Harley-Davidson Sportster Roadster Road Test

IT WAS a seriously hot Sydney day—not the best time to be sitting on a vinyl seat in jeans and riding slowly around the inner suburbs. That was, however, exactly what I was doing and I was having a ball. I’d already spent several hours in the saddle but I’d promised a mate who’s just got his L’s that I’d go for a spin with him. So we were riding around the back streets in first and second gears with the mercury nudging 38 and the humidity in the really sweaty zone.

I could bleat on about mateship and helping a mate who’s just starting out on two wheels, but to be honest, I’d have gone for a ride with the Vespa Owners Club just to spend more time riding the Harley Sportster Roadster. This is one seriously fun motorcycle.

It all started a couple of days earlier when Skol (Ozbike Publisher) ferried me to Fraser Motorcycles in Concord. I had to share the sidecar with his trusty hound. When we arrived at Fraser’s, Greg Ryan, the Manager, told us they were just giving the bike a swift once-over and a wash. He got us a coffee and Skol started yarning with some crusty old biker about early Harley electronic ignitions. I went off to look at some new bikes…

Greg brought me some forms to sign that basically said I’d be cleaning the toilets at Fraser’s for the rest of the year if anything happened to the Roadster.

The Roadster looked good in the press photos, but in the flesh, it is one seriously sweet motorcycle.

Greg told me about the 43 mm inverted front forks, the twin front discs and the longer travel rear suspension. He also pointed out that the bike was fitted with a Stage One kit, basically slip-on mufflers and a freer flowing air filter.

I was really trying to listen to what he was saying, but as the Roadster sat there glinting in the sunlight, all I could hear was the little child-like voice in my head saying, “Can I ride it now, can I, can I….?”

I checked for neutral on the minimalist, single, round instrument pod that displays both speed and rpm and thumbed the starter. What a sensational sound! It’s funny how I can only listen to a song two or three times a day before it starts to grate, but after 10 hours of riding the Roadster, I still loved that sound.

Skol and I had decided that we’d ride down to Ulladulla to put up a hammock for our friend, Sarah the Texan. It would be a good test for the Roadster: a bit of traffic, some open road and a few nice little twisty bits.

Even the shitty Pacific Highway south out of Sydney was fun on the Roadster. You really appreciate that upgraded suspension—it deals with potholes, bumps and direction changes beautifully.

The new twin disc set-up coupled with the beefy inverted forks hauls the bike up with the minimum of fuss. It really was a complete revelation, and even if you totally cock it up, there’s ABS to save your arse. I know some people really hate ABS but the system fitted to the Roadster is so unobtrusive. Not once in the whole time I rode it did it come on without me playing silly buggers and trying to lock up one end or the other.

On the freeway the Roadster purrs along in a relaxed easy going manner. It’s the only time you need fifth gear. The rev limiter stops play just over 6000 rpm but she runs sweeetest between 3000 and 4500 rpm. Harley claims the Roadster makes 72.3 ft lbs (98Nm) of torque at 3750 rpm and torque is the defining characteristic of the Sportster motor—on the freeway is you can just roll along in top gear surfing that big wave of torque; no need to change down for hills or mobile chicanes.

The first real chance to check out the Roadster’s cornering prowess came at Kiama Heights on the Princes Highway. My fun was interrupted by an errant Toyota Corolla running wide into my lane on a tightening left-hander. I had to brake hard while leaning over, change lanes and squirt down the inside. No dramas at all. As I didn’t need to change down, my left hand was free to wave at the young man in the Corolla…

We left the Princes Highway just south of Kiama at the Gerringong turn-off and made for the Heads Hotel in Shoalhaven.

After some refreshments Skol took his dog off for a quick swim across the road. I sat there just staring at the Roadster. Everywhere you look there are tasty details. Those beautifully simple yet elaborate alloy wheels are unique to the Roadster.

“Sweet set of wheels, Bro,” said some giant of a man.

“Sure is,” I replied.

“Sweet as,” he said before returning to his mates at another table.
This was a recurring theme whenever I pulled up anywhere on the Roadster. I’ve never ridden any other factory bike that got so much positive attention from such a wide range of people.

Sarah laid on a top feed of pies—sensational—when we arrived in Ulladulla. I fitted off some eyelets for the hammock while Skol took his dog for another swim at Racecourse Beach. You’ve probably never heard of Racecourse Beach. It’s a smallish beach with sand that squeaks underfoot and big strong rolling waves. It’s only three hours drive from a city of over five million yet, even in the middle of holiday season, there was only half a dozen people on it. How lucky are we?

On his return Skol demonstrated his crusty sea-dog talents with some fancy knot tying to get the hammock at exactly the right height.

Time to head back to the big city, but as we headed out of Ulladulla, the rain started. Just a few light showers at first, but by the time we’d reached Nowra, it was raining more steadily.

Even with a seriously wet pair of jeans the Roadster is a fun bike to be on. However, we still decided to stop at the pub in Berry while it blew over.

It was dark as we rode into Sydney and this illustrated another great feature of the Roadster—it has a great headlight. Not only does it look fantastic but it also pumps out some serious light.

I pulled into home tired but content.

“Hi, Dad,” said my eldest daughter. “How’s the bike?”

“Tremendous,” I replied.

“Has it got a pillion seat?”

“Can I go for a ride?”

Off we went. It says a lot about the Roadster that I was happy to take it out again even after a solid seven hours in the saddle. Even though the seat on the Roadster slopes backwards once someone’s sitting on it, according to my daughter, “it feels fine”. She even preferred it to the last American cruiser I tested. She said it felt much more “alive”.

As I’d taken out my eldest daughter I also had to take out my youngest. Did I care? Not in the slightest.

“What sort of Harley is it, Dad?” my youngest asked.

“It’s a Sportster Roadster,” I replied.

“What’s that?” she inquired.

A short history lesson was in order.

In late 1940s America there where a lot of young men who’d seen some serious shit in Europe and the Pacific. They’d had a hard time and needed to enjoy life so they stripped down big heavy Harleys creating the first bobbers and choppers.

This was all going well until the arrival of the lightweight British twins in the 1950s. If you watch the 1953 movie The Wild One, Marlon Brando is riding a Triumph Thunderbird, not a Harley.

In 1957 Harley-Davidson introduced the first Sportster XL to take on the British twins. They followed it up the next year with the XLCH which was faster and featured the staggered dual exhausts and peanut tank that would become synonymous with the Sportster brand.

The Sportster went on to become the dominant force in dirt track racing and a massive world-wide seller for Harley-Davidson.

The day after the Ulladulla trip, Skol needed to go up to Central Coast Harley-Davidson. I said I’d meet him there after I’d run a few errands around town. One of those errands took me into Newtown, Hipster Central of the Inner West. Now I know a lot of people pour scorn on the Hipsters but I figure they like their motorbikes and they brew some pretty tasty beer so live and let live. In the short time I was there, I answered a lot of questions about the Roadster and was quite surprised at the knowledge and interest of a lot of young kids about Harleys. It was while I was discussing the difference between the Roadster and the Forty-Eight that Skol texted for the second time. It was definitely time to haul arse.

I slipped out through the North Shore taking the curvy Yanko Road that runs through Pymble so that the locals could appreciate the sonorous note from the Roadster’s dual pipes. From there it was onto the M1, one of my least favourite roads. Three lanes and everyone sits in the middle. Usually it drives me insane but today I was on the Roadster and everything was right with the world.

On those little back roads that criss-cross the Central Coast the Roadster was sublime. The suspension dealt with the crappy road surface and there’s plenty of poke for passing slow-moving holiday traffic.

By the time I found Skol, the temperature was up in the high thirties and Skol was very hungry. We decide to ride to the Fat Goose in Killcare because they make really good pies. We cruised gently through the winding roads and hills of the Central Coast. The Roadster was very happy at low speed just taking it easy. We sat outside in the shade at the Fat Goose. They’re not licensed but they were happy for us to grab some refreshments from the bottle-shop across the road.

After a relaxed lunch and some more gentle cruising, Skol decided we should take the Old Road (Pacific Highway) back to town.

I know the Old Road is over-policed and the surface is bad in parts but I still love it. It’s a fantastic road to ride a motorcycle along.

When we stopped off at the Road Warriors Café on Mt White, Skol decided he needed a ride on the Roadster. I tried to point out I’d signed for it but he didn’t seem to care as he left me at the café.

He returned quite some time later with a big grin on his face.

“Great brakes, great suspension; bars could be a bit higher,” he said.

With that we were heading back into a seriously hot and humid city.

I’d spent another six or seven hours on the Roadster by the time I reached home. By this time the Roadster needed petrol. You can probably get around 200 km from a tank if you take it easy.

Later, when I met up my mate who’s just got his Ls, I discovered a few more of the Roadster’s secrets riding slowly around suburban streets. It’s a beautifully balanced bike; feet-up U-turns in narrow streets are no drama at all. The fuelling is so smooth it’s a doddle to ride slowly.

On the negative side, after a lot of stop-start riding, the edge of the seat can get a little uncomfortable when putting your foot down. Overall, the seat was very comfortable and if I owned the bike I’d keep the original—it just looks so right.

The only other thing I found mildly annoying was the long hero bobs under the foot pegs. I kept catching my jeans on them when putting my foot down at traffic lights.

Back at Ozbike HQ the following day, Skol decided we should go for a drink at the Watsons Bay Hotel. I took Skol’s modified Sportster and he took the Roadster.

I like Skol’s 883 Sportster. It’s got some tasty mods—a 1200 big-bore kit, cams, two-into-one pipe, Fournales shocks and vintage tracker bars. I always have a ball riding it. The trouble was, after riding the Roadster, the Sportster’s brakes felt a little underwhelming; it didn’t seem to want to tip into corners so eagerly; I could feel all the potholes and bumps in the base of my spine.

I suppose that’s the point of the Roadster. You can buy a Sportster and throw a heap of money at it trying to make it a better bike, or you can buy one Harley has already fettled for you. Let’s face it, Harley probably knows a few things about developing a motorcycle.

Of course you could buy a Roadster and spend some money modifying it. I would definitely have the Stage One kit. You could hot up the motor with cams, etc, but personally I like its sweet tractable nature as it is.

Maybe I’d change the pegs. Maybe I’d rotate the bars a little. Maybe I’d tidy up the rear-end a little. In the end I doubt I would find the time as I’d be too busy riding it…

I was truly sad to return the Roadster. I even entertained the notion of buying one—that’s how much it got under my skin.

I dare you to take a Roadster for a test ride and not like it. Harley will sell you one for $17,692 plus on-roads which works out about $19,500 in NSW.

The last word should go to an old Indian gentleman who approached the Roadster with his arms out and a huge beaming grin. “What a truly marvellous motorcycle,” he said.

words by Paul Angus; photos by Robert

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