Who Am I?
- Bob Barbanes:
- 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!
posted at or around 8:56 PM