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Bike Review - Posted 21st September 2012

Harley Davidson 883 Sportster
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Is an Evolution Sportster a credible alternative for the classic motorcycle owner, or just another modern bike? Paul the Destroyer lent Martin Gelder his '99 XL883 for a week so that we could find out...

Day One

Just picked up the borrowed Sportster. Paul said it was called "Blaze" which was a bit worrying, but so far it hasn't caught fire.

It's a belt-drive pre-rubber-mount 883 Sportster; an ordinary one rather than a custom or hugger or anything.

Put your ear to the screen and you can hear that exhaust... Harley Davidson 883 Sportster

And it's got slightly-offensive pipes and a Screaming Eagle carb kit.

The riding position is odd; knees up around your ears because of the pegs being set forward of your bum but high enough to give some ground clearance. It's got aftermarket forward pegs as well, but they buzz like mad at anything over 60mph. It wasn't until I tried them that I remembered it wasn't a model with a rubber-mounted engine; up to three and a half / four thousand rpm the vibration isn't intrusive at all, but I suspect a lot of that is down to the effective rubber mounting of the bars and original pegs.

This is the quiet side... Harley Davidson 883 Sportster

You'd struggle to stall it, but it's not what you'd call powerful. Or grunty. Or sporty, in fact. Pleasant, mild, gentle, mellow.... but then Harley Davidson Pleasantster doesn't have the same ring.

It's not slow either, mind. Wind it up and it goes ok, but it does nothing to encourage that sort of behaviour. I found myself sitting in a flow of 50/60mph traffic on a single carriageway A road quite happily, whereas on my BMW R80 I'd have been overtaking a couple of cars at a time to get into some clear road. It's much happier doing the 'sitting in the flow' thing than the BMW is.

The M11 was Friday afternoon busy so I didn't get much above 70, but that felt like the limit of the riding position's comfort zone. It's geared for about 130mph but I don't think it'd do much over 100, and I think it'd be vibrating like crazy at that speed. And as I said, sat at 50/60mph I felt no urge to go any faster. Most odd.

This is the pretty side...

The handling is... interesting. It feels like the bars and/or forks are a little twisted; the sort of thing you don't notice on your own bike but do spot as soon as you ride someone else's. The bars are "up then down again" pull-backs which I don't like, and the grips - all the controls, in fact - are super-sized which gives a chunky look but makes everything feel a little heavy and awkward. Throw in a l-o-n-g wheelbase, low seat, slow steering angle, narrow front / fat rear tyre combination and wet roads, and it's all a bit harsh, which doesn't help.

Steering at low speeds is not bad, but at anything over 20mph it's horrible. I tried muscling it into a roundabout by counter-steering and it didn't like it one bit. Everyone jokes about seventies Jap bikes having a hinge in the middle, and now I know what they mean. Except it's not Japanese, and not from the seventies. My 1979 XS400 handled better than this. The Sportster's got American Dunlops, I think, and a decent set of new tyres would probably make a big difference.

It's certainly slim...
Sportsters on

The front brake (a single disc) is fine; it's got a braided hose and non-standard pads, and it's certainly adequate; probably better than the tyre in the damp I was riding in. Plenty of feel though. The back brake was... I need to check there is something connected to the end of the pedal, because not much happened when I pressed it. Not enough power to steady the bike up while riding slowly and not enough feel to use it to hold a tighter line round roundabouts, etc. The opposite of what I was expecting, to be honest, but then I had just got off the BMW with its feeble front disc and Germanically-effective rear drum.

It's not as agricultural as I expected; the gearchange is slick, the clutch is smooth, the mirrors crisp, the throttle light, and it's actually nice to ride. I get the feeling you could cover a lot of ground in a long day, as long as you weren't in a hurry. Equally, I think it'd get irritating very quickly if you tried to cover a lot of ground on a motorway, or had to be somewhere at a certain time.

Day Two

Went for another spin this evening, into the middle of Cambridge. I'm getting used to the riding position. I'd change the bars straight away if it was mine, but the seat is fine and the footpeg positions isn't as intrusive as I first expected. I like the lowness of the cruiser seat height.

The handling is still... odd. It's got a Maxxis on the back and an American (ie, hard compound) Dunlop on the front. It feels a little like riding two different bikes, one that's connected to the handlebars and one that you're sitting on. And the speed where 'steering' turns to 'counter-steering' seems much higher than on other bikes I've ridden. The *ride* is actually pretty good; it handles speed-bumps very well indeed and smoothes out a lot of the ripples too, but I suspect that's a factor of its huge weight. I think the odd thing I'm feeling is geometry or mis-matched tyre related, and is just part of the experience.

The front brake is fine, the back one both dead-feeling and ineffective. The clutch, however, is light and progressive but starts biting as soon as you move the lever, despite there not being much play when the lever is fully out.

Why are the grips and levers so fat? Marketing, I suspect. I can think of no other reason that the controls are so chunky. I suspect holding the throttle steady on a long run would get tiring because the grip is fat and smooth. These oversized controls make the bike feel big and solid on first impassion, but are unnecessarily obtrusive. It's like Spinal Tap's amplifiers going up to 11; pointless, and a little pathetic.

Too. Loud.

This evening was the first time I've ridden the Sportster without earplugs. The bike is embarrassingly noisy, to the point where you don't want to accelerate with any vigour because everyone turns and scowls at you. I'd have loved it when I was 17 but nowadays I value the respect of my neighbours and the ability to ride briskly through urban areas too much. With earplugs in, on the open road, it's a nice noise. Without earplugs, in town, it's a racket. An antisocial racket which probably does more harm to the public's opinion of motorcycling than any amount of speeding sports bikes or buzzing scooters. After I'd changed the handlebars, I'd change the exhausts.

Paul the owner suggested I keep it about 2000rpm and avoid 'lugging' the engine round town, and he's right, but it makes such a cacophony that it sounds like you're tear-arsing along when you're not. Horrible.

Any vibration from the solidly mounted engine is unobtrusive, except through the highway pegs at high-ish speeds. The 1200s probably vibrate more, but then the revs you use would be lower which meant the vibes wouldn't be a factor until higher road speeds. The Sportster 48 I rode was much smoother, but also much heavier. I think I'd go for less weight and a bit of vibration.

Day Four

Rode it down to the Ace Cafe on Sunday, to get a mix of roads on a route I know and to find out just how small that small tank is. Paul the Owner said to fill it up every hundred miles, so that's what I've been doing. It usually takes a litre for every ten miles I've done, so 45mpg or so. Riding home last night it started fluffing slightly at low revs, as if it was thinking about going onto reserve; 102 miles on the trip... Not sure how far it'd go on reserve, but I know that a one hundred mile range can get tiresome.

On a longer run the riding position feels strangely cramped for such a long bike; I'm aware that I'm being pushed into the hump at the back of the seat all the time by the bars and the footpegs. The seat is good though; I did a lot of riding yesterday (if not a lot of miles) without a twinge. The rest of the riding position is not so good; I could feel it in my hips, across the small of my back and in my neck yesterday evening. This might be down to the odd angle of the bars, mind.

Louder than the Vincent Owner's Club...

People stare at the Sportster. This is partly due to the infernal racket it makes, but even when it's parked up, I've seen passers-by comment on it to their friends. Same in the Ace Cafe bike park; quite a few of the people wandering round looking at the bikes stopped to stare at it. After a spin round the block, the official pillion seat tester liked the sissy bar and the squashy seat, but mostly the colour.

Day Five

The sheer volume of noise, though, has become intensely irritating. Setting off this morning I was wearing a set of earplugs that had been used and then washed before being reused. They're not as effective as brand new ones but are good enough. Usually. Today I had to stop and swap them for a set of brand new ones before I'd got out of Cambridge because the exhaust note was making my helmet boom. I've ridden it once without earplugs; never again. I also found I was avoiding filtering right up to the front of queues in heavy traffic as I didn't want to sit between two cars, inflicting the infernal din on them until the lights changed.

The chunky handlebar grips and levers and the poor layout of the indicator / dip / start / horn buttons are becoming more irritating rather than less as the miles pile up. The left indicator button is where I expect the horn to be, and the right indicator where I expect the starter to be, and vice versa. And the self cancelling indicators cancel too early. The headlight is adequate for the 50-60mph cruising speed on unlit roads, and the horn is loud enough to startle other motorists, as I found out every time I turned left yesterday.

Horn and dip switch above, left indicator switch below

Performance is adequate, but no more. For normal riding, it's fine, but there's no extra power if you need it. There's often more *throttle*, but rarely more *acceleration*. Top gear, 50-70mph grunt is a bit poor, 60-80mph even poorer, but if you don't go looking for that performance, you don't notice it's not there.

Riding at your own pace is fine, and I found myself slowing to the pace of the car in front quite a lot rather than overtaking as I would on a quicker bike. Or even on a 'slower' bike like my Morini. And the weird thing is, I wasn't bothered. It putters along at 50-60mph without a care in the world.

I would, however, hate to be on an 883 on a run with other bikes, unless they were also 883s. You'd be riding outside the bike's comfort zone all the time. I feel sorry for the wives of blokes who have a big Harley and who get an 883 for their other half so that she can ride her own bike on HOG runs. Or maybe they *all* just ride at that 50-60mph cruising speed anyway?

I'm not adjusting to the handling. The mismatched tyres really aren't helping, and the front felt very queasy on wet roads today. At cruising speeds the handling is unremarkable. At town speeds it flops around and fights back if you try and hurry it up a bit. At filtering speeds, it's great. At no point is the handling good; the best it manages is 'unobtrusive'.

Buttoned seat is comfortable but holds water...

The roads were wet when I set off this morning, so the bike now looks like it's been painted beige. I expected to have to clean it before giving it back, but with the amount of chrome on it - most of which is standard - I'm going to have to get the Solvol out too. It looks dirtier than the one of my other bikes which has just done a 900 mile weekend to Le Mans and back and hasn't been cleaned yet.

Day Six - Conclusion

The Sportster is not as agricultural as I expected. It doesn't vibrate excessively, the gearchange is crisp if a bit slow, the throttle and clutch are light and easy, the brakes are fine. Ridden within its parameters (50 to 70mph cruising, etc) it's really nice. You feel like you could keep going at that speed all day, wafting along without a care in the world. It feels like it's not working particularly hard, but push beyond that and it becomes hard work. It'll cruise at 80 but by then the riding position is working against you, and beyond that the bike lets you know it's not really enjoying things anymore. It throbs out of roundabout in a very satisfying way though, creating the illusion that there's a lot more power than there actually is, and if you can bear the noise it punches away from other traffic in town with a rugged charm.

Settle back and let it do what it does well, or throw it in a ditch and get the bus home...

Step outside the bike's comfort zone, and it's all a bit horrible. And unrewarding. You either have to settle back and let it do what it does well, or throw it in a ditch and get the bus home.

And you can't get away from the fact that it's a Harley Davidson. I like its "engine, seat, tank, two wheels and nothing else" simplicity and iconic looks. And it has an olde-worlde, made-from-girders charm that convinces you to accept its limitations in a way that you wouldn't do with any other marque of modern motorcycle. It is what it is, take it or leave it.

If this was my bike, I'd fit a set of quieter exhausts straight away, and find a matched pair of tyres and a set of bars with a less chopperesque bend soon afterwards. That would give me a bike that I could ride all day on single carriageway roads in unhurried comfort, that'd handle motorways if it had to, and that would be stylish and fun round town. I wouldn't want one as my only bike, but for summer two-up bimbling I can see the attraction.

Words and Photos: Martin Gelder

But for summer two-up bimbling I can see the attraction...

Day Seven - Postscript

Just dropped off the Sportster and been reunited with my BMW R80/7.

Blimey, what a contrast. So quiet! So light! So tall! So smooth! So nimble! So fast!

And so awkward, oddly. I've deliberately ridden only the Sportster while I've had it, so that I got used to its foibles rather than confusing myself by switching between it and my other bikes.

Which meant that when I got back on the BMW, it all just felt so... Odd. I mean, BMWs are a bit idiosyncratic compared to most bikes, but it took me a good dozen or so miles to readjust to the handling of a 'proper' bike going into country bend type corners, but I think this was partly due to the fact that I was arriving at them 10 or 15 mph faster than I had been on the Harley. And because I wasn't having to fight the steering.

Once I'd adjusted back to normality the BMW felt great; completely different, much sportier and much more dynamic; more of a motorcyclist's motorcycle.

When all you've got as a frame of reference is a Harley, they're really quite good. But when you switch back to a more conventional bike, and after you've shifted all your expectations back into place, you realise how big a gulf there is between Harleys and everyone else. It's as big a gulf as there is between proper bikes and scooters, and I think it's traversing that gulf that leads to many people on one side of the divide finding what's on the other side so... awkward.


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