Is a Harley 883 sportster a good first bike?

Is the Sportster 883 a beginners bike? This is a question we get asked a lot and something I see all over the web.     

I guess it’s a favourite question because undoubtedly among the learner legal bikes the 883 looks pretty cool and 883ccs of capacity sounds like a lot of motor for the money.

As a ‘smaller’ Harley, the Sportster has earned, somewhat unfairly, the reputation of girls bike or in some cases a ‘starter Harley’. Absolutely not true, many riders get on bigger Harleys, other bikes and they come back to them for their own certain appeal. They are not the nimblest or fastest bikes around but have plenty of unique character that makes the Sporsters loved around the globe. Compared to the larger twins in the same stable, they are smaller – but in no way a small bike and definitely not light.

Understandably anyone who is just getting into riding and has decided on the Harley brand will gravitate to the smallest bike of choice.
Let me say, the Sportster in any flavour – be it Sportster 883 or 1200, is not a small bike. They are a pretty porky piece of metal to be moving about. If you’ve ever tried pushing on around in the parking lot, you’ll know the average weight of the typical 260kg 883 is pretty porky.

Take a contemporary comparison of a Yahama MT 800 naked bike, which weighs 188kg, and has more than twice the power of the 883.

Weight and its effect on motorcycles

Weight is key to just about every measurable aspect of motoring: acceleration, handling, braking, fuel economy just to name a few… In most cases, the lighter the better and the 883 is far from light.

Particularly for beginners. Why? Because heavier bikes just make everything harder. Harder to corner, harder to park, U-turn, get out of a tricky spot, harder to pick up if you drop it (either off the stand or otherwise). About the only thing a heavy bike has to offer is stability where a superlight motorcycle can be a bit twitchy over bumps or cross-winds.

If you’re fortunate enough not to get into any trouble at all when beginning to ride a bike, a heavier bike will just make things harder for you.

The Sportster’s brakes are not particularly good and matched with that amount of heft the braking performance is pretty underwhelming in comparison with modern standards. In emergency braking situations I found myself looking for gaps rather than trying to pull up short.

Lean angles are adequate on most models unless you’ve picked up something ‘slammed’ in which case you’ll be sweating every round-abouts you’ll see. But even the low Sportsters can be picked up a bit by changing out the rear shocks for something taller.
On the Iron 883 I had, it wouldn’t touch down without some provocation so most beginners should be ok with the standard clearance.

RoadCarver - Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r
RoadCarver – Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r

The confounding steering lock!

As a little tip, which could save your life – as with most Harleys, the Sportster will let you drive off with the steering locked. So if you do lock your steering, put something bright on your tacho to remind yourself to unlock it. I did this once and learned the hard way. I parked the bike with it pointed uphill, so when I started it, the steering was already in the right direction. Anyways – I pulled away, and you know what happened next… I really think HD should change this idiotic feature. If you leave it on by accident, it’s very likely you’ll only do it once.

RoadCarver - Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r
RoadCarver – Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r

The dismal fuel range on the Sporty is partly due to a relatively inefficient motor combined with a small tank and heavy bike. The custom versions of the sporty have larger tanks, while other models like the seventy-two or forty-eight amazingly have even smaller tanks than standard.
A clear evaluation will leave you at the verdict that the 883, or any Sportster is in fact not a beginners bike at all. True it’s a fun bike, very cool and can be made to perform quite well, but there simply are better choices for first bikes to keep safe and feel confident in these early stages of riding.

RoadCarver - Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r
RoadCarver – Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r

Is there anything about an 883 that is good for beginners? Yes, sure.

Straight out of the shop, they aren’t very powerful – so the mediocre brakes won’t matter so much and it will take a lot of provoking to get to problematic speeds.
Depending on what model you go for, the seat height is quite low which always makes things easier for learners.
While the 883 mill is no fire-breather, the low-down torque makes it easy to ride. No need to feather the clutch, just let-it-go. It will also pull cleanly from pretty much any gear so you won’t need to constantly hunt a gear with power.
The overall simplicity of the bike makes life and concentrating on the road easier. The 883 is pretty much an engine with two-wheel, a seat and handlebars! Ok, ok – that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not a big one. The rubber belt is virtually maintenance free, which is a welcome addition in anyone’s language.

RoadCarver - Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r
RoadCarver – Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r

If you are absolutely hell-bent on a Harley Sportster as a first bike because you love it, well go for it. It can make a decent first motorcycle, all I’m saying is there are better choices out there to begin on.

RoadCarver - Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r
RoadCarver – Harley Davidson 2004 R1200r

Just take into account what I’ve written about above and take it easy and keep it slow. Learn the limitations of the brakes, lean angles and watch some videos on how to pick it up if you do indeed find it the wrong way down!

Now, those of you who have been reading and paying attention to the pictures would have noticed two things: The bike in the shots is not an 883, and we are in fact flogging the pants off it. Spot on!

So this is a 2004 R1200r with twin disc brakes, modified air intake, cams, exhaust and suspension. And we are fairly seasoned bike riders which mean we know how to flog the hog! Oh, and in case you are wandering – the modified 1200r is a hoot to ride – but still not a begginers bike…

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