Is a Harley sportster a good first bike?

Is the Harley Sportster 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 Harley Sportster 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 Harley 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 one around a 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 around 188kg while being more powerful. 

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 Harley Sportster 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’ (like a Sportster 48) in which case you’ll be sweating every round-about you’ll see. However, even the low Harley Sportster 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 Sportster 2004 R1200r
RoadCarver – Harley Sportster 2004 R1200r

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

Enough has been mentioned about maybe why not consider the 883 for your first bike, however there is plent also why there are ok. 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 Sportster 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 grand first motorcycle, all I’m saying is there are better choices out there to begin on.

 Harley Sportster 2004 R1200r
Harley Sportster 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 orange 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 beginners bike…

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4 thoughts on “Is a Harley sportster a good first bike?

  1. As the trend for classic bikes continues to gain appeal I think the sportsters will increase in popularity. Perhaps it’s not the ideal bike for a new “rider” but it’s a great choice for a new “motorcyclist”. The difference being that the rider simply wants a bike to ride and is happy to have a dealership maintain it. The motorcyclist on the other hand gets a bike that rides like an old classic 500cc bike and is a lot of fun, easy and relatively cheap to customize and maintain. Once they outgrow the 883 they can simply add a 1200 kit on the top end which is a great way to get familiar with the engine. Unlike more refined marques, the lumpy sporty has an old school character and the evo engine provides the reliability a new motorcyclist is probably looking for. I’m personally a big fan of the pre 2004 rigid mount/carbie models. The carbie evo just has that lovely slow lope at idle. So perhaps not the ideal beginners bike but for a beginner who is looking to get into a classic bike, the 883’s are great.

    1. Thanks again Rod, great comment and a few good reasons why they certainly could be a good choice for a new rider who not only rides but is keed on getting into upgrading and customising. On this point, there is not many makes or models that offer the flexibility and range of tinkering the Sportster does. Cheers.

    2. Hi Rod, I can’t say I’ve ridden the pre-2004 rubber mounted versions. REading up on them I hear they were a good deal lighter (some 40-50kgs?). Many used to complain about the vibration, not sure how bad they were or if the rubber mounted evo is a massive difference?

      1. Hi George, the pre rubber mounts do vibrate more but I’ve noticed the people who tend to complain about it are the ones who don’t understand that you simply need to find the right rev range. The HD factory sends them out with sprocket sizes set for normal street riding and the nice rev range can be found at slower street riding speeds. If you are doing lots of highway riding a different sprocket size can be added to lower the revs at high speed. This obviously takes away low end power but these aren’t meant to be performance bikes nor are they intended to be high revving. They can certainly be modified though to perform. S&S make some great mods which can generate 100hp and given the earlier bikes are (as you stated) lighter by at least 30-40kg these earlier models are often preferred by the custom bike builders looking for racing or performance bikes. I think the sportster offers a great platform for someone who is the type of person who buys a bike, looks after it themselves and keeps it for years. It can start off as a cheap 883 as a commuter bike and as the years go by can be built to a 1200 (or 1275 if inclined). There are a dozen types of seats, racks, screens, guards tanks etc. The old saying that it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow can be applied to the sportsters.

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