During Daytona Beach Bike Week in 2013, Polaris Industries, the owner of Indian Motorcycles, unveiled the Thunder Stroke 111 engine, a brand new design that they intended to use to power the then soon-to-be-introduced Big Twin Indians. Indian, at that point, didn’t yet have a motorcycle, but they did have that engine — an 1811 cc , air and oil cooled, electronically fuel injected, gear driven primary, six speed helical cut gear transmission unit construction motor. The Thunder Stroke looked like an old Indian PowerPlus or Chief motor, but was filled with current tech engineering — it was a stock motor whose specs threw shade at Hot Rodded Harley-Davidson CVO motors, and looked bigger, better and shinier while doing it.
I remember thinking, as Indian’s presenter rolled that throttle open a few times, that while I never much was drawn to the notion of being a Harley Davidson man, that the sound that motor was making was enough to make me at least wonder whether I might somehow be an Indian man.
It was absolutely an open question, and there was only one way to get an answer.
And now that answer was sitting right there in front of me.
Folks that know me well know that in Biker-stuff, my demonstrated tastes have been a sort of gumbo of Eurotrash sporty touring and Techno Geek Road Warrior. I will ride my BMWs — some old, some less old — anywhere, anytime, and in conditions that make some folks question my sanity, as if that was ever even a question.
This means I eschew excessive ornamentation, I am alergic to both excess mass and motorcycle cleaning, and that I like my motorcycles simple, smooth, revvy and good in the corners. Anything beyond that — like outright speed, or weather protection — is just a bonus. I do have a minor fetish for mileage vaporization — the ability to comfortably maintain high sustained speeds for point to point transportation, but that is such a fringe enthusiasm that I hesitate to publicly admit to it.
So when I finally arranged to test a 2018 Indian Roadmaster, it was with a frothy mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm, and just a small seasoning of chagrin.
My oldest and most loved motorcycle — after sleeving up and hotrodding the motor — displaces 900 ccs and weighs about 450 pounds.
The Roadmaster’s specs — 1811 ccs and 920 lbs — completely double that.
I’m used to revs. This wasn’t that.
All my motorcycles have — to a greater or lesser degree — balanced seating positions where one’s arms, legs and haunches equally share the load of the rider’s weight.
The Roadmaster has long floorboards and far forward controls. One morning when starting out with the bike I Charlie-horsed myself reaching forward to toe the bike into gear.
It wasn’t helping that my good, good friends were randomly texting me pictures of objects with ever increasingly comical amounts of conchos and fringe. When I told one of them I had ridden the Roadmaster in my Aerostich suit, he laughed right at me. For a long time.
He may be laughing still.
I, on the other hand, am not laughing at all.
The reason for my lack of mirth is because, despite its ever-so-slightly tacky, over the top horseback cowboys gone chrome aesthetics, the Roadmaster is a very good motorcycle. The saddle of the Roadmaster has a rear Saddle Jockey – a leather skirt at the rear of the saddle — exactly like a good Western horse saddle. Don’t get me wrong — the Roadmaster’s motor, for example, is pure moto-porn – all finning with edges milled, the shapes of the barrels and heads. It’s just some of the details — things like the ‘Indian Motorcycles – 1901’ Indian Head badge on the clutch cover, or the ‘111’ script on the air cleaner — that is just a bit too big or a tiny bit too much in one’s face. I completely understand why the designers might have gotten very worked up at the prospect of Indian’s return, but let’s just say they might have gotten just a tad overstimulated in some respects. That aside, the Roadmaster is comfortable in that skin — it isn’t intended to be anything other than what it is, which is a massive, air cooled hunka hunka burning love, throbbing American road motorcycle. Rolling through the gears on my way home from Twigg Cycles, the dealership that had facilitated my Indian test, it was immediately apparent that this was a far more functional, modern motorcycle than its visuals were designed to suggest.
With its investment cast aluminum chassis, modern cartridge forks, monoshock rear and big ABS disc brakes, the bike’s roadholding punched way above its significant weight — it changed directions briskly without being a wrestling match and didn’t get bent out of shape when it did. The bike’s overall chassis and suspension performance was tight, and in the interest of comfort, about two clicks of compression damping short of taut, but still well controlled. The 1811 cc Thunder Stroke motor was a mountain of torque — travelling up the South Mountain Grade on I-70 East there was enough power everywhere to put yourself anywhere you wanted to be in the traffic stream and go there with authority. The Roadmaster’s gearbox was bank vault solid — the helical cut gears shifted with feedback and precision — a pleasure to operate. Air control in the cockpit was good – with the adjustable screen dialed all the way up it was serene enough to run with helmet visor open.
It took me only a little while to figure out that my customary technique, which involves strong countersteering and leaning inside, needed to be modified to a more lead with one’s lower body technique – which makes sense on a machine with a 26 inch saddle height — that had me comfortable rolling the corners by the time I’d finished my run down Maryland 17 and got back to Jefferson.
I spent a fair amount of time looking at the motorcycle that evening.
There was clearly a lot more to the Indian rebirth than conchos and fringe. It was going to be fun to find out what that lot more was.
My life, even with a test bike in the driveway, is just like anybody else’s. Saturdays have chores and shopping and runs to the hardware store, so on Saturday I do what I always do, which is use my motorcycle for any errand for which it is feasible. Overnight Friday it continued to do what it’s been doing, which was to pour raining, so when I had to grab some tools for a project up at my local hardware store, I was starting with a soaked, completely cold motorcycle.
The starting drill on the Roadmaster, given its keyless ignition setup, is exciting — one pushes the ‘Power’ button on the right side of the dash — its one that looks like it escaped from an iPhone and then spent some spare time lifting weights — and then watches while the color LCD goes through its little rumbling motors and sweeping flames animation. Once complete, one rocks the kill switch from ‘not run’ to the ‘run’ position, and the bike’s electronics manage the motor start sequence. The Thunder Stroke motor has a starting decompression system, which slightly opens the exhaust valves until the motor catches, which it does on about the third compression stroke. The motor comes up to an immediate steady idle, although from dead cold, it does exhibit a little bit of a lean stumbly character once underway, along with a slightly sticky clutch which makes selecting first gear and shifting a bit high effort until the motor begins to warm. None of this is the least bit surprising in a mammoth air-cooled motor that has a nearly 4 inch wide cylinder bore. After a mile or so, though, with some heat in the cylinder heads and the oil, the bike returns to its hard hitting, smooth shifting self.
After getting the necessary metal cutting blades I needed for my project, I rode back (the long way) to the shop, just enjoying the Roadmaster’s mechanical personality, and looking for any excuse to roll the ride by wire throttle open and shift the gearbox up through the gears. The Thunder Stroke’s exhaust note — with factory pipes in place — is just perfect, low toned and rumbly, with no burble or backfire on the overrun.
After wrapping up in the shop for the day, I saddled up again and headed over to Brunswick, which was sponsoring a Bike Night. Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I wandered around, ate some crabcakes, and quickly came to the conclusion that most of the ‘Biker Activities’ — beer, swag sales and bad cover band — were of limited appeal to us, so we took up a seat behind the Roadmaster and engaged with the many riders who stopped to look when they walked by.
Most folks that saw the bike were clearly struck by its appearance and stopped to talk. I had a few business cards from the sales manager at Twigg’s and gave them to folks that seemed genuinely interested.
After a while, I restarted the bike, and took the scenic route home – following Maryland 17 through Burkettsville – and prepared for a big ride tomorrow. It was time to put on some miles, ride through a tank or two, and really see what we had.
When we got home that night Sweet D looked at the weather forecast for the next day and told me, “Well, you better be ready to go early tomorrow. You’ll have one gap in the weather early in the day and the later it gets, the worse the forecast looks.”
I am never ready to go early.
Early Sunday morning, I was out in the driveway, taking a towel to the saddle and controls, and looking at the low sliding clouds that were off to the North and the East. And though it might not work as A Look with Conchos, I had my trusty ‘Stich on, and knew I’d be just fine no matter what the weather threw at us.
Dried off and strapped on, I lit up the Indian’s big motor. I let it idle briefly – listening to the operation of the valve train and injectors on the top end of the engine that was sitting in my lap. Despite the presence of the sophisticated electronics, the motorcycle itself had a comforting massively mechanical quality to it — every time those valves closed and one of those pistons fired, there’d be no question as to what was going on.
By the time I hit the traffic light in town – about three quarters of a mile from home – there was enough heat in the engine and oil that all was clearly well. When the light turned I made the left up Holter Road, and headed up some of the best roads in The Valley.
Where I might have been originally, I was no longer tentative with the bike in corners. I’d completely come to grips with it, and was completely comfortable with the ‘steer with your butt’ motion the motorcycle seemed to prefer. On these few technical corners spinning the engine a little between 2000 and 4000 rpm I was smiling at the way the suspension was working – keeping all that bike in line – and the thrust coming off corner exits. Running up though the gears was like Cracker Jacks – there was a free prize inside every time.
Holter Road turns onto Maryland 17 in Middletown, which gets tighter and curvier, and then deposits one at the entrance to I-70 in Myersville. I banked left into the entrance ramp, thonked up into sixth, and headed west into the mist to find the Indian.
Over the course of a great many miles, I’ve become a firm believer in listening intently to what your motorcycle is telling you. On my K12, at 3900 rpm everything goes smooth, and will run at that indicated 83 miles an hour until your road turns to ocean. With two 900cc plus cylinders, the Roadmaster’s motor looms larger, and it’s presence dictates everything you do. Listening to the Thunder Stroke, it told me it was happiest around 2100 rpm, which in sixth gear was around 74. It still had tons of power — with its torque peak at 3000 — and would briskly walk away on throttle, but everything up higher seemed just a little more busy, a little more blustery — 74 seemed to be the Roadmaster’s comfortable walking shoes – the driveline harmonics’ smiley happy place. Might it smooth out a bit as it fully breaks in? Maybe. But where I’m used to attacking, the Roadmaster’s take was to be taking it easy, and looking good and feeling comfortable doing it.
The night before I’d looked for the bones of a route with a couple of alternate ideas if Mother Nature got mad. I’d sat down with my laptop running Google Maps – and figured I’d head west to just past Hancock Maryland, where I’d get off the interstate and turn towards Berkley Springs West Virgina. USS 522 runs from 70 south through Berkley Springs across Morgan County and further south to Omps.
“Omps?” I thought. I rubbed my eyes, squinted a little harder, and cranked the Zoom up on the laptop.
Omps is an unincorporated community that lies along U.S. Route 522 in Morgan County, West Virginia, USA. Omps previously had a post office that operated between 1887 to 1973.
The community was named after one Mr. Omps, an original owner of the town site.”
What would we do without Wikipedia?
Ok, so I apologize to the inhabitants of Omps, West Virginia, but I noticed your town on the map because I thought it had a funny name. I used to live in Point of Rocks, Maryland, so you can have a turnabout is fair play laugh on me just for sport.
And whether Omps is a funny name or not, what I really noticed was the Great Big Green Thing right behind it on the map — The Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area. The more I zoomed in, the more tiny roads appeared. Eventually, those tiny roads popped over the mountains and came out somewhere between Inwood and Martinsburg, which was more or less back in my backyard.
Plan: Go west to 522, head south to Omps, and then make a left and then just wing it.
“Wing it? But Greg,” you say, “that Roadmaster has an LCD screen, built in GPS and nav, why would you not use it?”
Pretty simple. I was out for a ride. Not a get there.
I’ll admit that in the first few minutes after I hit cruise on 70, I did spend a little bit of time looking at the info screens to see what the system could do. I set the bike on its cruise control, which works perfectly, and diverted some attention to the onboard systems. The bike could present four different displays on the bright color LCD, that one could toggle though with either the preset buttons below the screen or with a toggle on the handlebars. My personal fave was strictly a riding information screen – real time tire pressures and fuel range. There were also screens for GPS, for navigation, for the radio and for interface with a smart phone and bluetooth music. There was also a button which dimmed the screen down to a series of dark grays with a barely discernible Indian head. I think that screen is called “Off”.
I liked that screen a lot too.
If you want to know how the radio sounded, you’ll need to ask someone else. While it looks like a nice one, I never turned it on. Between being extra attentive to someone else’s motorcycle and the bike’s built-in music, it never occurred to me to blast some tunes.
And I might have had more time to, if the aforementioned Mother Nature hadn’t shown up pissed.
Plenty pissed, too, if the intensity of the rain was any indication.
I’ve ridden in rain. I’ve ridden in lots of rain. On my own motorcycle, with tires engineered specifically for rain traction – Thank you, Avon! – it doesn’t freak me out.
On an unfamilar motorcycle and tires, I wasn’t in a position to assume anything, I just needed to be vigilant and listen to what the motorcycle was telling me. I did cop a brief stop on the shoulder — 4 way flashers on — to close the vents and vanes on the fairing lowers and then gassed it back into traffic, and raised the power windscreen to its highest position. Even with the gas on in this strangling downpour the Roadmaster seemed planted, so I managed my lane position to keep away from other traffic and kept the bike running at about 65.
I passed a group of HD riders that were under an overpass, struggling with raingear.
“Who’s laughing at my Aerostich, now, mateys? Anybody want to buy one of these?”
Overall the protection offered by the bike’s fairing was quite good — my hands and my elbows were a little wetter than I was used to, but my torso and lap were dry, and my feet were also out of the blast. In the 11/10th test conditions Moms Nature provided, Roadmaster’s weather protection gets a solid two thumbs up.
After about 25 miles of this, the Roadmaster and I finally punched out the other side of the storm. It was still a little damp and steamy, but at least one didn’t drown if one opened one’s mouth. We continued to cruise– Thunder Stroke 111 just throbbing along — the few remaining miles up the interstate, until we got to the intersection of I-70, I-68, and US-522. I exited on 522 and headed south towards Berkeley Springs.
522 is a perfect two lane secondary road. If you are the type of rider that does all of your travelling off the Interstate, and seeks out roads like this, then the Roadmaster is a perfect travelling motorcycle. On 522’s winding curves, handling was almost zero effort and felt totally planted, the feet forward ergonomics made perfect sense, and one could lower the power shield to below one’s sightline and still run with visor open and minimal wind buffeting. Running at around 60 mph in 5th gear on the 6 speed box, any sluggish traffic could be instantly dispatched with zero drama — the Roadmaster’s power was like one giant slingshot.
Heading south on 522 one passes the sand mines of US Silica, and then encounters the small town of Ridersville, WV. As a committed motorcyclist, any town called Ridersville is OK by me, and this is one doubly so because of Ridersville Cycles, a large, modern multiline dealership that sits off the west side of the highway. I’d have stopped to say ‘Hi’ but they ride on Sundays, so I continued my relaxed roll to the South.
Coming into Berkeley Springs, I got a demonstration of how well the bike dealt with in-town trolling — at just above walking speeds — and found the bike to be stable and comfortable – not requiring any effort to keep on-line. Leaving town I saw a BP Station, and since I meant to get lost it was best to do it with a full tank.
I rolled into the station and standed the bike. I had a few awkward moments as I eyeballed the dual caps on the Roadmaster’s tank — remembering that only one of them is functional and not being able to remember which one. I guessed wrong, of course, and ended up with a cap in my hand with a safety sticker under it that said “Cap is decorative. Do not loosen or remove.”
Checking carefully to ensure I had not been observed in this serious transgression, I replaced the dummy cap, and tried the other one, which proved to be much more satisfactory. The tank took about 4 and a half gallons of Ultimate – capacity is 5 and a half – and I was much more careful not to drip fuel on this pretty paintjob — Indian calls it ‘Bronze over Thunder Black’ — than I would have been with one of my own motorcycles. I noticed that the trip computer had recalculated my range to empty based on my actual observed mileage – the sort of thing I could come to love out on the road. I got back on 522 South, riding the rolling hills and curves into Omps.
There isn’t much to Omps, really.
Cacapon State Park, with its Lake, Cabins and Golf Course. A Country Market with Gas Station, and the building that looked like it might have been the Post Office, back when Omps had one. But as soon as Omps had come it was gone, and my attention turned to finding a likely left turn that looked like it would cut up into the mountains to the east.
A few rolling miles south of Omps the sign appeared — it was all in international symbols — Fishing, Hunting, Camping, Left Turn — but to me it said ‘Pay dirt!’. I lit up my left signal, dropped a few gears to second, braked firmly and rolled left. By the time I had the Roadmaster straightened up and shifted back into third, I was sure I’d made the right move.
We’ve got lots of roads like this around where I live — little wandering country goat paths — but the ones that are left are in undeveloped farm land, and frankly, they don’t actually go anywhere. Three miles is about all one gets before getting dumped back out on a modern highway. But in Motorcyclist’s West Virginia, these roads can go on seemingly forever. This one rolled on though forest field and cabins as it slowly climbed the mountain — it would occasionally open up briefly where it hit pasture but mostly it was one turn after another, and the higher we climbed, the tighter it got.
From time to time, we’d hit an intersection, and I’d take which ever way looked good to me at the time. And while the road kept getting smaller, and the surroundings mistier, except for a few 270 degree switchbacks which tested the Roadmaster’s driveline and fuel injection’s ability to provide tractable, smooth steady power as really low rpms, I felt as comfortable on the bike as I could be, which is high praise indeed for a very large bike on a very small road. Coming out of these slow corners the bike smoothly launched from low road speeds – the frame’s rigidity and the suspension and steering geometry made what could have been a wrestling match very low effort and relaxing. In the whole time I had the bike, not a single bit touched down.
A few corners in, I was presented with another sign — George Washington Heritage Trail. It pointed in a direction, so I went that way. The Father of Our Country has never steered me wrong, and he didn’t on this day, either. The Trail kept rolling up to the summit — rocky hillsides with sparse forestation — and then broke back down the other side to the valley below. Eventually, after miles and miles of winding country roads, we came in via WV51 into the back side of Charles Town, which was frankly too close to home.
US 340 goes home, so I didn’t take it, opting instead for WV9, a twisting local favorite that took me into Loudoun County Virginia, where I picked up Loudoun Heights Road, which since the last time I’ve ridden it, has become a driveway for wineries, which is a shame, because the road itself is a gem — threading vineyard and forests with challenging turns. The vineyard tourists introduce a new wrinkle to running The Heights. It’s a road I know well, and can be ridden with verve — I did spend some time with revs up and butterflies open — the Roadmaster’s sound was superb.
Too soon though we were back on 340 North, and on a divided highway running hard for home. For the few miles left of open road, I opened it up, and spent some time running the bike at a higher road speeds. And while it never ran out of motor, and was willing to pull, there was something that just seemed unnatural spinning that big motor at those speeds. It wanted to know what my hurry was, trying to vaporize the scenery when it was clearly worth dissolving into, embracing, and savoring for a while.
Everybody has a travelling style – no one is right or wrong.
When I was down at the Barber Vintage Festival, a couple of years back, I found myself in the pits of the Blue Moon Cycle Vintage Racing Team. And amongst the /5s, R90s and kneeler sidecars sat a Cherokee Red Indian Roadmaster. I’m pretty sure I was Dribble Puddleing — both that Engine and the Bike are chrome candy moto art — it’s the sort of thing that is kind of difficult to ignore.
Its owner — who was slightly older than I am — saw me looking, and wanted to know what I rode. I told him and he said he’d traded in the same bike I rode for this.
“No neck pain, no back pain, It’s amazing.” He said. “I’ve ridden every travelling BMW – R100RS, 1100 RTs, K Bikes, the works… this is the most comfortable travelling motorcycle I’ve ever owned.”
I thought a lot about what he told me, from that time to this.
Then I rode home from Alabama — 835 miles — in a single sitting, thinking about it most all the way.
And having ridden the Indian, I now understand what he meant.
Ride this motorcycle in its element as it wants to be ridden, and it is an illuminating experience.
Let that big motor do exactly what it was built to do.
The Roadmaster isn’t about getting there, it’s about being there, about being immersed in the ride for as long as it lasts.
It’s the kind of motorcycle that changes you, and can completely change your perspective.
A complete Road Test and Review appears in the July/August Edition of Motorcycle Times.
That full review can also be found here.