering which accessory I’d add first if it were mine.
There’s nothing wrong with the Victory Octane though. It certainly cuts a meaner stance than the Harley with no glints of chrome to distract your eye – but it’s somehow just not as attractive as its fellow American. Its meaner stance means that it looks faster stood still but I don’t like the afterthought top cowl, and some areas do look a bit Toys ‘R’ Us. The Indian Scout, which the Victory Octane is based upon, has a lovely finish to it, with detailed highlights on the engine block giving it a real sense of class and opulence, whereas the engine on the Victory looks like a plastic toy. The Indian Scout is a stunning bike for under £10,500, but the Octane doesn’t get your emotions flowing in the same way, and also doesn’t deliver the same kudos you get from owning a Harley.
But aside from the aesthetics – which are ultimately a matter of personal taste, there’s no disputing the Victory’s power and grunt. The water-cooled 1179cc revised Scout motor produces a claimed 103bhp, making it their most powerful bike to date and kicks sand in the face of Harley’s claimed 66bhp. It’s not even a fair fight; the Octane simply tramps all over the Roadster in the power stakes. Check out the speed data (see above right) recorded at York Raceway – the figures don’t lie. The Victory is over two seconds quicker to 90mph than the Harley. However, all that power does also instigate a few problems for the Octane, the lead amongst them being rear traction.
The Octane would have been even quicker if it weren’t for the shockingly poor rubber; I can’t remember the last time I rode a bike with such shoddy OE tyres. Actually, I can – it was the Indian Scout. The standard own-branded ‘Victory Cruiser’ tyres aren’t the best in the dry, and are shocking – bordering on dangerous – in the wet and cold. At York Raceway we couldn’t stop the Victory spinning off the line, it was even possible to light up the Octane in second and third gear. Arguably not many owners are going to drag race their new Octane, but even on the road at normal speeds the hard tyres gave virtually no feedback, braking was guesswork and hard braking became the responsibility of the ABS system.
By complete contrast, the Roadster was a breath of fresh air. It’s one of the best handling Harleys I’ve ever ridden, aside from specialist race-prepared bikes. OK, so it’s no sportsbike, but it ran rings around the vague Octane. The new suspension also gives the Roadster much-improved ground clearance, some of the best you can get from a Harley. It will touch its pegs down from time to time, and you don’t have to be Rossi to scrape metal but it’s not a constant worry in every fast corner, while it will reward your efforts with a cheerful scrape on roundabouts or tight-radius curves. The steering head angle has also been sharpened which improves the precision of response to your bar input; it flows into corners with relative ease, head and shoulders above the Octane. It’s not the quickest of the two, but even a well-ridden Victory would struggle to stay with Roadster on most roads.
The twin-disc front brake set-up on the Harley is also an improvement over previous models, with reasonably strong power, and ABS comes as standard (as it has to on all new bikes now), although the bite from the Victory’s single disc is actually slightly stronger. But again the tyre choice starts to play a role in your ability to use the full force of the Octane. You never know how much grip is available, so you always squeeze the Victory’s front brake lever with a mild sense of trepidation, like tiptoeing towards a firework that failed to launch.
Fortunately the poor rubber on the Octane doesn’t affect the comfort or the ride quality, which are both impressive. The Victory does feel the smoother of the two, with less vibration – or ‘character’ as some Harley fans term it. The feet-forward riding position is much more natural and comfortable than the slightly awkward Harley, too. I didn’t find the Harley too painful over long distances, or at least until the fuel light came on at around the 100-mile region (the same as the Octane), but it’s worth noting that I’m only 5ft 6in and I could easily envisage taller riders preferring the Victory over the Harley. The ride quality is also more attuned to UK roads and imperfections, giving the base of your spine an easier time. The Harley will jolt you out of the seat from time to time, or give slightly harsh feedback through the soft fork if you hit a big bump or pothole. It was fine most of the time, but I’d suggest just avoiding the worst of Britain’s bumpy back roads on the Harley, even more so if you have a pillion. Of course, you can’t actually take a pillion on the Octane – we’ll leave it up to you as to whether you consider that a benefit or not.
Harley-Davidson Roadster £9695
Harley have improved the handling and stopping power of their Sportster with lighter wheels, more aggressive steering, revised suspension, and twin front discs. This bike on test is the Black Denim version which costs £9895.
Engine 1202cc air-cooled V-twin
Power 66bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 71.5ftlb @ 4200rpm
Weight 259kg (kerb)
Suspension 43mm conventional non-adjustable fork, twin rear monoshock with adjustable preload
Brakes 2x 300mm discs with two two-piston caliper. 260mm rear disc with two- piston caliper
Seat height 785mm
Fuel capacity 12.5 litres
Tyres 120/70 R19 front, 150/70 R18 rear
Victory Octane £9799
Victory claim this is an all-new model, their most powerful muscle bike to date, yet it’s remarkably similar to sister company Indian’s Scout. Victory claim 103bhp for their V-twin, which will also ring a bell with Scout owners.
Engine 1179cc water-cooled V-twin
Power 104bhp @ 8000rpm
Torque 76ftlb @ 6000rpm
Weight 243kg (dry)
Suspension 41mm conventional non-adjustable fork, twin rear monoshock with adjustable preload
Brakes single 298mm discs with two-piston caliper. 298mm rear disc with two- piston caliper
Seat height 658mm
Fuel capacity 12.8 litres
Tyres 130/70 R18 front, 160/70 R17 rear
Speed Testing Data
Top speeds are irrelevant on bikes like these, it’s how you get there that’s important. We took our pair to York Raceway to see just how hard they can nail it down the strip.
‘Still the American legend’
If you fitted new tyres to the Victory it would totally transform it – but I’d still choose the better looking and more desirable Harley, even though it’s not as quick and doesn’t stop as well as the Octane.
The Roadster is one of the best bikes to come out of Harley-Davidson’s factory gates in recent years, and delivers an overall package that makes it our firm favourite in this shootout.
Words: Adam Child Photos: Gareth Harford