Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

07 May 2011

Harley-Davidson Sportster: A Girl's Bike? (2018 Update!)


I own a 2005 Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle. Since I began riding at age 16 I have owned twelve motorcycles; this is my second Sportster. I loved my first one (an ’86 model) and never should have sold it. This ’05 is a better Sportster than the other one, but it is bigger and heavier and less maneuverable. Still, it’s incredibly fun to ride.

Among the Harley community, the Sportster is generally and derogatorily called a “girl’s bike” because it’s the smallest of the three Harley engine families: Sportster; “Big Twin” and V-Rod. And indeed, a lot of the women who buy Harleys do ride Sportsters. In light of this, many guys who are insecure about the size of their penis would never be caught dead on one. I don’t have that issue.

Of all the bikes I’ve owned (bigger and smaller) I think the Sportster is the perfect motorcycle. With its 900cc engine (actually 883) it is big enough and powerful and more than fast enough for me. Yet it is light and nimble and easy to ride. It’s not really designed for extended Interstate highway riding, although I’ve done plenty of that. Neither is it a pseudo-racebike built for going around corners fast. Nor is it a dirtbike, but I’ve had it on plenty of dirt roads and it does just fine.

The Sportster is just an all-around great motorcycle that does everything acceptably well. Plus it gets 55 mpg. Plus-plus I happen to think it’s the best-looking motorcycle on the market. This may be my second Sportster, but it is probably not my last.


The only thing wrong with mine is that it’s not red. But I’ve got another gas tank and rear fender, so that little problem will be rectified soon.

One of the great things about the Sportster is that it is a simple bike. There are just two cylinders and one carburetor (later models are fuel-injected). Everything is out in the open and easily accessible. Critics say that it’s an antiquated design, and they’re right. Harley has been building the same basic motorcycle since its introduction in 1957. They’ve made constant improvements of course, but unbelievably there are some parts from the '57 Sportster that will fit on my bike. I kind of like that continuity of design. Call me a traditionalist.

The other day I went out to the garage to do some long-overdue work on the bike. I needed to change the oil, fix a broken choke cable (my fault), take off my custom air cleaner and change it back to “stock,” and reinstall my windshield. The oil change is so easy (as it is on most motorcycles). While it was draining I pulled off the air custom cleaner and carburetor. The choke cable change could not have been simpler. Once it was done I put the carb and stock air cleaner back on. The windshield was a little more difficult, but once I had everything lined up right it was a snap.

I’ve got a big trip coming up, so after I got the main things done I gave the bike a good look-over, checking on the general condition and making sure everything was tight. Once that was done, I cleaned up and put my tools away. I went into the house with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. I like working on stuff. And it was nice to work on the bike this time without screwing something up, breaking anything else (I do that sometimes), and/or cutting/jabbing myself and spilling blood (I do that a lot).

Both of my Sportsters have given me a tremendous amount of enjoyment. I love this bike. It's mine, it's paid-for, it's easily replaceable (if the unthinkable happens), and most importantly, it's the one I like to own and ride. And that's all that counts.

Girl's bike? Meh- I don't care.



EDIT:  February 14, 2017

I am constantly amazed that this continues to be one of the most-searched-for articles on this blog.  It must get referenced on other websites and then people come to read it. Or something.  A long time has gone by since I wrote it.  In re-reading it, I realized that my original post above was not truly objective and did not address some of the downsides of the Sportster line.  In the interest of journalistic integrity, I thought a little update was in order.

First of all, I sold the 2005.  I never did get it painted red like the one in "Then Came Bronson."  The 2005's "Chopper Blue" paint really appealed to me in the long run.  

I kind of hated selling the Sportster.  It had provided me with a lot of great miles and good times.  But ultimately, although I liked the bike I did not love it the way I loved my 1986 model.  When Harley gave the engine rubber mounts, they beefed up the frame and put a larger rear tire on it.  Those things added weight.  And at 550 pounds, my 2005 was just too heavy.  I never did get the right seat for it.  It was "okay" but not magical.  So I put it up on Craigslist and it was sold in a day.

But I knew I could not live without a Sportster, and always kept my eye out for the "right" replacement.  I wanted a belt-drive, five-speed, pre-rubbermount model.  Trust me, there is no "night and day" difference between a solid-mount Sportster and a rubbermount version.  Some people say there is, but to me the difference is negligible.  As a bonus, the solid-mount Sportsters weigh 60 pounds less than the later ones.  Yes, you can feel it.

I found a nice, low-mileage 1996 model up in Atlanta, close to where my friend Matt lives.  It was blue (again!) but this one had spoke wheels, something I've always wanted.  The owner had changed jobs and moved out of state - couldn't take the bike with him.  So he'd left it behind with a friend who wanted it gone.  The owner wanted $4,500 - an insane amount of money for it...due to the perceived value he assigned to his "customizations" which I'd have spend money to change.  People often think that they get back dollar-for-dollar all of the money they spend on motorcycle modifications.  This is false.

I made a reasonable offer: $2500.  It was rejected, as I figured it would be.  I sent a note, asking the guy to check out the market for used Sportsters and see how many of them there were in his price range (dozens).  I added that if he wanted to actually sell the bike then he should contact me.  Which he eventually did.  Here is the $2500 result:




I've already taken off that exhaust system which is way too loud, changed the seat and replaced those stupid, short, lay-down rear shocks.  The previous owner must've been really short.  And deaf.

Which brings up the biggest problem with the Sportster: It's a small bike.  I actually like it's smallness.  If I wanted a big, 650-pound Super Glide I'd buy a Super Glide.  But I don't.  The Sportster is compact, which makes it maneuverable and...well...sporty.  But let's be honest, it's small.  The vertical distance from the seat to the footpeg is short.  And here is a problem.

I'm only 5'9", and with my feet on the mid-mounted (standard) footpegs, my knees are bent up at an uncomfortable angle.  I'm old and not so limber anymore.  The strain on my hips is unpleasant on long rides.  Taller riders do not fit well on a Sportster with so-called "mid-mount" footpegs/controls, the ones that I prefer.  In the old days, Sportsters had big, wide flat seats that looked like an ironing board.  They were comfortable, yes, but they looked goofy.  Not only that, it made the bike so tall that you had to stand on your tip-toes at a stoplight.  So in 1972 Harley began installing a so-called "Cobra" style seat which was lower because it hugged the frame and rear fender.  It look awesome, but there is a compromise: You pay for that look with a loss of comfort.

The solution of course is a set of either forward-controls, or a simple set of highway pegs (which all of my Sportsters have had).  Having three sets of pegs (highway, stock and passenger) allows the rider to alternate his foot position as necessary to maintain some semblance of comfort.  In this way I've been able to make very long trips on my Sportsters.  Being limited to just one footpeg position would be, in my humble opinion, torture.

And while we're at it...the other bad thing about Sportsters is their rear seat.  It is very small...and narrow - only as wide as the rear fender!  This is not good for passenger comfort.  For me this is not a problem as I'm single and never carry a passenger.  But if you're a normal person with a girlfriend or wife, she will probably not be happy riding around on the back of your Sportster very much.  So be warned: the Sportster is pretty much a single-person vehicle.  But as I said, this is not a problem for me.

And finally!  Here is probably the worst thing about owning a Sportster: The Harley Davidson dealers will treat you like a second-class citizen.  Or worse, a girl.  They barely hide their sneer when you express an interest in the bike.  They'd much rather sell you an expensive Big Twin than a puny Sportster.  One salesman (who didn't know that I owned one) actually said to me that most Sportsters are bought by women.  I felt like reporting him to the Sales Manager, but what good would it do?  This particular salesman also - unbelievably - told me that a black motorcycle was worth more at resale even though Harley charges more for a brand-new bike that's not black.  I questioned this lack of logic and he had no explanation but insisted it was true.  Bullshit.

It is so bad that I actually hate going to the dealership, even for parts.  I breeze in quickly and walk purposefully to the back, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the sales people.  I put on my New York City "don't fuck with me" face and walk on by.  Whatever you do, DO NOT GIVE THEM YOUR PHONE NUMBER!  The sales calls will not stop, even if you ask them to.  "Hey, we're just checking in..."

Other than those issues, the Sportster is the perfect motorcycle for me.   The ride home from Atlanta on my "new" one was incredible.  Even though it was eardrum-bleedingly loud, and even though the stupid rear shocks messed-up the ride quality, the magic was back!  When I got home I could barely wipe the smile off my face.  I look forward to spending many happy hours on this Sportster, once I get it tweaked to my personal taste. 

So that's it.  I unabashedly love the Sportster and think it's the greatest bike in the world.  Heh.  Obviously not everyone agrees, and that's fine.  That's the great thing about motorcycles: There is something for everyone!  The Sportster may not be the right bike for you, but with a little research you'll find the perfect fit.  For me, I'm now torn between the new Triumph Street Twin (or Street Scrambler) and the brand-new 2018 Kawasaki Z-900RS.  I could be deliriously happy with any of those bikes in my garage...parked right next to my Sportster!

30 comments:

Redlefty said...

Insecure men who criticize your choice have enough of their own issues; no need for those to transfer to you!

I've never ridden a motorcycle, but you just did a good sales job on the Sportster.

Hal Johnson said...

For the twelve years I had a Harley, it struck me that some Sportster models had higher seat heights than my FXS Low Rider, which had the highest seat height of any Superglide. It actually made those Sportster models inappropriate for many women cuz they had to stand on their tippy toes at a stop.

Bob Barbanes: said...

Michael, I fully understand that some guys correlate the size of their motorcycles with the size of their, um, manhood. I get that. One evening recently I went to biker get-together at a local motorcycle shop. The parking lot was PACKED with big, loud customs and gargantuan cruisers of all brands- not just Harleys! Few helmets, lot of do-rags and beer-bellies. More macho posturing than in a prison recreation yard. Of course, here comes Bob on my comparatively little Sportster wearing my full-face helmet and leather jacket, a real geek, looking and feeling very out of place. I'm sure the other guys thought I was some noob who just started riding, not a veteran rider with 40 years experience. I won't go back to that particular little gathering of poseurs. Too much testosterone for me!

And Hal, I've never understood the need for people to be able to stand flat-footed at a traffic light. Nearly every (non-Harley) bike I've ever owned was so tall that I could only put the balls of my feet on the ground at a stop. What can I tell you, I guess I'm short. Meh- it never mattered much. I always thought that's just how bikes were. Somewhere along the way IT WAS DECIDED that you had to be able to sit in the seat and put both feet flat on the floor. Thus, Harley made bikes with lower and lower seat heights and less and less ground clearance in turns.

My biggest complaint about the Sportster is that the low seat height means that the distance from my butt to the footpegs is small. This means that my knees are bent upward at an awkward, uncomfortable angle with my feet on the pegs. (More deep knee bends, Bob?) "Highway pegs" help a bit, but my shifter and rear brake are on the mid-mount pegs. Ah, everything is a compromise. One day I'll put a taller seat on this thing. Then I'll REALLY look geeky! But at least I'll be more comfortable.

Mike said...

You are absolutely right. I'm a six foot 280 lb guy and I ride an 05 sportster custom. Its an incredible bike. It is a bit crude at times(clunk when shifting, engine whine when accelerating) but one of the best bikes I've ever owned. I go to the Harley dealer every few weeks to pick up this small thing or that small thing and NOBODY says a word to me. I kinda wanted a wide glide but the bikes were so similar, that the 8000 dollar price difference was the killer. I like my bike and when the time is right my son will get it, in the meantime I'm gonna ride the tires off of it!

Greybeard said...

It IS odd how the motorcycle industry has changed. It's much different than the car industry, which is now trying to find ways to make things smaller and lighter while still incorporating some degree of comfort.

The '64 Sporster XLCH I rode had the 55 cu. in. (883cc)engine that is on the smaller of the Sportster models now, but at the time it was bigger than most of the bikes it was designed to compete with...
The 650cc Triumphs, BSA's, and the 750 Nortons. At the time, the Sportster was King... none of the stock Brit bikes could keep up with the Sporty.
Now, 1000cc bikes are considered minimums. Even the 1200cc Sportster is considered a "smaller" bike.

"Car-size" engines bring car-comparable fuel mileage, and I suspect we'll now see a re-focus on bikes with smaller, but still power-adequate engines. We're now seeing fuel injection on some bikes.
Some folks will even take a look at the new Scooters coming out that get 75+ mpg and have bigger wheels for better control.

Seems to me Harley is marketing their bikes where the present line will sell, and the Sporty with its low seat height lends itself to the female anatomy.
Young guys seem to be gravitating to rice-rockets. Harley needs new technology to capture this market..
even the V-rod is now being left behind by much of the competition.

It'll be fun to watch as the bike industry (and Harley specifically) scrambles to catch up with demand.

charlesb52 said...

100%!!
Nice to read!
charlesb52, Netherlands.
Please have a look at www.sportsters.nl , the Sportster Owners Netherlands with more than 600 Sporty-addicts!!

Toxic Garage said...

great ride up!
i own 2 sportsters one ironhead and one early evo. and yes they are the most versatile harley has to offer!

all i can say for now is. CTFS!
(Chop That Fucking Sportster)
greets from Chief.
(The dutch QCbastard)

Anonymous said...

I find this ideal that the sporster is a lesser Harley to be stupid really.The sporster is a large enough bike and ideal for many people,its much more affordable thann the ones that cost as much as a top model car WOW I cant afford $41000 for one I just saw a few days ago.Lets face it the Harley is an image bike with a USA cult following but is also a very nice classic bike most of us want to stay as it is .I dont like the modern looking fuel injected stuff its going like our old cars /into history.I hope Harley doesnt lose its original style and simple technology/I hate the idea it will one day be an electric silent motorcycle wont that just piss you all off.

Andre said...

I've ridden and maintained a 1975 XLH (ironhead) for 27 and a half years. Its the ONLY bike I've ever kept, following a couple of decent Jap rides eons ago. Having had several wives, multiple girl friends, job changes, different homes, etc the Sporty (Angel Rat) has always been the one constant in my ongoing life saga. F*** chrome and new shit. My old Sporty is part of me, blemishes and all. You don't start it, you awaken it. It doesn't run, it gallops. When its parked it exudes a kind of quiet dignity, worn, rough around the edges, but with a dangerous undercurrent. Cant imagine her not ever being there. Out.

Bob Barbanes: said...

Andre, if you've been able to keep your '75 XLH running all this time - and resisted the urge to replace it with something newer, well, God love you man.

I always liked those mid-70's Sportys...before they "Japanesed" them with the curved fender struts and stuff. On the other hand, the turn signals on the '75 were fugly (sorry, but it's true), and the '75 was the first year with that goofy shift-lever-that-looks-like-a-brake-lever on the left. Still, great bikes - as all Sportys are.

Thanks for writing! Glad you still have yours and are still riding it. They really are much more than mere machines, aren't they?

Bocaman88 said...

I am turning 52 this year, I am just getting my motorcycle license after wanting to ride for 36 years. I have reviewed the Sportster from many sites (I am an accountant) and it does seem the best "jump off" bike from a new riders perspective. The emotion you put into your post Andre is exactly why want to ride, I am not getting younger and I don't want to get too old to stroke this most highly ranked item off my bucket list. If anyone has any tips I would love to hear them, I am taking an extensive training course, I have driven pretty much everything that has more than 3 wheels.

Mike said...

I don't get the Harley haters. Here in Scotland a fair fer people think that if you're not getting your knee down on the latest crotch rocket you're not biking, fuds that they are! I'll hopefully be getting my sportster next year. My Dad is currently fixing a few problems it had, we got it cheap as the big end had gone. And its red!

grubdog said...

I am so glad that this issue is being addressed. As for myself, the Sportster provides something that no other motorcycle has been able to. It gives me the same feeling that I felt when I rode my first bike; and that is worth a bunch to me. I have owned larger bikes, and faster bikes, but I always come back to my first love.

Mike, from Chesapeake VA. said...

Great post! I myself have just returned to riding. I first started out on the rice rocket and made my way to the endure bikes. Then my Victory Hammer sold that to get married and after a few years the bug was in my ear to get back on two wheels. I started out looking for my Hammer again but found myself looking at HD Sportsters. Having talked to a bunch of people, some saying it a girl’s bike and some saying it’s too small. I though caution to the wind and pick up a 05 XL1200C and I have never looked back. It is by far the best and most comfortable bike I have ever saddled up. Well said to the man, “you don’t start the bike, you wake it up.” Something has to be said, as to why Haley Davidson has only made small changes to this bike. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Now If could stop spending a hundred dollars every time I walk in the deal. I must say it’s my fault; I want everything they make for it….. Happy / safe riding to you all.

Bob Barbanes: said...

Ah Mike, welcome back to the Sportster club! We are all prone to the "bigger is better" attitude, and that invades us Harley guys as well. But you know what? The Sportster is "big enough" for me...and for you too apparently. I'm glad you could see through the hype and buy the bike you REALLY like to ride!

As for spending money on the damn things...well...you know that H-D stands for "hundred dollars," right? Because that's how much you'll spend every time you walk in the dealership ;)

Enjoy your Sportster!

Anonymous said...

After being in a few mc's, I have learned that image is everything with these posers Riding is very low on their priorities. Biggest bunch of low iq blowhards you will ever meet.

Andrew Girard said...

If you think that any bike is a " girls" bike, well go ahead! Personally I want " my" woman to know how to ride cause if she can do that she can in all probility hang on! Of course she can ride me and I'd like a difficuty level to my hanging on! We will progress1) sportster2) Roadking3) V- Rod 4) 327 trike 5) 442 duel carb trike 6) NASA CHOISE with air foil effects! Girls gotta learn with someone! Why complain,she at least doesn't need a " pair" to ....what are you complaining about? At least she's on a Harley!
Former asst(?) Enforcer!
Highway Demon, 1978-?
Northern Ohio!
Preacher!

Andrew Girard said...

Sportster as " girls" bike! Just cause I " need" something that doesn't whine and strip gears when I run the throtte doesn't dinigerate the sportster at any displasement! Not everyone runs 309 lbs and a 140 solid woman would do me just fine! So point is if you run in excess of 700. + you need more cc displacement for those delicate trying situations! Getting the incline at 70+ comes to mind! Gettin out of the way of a drunk who can't drive! Lack the horsepower and your " under"!
Of course if 140+/- wants to ride I want to hang on! First with me than the sporty! We will go as follows: 1) sporter 2) Roadking 3) v-rod 4)327 trip assperated trike 4) 442 duel 742(?) Trike.
5) NASA surpluses!
You want" her" to ride what you got ,right? Are we still critically downplaying what real woman do? Your making up for a lack of what? They have " pills" for that if you need them!
Preacher ( asst. Enforcer)
1978-
Highway Demons
Northern Ohio!
I'm loud ,proud and back and ,no, I'm not Randy Quade am I!

bestgirl21801 said...

My sweetie bought me a Sportster as a gift. I love her! Still trying to figure out the clutch and stalled her a couple of times! She fits me like a glove!

Gary Wilson said...

Who cares if its a Sportster as long as it ain't Metric? ( jap crap )

James Brewer said...

I've seen women on every harley model out there, so tell me then aren't all Harley's girls bikes now? Besides this is a different time we live, one coud argue that unless you own a Boss Hoss V8 you ride a girls bike, so how big do you have to go to be approved by these biker clowns who think there are specific bikes for guys and girls. I ride a sportster and sometimes If I'm not carefully I wil let someone's comment bother me, but I would consider the source, like its any ones business what you ride, even if you like scooters, good for you, your on two wheels having fun, don't let anyone spoil it. So how big is your ego, do you have to have a V8 on your bike or can you just enjoy to ride whatever makes you feel good and not have to worry about others slamming on your ride. Ride On!!

Tom D said...

I remember a friend years ago who was buying a Harley and spent a few afternoons talking to sales people. He told me that he found out that there are "chick bikes" that you don't want to buy. Looking back on it now I think I know where that sentiment comes from. The Harley people! Think about it, Sportster is usually less expensive. Sales people get commissions. What better way to sell a bigger bike than to insult someone's manhood? (something that may actually be the reason many people get a bike). Things that make you say, "Hmmmm...."

David Braden said...

amen brother

David Braden said...

i have a 97 sporty 1200c with 12 inch apes i love it girl bike maybe my bike yes

Jonnyluv77 said...

I love the sportster! I have had three in total. My very first bike was an 09 Nightster 1200 and i kept it only 5 months and sold it cause I wanted something older and cheaper. I now have a custom 75 ironhead with a rigid frame and recently bought a 05 883 with only 30 miles on it for only 3000! Best bikes ever! long live the Sporty!!!

PaPa Blista said...

Sportster Little frame big engine what's not to love, The baggers can just keep look'in at my backside while trying to catch up...

Robert Smith said...

I bought a Yamaha 650 maxim in 1983 right out of college and sold it in 1986 to buy an engagement ring. Moved out of state and got a new drivers license with no MC endorsement on it. Thirty-three years later I bought a used 2011 Sportster 883 Iron at a dealer with like 200 miles on it. I've owned it a week and have not missed a day of riding. The Sportster is perfect for commuting and weekend recreational riding. There are many reasons I like the model Sportster I bought 1) Affordable 2) Easy to service and maintain 3)Fuel injection allows me to start and get going right away. 4) Exhilarating ride and comfort just the right amount of power. So raised two children still married enjoying life like a 25 year old again.

Mitchell Travis said...

Great article. I have always loved the sportsters and have owned one for over 3 years. It has been one of the most reliable motor vehicles that I have owned in my life. I also think they are one of the better lookimg Harleys on the market and you don't need to spend your life savings on one. The only thing that bugged me about mine was that there wasn't a lot of leg room for me with stock forward controls however now that I have installed Accutronix 6 inch extended forward controls it is perfect.

Paul Hedges said...

I think you are right when some people 'have' to have a Big Twin.
We have faced the same issues in the UK with all of the comments like
'when are you going to trade it in and get a bigger bike?'
I ride a 1200 Sportster...it's not small!
Should I trade up to a Road King what so I get, 12bhp more for 200lbs extra weight and 6th gear.
There are so many Sportster riders in the UK Sportster Sickness UK was setup on facebook.
We now have 6000 members in less than 3 years and we are still growing.
And even though we are nationwide across the UK we still pull lots of large rides together. Last my 503 were riding in convoy and this year in April it will be even bigger.
I have ridden all over Europe on my Sportster leading all manner of 'bigger' HDs behind me

I was even in the US last year to ride the Smokies....on a Sportster of course. The guy even asked me then...why a Sportster?
I had nothing to carry as my fine lady was driving a F-150 so I had nothing to carry. And the bike ate up the miles and loved all of the bends.

I love my bike and can see no reason at present to change it

Ride safe my friend

Bob Barbanes: said...

Thank you so much for your comments, Paul! Words like yours are what I love to hear! As good a bike as the Sportster is on fun, twisty roads, it's not the greatest touring mount. Nevertheless I have traveled all over the U.S. on mine. You just have to get creative in packing stuff on the bike.

I suppose that someday H-D will end Sportster production, and that'll be sad. But what a run the thing has had...incomparable!

Have fun riding yours, too ;)