By Guido Ebert
It was a bit of a surprise trip. The call came in a week before our scheduled departure date. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Kyle Clack, Victory’s PR hack.
“Hey, want to ride baggers to the engine facility in Osceola, Wis., then down to the production facility in Spirit Lake, Iowa?”
“Just tell me when and where to be,” I replied as I scanned my mental calendar, ready to delay any previous commitments.
I was directed to meet Kyle and the rest of our group at the Graves 601 Hotel in Minneapolis early the following Thursday morning. Joining us were Brian Rathjen of Backroads magazine and Tony Frey of Urban Bagger magazine.
We convened in the 601’s underground parking ramp before dawn. Kyle had had four Cross Country bikes delivered from Polaris HQ in Medina the prior evening. He handed us each two saddlebag liner bags and, as we re-packed our camera equipment and clothes, offered us a brief rundown of the features inherent to each model. But more about that later.
The city was just waking up as we rumbled out onto 7th St., the sun struggling to show itself from between the buildings and bathing the Depot and First Avenue in a blue pre-dawn hue.
The Victory Cross Country comes in four flavors: the blacked out 8-Ball ($17,999), the build-to-own model (starting at $18,999), the Factory Custom Paint model ($20,499) and the limited edition Ness Cross Country ($22,999).
We had two Factory Custom Paint (FCP) models featuring Suede Silver w/ Flames and Two-Tone Boss Blue w/ Gloss Black, an 8-Ball and a Ness. Despite straddling 106 cu. in. of American iron and looking the part of Bad Boy bikers (Tony, at least) the guys immediately acted the Gentlemen they are and agreed to switch trim during the journey. They also agreed that, because I was the only local, I’d be leading the group out of the Twin Cities during rush hour and to our first destination – the Polaris facility in Osceola.
Polaris’ Osceola plant at one time had a workforce of more than 500. The OEM in 2010 announced plans to close the facility as part of a plan to move ATV production to Mexico. You may recall the blowback the company received, primarily in local media.
Ultimately, nearly 150 workers were kept on for motorcycle and snowmobile engine production. Then 2011 came and Polaris made two key acquisitions that would breathe new life into the facility – the purchase of both the Indian brand and Global Electric Motorcars (GEM).
Repositioning their production network to accommodate these two purchases, Polaris undertook a complete redesign of the Osceola manufacturing floor, and in the process created nearly 100 additional jobs at the plant.
The four of us rumbled up to the cyclone fence at the rear of the campus, parked among the employee bikes, and presented ourselves at the guard shack.
We passed on the GEM R&D portion of the facility and were escorted directly onto the engine production floor, which had been split down the middle with one side devoted to Victory engine production and testing and the other side devoted to Indian engine production and testing.
The key take-away here is that the two sides were running absolutely independent of each other, using different parts and completely different processes. In a nutshell, Victory engines were being hand-built and run-tested using the company’s traditional process while Indian engines were being hand-built and dry-tested using the absolute latest technology available. As for the workers, Polaris keeps an even distribution of experienced builders and new hires on both sides.
Just as Kyle had planned for this Crank To Crate tour, the engines we were watching built Thursday afternoon would be loaded on a truck and delivered overnight to Spirit Lake, Iowa, where we would watch them be placed into a chassis and further built as working motorcycles.
There was no doubt the engines would make it to Iowa. Polaris’ trucks run that route during every production day. The big question was whether the four of us could time our 285-mile journey while still enjoying the scenic St. Croix and Mississippi river valleys atop our various Cross Country models.
Next stop: the St. James Hotel – 75 miles away in Red Wing by way of WI-35, CR I, CR A, CR U, WI-35 (The Great River Road) and US-63. These roads are in my backyard, but the two editors from the East Coast were absolutely gob smacked by the late summer scenery we have here.
Red Wing – on the National Trust for Historic Preservation – is home to world-renowned Red Wing Shoes, Riedell Ice & Roller Skates and Red Wing Stoneware. The city was named after the Mdewakanton chief, Hupahuduta, who was one of a succession of chiefs whose name came from their use of a dyed swan’s wing as their symbol of rank.
In the early 1850s, Mississippi River steamboats brought settlers to Red Wing to farm the lush fields in Goodhue County. By 1873 Red Wing led the country in the amount of wheat sold by farmers and the fields served as major contributors to the large flourmills in Minneapolis and St. Anthony.
Today, the St. James Hotel – built in 1875 – harks back to those bygone days. If you’re staying there, ask for the haunted room. Otherwise, enjoy a meal or refreshments on The Veranda patio, in Jimmy’s Pub on the fifth floor, or at The Port restaurant in the basement.
Back outside, located between the hotel and the river, the town’s train station is served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs to Chicago in the east and Seattle and Portland in the west. We stopped there for a photo session before dinner.
The next morning, after sleeping off the port from The Port, we climbed back on the bikes for a 210-mile ride to Spirit Lake via any road but Interstate.
Our arrival in Spirit Lake coincided with the start of the annual American Victory Rally, a gathering of Victory owners from across the nation as well as some folks who were visiting from parts unknown.
Idling through the facility’s parking lot, all eyes were locked on our early release 2014 Victory Cross Country models: the Ness, the 8-Ball, and the FCP bikes.
Polaris was just beginning full-scale production of Indian motorcycles alongside Victory motorcycles when we undertook our tour. To prepare for the dual brands, the company revamped the facility and added more than 200 workers – bringing the workforce to about 600.
Like the engine production floor in Osceola, the motorcycle production floor in Spirit Lake also was split between the two brands.
On one side, the Victory bikes were hoisted into the air and led along a straight conveyor-type system to various stations. The front clip with wheel and rear swingarm with wheel are built at independent stations before being attached to the frame and transferring through a dozen more stations.
On the other side, each chassis that would become an Indian was rested on a platform that could be programmed to follow a duct-tape-sized strip from station to station, sensing any obstructions that may momentarily be in its path. It’s a pretty trick system. As said, Indian was just ramping up as we toured. Our escorts seemed to prefer we concentrate on the Victory side (In fact, Victory spokesperson R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey paused from verbally emasculating some guy to give us a stern visual inspection. It’s true.)
Three Cross Country
The Cross Country has served as Victory’s best-selling model. Immediately noticeable was that the two FCP models, 8-Ball and Ness all rolled similarly.
The 106 cu. in. (1731cc) engine behaved equally, offering up a generous amount of torque in the low to midrange; the transmission proved a typical Victory affair, supplying a weighted clunk into first and second at pedestrian speeds and requiring a downshift out of the overdrive sixth gear to make a pass at speed; the 43mm inverted cartridge front suspension offered stiff feedback over roadway irregularities while the rear suspension was more complacent with its air adjustability via included hand-pump.
As for rolling behavior, the thick 130/70R18 front and 180/60R16 rear Dunlop Elite 3 work well in concert with the bike’s rather lengthy 65.7-inch wheelbase and weight distribution; and the dual front 300mm floating rotors with four-piston clamps and single 300mm rear with a twin-piston caliper slowed the bike in an expectedly controllable manner. ABS is optional on the FCP and 8-Ball models; standard on the Ness.
At a standstill, all three Cross Country also feel every bit of the nearly 800 lbs. they weigh in at. You can sense the weight of the front end at pedestrian speeds, but that weighted feeling diminishes and disappears once you add momentum. Rolling at speed is pure pleasure. The big bikes easily stretch their legs in the straights and stick to their lines when you swoop into the long curves like those on The Great River Road. Carving some tighter turns? Don’t worry about the full floorboards; they’ll give way slightly once you achieve touch-down.
As for seating position, I’m a pretty average 5’9” with a 30-inch inseam and, with feet flat on the ground and knees bent, found the bike to be quite low-slung with its 26.3-inch seat height. The handlebars are wide but, sitting up straight, my reach to the grips kept my elbows resting in a comfortable bend.
Speaking of comfort, need I remind you that these are baggers? Baggers are meant to come with long-haul amenities, and the Cross Country has those in spades.
Up front, wind protection is handled by a big blade (dubbed the “boomerang blade”) that includes the headlight, all the necessary easy-to-read instrumentation, forward speakers, and a stock windscreen just tall enough to send flow over a rider my size. Accessory windshields are available in a wide range of sizes, styles and colors.
Out back, the hard, body-molded lockable saddlebags on all models offer 21.3 gallons of convenient, lockable storage space. The lids have a weatherproof seal to help block the elements and protect your cargo, and they open and close easily with one-handed operation – even, for the experienced and long-armed, from a standstill at a red light.
With rider, passenger and gear, you’re looking at a 1,360-lb. gross vehicle weight – quite a package to tour with.
So how do these three models of Cross Country differ?
As said, the 8-Ball is blacked out. It’s also stripped out. Rather than full audio, the fairing has twin speakers and an auxiliary audio cord. Use the cord to connect a smart phone or the device of your choice to pump your personal playlists through the speakers.
The FCP models we rode obviously displayed unique two-tone paint jobs. But they also offered a fairing with an integrated audio system utilizing dual KICKER Premium speakers that proved highly audible while we were well in excess of suggested speeds … Mary Lucia never sounded better. The base model priced at $18,999 comes with this set-up, as well.
The Ness Cross Country represents the first time three generations of the first family in customs has teamed up to style a limited-edition Vic. This bike includes everything the FCP models do, but with obvious details by custom slingers Arlen, Cory and Zach Ness that include diamond-cut cylinder cooling fins, Ness paint treatment and a custom Ness-designed seat with stitching.
The Road Home
Wouldn’t it be great if we could take a one-way trip to somewhere? That wasn’t happening on this excursion, as I still had to escort my three new comrades back to the Twin Cities.
For me, the trip took a slight turn. While they traveled the 175 miles from Spirit Lake to Minneapolis via IA-9, US-71, I-90, MN-60 and US-169 atop their Cross Country, I rode away ready to write MMM’s September issue featuring the 2014 Indian Chief Classic (see Issue #151).