Ridin’ Loose With The Bagger King

king of the baggers indian motorcycles
Ridin’ Loose With The Bagger KingIndian Motorcycles

“You’ve just got to ride it loose,” says Tyler O’Hara, Indian Motorcycle’s racing champion. He laughs like he knows how absurd the statement is. Here, he suggests, just take this 620-lb. two-wheeled rocket ship out for a few laps—"but just relax and let ‘er shake, man." O’Hara can say that.

He's sitting pretty now with two King of the Baggers Championship titles, so he can laugh and tell me offhand to try Launch Mode and short-shift first gear. But for a mere mortal like myself, the idea of piloting this V-twin full-on race bagger—the actual 2022 championship-winning race bike—is as exciting as it is terrifying.

I’m up next.

king of the baggers indian motorcycles
Looks like your Grandaddy’s tourer, goes like a stuck pig.Indian Motorcycle

Baggers are American touring motorcycles, heavyweights made for cruising long-distance on American highways. Think big, air-cooled V-twin engines, large fairings packed with speakers and screens, and hard saddlebags. Baggers are designed with relaxed steering-head angles and moderate trail lengths for straight-line stability. Their seats ride low, while the floorboards are placed far forward on the bike, allowing the rider to sit reclined and relaxed. From the standpoint of original design, baggers are about as far from a race bike as a Vespa.


But what started as a quirky bagger racing exhibition put on by some aftermarket brands has grown into a true series for these heavyweights. This is not some oxymoronic exercise; race bagger lap times are often just a couple seconds away from superbike track records. King of the Baggers is a real road-racing series pitting Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle against each other in a way the world hasn’t seen for decades. Indian Motorcycle and Tyler O’Hara took the 2020 Championship. H-D and Kyle Wyman took 2021. O’Hara and Indian hit back and won again in 2022.

indian king of the baggers race bike
O’Hara wrestling his Indian bagger through a chicane.Brian J Nelson

The series produces wild, exciting racing from bikes that look like they belong at your local Hog Hut. That juxtaposition between immense size and intense speed has made American bikers pay attention to racing in a way they hadn't before.

Now the bike that’s waiting for me still looks like an Indian Challenger. That’s one of the rules in King of the Baggers: the bikes must still look like baggers. But the bike's saddlebags have been replaced with non-functioning carbon shells; its fairing is little more than carbon fiber aero with headlight stickers. As dictated by the AMA rules, the main frame must be the original manufacturer part, so all adjustments to chassis geometry and ergonomics happen elsewhere.

Adjustable triple clamps, which join the front wheel and frame, are fitted with offset risers and tapered handlebars. The bars host multi-colored buttons scribbled with sharpie or paint pen to indicate their purpose. I know the one marked “L,” means “Launch,” thanks to O’Hara. The Indian's seat is inches thick, lifting the rider up to properly situate their feet on the high, rearward foot controls.

indian bagger king of the baggers race bike
From afar, this bike looks like anything parked outside your local saloon. Up close, it’s all thoroughbred chic.Indian Motorcycle

I mount the bike and hit the engine's starter button. Surprisingly, the button's stock. The sound is not stock. It’s deep and brooding. The bike sounds mean—ready. A quick blip of the throttle reveals immediate response. My hand snaps shut and the roar dies sharply, back to the tone of deep rolling thunder.

The engine has been modified with 110-mm big-bore pistons and cylinders. Cylinder heads were CNC ported and new billet rocker arms installed. Main bearings in the crankcase were locked into place. Though the intake and exhaust valves were upgraded, and the ECU has been flashed with various maps, the engine is surprisingly stock.

“Its the most powerful thing I've ever rode," O'Hara says. "More powerful than any R1 or ZX10 I’ve ever rode.”

indian king of the baggers race bike ride
Serious brakes and sophisticated dampers betray—and enhance—the Indian’s touring roots.Indian Motorcycle

From the first sway on the Challenger’s chassis, you can tell this is no bagger, not anymore. Handling feels nimble and immediately responsive. The seating position is high and my body feels far from the bike’s center of gravity. A circus elephant balancing on a ball comes to mind.

I move slowly at first. GP-shifting means that first gear is up and the rest are down, which takes some getting used to. There is no ABS. No traction control system is allowed. I wanted to feel it out for a slow lap or two.

Pieces that almost feel like rock-climbing holds are attached to the Challenger’s tank. This lets the rider hook their outside leg underneath to hang their body low off the bike through turns. I figured this out quickly and started pushing it a little more with each turn, all while being cautiously terrified, wildly excited, and constantly aware of the GP-shift pattern.

indian king of the baggers race bike ride
Indian Motorcycle

The Challenger engine likes to rev. The bike even handles better that way too. Trying to keep it in the low RPMs would result in pushing through the turns, but let that engine scream and it tracks right along—mostly. As corner speed picks up, my lean angles through the turns grew more extreme. The Challenger’s stock frame flexes and wiggles under the strain. Ahhh, so that’s what Tyler meant. So I try to “ride ‘it loose,” remembering that I am certainly not Tyler O’Hara, and it all came together.

Ride fast, let ‘er wiggle, and balance the power of that absolutely insane engine with the extremely precise brakes to get this Indian around track as fast as you dare. I start to feel comfortable, like I'm really moving, when Sir Alan Cathcart—road racer and motorcycling journalist with nearly five decades of experience—passes me on the outside. Absolute legend.

After watching O’Hara race, I figured he was a bit of a madman. After riding his bike, I know it. Indian Motorcycle and S&S have made a truly incredible machine, but it takes a pilot like O’Hara to pull it all together.

indian king of the baggers race bike ride
Yes, that’s O’Hara dragging knee on a touring bike capable of near-superbike lap times. No, he’s not human.Brian J Nelson

“It’s kind of a combination of every skillset that I’ve ever learned put into my craft to go ride this thing at a high level.” O’Hara says. “It’s just big, it’s heavy, it’s not a sportbike. It's powerful, it'll spin the tire, and I just feel like I thrive in those conditions.”

Godspeed Tyler, you absolute madman. Stay loose.

You Might Also Like