Off the chain

Not your ol’ man’s bagger

Bike reviews and photo shoots can be tricky. And timing really is everything. I’ve picked up bikes for a ride/review during some absolutely stunning days in Sturgis only to be told I had to return them later that evening. And then, I’ve been given free rein and a month’s lease to complete a project, only to suffer some of the nastiest weather possible, making riding miserable and photography impossible. And that’s exactly what happened after grabbing this 2010 Big Dog Bulldog. It was raining and cold when I picked it up, and for the next four weeks the country was ravaged by what meteorologists tagged the “storm of the century”—great, just friggin’ great. And my attitude would continue to deteriorate even further once I realized that the 2010 Bulldog is one of the sweetest production bikes I’d ever swung a leg over. Dammit.

Since its inception in 1998, the Bulldog has been one of Big Dog’s premium models. When a 250mm rear tire was added in 2002, the Bulldog jumped to the forefront and has been considered the company’s flagship, being used as a test-bed for innovative components ever since. In 2003, it was Big Dog’s first bike to have a right-side drive and a one-piece tank, while EFI became a standard feature in 2007. During those early years, the Bulldog maintained the stamp of a cruiser, utilizing a softail-style rear suspension and pro-street styling. In Costa Mesa, California, during the fall of 2008, an eager press corps anxiously awaited the unveiling of a completely different version of this venerable motorcycle. We were disappointed at that time, as the 2009 model year launch only delivered us an artist’s rendition of a conceptual bagger, with the company stating that development was simply not far enough along for a proper demonstration. But at that time we were treated to a most impressive new model, the 2009 Wolf—a bike that I declared the best riding motorcycle ever produced by this Kansas company. Little did I know what awaited me a year and a half later, when visions on an easel became reality at my front door.

This bagger Bulldog was unveiled last fall at the World Championship of Custom Bike Building during the 2009 Sturgis Black Hills Rally. And although there are seven pups in the Big Dog kennel for 2010, the Bulldog is unlike any litter ever birthed by Big Dog before. This is not some revamped Bulldog pro-street that a designer hung some hard bags on and bolted up a set of floorboards to. This is a true luxury bike that, despite some cargo capacity issues (we’ll talk more about that later), could easily do itself proud on a cross-country journey, although such a trip might be better attacked as a solo venture.

This radical departure for BD begins with a chassis based on a conventional swingarm rear-suspension arrangement. (All other models in the gallery sport either a rigid or hidden shock configuration.) Further ride enhancement comes in the form of twin nitrogen gas-charged shocks with an adjustable pre-load. The frame has four inches of stretch in the backbone and features 34 degrees of frame rake with an additional three degrees in the trees, providing a quite manageable 4.8 inches of trail. And despite the bike’s lengthy appearance (74.625-inch wheelbase), it is actually one of the shorter Big Dog models, with only the Pitbull being shorter. Handling is excellent and well balanced, with the geometry of the bike causing the 250mm rear tire to behave like one much narrower. And although it still takes most of two lanes to make a U-turn, the feat can easily be accomplished with both feet on the floorboards, since low speed maneuvers are surprisingly unsurprising. All this great design is further enhanced by superb vibration dampening due to the rubber-mounted engine.

The 111-inch, 45-degree S&S motor has long been recognized as a workhorse powerplant and mates quite well with this bike. With a compression ration of 9.7:1 and using a closed loop EFI system and electronic compression releases, the motor starts quickly with no faltering, providing a fluid power delivery that propels the machine’s 768 lbs. (dry weight) with a snappy 96 horsepower. The EFI performed flawlessly, with crisp throttle response at all speeds, never bogging or offering any hesitation to romp. And in true touring bike fashion, the three-point rubber isolation of the motor provides a virtual vibration-free experience from take-off to full-speed pursuit. And it does so with a subdued throaty rumble that sparks attention without being offensive. The motor feeds the right-side drive Baker six-speed through a chain drive primary with a spring-loaded compensator, making for the smoothest of operation. So smooth in fact that, while on an evening ride with the girlfriend in tow, she commented, “I never felt you shifting through the gears. It’s like riding on a cloud.” I grinned while trying to stake my claim for superior gearbox abilities. She smiled back, fully knowing it was the bike and not my skills as an operator. The hydraulic clutch is silky, the shifting action light and neutral always just a tap away, making for a most stellar ride.

Magazine editors can be a fickle bunch, casting a jaded eye toward reviewing a bike after test riding so many previously. So it’s always a great relief when a bike actually surprises us. And so it was with the Bulldog. The more I rode it, the more I wanted to. And although I steadfastly defend my position against profiling and poser-cruising to garner attention, I have to admit this bike radiates a tremendous “wow” factor. That point was driven home when an older gentleman in a Shelby Cobra passed me on a country road and then slowed down. He saddled alongside for a longer look before giving me a thumbs up and hot-rodding over the horizon. After one afternoon romp, as I pulled into the office, a van pulled in behind me, blocking the driveway. Sensing possible trouble, I was on full alert until the driver said, “Man, I’ve been chasing you for miles. What the hell are you riding? It’s beautiful.” Seems the van driver had recently bought another brand of high-dollar custom and was now kicking himself for not checking into the Big Dog line.

The front tire is a 120/70 on a 21″ rim and is beefy enough to complement both the looks and ride of a touring bike. The four-piston front brake is adequate but not quite as powerful as I’d like to see. The rear brake makes up for any inadequacies of the front binder and offers the most strategically placed and ergonomically friendly pedal position of any bike I’ve ever ridden. The 41mm telescopic forks are 1″ over stock length, fully sleeved and capped with conical tips and a flush axle. The fiberglass bat-wing is the same width as a standard fairing, but the rakish angle is light-years ahead in the cosmetic department. It offers decent protection to the rider (although I hope they decide to offer an optional windscreen just a few inches taller) and performed admirably in both the severe crosswinds and storms that we endured during our month together. The sweeping pullback handlebars resemble a boat tiller but are so well integrated into the profile of the tank and accented by the curvature of the bat-wing that they flow together flawlessly. The reach and width of the bars, when coupled with the excellent seating position and floorboard placement, provide a comfortable ride with unshakable control. And that stretched gas tank elicits plenty of ohhs and ahhs from onlookers. It’s a swooping piece of sheet metal art, with deeply indented side panels that drape over the engine before terminating at a narrow 4” in front of the seat. The spoiler in front of the motor is a hollow fiberglass shell; an empty ornamental piece whose only purpose is to hide the front motor mount assembly. Exhaust heat shields wrap 300 degrees around the pipes and cascade seamlessly across the motor before joining together at the 2:1 collector system. On the left side of the engine, a massive chunk of aluminum has been stylishly carved and chromed to perform the multi-tasking duties of top motor mount, coil and ignition key cover. The nacelle under the seat houses the battery and electronics.

The rider’s seat is wide and well padded. Its deep bucket provides a low seating height (24 1/4″) and great back support. Unfortunately, the slim profile passenger section is not as rider friendly and rated a five on the girlfriend scale. The good news is that the Bulldog’s accessories list includes a 2-Up Touring Seat along with a backrest kit and even a luggage rack (now we’re talking “touring”). The spaciousness of the bags is deceiving since much of the internal space is occupied by a pocket that shrouds the rear shocks, effectively reducing cargo capacity and restricting extended two-up travel. By using this technique, despite a 250mm tire, the rear width only measures a scant 27” across, two inches narrower than a Road King. The bags are lockable with lids that hinge forward and are held in check with a cable restraint. Polished aluminum struts are sandwiched between the rear fender and the bags, filling the gap in an elegant flourish. And despite their diminutive size, the four 2 1/2″ diameter taillights that are embedded into the saddlebags provide a massive amount of LED illumination. A simple license plate bracket completes the unadorned steel rear fender.

The instrument package is a simple unit that’s loaded with extras including a low-rpm warning light, two trip odometers and the ability to toggle the speedometer and the tachometer from digital to analog. A unique feature of the self-canceling turn signals (they stop flashing after a 10-count) is that as long as you maintain pressure on either brake, they continue to flash. Only after you release the brake does the 10-flash countdown begin, so no longer do you have to continually reengage the switch during long waits at traffic signals. An Alpine marine-grade stereo uses twin 55-watt, 5 1/4″ speakers and is iPod-, Bluetooth- and SAT Radio-ready. A small cubby space is provided near a retractable cable to house your iPod.

During my 28 days of temporary ownership, 24 of them included rain, sleet, freezing temps or a combination of at least two. Valentine’s Day would be my last chance for a decent day of riding. The dealer tags had expired two days earlier and a new batch of artic air was due to push its way into SE Texas that evening. Thankfully the morning started with sunny skies and by afternoon, the temperature would reach 69 degrees. But then, in the middle of the ride and photo shoot, forbidding clouds began to form and soon, my photographer and I were being pelted with rain—fat, icy cold drops that felt like sparkplugs falling from the sky. Once again my romance was cut short.

The Bulldog is not a cheap date, coming in with a MSRP of $39,900. But it is a most joyful experience and will have any rider bouncing between the comfort-versus-appearance debate. This is one bike where you can apparently have both, where the smileage is just as cool as the mileage. So I’m hoping for another chance, maybe during a more hospitable time of year. Hey, Wichita, how ’bout a two-week ride this summer? Maybe around the second week of August? I hear they’re holding something cool up in South Dakota. Whaddya think?


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