Bikes for real riders, not toys for a mid-life crisis

This is the bike to prove the Harley-haters wrong. Tim Luckhurst rides the latest Sportster, built for a new generation
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Win the confidence of your local Harley-Davidson dealer and he will admit that he sells dreams as well as motorbikes. Glance at the odometers on his row of gleaming used machines and you will understand how remote from reality many of those dreams are.

Win the confidence of your local Harley-Davidson dealer and he will admit that he sells dreams as well as motorbikes. Glance at the odometers on his row of gleaming used machines and you will understand how remote from reality many of those dreams are.

Two-year-old Harleys with less than 3,000 miles on the clock are common. For every owner who takes his bike on touring adventures, there are three who keep them in suburban garages and polish them obsessively. This chrome fetish may permit occasional participation in organised Harley Owners Group ride-outs, but only if the weather is perfect.

Many motorcyclists regard this as proof that Harley ownership is the manifestation of a mid-life crisis. For confirmation, they point to the racks of XL-sized Harley-Davidson jeans that hang alongside the bikes, and pictures of sylph-like young women looking adoringly at customised petrol tanks. Harleys, say the cynics, are slow, old-fashioned and handle like a pram full of bricks. They are just rich boys' toys that will never go further than the local Rotary Club barbecue. Forget Hells Angels -- these are for accountants who fantasise about lion-taming.

Harley-Davidson know their market. Among their more ostentatious and expensive models are things that function better as accessory racks than motorcycles. But the caricature does not do justice to the machinery. Harley also make bikes that are a joy to ride. Ironically, one of the most glorious of them is the cheapest machine in the range, the XL883 Sportster.

The modern Sportster is a direct descendant of the bike first introduced in 1957 as a genuine high-street hot rod. That lineage is responsible for iconic good looks that make it the focus of appreciative comments wherever it stops.

I know. Mine has 20,000 miles on the clock. It has carried me all over Europe and is currently cooling outside a cottage in Brittany having blasted down from Glasgow in nine hours. It is not spectacularly fast, but it will cruise all day at 80mph and its handling on twisting country lanes always brings a smile to my face.

But there are design faults in pre-2004 Sportsters like mine. The 883cc twin-cylinder Evolution engine is bolted straight to the frame without the intercession of vibration-absorbing rubber. The result, after prolonged use at motorway speeds, is painful. My bottom and wrists are still throbbing and it is not a sign of age. My 12-year-old son demands 10-minute rest stops every 100 miles to deal with what he calls "numb-bum syndrome". He has a mechanical ally. The Sportster's fuel tank only permits 110 miles of fast cruising between fills. The clutch is heavy and engine cooling can be a problem in hot weather.

None of this has prevented me enjoying my Sportster, but while the bike is a more practical machine than Harley-sceptics have been prepared to concede, it has taken persistence and brand loyalty not to trade it in. Now Harley has come up with the solution. The 2004 Sportster range has benefited from a truly sensitive redesign.

It is hard to modernise a classic without destroying the character, but Harley has done it. My first impression on mounting the base model 2004 XL883 was that it remained, clearly, a Sportster. At 150mm the rear tyre has been widened. Bigger cooling fins and new pistons mean the engine runs cooler. The clutch is perceptibly lighter. But the big change is the rubber engine mountings. Now the Sportster does not make its rider judder. The Evolution engine has always felt sweet and responsive. Now, the feeling that it is possible to ride long distances in comfort enhances those characteristics.

The frame has been widened to accommodate the new mountings, but the Sportster has lost none of its agility. I was able to throw the 2004 model into corners with the same confidence I feel on its predecessor.

The enhancements extend throughout the Sportster range. In the XL1200, safe maximum engine revs have risen from 5,500 to 6,000rpm and the compression ratio has been increased, delivering 15 per cent more power than the old Sportster.

Riding a Sportster will always require an eye for style. Neither the 883cc nor 1,200cc engines delivers blistering performance. But the 2004 model Sportsters are charming machines. These basic Harley Davidsons are now capable of comfortable, long-distance travel. When my 2000 model finally gives up on me, I shall seriously consider replacing it with its latest descendant. Another of the things the cynics forget about Harley Davidson motorcycles is that they are hard to break and thus have very high residual values.

Young motorcyclists who have recently passed their tests would do well to consider a Sportster. They are built with greater attention to detail and higher quality standards than most modern, medium-weight motorcycles.

Engine torque is so plentiful that carrying a pillion passenger makes little discernible difference to performance. The belt-drive system used throughout the Sportster range delivers power smoothly and minimises maintenance requirements.

Most Harleys are sold to the middle-aged, and some of us do enjoy their potential. But it is high time the Sportster was reclaimed by a younger generation. To leave these machines shining in garages would be a crying shame.

With the exception of the much more expensive V-Rod, the 2004 Sportster means that Harley's cheapest bike is also its most obviously practical. That ought to tempt motorcyclists who have traditionally avoided Harleys.

Fear not. It may look a bit like a bike your father once coveted, but the Sportster no longer feels like one.

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