In the dirt and on the road with the Harley-Davidson Pan America.
September in the Pacific Northwest is God’s gift to motorcyclists. Cool air descends from Cascade Mountain crests chilling the warm valley floor like God’s own air conditioning, as select leaves turn colors, giving a preview of the fall to come. Crisp water from the appropriately named Icicle River dribbled to our left, foaming over smooth boulders as we rode.
So I celebrated the priceless moment by goosing the throttle, letting the rear step out in a slow, steady dirt drift while ahead of me Donni Reddington did the same, only in a much better way since she coaches dirt riders for a living at Skool Of Moto. If you asked either of us we would tell you, life will never get better than this, or more strange. I never thought I would be doing this on a Harley. But is it really that surprising?
Kill your thoughts about Harley-Davidson entering the adventure bike market. They are not. They are going back to their roots.
In 1905 when Harley-Davidson started production with the “Model 1” in a 10 x 15 wooden shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, roads were gravel, dirt, rutted carriage roads, single track horse trail or simply non-existent, far nastier stuff than what we were navigating up Icicle River Road that September day. Every two wheel excursion back then was an adventure and every motorcycle was, by definition, an adventure bike. Don’t let the stereotype scudding herds of Fat Boys and Street Glides distract you, Harley-Davidson was born from dirt and dirt is where it belongs. Mountains of dirt track championships on XR750s are proof.
So it all makes sense now, that the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America should feel so natural and rock steady doing 45 mph on hardpack dirt. Standing on the pegs I tested my Pan America Special’s semi-active suspension by aiming it at a protruding boulder. It’s 47mm Showa Balance Free Fork and Balance Free Rear Cushion-lite semi-active suspension dampened the initial impact, then the bike whumped on the other side with a muted landing and a quick return to a neutral balance. With 7.5 inches of suspension travel and 8.3 inches of ground clearance I was never worried, while it’s light weight helped the landing.
Donni’s black Pan America sports Harley’s soft luggage option while my bike is outfitted with aluminum side cases and top box.
Harley’s Pan America achieves its 559 lbs. wet weight by using magnesium engine covers and an aluminum fuel tank and swingarm. A traditional frame is eliminated by using the engine as the stressed member with the front and rear subframe bolted to the motor. And oh, what a motor.
The Revolution Max 1250 engine is what Harley-Davidson engineers can produce when unchained from the shackles of their air cooled prison. It is a liquid cooled, 60 degree V-twin motor with forged aluminum pistons turning in a 105mm bore and short 72mm stroke for a 1247cc displacement. A 13.1 compression ratio gives an output of 150 horsepower and 94 ft-lbs of torque. Crankpins are offset 30 degrees to simulate a 90 degree firing order for smooth primary balance, yet still runs two balance shafts for vibe free running up to its 9,500 rpm redline. All four of the overhead cams have variable valve timing with different settings for each of the cylinders so torque is present everywhere as well as top end rush. Those aluminum, four valve heads sport maintenance free hydraulic lash adjusters while sodium filled exhaust valves aid heat dissipation.
All that horsepower and light weight forced me to pay close attention to my throttle control instead of the Icicle River’s fall beauty as we bounded over gravel and hardtack dirt. So I dove into the Pan America’s technological kit.
Adjustability allows the Pan America to fully and quickly adapt to its surroundings.
Out of the seven riding modes (Rain, Road, Sport, Off Road Plus, Custom Off Road Plus, Custom A and Custom B), I was in Custom Off Road Plus. Each riding mode has adjustability for engine map, engine braking, throttle response, traction control, ABS, suspension damping and adaptive ride height. I adjusted the throttle map down one setting and took off again because tiny adjustments here make noticeable changes and the smoothed out throttle response allowed me to control my dirt drift without the 6-axis Bosch IMU triggering the traction control. All this tech from the suspension to the engine and chassis electronics shows that Harley-Davidson took their time refining the Pan America.
On tarmac, the Pan America makes for a competent touring bike. Is the ADV bike the new standard?
Turning around we headed back the way we came and as dirt gave way to pavement, I toggled the ride mode to Rain, easy to do on the fly with the Pan America’s intuitive bar controls. Changing ride modes and their associated engine maps is like changing the throttle cam on a dirt bike: you get the same power but with muted delivery.
In Rain mode, I pinned the throttle and the Pan America pulled smoothly with fat torque from bottom, rising gradually through the rev range. Fall hardwoods and their orange leaves in the canyon encouraged a relaxed pace but I am not a relaxed rider. I toggled to Road.
Power was more immediate with a harder initial hit and revs climbing quicker to redline. This was more than enough power for my bike fully loaded with my 200 lb frame, fuel and camping gear for our planned overnight excursion. Then I selected Sport mode.
Sport mode unleashed the beast. Choose your poison from the six speed gearbox with the assisted and slipper clutch and make sure the bike is pointed in the right direction. For a few miles I pushed the Pan America and entertained the leaves with antics no Harley-Davidson should be capable of. I late braked the 19” front and 17” rear Michelin Anakee Wild knobby tires with their radially mounted Brembo Monoblock calipers on 320mm floating rotors until the ABS cried enough. It is likely few riders will ever ride a Pan America like this but should they try, as they could potentially embarrass many an average sport bike rider. We agreed that when ridden properly, this bike hauls ass. Donni passed a plodding van and squealed with glee at the power hit.
Tubeless laced wheels are a factory option on the Harley-Davidson Pan America Special, as is the orange and white livery.
With three different saddle thicknesses and two seat mounting heights, the Pan America easily adapts to any rider size from Donni’s 5’7” to my 6’2” frame. But the Pan America’s shining feature is its Adaptive Ride Height.
Achieving 8.3 inches of ground clearance normally requires a tall seat height, the main thing that scares riders away from intimidatingly tall and heavy ADV bikes. Harley-Davidson solved that issue with their Adaptive Ride Height technology.
This $1000 option on the Pan America Special draws fluid away from the forks electronically as you roll to a stop, lowering the height of the bike by two inches. Spring rate does not change, just the amount of fluid in the forks. Think of it as an electrical syringe sucking fluid from the suspension at a stop to lower the ride height, then pumping it back into the suspension as you ride off.
As we pulled into the Bavarian town of Leavenworth, Washington and parked for coffee, we could feel the ride height drop making parking lot paddling a breeze instead of the usual foot-stabbing-at-the-ground terror common to ADV bikes. Adaptive Ride Height is electronically adjustable to speed up or slow down the adjustment or even lock it out completely. Shorter riders, this may be your bike, and the one feature that pulls sales away from ADV stalwarts BMW and KTM.
Parking on the sidewalk was easy with the Adaptive Ride Height, though our sidewalk parking job was frowned upon. Yes ma’am, we will move the bikes.
So Donni and I sat with our sidewalk coffee in the warm sun and crisp fall air, staring at our marvels of technology and power, trying to find faults. They were hard to come by.
“It’s not particularly attractive,” I said. “The front end reminds me of the alien warrior faces from Battlestar Galactica, the 1978 version.”
“Looks like the front end from K.I.T. on Knight Rider,” Donni said.
Can you tell we were raised in the 80s? This explains why Donni sings 80s Madonna tunes through our helmet communicators. Loudly. All day. And off key.
Our day was not done. We were traveling deeper into the woods to camp off the bikes overnight. Our goal was Sugarloaf Peak fire lookout, a summit with an expansive view of the Cascade Mountain range and leaving Leavenworth I never guessed that I would look forward to a Harley-Davidson, or dirt so much, and never both at the same time.
But the Pan America was having that effect on us, so capable on tarmac, so stable and predictable in the dirt that no peak was unreachable with the physical tools and electronic capability to do any road we chose. Unless that road is blocked, like we discovered once we summited Sugarloaf. If you travel with me long enough you discover that I have a knack for finding road closures.
Donni and I were living every ADV rider’s nightmare, a multi-point u-turn on uneven terrain. Usually this means tip-toeing a tall, heavy bike while bouncing the bike forward and back trying to make a seven-point turn, sweating and swearing the whole time.
Yet the Pan American is only 559 pounds, and being stopped meant our ride height had dropped by two inches. For Donni’s 5’7” height, the paddling u-turn was a breeze. Over our helmet communicators she praised the light weight and electronically dropped ride height of the Pan America.
The benefits of an adventure bike? Finding closed roads in more remote places. The Adaptive Ride Height made for a graceful u-turn.
Backing off Sugarloaf Summit we battled dwindling daylight to find our camp spot. The road narrowed turning to moon dust, giving the Pan America yet one more chance to show its skills. We pinned the throttles (though mine was tamed a bit on my Custom Off Road Plus setting) and we each let the bikes fly over a small rise in the road, but not too much air because journalists who fly $21,849 (as tested) ADV bikes should probably return said machinery in one piece.
My Pan America was outfitted with 3” bar risers making stand-up riding all day comfortable.
But the Pan America flew well, landed softly in the silt with nary a crunch or a creak and found its feathery balance afterwards. Should we damage a spoke with such acts of hooligansim, Harley-Davidson has thought of that. The spokes are laced to the outside of the rim with nuts on the hub easily accessible through the brake rotor gaps making field replacement simple.
We made camp in the woods and stared at our bikes as daylight faded behind the Cascade Mountain range. As the temperatures dropped to near freezing we had time to reflect and compare our impressions.
Overnight camping off the bikes, a beautiful way to test the adventure chops of the Pan America.
Every detail: the beastly Revolution Max motor, frameless design, light weight, easily accessible tech, semi-active suspension, adaptive lighting, 6.8” touchscreen display, adjustable traction control, ABS, and balanced feel made me think that if the bike were stripped of its badging few would guess that it was a Harley-Davidson. Don’t all good ADV bikes come from Japan, Austria, Germany or the UK?
“I have ridden many adventure bikes,” Donni said at camp that night, “from BMW GS series, Africa Twins, KTMs and the Yamaha Tenere. Out of all of them, I would take this Harley.” Strong words from someone who makes her living in the ADV industry.
In the morning we packed our tents, mounted our Pan Americas and headed back to civilization, sad to give them back. This is the bike no one expected from Harley-Davidson.
But they should. Dirt has been Harley-Davidson’s DNA from the first production bike in a wooden shed to hill climbs to decades of dirt-track championships. Harley-Davidson never left dirt- they have been there all along. The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America is the realization of over a century of dirt lessons learned.
Harley-Davidson is not entering the adventure bike market with the Pan American, they’re reclaiming their throne.
Ted & Donni
*All photos by Donni Reddington & Ted Edwards
*For more info on the Harley-Davidson Pan America, click here:
*For more on Donni Reddington’s Skool of Moto, click here:
*Be sure to check out Ted’s and Donni’s ride-review video below the photo, without ever leaving this page:
The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America sits upon its throne. And Donni approves.