Bikes we love

Rethinking the Sportster

You know what would be really clever? If Harley-Davidson dealerships could issue false invoices that you could show to your wife. So, you could come home with, say, a $15,000 motorcycle but produce for your life partner a receipt claiming you had paid only $9,000. 

“Yeah, babe,” you could say. “I talked ’em down.”
In truth you would have paid full price, plus the Stage 1 tax, but your wife would never know. Except for your refusal to buy new clothes for the next decade or so.
In fairness, this is not something I would need for my wife. Recently I found myself thinking very seriously about getting a Triumph Bonneville, and even got all the way to the point of scheduling an appointment to go in and work out the financing. Over and over I gave Jenn the opportunity to kill the decision by telling me it was impractical. But her argument was that owning a motorcycle is in its nature sort of an emotional thing, so it’s difficult to discuss the issue of practicality. She was supportive of the idea and, I suspect, looking forward to riding on the back of a Triumph. In the end, it was fate that waved me off the plan. My office was hit with lay-offs and though I’m not under threat I felt it best to wait until I’m sure I’m not under threat. 
Maybe in autumn. Maybe in winter. Maybe next spring. We’ll see. But not getting the Bonneville has initiated some heavy rumination on whether it’s really the bike I want. I mean, no ABS. That is a real problem for me. 
Last summer, I found myself making use of the anti-lock brakes on my Honda CBF600S when approaching a semi-truck at high speed on a typically gravel-strewn Welsh road. In thinking about the ABS-less Bonneville I tried to tell myself that I had been particularly inattentive that day and that I was really green in terms of riding. But the fact is, I am still pretty green and you cannot choose your panic situations. Every time I mention anti-lock someone rolls out a story about some MSF super-pro who can stop faster on standard brakes. But I’m not that guy, and that guy is not me. He’s got 30 years of experience and is stopping under ideal conditions; he’s not an easily distracted newbie in Wales, in the rain, on a tiny road that has been abandoned by maintenance teams.
And really, it is stupid and lazy that Triumph has not equipped the Bonneville with anti-lock brakes. The technology exists on all of the company’s other models and as of 2016 will be legally required as a standard feature for all motorcycles sold in the European Union. Really, Triumph should have by now accepted the way of things and added the feature. Harley-Davidson has with all of its bikes.
You were wondering when this was going to get back to Harley-Davidson, weren’t you?

I know that I keep saying cruisers aren’t terribly well suited to UK roads but I don’t seem willing to believe it. I don’t want to believe it. I want to ride a cruiser. Surely it must be possible; according to a recent story I read on VisorDown, there are nigh 41,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles on UK roads. And lately I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200: the bike I got a chance to test ride last August.

I think a lot about how my riding style has developed since then, how I’m far more comfortable in terms of manoeuvring, road position, etc. I’m more confident in my actions, more sure of what I’m doing, and better tuned to the general experience of riding a motorcycle. And with this knowledge I find myself looking back at my criticisms of the Sportster:

  • I didn’t like the fact that it did not have anti-lock brakes. But a week or so after my test ride, Project Rushmore was launched and over here in Europe ABS became standard on all Harley-Davidson models.
  • I felt the Sportster was a bit heavy. But not so heavy that I was really uncomfortable. Indeed, I filtered through traffic on my test ride — the bike’s low centre of gravity gave me confidence. And the fact is, at that time I was really green and still often feeling awkward on my Honda. So, it is entirely possible — in fact, likely — that I now wouldn’t be too greatly affected by the Harley’s girth. Or I could very quickly adapt. Either way, I think the Sportster is just “small” enough to manage a solid 90 percent of the traffic filtering situations that I tackle on my present bike. And for those other situations there’s an argument that the presence of a Harley-Davidson would open up traffic gaps more effectively than the presence of an economy Honda.
  • I didn’t like the fact that the Sportster is air-cooled. But, dude, I live in a country that is always cold. I can think of several times over the past few months when I would have loved to be able to reach down and warm my hands on a H-D engine.
  • I didn’t like the fact that it does not have a tachometer or other dashboard information. But again: Project Rushmore. The Sportster set up now comes standard with a digital tachometer and gear indicator.
  • I didn’t like the fact the Sportster has no wind protection. OK, I still don’t really like that. But that wasn’t stopping me from wanting a Bonneville. And, of course, the H-D extras catalogue offers dozens of screen options.
  • I didn’t like the fact it doesn’t get good gas mileage. But, turns out I was talking without checking facts on that one. According to Fuelly.com the Sportster gets similar MPG to my present bike (less but not a whole lot less).
  • I wasn’t sure I’d like the engine’s sound over long periods of riding. But at the time I wasn’t regularly wearing ear plugs when riding. It’s a good bet I now wouldn’t notice (I am that one person who doesn’t feel a Harley-Davidson needs to be any louder, so I wouldn’t install new pipes).
Also, apparently unique to H-D dealerships, I was treated really well by Swansea Harley-Davidson. And being treated well is the sort of thing that sticks with you. It makes you want to return. If you’re treated really well, it makes you want to find ways to spend money.

And the more time I have to ponder upon the thing, the more I find myself thinking: “Yeah, actually, that Sportster was an OK machine. Maybe, just maybe, I’d like to have one of my own.”