Life In The Fast Lane

HD 1

If you like your motorcycle to look cool and have, basically, a bloody great engine, somewhere to sit and some controls... Harley-Davidson’s Sportster S is going to knock your socks off.

The staunch, black presence of the ‘22 1250 Sportster S from Milwaukee hunkers down beside my front door, urging me to get back aboard and feel that extraordinary engine propel me into unhappy demerit point territory. It’s a damn attractive motorcycle, not covered in chrome or bling. In fact, it’s really understated, for a Harley. Brooding, I’d say, with a bronzed engine, aluminium twin pipes on the right, and everything else a shiny black. The Harley Davidson designers have gone downtown, and they’ve built a brand-new iteration of their famously long-running Sportster, one that incorporates the powerplant found in the Pan America - the 1250 Revolution Max. And then they threw the old map out and headed off into uncharted territory for the American totemic brand. So, the Sportster S is now the only bike in Harley Davidson’s sports line up, with the Iron 883, Iron 1200, and the Forty Eight being re-designated as Cruisers.


HD 4


Traditionally, the Sportsters have been the entry-level machines in the Harley line up - since 1957 - as a lighter-weight model. They were smaller than the full-size “big-inch” Harleys, with the ‘smallest’ Sportster being the 883cc. But in this iteration the normal builder’s rule book has been torched, and they’ve headed the way of the globally popular Bobber stylings. Snubbed front guard, single seat, low profile, café-style bar-end mirrors, big rubber up front - almost ludicrously so - a lower profile tank, open rear wheel and a sturdy lump of steel frame holding the obligatory plate, cinerama-screen stoplight and H-D logo’ed indicators. As with the Indian FTR, it seems Harley is expecting pretty fierce weights on those rear licence plates.

The plastic is minimal, nicely sculpted, and unobtrusive. The engine is slung into the stiff chassis as a stressed member and the weight has been reduced with the introduction of aluminium and magnesium internal motor components, and it has the same torque at lower rpm than the Pan Am configuration. The Pan Am produces max torque @ 8750rpm and 125Nm @ 6250, whereas the Revolution Max T version produces max torque @ 7500, and that means for the ride, that all that torque is produced sooner and smoother. And smooth is the operative word – with a variable valve train, with hydraulic self-adjusting lifters, variable intake and exhaust timing, and four valves per cylinder. This powerplant is a game changer for Harley, and the engineers at Milwaukee deserve a big thumbs up. 


HD 7


While it lacks a little of the familiar Harley bellow, it will hurl you up a long, steep, curving incline like a rocket on take-off. It’s lively, fun, with a great assist-clutch and, although I found the gear lever awkward as sin to use, the gearbox itself is mated like a star-crossed lover.

I had to raise my whole left leg to get between 1st and 2nd gears, as there is a distinct gap where neutral is, but I discovered to my joy, that the box is almost effortless when used clutchless. Downward shifting clutchless, with a light blip, was terrific, and up, with a firm toe pressure held on the lever as one rolled off, produced an instantaneous snick into second and beyond, with no problem at all.

The exhaust config of two-into-one-into-two, I think owes more to the stylings of various famed scramblers, and while it looks cool it also does a very good job of not burning your right leg off; something others could certainly learn from. 

That said, the rear pot head does get quite warmish on the leg at times.

So what did I think of the machine on the road? Well, here’s where it gets a bit tricky. 

Ben Wilkins, the editor of this fine publication, reckoned I’d “be a good fit for the bike, you’ve had decades of experience, ridden everything, and own a sports-bike, and could give a fairly learned verdict on the move by Harley into the Sports bike arena”. I agreed, simply because Ben couldn’t actually make it to Auckland. So all puffery aside, I got the gig. 


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First mistake? Well I assumed that by sportsbike they meant like a Triumph Speed Triple, a Ducati V4S, BMW S1000RR or a Honda Fireblade, but we know what assumption is the mother of, so I had to revise my opinions quite quickly. It took recognising the sort of thinking that led those Stateside to believe that a Hummer was just a US take on Land Rover.

Of course, once I got my head round the Harley version of sports, I had to agree they had a point.

The Sportster is low, compact, stylish as hell, incredibly well built and finished, feels pretty comfortable in the showroom, has a low centre of gravity, and is built so the designer would still recognise his drawings after delivery. And 

it goes like the Devil is after you. So rapid and prolonged was the acceleration that I slid back in the seat, although admittedly there’s nothing to stop you. On a traditional sportsbike the pegs are back behind the riders bum and raised a little, bending the knees and pitching you into the bike, giving control, grip and weighting options. Not here.

The pegs are way forward, like a cruiser, meaning all grip and control is in the shoulders, back and arms. I perched on the seat, and after a few hours riding was rewarded with back pain that I thought I’d spent thousands to fix. While many Harley riders will feel right at home with this set up, I found it difficult, and further, would add that it would be hard for novice riders in the Sportster field. However, Harley has a fix for this issue with what they call a mid-line kit, which brings the pegs directly under the rider, and would make the gear change issue much easier as well. This option is around $600 fitted, and I’d insist on it as a starter. It would revolutionise the handling and feel. Also, after some hours in this saddle, I discovered that the seat supplied is a great look, but is harder than a mortgagee sale. A comfort seat, at least for my broken arse, would be another must-have. 

The Sportster then, is actually out of the Cruiser/Bobber fold, (until mods are made) but it is the lighter than any other Harley, at 238kg wet, and it feels lighter than that due to its low mass and inviting seat height. The comparable Ducati Diavel is nearly 20kg heavier.


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And now we come to a contentious point, that imposing front tyre. A Dunlop GT503 160/70R17. At first glance on the road it looked like I was riding a wheelbarrow, then I was reminded of those balloon tyres of the seventies on small beach bikes, and I simply didn’t trust it to go round corners. However, as I forgot about the tyre - and it did take a while - I let the feel of the bike guide my riding, and I soon found that you could throw it around sharp twisties - with a bit of effort, and a lot of grinning. Don’t get me wrong, it will never be an Italian racer, with needle-sharp accuracy and death-defying dropin, but it certainly has a place. 

And that place is the city; boulevards, motorway hustles, waterfront cruising, café jaunts, and weekend rewards with mates at the nearest country craft brewery. 

But it is not for the faint of heart, with 121bhp measured in full stallions, it’ll haul arse to 200k’s plus. No slouch. The revolution Max T engine 

is the full Gorilla, and everything on the bike is built to accommodate that power plant. So why, when everything else is so good, and modifiable to be even better, did they get a bit neglectful about stopping this beast? I know the rear brake is there as an assist, but it was so ineffective I figured it was faulty; two hands waving would stop you faster. Oh, you say, “but most of our braking is with the front!”

Of course that’s true, but then why only one disc up there? That’s a hunk of weight to stop.

Yes, it’s a muscular four-pot Brembo that does slow the bike, but it’s hardly going to deliver stoppies. Is it a design thing? Has the designer triumphed over safety concerns?

I honestly don’t know the answer, but it’s the one thing I had qualms about. However, the bike doesn’t feel unsafe. 


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The technology aboard is state of the art, with three preset riding modes of Rain, Road and Sport plus two rider customisable settings.

Rider adjustments can be made for torque delivery, throttle response, engine braking, traction control and ABS. The IMU processor is cornering aware for Traction and ABS.

The headlight is stadium-shaped and fiercely bright, and the dash display is a 4-inch diameter colour TFT screen and is one of the most intuitive to use for the various maps, and displays, although glare can be a factor when the sun is overhead, and my reading glasses were necessary for the smaller icons. Also on board are buttons for control of Bluetooth connection to phone and helmet. Its keyless ignition is actually friendly, and the cruise control works simply and well. 

Ergonomically it is superb and leads the way with modern looks and cool. A note of caution, the side stand is short and the bike leans over a lot on ordinary roads and parking spots, but any slight downslope will give you the willies. Visibility is excellent and vibration, surprisingly, almost non-existent. 

However, suspension-wise this is not a bike for potholed and bumpy sharp backroads, with only 51mm of travel in the Showa at the rear, and not much more up front, but it is adjustable, and winding out a couple of clicks on the rear did ease some of the worst bumping.

Technically this is a sophisticated bike with astounding power, a very cool look and stance, terrific presence, and is a mighty step forward for a more modern Harley Davidson company. Yes, there are things that can be improved (peg position, a decent seat, maybe a sports screen, and even pillion pegs and seat), but for a powerful American interpretation of a modern Sportster, the team in Milwaukee has hit it out of the park.


Article kindly brought to you by Kiwirider



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