Pounded by critics for not being technologically advanced and pummeled by customers every time they stray from tradition, Harley-Davidson will always face a double-edged sword. Outlasting all other stateside bike makers and defending themselves from quality imports is a testimony to both Harley's cult-like status and the rabid dedication of its customers.
What if a new motorcycle company came along that didn't have the restrictions of over a hundred years of defining a category? What if you could start with a clean slate and build a bike that accomplished the same mission, but was unencumbered by past?
That's the position Polaris found themselves in when they started Iowa-based Victory Motorcycles in 1998. Freedom to do things their own way but also lacking generational momentum has proven to be a challenge. No matter what you think of their bikes, Victory is clearly onto something—a fact made apparent by the brand's profitability after their fourth year in operation. ChopCult is focused on customizing, building and creating our own machines, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't be aware of what's going on with modern motorcycles. When an opportunity came along to test the Victory High-Ball head to head against H-D's newest Street Bob, we jumped at the chance.
Having ridden old and new, stock and modified Harleys for years, it's hard to not to go into a road test with some preconcieved notions regarding the incumbent. With zero experience aboard a Victory, it was easier for McGoo and me to notice subtle differences. On paper the bikes are very similar. The Victory weighs in at 659 pounds dry, has a 106-inch Freedom V-twin, single-cam four-valve engine, a six-speed transmission, a low 25-inch seat height and a 64.8-inch wheelbase. Our Harley was packing an optional 103-inch Twin Cam V-Twin engine, tipped the scales 20 pounds lighter than the High-Ball, and boasted a 64.2-inch wheelbase and a seat height a click shy of 27 inches. The High-Ball is slightly lower, longer and heavier, but only by fractions. Those small tweaks are almost immediately obvious as soon as you sit on the Victory. It really does feel longer, lower and well, different. The Street Bob feels exactly as you'd expect if you're used to riding a Harley—these guys know what to mess with and what to leave alone.
If you believe the series of videos on YouTube created by an Arizona Victory dealer called "Victory vs. Harley" it's a wonder Harley-Davidsons even run. Victory's Freedom V-Twin with gear drive primary and some true technological advancements is surely a great power train, but is this guy for real? I asked a trusted friend for some advice on the subject who earns a living with his knowledge of both old and new engines and who is intimately familiar with both the TC and the Victory mills. To paraphrase his summary: "The claims in these videos are based mostly on truth, but are exaggerated to the point of being misleading. The Victory engine (and entire motorcycle) is surely well designed and well made, but this guy is not exactly telling the whole truth." That sounded like a pretty reasonable analysis to me.
Tech and propaganda aside, how do they ride? Is there a big difference between the two? In a word, no. They are both sophisticated, large motorcycles that are more than willing to squirt you down the highway at unreasonable speeds and bring a smile to any face when the going gets fun. If all-out speed and handling were your goals, you wouldn't be looking at either of these machines in the first place. But just because you don't want a Ducati or a Street Triple doesn't mean you shouldn't have fun, right? It was nice to see that neither bike compromised rideability, comfort or performance just to achieve some marketing-driven look. (The Sportster 48 comes to mind...) Either bike would be right at home on a jaunt around town or a multi-day trip across country. The ergos on the Victory bars are a bit suspect. McGoo didn't care for them, but I didn't mind them at all. The forwards on the High-Ball are not outlandishly out there, but the mids on the H-D are right where I wanted them. Both clutches pulled easily, seat heights were low and all controls were easy to use. A rider from any spot on the experience matrix could hop on either bike and feel confident, but the Victory feels a little more like you are sitting in the bike—down low, arms up, slightly more chopper-ish in posture—which is clearly by design.
The H-D came equipped with optional ABS. I prefer less nanny-controls and want to be 100 percent in command of my machine, but keep in mind these modern bikes with a full-sized man, tank of gas and a couple days of camping gear nearly hit the half-ton mark. As much as my Luddite nature says otherwise, ABS works. I put it to use a couple times on the Bob and also abused it last year on a new Blackline (especially in the dirt) and I have to admit it can be a good thing. It's not intrusive and only comes in when you need it.
Our official butt-dynos said the Victory has a slight advantage when it comes to motivation. The High-Ball straight gets it on and the torquey power delivery won't feel at all unfamiliar to a seasoned Harley rider. While it might seem just a hair slower than the Victory, the Street Bob with the optional 103-inch motor (a 350 buck upgrade—who wouldn't add that to the list!) is no slouch. With six extra cubes the bike feels significantly richer than a stock 96-inch TC and is right on the big Vic's heels. On a purely subjective note, the Harley sounds way better.
(Editor's note: For this comparo, Harold and I switched back and forth on the bikes, but he spent more time on the murdered-out Victory. The High-Ball photos and captions are his; I penned the ones that accompany the Street Bob. – Bill)
Fussy dressers swear black clothing shrinks the human form from a visual perspective. To my untrained eye the Victory High-Ball's dusky blackness had the opposite effect, and actually increased the visual mass of this already imposing cruiser's hulking silhouette.
What I would describe as Victory's untimely attempt at retro hotrod styling adds little to what is otherwise a clean looking, purposeful motorcycle. Splashes of satin brightwork on the motor fins and other areas are a nice touch, but text treatments like "Freedom Twin" and "6-speed Overdrive" come across kind of cheesy. I don't need to be told how cool or rugged my motorcycle is.
Hiding in front of the fat whitewall tire on this exceptionally nice looking 60-spoke wheel is an MX-inspired rising-rate rear suspension with adjustable, gas-charged coil shock. Rigid may be the way to go, but suspesion will always be the way to go fast.
The Victory High-Ball's swingarm is a massive cast alloy construction with a clean, 3D forged alloy caliper backing plate. Some might label such details "un-cruiser like," but I give Victory an "A" for originality. Face it: very few snowmobile companies have the same 110-year-old heritage from which to crib design inspiration that Harley has.
The High-Ball's cockpit is where Victory's commitment to creating "The Custom Bobber Experience" becomes untenable. While the construction of these fat, angular apes seemed first-rate, their height, width and flat backsweep felt unwieldy and accessively "faux outlaw" to this stubby-limbed test rider.
On the other hand, Victory's smooth clutch and adjustable front brake lever felt awesome. Simple rubber grips with durable handlebar end caps were another nice touch. The button behind the clutch lever on the leading edge of the left control pod lets the rider scroll through basic data on the High-Ball's speedo.
Victory's aesthetic mantra must include the words "bigger is better." Everything first-time cruiser buyers are likely to cherish—namely, all the big stuff—seems especially big on this machine. Examples include the Andre-the-Giant-sized headlight bucket, the massive lower triple tree with integrated headlight bracket, and the aforementioned oversized apes. Lay off the steroids, Polaris.
Any machine as big as the High-Ball feels demands brakes that are up to their task, and Victory's deliver in spades. As a whole the High-Ball's rolling and stopping hardware is top shelf, and put the gaudy red wheels on the 2013 H-D to shame in terms of style and performance in my book.
The Victory's foot controls were tidy, comfortable and super well constructed, even if they weren't exactly where my short legs needed them. Throw some mid-mounted foot controls and a six-inch-tall bar with backsweep on this oil-cooled firebreather and my lazy ass could ride a High-Ball all damned day.
Victory's air/oil cooled overhead cam 4-valve V-twin boasts 106 cubic inches and generates 110 ft./lb. of torque. That beats the 96-inch stock mill in the 2013 Street Bob by 18 ft./lb. and the 103 upgrade by a couple, but Harley's more classic and visually inspired entry in this horse race felt plenty quick between the street lights in our seat-of-the-pants comparison. Perhaps this was due to the Harley's 20 pounds lighter curb weight? Something else surprised me during our 50-mile loop over the foothills and freeway near ChopCult HQ: The Harley-Davidson is a slick shifting beast. I expected the five quarts of oil coursing through the High-Ball's veins might make Harley's century-old drive train layout feel clunky by comparison, but it didn't. The 2013 Street Bob was one of the smoothest shifting motorcycles I've ever ridden.
This photo offers no sense of scale to put the Victory's seat into perspective, so I'll say this: It's goddamned massive. Does that help?
Further styling cues from a company unencumbered by a century of visual and technological history or heritage. Because Victory is owned by a factory that makes snowmobiles, the brand isn't beholden to a design ethos originally penned by anyone's great-grandfather. This is a blessing and a curse. While I loved the High-Ball's recessed taillight, its swoopy fender stays and sword-shaped swingarm seemed swoopy and sword shaped for no good reason. In their attempt to reimagine the modern cruiser for today's motorcycler, Victory may be guilty of not pushing their own design language far enough. A pity, because a comparison of each machine's tech sheet has this shade tree mechanic convinced Polaris knows how to engineer great motorcycles, even if they don't yet know how to style one.
Some bikes are perfect as they stand. Others beg to be customized. The Victory High-Ball is an excellent specimen of the former class, just as the Street Bob falls nicely into the latter. At the end of the day, however, this website is called ChopCult. For that reason alone, I give the victory to Harley, and a hardy "nice work" to Victory.
Hey, it's a Harley! It's exactly what I was expecting and I'm totally OK with that. Red rims on an orange bike look like a mistake. This bike was an example of what you can build on H-D's website if you want to order a new bike with some specific options. 103-inch black engine and reasonably-sized apes? Good call. Red rims? C'mon—leave that shit for PJD!
That confounding license plate hinge thingy again. It hits the belt guard and doesn't fold up like it should. Big brains in Milwaukee can certainly come up with a better solution.
No one ever complained about a couple more inches, right? They're worth the nominal $350 upcharge.
My favorite H-D ignition setup. No keys flapping in the wind. Faux split tanks are an attractive nod to the MoCo's heritage.
3-D badging is nicely made but feels a little whimsical.
Traditional bars and risers mean you can easily swap things out to suit your ergonomic and stylistic tastes.
Harley manages to fit all the complex electronics and emissions gear in there as neatly as humanly possible.
Ah… mid controls. Thank you very much. Nothing wrong with convention when it works, and these do their job like an old best friend. Add some highway bars if you need to stretch. When you are getting work done in the corners there is no reason to ride a birthing chair.
No Dark Custom nonsense, just classically styled bars, trees and a simple headlight. Refreshing restraint that is easy to live with.
The MoCo rarely misses an opportunity to remind you what you're riding, or where it came from. Simple things like this plain Jane air cleaner show some class for such a stock piece.
Generations of literally defining the shape and scale of what a full-sized motorcycle should look like has helped Harley-Davidson build bikes that are both familiar and attractive. Looking at the Victory I get the sense that if the Polaris design team were building a woman, they'd exclaim, "Boobs are great—let's give her three giant ones!" Conversely, the guys at Harley seem to say, "Two tits is plenty—just make sure they're both the right size and shape." A ridiculous metaphor perhaps, but I know which girl I'd take home.
Since both bikes are fun to ride, close to the same size and boast nearly identical specs, what this comparison came down to for McGoo and me was styling. After riding both machines, one nagging thought got stuck in my head: The Harley feels like it was engineered by designers; the Victory feels like it was designed by engineers. At the end of the day, ChopCult readers want something they can make their own. If turning wrenches is as important to you as logging miles, the Street Bob will look better in your garage.
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