Motorcycle Rider Basics

Mistake #2: Don’t Buy A Sportster

Ouch Why not? I like the Harley Sportster. It's relatively inexpensive and it has all of the Harley good stuff. Power, hot looks and the Harley sound. Potato, Potato, Po-ta-to, I can hear it now, I love it!

Hey, I'm with you, I bought a Sportster and I loved it, for the first couple of months. But after about three or four thousand miles I started to focus in on the shortcomings.

Now, I could pick apart any motorcycle and list the shortcomings but that is true for most things. Everything has some pros and cons it's just that the Sportster cons just stay there and don't go away. You experience them each and every time you go for a ride.

For me, the ride was too high. By that I mean that the seat was just too far from the ground. I am a 5'9", 185 lb guy with no abnormal body characteristics (well, maybe a larger nose than most) and I like to have my feet flat on the ground when I am stopped at the traffic light.

2007 Model XL 1200C Sportster FXDB Dyna Street Bob FLSTC Heritage Softail
Seat Height 26.5 25.8 25.5

One inch doesn't seem like much but it makes a difference. You can always replace the seat with a lower profile seat and get right down to the Softail height. Of course you can do the same with the Softail seat and get right on down to some serious lowrider height.

FOonSportsterBut it is more than the physical height of the seat. The Sportster has a higher center of gravity than the Dyna or the Softail. When I ride a Sportster, I feel like I am sitting on top of the motorcycle (Well, that's because you are sitting on top of the motorcycle, idiot), not part of the motorcycle, kinda just hanging on. When I am on other motorcycles, with lower seats and lower center of gravity, I feel like I am part of the motorcycle. I feel more in control, safer somehow. I like that feeling a lot.

This high ride is also a consideration at low speed, maneuvering into a parking spot or just walking your bike from here to there. It always felt like it was ready to tip over and with my feet not really flat on the ground, I was always ready for the worst.

The other thing that I did not like about the Sportster was riding two-up with my wife Irina. Now Irina is only 105 lbs so there was not a lot two-up impact. We would have a great ride in the city on surface streets for an hour or two and everything felt great. But when we got out on the Freeway (or Highway to most of you), the ride dynamics changed. After 100 miles, we were ready to stop and flop onto the ground. It just seemed like work at the higher speeds.

The lighter weight contributed to this feeling.

2007 Model XL 1200C Sportster FXDB Dyna Street Bob FLSTC Heritage Softail
Dry Weight (lbs) 589 634 725

But the real deal was the vibration. My experience was on a new 2003 Sportster and since then Harley has added rubber and made significant vibration reduction improvements to the newer models. My 2003 vibrated so that using the rear view mirrors for anything other than looking for big stuff (cars) unusable. But that was OK. It was at around sixty mph when the vibration started causing problems. I was always keeping my hands and arms tense on the handlebars. If I got up to around eighty mph, it leveled out and ran well. However, then I was always looking in my (unusable) rearview mirrors for the CHP (California Highway Patrol). That didn't work either.

The small gas tank started out being a concern. My 2003 has a 3.3 gal fuel capacity. Which translated roughly into 100 miles. You can see that Harley has fixed this with the newer models.

2007 Model XL 1200C Sportster FXDB Dyna Street Bob FLSTC Heritage Softail
Fuel Capacity (gal) 4.5 4.8 5.0

So, my concern about only having a 100 mile range disappeared when I realized that I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 100 mile fuel stop so I could get off the Sportster and flop onto the ground. Whew! Thank you for the small gas tank.

Height, weight and vibration were the three biggest things that turned me off to the Sportster after I had some serious riding experience on it. But hey, that's just me. There are a ton of Sportster enthusiasts who will ride forever on their beloved Sportster (the cafe racer) forever.

As it turned out, I put 12,000 miles on my Sportster before I made a change. Before I bought the Sportster, everyone told me that I would be looking for a bigger Harley in about six months, and you know what, they were right.

Even so, if I had a good deal on a Sportster, and I could get it right now, versus saving my money for the big bike, who knows, it's always still better to be riding that to be watching.

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  1. As a lady rider (started out on crotch rockets) sold my last sport bike and got a 08′ Nightster. I’m 5’7″, 135lbs and I can stand up to “stretch” on my bike with ease. Moving it around it also easy. I love the bike, however, I’m considering something a little more “long trip” friendly. I’d love to have storage and sound. I know I can add all that to the Nightster, but to get what I want, it would probably make more sense to look for a Street Glide. Only problem is… I’m not used to a bigger bike like that so I’d like to go test ride one. soon! But the point is- everyone likes different features. its just about finding what bike works best for you!

    Happy/Safe riding y’all!

  2. Interesting that you couldn’t have your feet flat. I’m 5’9″ an athletic 160lbs and my feet are flat on the ground with a slight bend at the knee. I’m in love with the sportster it’s rough and tumble and not refined at all. It’s a super honest bike with an incredible heritage. The peanut tank is such an iconic shape it hurts my heart when people swap the tank because I am a little form over function type of guy. However it’s not my place to tell anyone how to make their bike their own or what to ride. It’s pretty cool having a pretty tight knit community of riders. The sportster is the one bike that hasn’t left and then made a comeback in the “Modern retro” segment. It has stood the test of time and that’s a story I can really admire.

  3. Good article. I’m experiencing some of these issues as well..

  4. Hagon shocks come in any length you like, and are ordered to custom weight and use habits. Stock shocks are junk anyway. Progressive wound fork springs are in order as well. You won’t know how nice a Sportster can ride and handle until you upgrade the suspension. The Sportster has always had a higher center of gravity. The result is more maneuverability, and increased cornering ability. The 50 year anniversary of the Sportster invokes the evolution of a brand into something that continues to be recognized as a true modern motorcycle. If you want to sit 18″ from the ground when you ride build a hard tail chopper. To put 20,000 miles on a new Sportster is a testament to reliability, and the ease of maintenance. It really is a different bike with the rubber mounted evo motor. If you are the kind of person that knows what your heart wants, and isn’t bothered by shallow ill informed commentary, buy a Sportster and get 54 miles to the gallon!

  5. The seat height on a Nightster (XL1200N) is 25.7″, and you don’t have to ride with your knees spread like a street walker.

    And at least in this part of the country, our gas stations are closer than 100 miles apart.

  6. Harleys are all junk, not a bit of difference between them. Get a real bike!

  7. You know, before I bought my sportster I always rode Yamaha. And the one thing I can’t stand is some immature punk, with a smart mouth that think’s he knows all about it. Shut up and grow up.

  8. I left a comment on this last july. Here it is March and still loving my sportster. When I ride I give the 2 fingers to the road salute to ALL bikes. I ride with a group that has every kind of bike you can think of. We went on a run from Anaheim ca to Temecula ca last weekend and we had 2 Vespas with us, 240 miles and had a ball.
    We’re all brothers and sisters of the road!!

  9. Harley’s are great bikes! Good article, and I agree with it.

    I will knock the quality of some of the builds a little bit, and the chrome, plus rust problems, and feeling the need to lash out on lots of after-market accessories to make it more of something, but the newer models are improving all the time!

    Drawback for me on the Sportster was vibration, but above all else, the poor range of the fuel tank, and forever panicking that I was going to run out of gas/petrol any moment too soon!

    Jap bikes are solid and reliable, but not very interesting, but that is my opinion.

    Harley look-alike Jap bikes are sort of OK-ish, but lack the sound, but do look nice. They are not the real deal though!

    My main concern over all is needing a bigger fuel tank, I can live with the rest! However as you say they are getting better!

  10. I have a 1998 Sportster Sport. I don´t see how you can get only about 100 miles to the tank. In highway, at 75 mph I get around 50 mpg, that is at a steady speed. The vibration can be annoying to most people but I guess some will get used to it. I live in Peru, South America, and just got back from an almost 2 thousand mile trip up and down the Andes mountains, with overpasses at around 16,000 feet above sea level, with no problems at all with my bike, even though its a 1998 model, but well kept.

  11. I just bought a 1995 XLH 883 Sportster Deluxe with 10553 miles on it. Aside from the vibration it’s the perfect ride for me I am 5’6″ 105lbs stand flat footed with a slit bend at the knees and stand above the seat when I stand up. The only down fall is the 2.2 gallon peanut tank. I will carry a 2 gal gas can on longer rides this gets rid of the oh spit feeling when the fuel light comes on. Weight: 490 lbs Tank Size: 2.25 gallons Seat height 27.6″ 53 mpg

  12. I have a 2003 xl883c. bough it used with 10k miles, ridden about 5k miles, Love the vibration and sound with Vance and Hines straight pipes, sounds better than bigger Harleys with stock pipes. The mirrors are not stock and they vibrate but I can see other riders and cars just fine when I need to, not a big deal. I always gas up at 100 miles but there’s still fuel in the tank, I’ve never seen a fuel light light up but I did switch to reserve once at around 125 miles. I used to ride a Yamaha V-star(good bike) but never again, I couldn’t go back to a jap bike, I think it would be depressing. Hey Oscar I’m from Peru too but I live un the USA, It would be cool to ride in Peru someday.

  13. Just turned 69, wanted a Harley Sportster, itch from yesteryear. Found an 08 1200 xlc it’s beautiful, easy to handle in traffic and rides ok on the road, vibrates a little, runs like the dickens, now I’m in heaven. A motorcycle is Harley Sportster all the rest is just something else.

  14. I am rather surprised, I had a twincam 88 fxdl and apart from a low seat height it was a disaster: very slow to turn, everything hit the deck on any twisty road (UK) after 2 weeks of ownership I rotated it, end over end over a roundabout.
    Rebuilt with Honda cbr100 front forks and brakes, fournales rear shox on an aluminium alloy swingarm, magnesium Kawsaki race wheels, stage 2 everything….. and still it was a gutless porker that couldn’t keep up with my biker friends.
    Changed it for a Vmax with decent wheels, tyres, suspension…
    The grin came back on my face!
    Actually’ I road tested a Sporty 1200, apart from the lack of power I found it far better than the fxdl.
    Now looking for a basic Sporty 883, I have a Buell XB9R and a very trashed back, will use all the engine internals and the pots and heads to bring the limp 883 up to 90bhp.

  15. D’you know, I love Sportsters , they look great , sound great (with the right pipes), and its far better than my 72 Bonnie, except for, everything you just said, except you forgot that stupid weave I get over 90mph, its scary,,, ,, I’ll stay with her cause I love her, but , if I could sort the handling,,,,,,, 🙂

  16. Riding a 2002 sprotster 1200 s. I had a 2011 yamaha stryker before this bike. The stryker was not balanced as well, shift points were horrible, Wasn’t as comfortable either even with an aftermarket seat. I like the vibration, it’s heritage and old school. Bike corners and handles great. For riding around at 45 and 50mph it is great, but at faster speeds a windshield would be nice. Not comfortable over 60. Has the peanut tank which could be bigger but I just set the trip meter and I am getting at least 115 miles before it needs to be turned to reserve. reset ater each fillup. No guesswork for me. getting 52mpg and sometimes better depending on city/highway. It has the screaming eagle carb and intake and exhaust on it. Love it!

  17. great article and awesome comments. enjoying the opions, most are well intended and thoughtful…well most. im amazed with karen and her trolling. everyone has been so nice, and she is just here to pick a fight, and be negative. why is she trolling a sportster post? kudos to you guys and gals. the internet if full of karens.
    I have big bikes and dirt bikes, but the favorite is the 1200 sporty. its a mini cruiser that is best in town. I do NOT ride long haul on interstates, I got me some young kids. when that happens I ll get a real touring bike – a gold wing. zero maintenance or vibration. yeah, then Ill sell my road king, my springer and maybe NOT my sporty. I aint no kid. karen, sorry you are so angry! different bikes for different reasons, none are bad, just not your style!!

  18. I hadn’t ridden since early 1990. My bike at that time was a 1986 VT500 Shadow. I’m only 5’7″ so as my choice for a starter bike I chose a 2007 XL1200L. I could not be more impressed with a bike. I love the low center of gravity. It makes maneuvering a breeze. The EVO rubber mounted motor runs smooth yet allows you to feel just enough vibration to let you know what kid of power sits between your legs. My bike has a Mustang solo seat which is very comfortable and with the added back rest enable one to ride long distance in great comfort. The classic Harley sound is music to my ears each time I fire up the Sportster. In the several month I have owned this bike my love for it continues to grow with each ride. With its low cost and easy maintenance I cannot think of a better starter bike. Will this be the only Harley Davidson bike I own? Of course not, this is a starter bike and one for quick trips around town or short commutes to work. If you plan on long highways trips I think one will need to upgrade to one of the larger bikes. I have my eyes on a road king a couple of years down the road. Best of all, it’s American made!

  19. I’m 5’10 180 testing sportster 1200 and heritage, I’m for short trips. I love the look and power of the softtail andd also the lightness of the sporty. My concern is that if i go for the sporty I’ll regret not having the other one. This was a great artical and I guess there isn’t just one answer.

  20. can a 6ft tall person ride a sportster

  21. I found this blog really useful. no bullshit. I have wanted to ride for 20 years and my kids are finally grown and I am too old to be worried. I am going to get a FBS because they have an awesome centre of gravity. I have the credit to buy it now but since it will be my first bike, what is the point of dropping a 20,000$ bike. I am turning down a deal on a good sportster thanks to your comments. too high. you feel it. may grab that better deal on a boulevard m50. It will be for sale in two years so watch this space. Less if I crash and burn.

  22. I purchased my first Sportster 1200 Custom two months ago. I average 47 mpg and find vibration to be minimal. My rear view mirrors are nice and clear. I guess HD made some modifications since this was published. At 5’9″ I easily flatfoot my bike with a slight bend to my knees. I don’t see myself trading in this bike in 6 months or 60 years for that matter. It’s an awesome motorcycle.

  23. I’ve been riding my 100th anniversary Ultra Classic since 2009 when I bought it with 8000 miles. Now it has 84K and I am looking for a second bike. I found a ’99 sportster with a carb (no FI) and no computer. An honest bike that I can fool around with. My Ultra has been great and I have no desire to buy the new-fangled crap that’s being sold today. Yep! I’m turning old-school, and an older sportster is a great old-school bike.

    For what I paid for it, it looks decent, has enough power, and will give me something to ride while I do the maintenance on my Ultra.

    Nobody has said it (unless I missed it), but a Sportster can be a great second bike, not just a starter bike. Actually, it can be a good ONLY bike, it’s just that I love the long-haul touring capability of my Ultra, and so does my wife.

  24. I bought my XL 1200C in march 2012, rode it each day to commute to my work, bike has now 69 k miles, factory clutch and primary, never got any trouble on this very bike.

    I had to change the seat, fitted half-moon footboards and Road King bars to have a bike that fits my size (5’7″).

    Do I want to grow up and get a heavier H-D? No, certainly not. Sportsters are being said to be top-heavy, this is untrue…

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