2012 London Olympics: An American Fat Bob in London

A 2012 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob stands out with cocky American pride on the mean streets of London.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

I rode a brand new Harley-Davidson through the streets of Central London during rush hour amidst the 2012 Summer Olympics.

I’ve been told I shouldn’t be able to type those words – not because such a concept is impossible, but because I’m supposed to be dead.

When it was decided I’d cover the 2012 Summer Games with my boots on the ground in and around London, the media-friendly folks at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee reminded me that the company maintains a European press fleet in the Greater London area. While I would no doubt be taking plenty of trains and buses while moving between Olympic venues and covering competitions, a motorcycle offered the freedom of traveling where I wanted, when I wanted – while saving piles of Pounds Sterling on ungodly expensive Brit petrol by not using a rental car.

The UK fleet service dropped off a gorgeous 2012 Fat Bob at my first destination, the Talbot Inn amidst the meadows and country houses of Ripley, Surrey. Brooding with a black flat matte paint job, the Fat Bob immediately drew attention from hotel staff and guests. In a parking lot full of Toyotos, Volkswagens, Citroens and Peugeots, broad-backed, chrome-appointed Milwaukee-forged iron tends to stand out a tad.

In fact, Ronnie (local Scottish celebrity, former Guardsmen in the Service of Her Majesty and the driver whose cab took me to the Woking train station on rainy mornings) offered up a very succinct review from a UK perspective: “Brand new and not a mark on it. Bloody gorgeous.” Ronnie wanted to take Bob for a ride, and I’d have no problem trusting a Northern Ireland combat veteran and SAS-trained soldier with any bike in my care, but Harley-Davidson frowns on me leaving the keys with strangers.

If I thought the Fat Bob turned heads while parked at a small country inn, I wasn’t prepared for the reaction it would get while I rode it on the wrong side of the road in London.

Whether in London or the city’s bedroom communities, two-wheeled vehicles come in a few basic varieties: Ancient oil burners from long-gone manufacturers, little Japanese sport bikes, the occasional stylish Triumph, BMW-ish messenger cruisers laden with hard cases and an endless mishmash of scooters. With its size, attitude and rumbling voice, a brand new, 1,690 cc Harley-Davidson makes a proud, cocky American spectacle of itself.

If you look at the quickly snapped photo below, you’ll get the idea. I took it while the Fat Bob was parked in upscale Knightsbridge – a jewel’s throw from Harrods. There’s a scooter to the left, a little dirt bike wannabe to the right and more scooters to round out the scene. In the middle, there’s the Fat Bob – ticking its engine cool and waiting for me to return and ride it away from its Euro-trash neighbors.

While rolling through High Street Kensington, down Regent Street, past Westminster Abbey and around the Parliament Square roundabout (“Look, kids! Big Ben…"), the Fat Bob drew every intrigued kid’s pointing finger and every scooter rider’s envious curled lip.

I was told I took my misspent life in my hands by taking the burly cruiser through London’s busy streets during the height of Olympic congestion. I heard nightmare stories of London drivers not bothering to notice or respect a motorcycle’s lane position. But, I never felt threatened. While not packing the poundage of a Harley-Davidson touring model, the Fat Bob is big enough – and throaty enough – to be noticed by traffic on all sides.

I have to think the ever-present scooter riders are in a hell of a lot more daily danger riding past the Keep Left signs with all of their lawnmower buzz than I was in full sight on my Harley-Davidson cruiser.

As the Olympics drew to a close, I had to surrender the Fat Bob back to its home with the fleet center. But I don’t think any riding experience I’ll ever have will quite match the novelty, the sense of adventure and the audacity of riding a Harley-Davidson down Harley Street, London W1.