New Motorcycle Review – Victory Hard-Ball

Okay, time to ’fess up. While we motorcyclists may talk about freedom, about separating from the herd, about mastering an activity that most people are afraid to try, or simply about the power of living completely in the moment, the truth is — and this is motorcycling’s not-so-dirty little secret — one of the biggest reasons we throw a leg over two-wheeled machines is that people look cool riding motorcycles. We look tough, strong, and intimidating. On a motorcycle, even the most hapless Walter Mitty can be transformed into a genuine bada$$.

Now, take that motorcycle and paint it matte black. Put some apehangers on it, and maybe some fat (or is that phat?) white walls. That’s cooler still. However, make those mods to a bike with the touring credentials of the Victory Cross Roads and you end up with a seemingly contradictory mission statement: a physics-be-damned riding position on a bike with the means for an extended tour.

Apehanger bars are popular, and Victory should know. The Vegas-based High-Ball has been flying out of dealerships since it was introduced last year. So why not see if the same magic can be applied to the Cross Roads in 2012? To put it succinctly, Victory has knocked this Ball out of the park.

A not-so-well-known fact about motorcycle magazines is that art directors and photographers hate black motorcycles. Editors howl in protest when a manufacturer loans them the glossy black bike instead of the Candy Orange Flame Cherry Sunset Persimmon option. Why? Because black just dies on the page. Readers get no feel for the angles and compound curves that the motorcycle’s designers spent months sweating over. Black just looks black, like a cardboard cutout (except where it blasts the sun right back at you, resulting in a pure white spot). The Hard-Ball is black by definition but suffers none of these indignities. Light — be it direct sun, sodium-vapor parking lot lights, or the green of your garage’s fluorescents — wraps around every silky, matte black inch of the Hard-Ball’s bodywork. Not only do art directors and magazine readers like this, but you, the proud owner, get to reap the benefits of watching your Hard-Ball come alive as you walk around it.

Then add in the other black textures, notably the semigloss black on the H-B’s exhaust pipe and headlight and the rough texture of the dark engine cases. Look closer and you find the black-anodized surface of the fork tubes, a different matte black on the plastic side panels, and the gloss of the black leather seat. Even the wire spoked wheels wear black. Victory tastefully throws in a few polished highlights, but limits them to the cylinder fins, a badge (or two), the levers, brake discs, and the fork sliders and caps. The crowning touch is the red pinstripes that highlight the tank, saddlebags, front fender, and rims. Victory has provided a master class in aggressive, yet understated, elegance.

After all that, we finally arrive at what is, on first blush, the distinguishing feature of the Hard-Ball. Apehangers put your fists in the air in a way that is pretty antithetical to riding a motorcycle. Except that it looks really cool. You can actually use them to control a well-set-up motorcycle; around town, you won’t notice too much of a difference from traditional bar placement until you try a U-turn or maximum braking maneuver. Finesse of the throttle and clutch are paramount, but not terribly easy given the awkward hand position. (Smaller riders may find the reach to the outside grip a stretch during tight parking lot turns.) Similarly, trying to squeeze the most out of the front brake with apehangers will tax your arm muscles, since the forces aren’t directed back into your torso via your skeletal system, but rather through a twisting torque as your center of mass tries to move forward and down. Aside from those considerations, city riding is a pleasure (and, yes, you look very cool).

Surprisingly, the hands’ high-riding position works quite well out on the open road, too. Depending on the rider’s size (which determines how far the hands are above the shoulders), the wind blast doesn’t get too difficult until around 70-75 mph. Above that, the strain increases dramatically. If you thought handling a beach bar on your cruiser was windy, wait until you experience apes! That being said, short rides of less than 100 miles are easily attainable — and provide a great core workout to boot. Ultimately, on longer rides, you’ll end up leaning back and letting your arms’ connective tissue hold you to the bike.

To remedy the wind blast issue, Victory has two accessories that help alleviate the strain of long-distance riding. Unfortunately, because of the newness of the Hard-Ball, neither the tall windshield nor the driver backrest was available for me to test. But wait! There is another option. The big handlebar is adjustable and can fold back into a more traditional position. Naturally, you’ll need to adjust the grips to the appropriate angle, but the bar has registration holes to allow you to rotate the switch housing a little bit shy of 90 degrees. We, however, elected to tough it out in the fists-high position. Because we’re cool.

While the Hard-Ball is destined to be known primarily for its handlebar and blacked-out styling, a real disservice is being done to the rest of the motorcycle. The 106″, 50-degree V-twin Freedom engine that powers the entire Victory line is a phenomenal piece of machinery. The torquey mill puts out a claimed 109 ft-lbs. that is accessible throughout the rev range. Whether you’re pulling away from a stop or cruising down the highway, crank on the throttle and the Hard-Ball goes. The only fly in the ointment is an exhaust note that doesn’t seem to match the aggressive styling. The signature, throaty Victory honk is still there, but for some reason, it feels more subdued than on other models. The six-speed transmission offers a couple of gear choices for almost every riding condition, and the belt final drive, combined with the well-sorted EFI, gives mostly lash-free power delivery to the rear wheel.

Attached to that distinctive engine, a cast-aluminum frame provides the stout backbone required of a bagger. The bike holds its line without incident over a variety of road conditions, and the frame’s stiffness can be best experienced while riding the Hard-Ball fully loaded on a winding country road. The apehangers provide surprisingly good control at any speed, on any road. The nonadjustable front suspension feels nicely matched to the air-adjustable rear. Speaking of which, Victory has done riders a great service by giving them an easy way to adjust the rear suspension based on the load the bike is carrying. The bike handles well with the standard setting for a solo rider with empty bags; however, throw on a passenger and some extra gear, and the Hard-Ball becomes a bit wallow-y and less precise. No matter: just bump up the air pressure in the shock, and the bike is transformed to its former self. The only criticism we can offer about this setup is that the included air pump’s gauge range was too large and, consequently, didn’t have the resolution in pressures to enable us to fine-tune the settings as we would have liked.

When it comes to hauling the Hard-Ball down from speed, we also had some quibbles about the brakes. Requiring a firm hand at the lever, the dual 300mm discs offer plenty of power but have a bit of a wooden feel. If we were particularly ham-fisted and grabbed the lever, we could get it to briefly lock the front wheel before entering ABS mode on dry pavement. In maximum braking tests, the front brake worked well. Out back, the ABS seemed to kick in a bit earlier than we expected. This is nothing bad; we just thought there was a little more braking left before the impending lock-up.

In touring mode, the 21 gallons of hard bag space is great, and Victory’s accessory liners ease the transfer of gear from the machine to the motel. Large bags do come with a price, though, as a passenger’s feet can interfere with the rider’s legs when at a stop or during parking lot maneuvers. We encountered two problems with our test unit’s saddlebags. One, the weather stripping unstuck itself from the bag lip on a couple of occasions and had to be reapplied. And two, closing the lids is a two-step process: first pressing down to latch the lid, then pulling back up to make sure it’s securely closed. [Editor’s note: the saddlebag lid latches on Victory Cross Country and Cross Roads motorcycles, the platform on which the Hard-Ball is based, are notorious for popping open while riding.] On the plus side, the bags are easily removable to allow access to the rear wheel for maintenance.

When it comes to spending all day in the saddle, the H-B’s seat is more than up for the job. Similarly, Victory’s stylish floorboards offer plenty of wiggle room. The cruise control is a nice touch, though the button placement and styling give it a bolt-on appearance. Nevertheless, letting the bike maintain its own speed as you battle the wind on a long ride is appreciated. With our tested fuel consumption average of 33.5 mpg, a 194-mile range out of its 5.8 gallon tank, without the windshield or backrest, we’d guess your body will give out on the highway before the tank does.

So we arrive at the time to sum up our feelings about the 2012 Victory Hard-Ball. Let’s just say that when we had to return the bike to Victory’s fleet center, we tried multiple excuses to keep it longer for more testing. The Hard-Ball’s attitude is unmistakable, and it has the chops to back it up. The riding position will make you look cooler. And riding it on the open road will actually make you stronger. (How would you prefer to strengthen your core: long rides or a ton of crunches?) RB

Text and Photos By Evans Brasfield

Originally published in RoadBike August 2012