On a recent ride from Alexandria, Virginia, to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, making friends with my newest bike, a 1999 Road King, I got a thrill ride I wasn't expecting. Not expecting it at all.
I was running fully loaded, rolling southeast on 295, bypassing Richmond, and running pretty fast. When exiting I295 onto 64 eastbound, I leaned hard into a fast sweeping left turn. What should have been easy and fun turned into something entirely different when the bike started a strange wobble. It wasn't like a front end shimmy, but instead felt like the front and rear wheel were twisting in opposite directions. Weird. I let up quickly on the throttle, gently squeezed a little brake, and settled it down just in time to lean it to the right where the ramp blends into 64. Damn if it didn't start again. To be honest, it scared me a little. I thought I had a flat or something had broken.
I slowed up a lot, waving the traffic around that was piling up behind me, finally getting over on the shoulder. A girl driving the car immediately behind me pulled over too. I began checking tires and anything else to see if something was obviously wrong. The girl that had stopped came up and asked if I was OK, and said she thought I was going to go down. Even she could tell I was having a tough time holding onto it.
I couldn't find a damn thing wrong. Tires looked good, the front forks seemed to still be attached to the frame (LOL), and the swingarm wasn't visibly broken, which was something that crossed my mind. I thanked the young lady for stopping, fired up the bike and went on down the road, but I made it a point not to run the bike hard into any more sweepers. (.....and of course, I spent the next 100 miles wondering if I should have asked where SHE was going!)
Though I didn't pay a lot of mind to it at the time, I also noticed that on 64 east, a concrete road, the bike seemed to like following the grooves and irregularities in the road...more than normal. All bikes do this of course, but I usually notice it with the front wheel, and this felt a little different. Like the tires were going in slightly different directions, or angles, to the direction of travel. Or maybe I was still freaked out and over-sensitive due to my "wobble experience".
The rest of the trip was thankfully wobble-less, but the experience bothered me, and more than a little. I run bikes hard into corners, and running quick around long sweepers is something I enjoy, costing me more than a few sets of footpegs, etc. over time. It's money well spent, and cheap thrills in my book!
So I came home, and did what I always do. Hit the internet and google around to see if what I experienced had been noticed by others. BAM! First GOOGLE search on "Bagger Wobble" turned up hit after hit, describing exactly what I felt including the tendency to follow grooves in the road. I even found a horror film on YouTube that captures an even worse event, although not by a hell of a lot. My "adventure" was a lot like this one. Click here: YouTube video of an extreme case...
After reading lots of accounts, including some that say this wobble thing is a myth, I found that the supporting evidence seems to far outweigh those who haven't had bad experiences. And I damn sure didn't imagine my own, so I looked into why it happens, and set out to find a solution.
Interestingly, Harley Davidson seems to deny there is a problem, much less offering a "cure". Still, I wasn't imagining things, and the cop in that YouTube video wasn't faking it, so maybe there's a little something to the claims, right? And if not, some folks have sure built a thriving cottage industry creating elaborate solutions to a problem that, according to Harley, doesn't exist.
The first thing I learned is that this issue is limited to Touring Harleys, and not Softails, etc. And some say Ultra's seem to be more prone to having issues than other models. I don't know about that part, except to say that my Road King has it, and the cop in the video was probably on a Road King too.
I then learned that the frickin' swingarm isn't directly connected to the frame, but instead is linked to the rear of the transmission/engine which is completely rubber mounted, free to move independently! Really HD? Therefore any slack, wearing of parts, misalignment of wheels, etc can exaggerate a design issue (flaw?)(fuckup?). My bike has 56,000 on the frame so a little looseness is entirely possible.
In addition to looseness of other parts with a little age to them, the condition can also be amplified by carrying weight, higher speeds, and having an aftermarket fairing or windshield. In short, the condition might not be a big deal or not even noticeable if you're running light at easier speeds, if your bike is in factory stock configuration with low mileage.
Of note, this is possibly a much less serious or non-existing issue on newer bikes. Harley completely redesigned the touring chassis in 2009, so this problem reportedly either goes away on 2009-up bikes or is certainly less of a concern.
There are several aftermarket solutions for the wobble, with prices ranging from $180 to around $500. Just about every solution seems to do the same thing: Provide a third link that ties the tail of the transmission/oil pan to the frame crossmember or to the passenger footpeg mount. Same difference, really, with one being (the foot peg version) a far less desirable option, at least to me.
They all attempt to control lateral movement, while allowing vertical movement which reportedly minimizes transferring engine vibrations to the frame and rider. And of course, since the swingarm is mounted to the rear transmission area, the back wheel is no longer free to roam independently.
One real cheap solution is to slow down. After ruling that out, I looked at mechanical fixes.
True-Track, on the high end of the cost spectrum, makes a very nice looking system, and there's another one on the lower end, Progressive, that just doesn't look as effective or clean since it's hanging outboard, mounted behind the passenger foot peg.
The Bagger Brace from Bitchin' Baggers caught my eye. Nice looking machine work, solid engineering, and the design distributed the load across a wider mounting area, much like the True-Track system. It seemed like a great compromise in cost and function. I'm a machinist and engineer, with a ton of years in the rocket business so I think my opinion counts. If it was junk or poor design, I'd spot it in a heartbeat.
For the record, True Track, from everything I've gathered, is the creator of the first Bagger Wobble fix system (it's patented), and everything made by others is a knock-off of the original design.
Here's a sampling of what's out there with approximate prices as found on 5/10/2012. Prices you find may vary...check websites or eBay.
So off to the garage.....
The very first thing I found out was that installation requires the crossmember to be flat, and mine was bowed up in the center due to the bike being improperly jacked up sometime during its life. From what I read in HD Forums, this is a very common issue, so when jacking up that heavy-ass bike, DON'T jack it up in the center of that cross member.
Almost immediately, I found mention of a tool made by the True Track people....see above....and called them up. My 20-00ET crossmember straightening tool was in the mail that day. It's a damn simple solution and worth the 40 bucks, even if you use it only once. I'm sure oil pans cost far more. Hell, the 20W-50 synthetic oil cost more than 40, right?
20 short minutes later, my crossmember was pulled straight and the tool was back in the box and stored on the shelf. The tool worked great, and no oil pans were harmed during this phase of the operation.
About straightening: You should be able to lay a straightedge across the frame rails, and the crossmember should be, within reason, perfectly flat and level with the frame rails. None of these kits that link to the crossmember will fit properly if it's bent. And a bonus is that when you use one of the kits that mount to it, the dog-bone portion of the brace will strengthen the crossmember. Then it won't be so prone to bending, though I still wouldn't jack the bike up on it. Jack on the frame rails instead.....do it right!
I eagerly grabbed the Bagger Brace, and was very disappointed to find out it didn't fit. Boo. And after all this screwing around.
This wasn't a total surprise. While waiting on the tool to arrive, I spoke to the always-helpful Ron at Phoenix Customs who looked at a couple pix of my bent crossmember. Ron observed that I had a non-standard crossmember that he had only seen a few of on 1999-era Harleys. He told me his Bagger Brace wasn't going to fit after all. It seems Harley used a couple older style frame elements (95 maybe?) on newer bikes in '99, or that's the way it looked. He said he'd seen a few others like mine. I held onto the thought that I could make it work, but I was wrong. Ron was 100% correct, offered to give me a refund, so I shipped it back.
To Ron's credit, he also directed me to a competitor, recommending a unit that would do the job. Not everyone would do that, so three cheers for Ron at Phoenix Customs.
An hour later, I spoke to (another) Ron at True Track out in Burbank, CA. He's the guy that sold me the x-member tool, and Ron II helped me get a P/N 20-00 frame brace on order.
I'm waiting on that delivery as this is written, and I'll update the blog when it shows up. Suffice it to say that this fast and easy upgrade hasn't been either. Stay tuned for Wobble, Wobble - Part 2.
Here's a LINK TO PART II of Wobble Wobble.....
And here's a link to Part III of III...Bagger Wobble