I didn’t know what to expect when I got an email about attending the 2023 Harley-Davidson CVO press intro for RideApart. Strangely enough, although I’ve been an avid motorcyclist my entire life—primarily on dirt—I had never ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
In many ways, I never understood the appeal of riding a big bike over long distances. But the Harley-Davidson CVOs are not just any motorcycle. After a quick review of the recent press release on the 2023 CVO models, my reply was an emphatic YES! So, I boarded a plane to Milwaukee to throw a leg over one of these legendary motorcycles.
As the first launch of this size at its world headquarters in Milwaukee since 2019, it was also the first massive gathering in the company’s hometown since Covid. Scheduled to coincide with this year’s Harley 120th Anniversary Celebration/Homecoming Festival, the CVO press intro encompassed four days of riding, VIP tours of the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Powertrain Operations Facility, and even a private tour of the top-secret Product Development Center.
I was part of the first media group to ride the CVO bikes on Thursday, July 13, 2023, with Factory Harley-Davidson King of Baggers racers Kyle and Travis Wyman. They and younger brother Cody led us on a 130-mile loop through the lush greenery north of Milwaukee, where we put the motorcycle through its paces, had a few photos taken, and formed our impressions.
According to Harley-Davidson, the “Grand Touring” concept motorcycle came about after the formation of the interstate highway system. As the United States became increasingly interconnected through a network of roads and highways that spanned the United States, motorcycles became a fun way for people to enjoy cross-country travel in something other than a car. The result is the Grand Touring concept, which led to modern variations like the 2023 CVO Street and Road Glide models.
Harley-Davidson launched its Custom Vehicle Operations™ (CVO) division in 1999 and has produced these unique limited-production motorcycles ever since. CVO motorcycles represent the pinnacle of Harley-Davidson style and design, with premium attention-getting finishes, outsize performance, exceptional components, and advanced technology. As H-D states, it’s an “attention to detail that borders on obsessive.”
According to H-D, a big part of the goal with the 2023 CVO concept was to differentiate it from other model years with a modernized look and cleaner, more muscular design details. To do so, the design team explored hundreds of variations ranging from “mild to wild” before finding a balance of evolution and revolution that pushes the design forward while maintaining its noticeably unique Harley-Davidson DNA and appeal.
Harley-Davidson left no stone unturned with its changes to the 2023 CVO models. By whittling down and optimizing each bike, the CVO Street Glide shed 31 pounds, while the CVO Road Glide dropped 35 pounds over the 2022 editions. The CVO design ethos encompasses the biggest and best of everything that makes Harley-Davidson unique.
Before I get to my riding impressions, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of the standout features explained to us by Harley staff during the 2023 CVO technical presentation we attended while visiting the Powertrain Operations Facility. The sheer number of changes and updates was mind-boggling. However, the ones that stood out to me the most were:
Milwaukee-Eight® VVT 121 engine is equipped with optimized liquid-cooled cylinder heads, a new cooling system, variable valve timing (VVT), and a new intake tract. VVT advances or retards the camshaft timing to broaden overall power and improve torque management and efficiency compared to engines with fixed valve timing, and improves fuel economy by three to five percent
Radially mounted four-piston Brembo front brake calipers and 320mm front brake discs, along with a single four-piston Brembo caliper and 300mm brake disc in the rear, offer outstanding braking feel and performance
New cooling system allows the engine to run up to 60 degrees cooler and improves thermal comfort for the rider compared to previous CVO models, especially in low-speed riding situations such as heavy traffic and hot weather
Beautiful 12.3-inch touch-screen infotainment system is powered by Skyline™ OS and uses clean, easy-to-read fonts with contrast settings that make the screen easier to view in bright conditions. Three screen display options allow one to choose from Cruise, Sport, and Tour modes
Premium, high-performance Harley-Davidson Audio by Rockford Fosgate is powered by a four-channel, 500-watt RMS amplifier that powers 6.5-inch fairing speakers and five by seven-inch saddlebag speakers
Improved aerodynamics reduce rider helmet buffeting at speed and offer better rider protection from wind and cold conditions, including an adjustable control vane on the front fairing to control head buffeting and provide clean air
When we started the ride, I was a bit intimidated because I lacked familiarity with the bike’s controls. I thought it might have too many bells and whistles for me because of my analog, dirt bike-riding past. Still, I quickly became acclimated as muscle memory kicked in, and the controls became second nature.
I would have liked to spend more time with the class-leading 12.3-inch infotainment system, but I instead focused more on my riding and handling impressions. However, like almost every other part on these motorcycles, the company upped the ante on motorcycle infotainment systems with their super clean, intuitive, and functional system.
The first thing I noticed after grabbing a handful of throttle was the neck-snapping acceleration, thanks to the Milwaukee-Eight® VVT 121 motor that outputs an impressive eight percent more torque and 9.5 percent more horsepower than the Milwaukee-Eight 117 engine. With an 11.4 to one compression ratio and 139 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 RPM, the 2023 CVO models make a claimed 115 horsepower at 4,500 RPM.
H-D describes the exhaust note as “intoxicating,” and when combined with the bike’s engine and chassis vibration, it made for a pleasant sensory experience. Beyond the lovely sound, the power and acceleration supplied by the Milwaukee-Eight® VVT 121 motor made navigating through traffic and passing as simple as a quick twist of the right wrist.
My biggest impression was that I came away with a better understanding of the allure of riding these big motorcycles. The CVO models are made for comfort and long days in the saddle. They can easily tackle twisty roads and cruise highways thanks to its many creature comforts and the power to make clean, safe passes with fewer worries when overtaking.
Overall, the 2023 Harley-Davidson CVO Street Glide is a gorgeous, impressive motorcycle with massive power, a balanced and lightweight feel, modern controls, and a next-level entertainment system. It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit and even harder for me to believe, but this was the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle I’d ever ridden in my life. This, despite working in the powersports industry for the last 30 years—and it was a CVO!
On Saturday morning, after riding the CVO motorcycles earlier in the week, members of the media were treated to a VIP tour of the Harley Davidson Museum. It was an amazing showcase of the history of the brand, and it saw over 4,100 people come through the doors of the museum on Friday alone.
While there, we attended a panel discussion between CEO Jochen Zeitz and vice presidents Bill and Karen Davidson. It was fascinating to hear them reminisce and tell stories about the history and evolution of the Harley-Davidson brand. All three agreed that one of the most important things in the company’s history was the buyback of the Harley-Davidson brand from American Machine and Foundry (AMF). It was a stressful time, but an American icon was saved.
With a full schedule over three days, it was time to relax and enjoy some Nitro Circus freestyle motocross demos and music, with Foo Fighters closing out the week with a capacity crowd at Veteran’s Park. Other bands playing throughout the week included The Cult, Phantogram, and Green Day on Friday, with Joan Jett, White Reaper, and Cody Jinks joining the Foo Fighters in closing the festival on Saturday.
At 8:45 p.m., Foo Fighters hit the stage to bring down the house with a blistering two-hour set mixed with old and new tunes from the iconic group. It was a fitting way to end the week, and the crowd gathered at Veterans Park on the shores of Lake Michigan seemed to respond with positive vibes and infectious energy. According to early indications, the shows gathered more than 80,000 moto and music enthusiasts throughout the weekend.
For those who missed this year’s 120th Anniversary Homecoming, it was announced at Saturday’s panel discussion that the Harley Homecoming Festival will become an annual event starting in 2024. The 2024 Homecoming is tentatively slated for July 25 through 28, with anniversary celebrations moving to every five years. As a bonus, Homecoming 2024 will celebrate the life of Willie G. Davidson and the impact his life has had on the iconic brand’s history. So, start your plans now to attend the Harley-Davidson Homecoming Festival in 2024.
As Bill Davidson said during Saturday’s panel discussion at the Harley-Davidson Museum, “Form follows function, but both report to emotion.” After three days in Milwaukee, I was impressed with the worldwide appeal the Harley-Davidson brand generates. CEO Jochen Zeitz was thrilled to meet riders from the far reaches of North and South America who’d ridden their motorcycles to Milwaukee specifically to attend the 120th Anniversary Celebration and Homecoming Festival.
It took one ride for me to understand that the company is a master of tapping this emotional appeal to connect with its customers, such that it creates lifelong enthusiasts that don’t think twice about tattooing a Harley-Davidson logo on their bodies. Observing the enthusiasm of thousands of loyal customers for three days on top of riding the incredible 2023 CVO Street Glide, it became clear that emotion is one of the primary drivers of Harley-Davidson’s decision-making process.
After 120 years, the company continues to evolve alongside the demand for classic styles with modern, technologically innovative products like the 2023 CVO, Pan America, and its separate EV entity, LiveWire. It shows that the company is listening to its customers and building products to satisfy every type of rider and personal taste. From my experience, the city of Milwaukee also loves Harley Davidson because during my stay, despite the non-stop H-D rumble, I saw a lot of smiling, happy faces waving at us around town.
Harley-Davidson is a brand that continues to evolve alongside its melting pot of riders—both male and female, from every walk of life—that seek out the sound, look, feel, and experience of riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. They understand how to create a sense of camaraderie and belonging through an extended family of like-minded people who ride motorcycles together. It was impressive to witness the strength and worldwide appeal of the Harley-Davidson brand, and I look forward to next year already.