I know I’ve been incommunicado for a very long time, and for that I apologize. For the last eight months or so I’ve been very busy at my job at Brandon Harley-Davidson. For seven of those months, I was working full-time, six days a week, with only Sundays off. Recently they hired me a minion in my department (Detail), so I’ve been getting certain afternoons off, so I’m slowly relaxing into a more manageable schedule.
For the past month, I’ve been the happy owner of a Yamaha V-Star 950. Sadly, after riding the bike for the month, I found I had issues with riding the bike for extended distances, owing to medical issues with my hips, so I sadly had to sell it to buy something different.
Since I work at Harley, I decided to go with a Harley product. When I heard that they took a 2000 X1 Lightning in on trade, I leapt at the chance to buy it. The bike is in fairly good condition, with only minor work needed to make it shine.
I will be posting up more often in the future, so keep an eye out for more updates!
The definitive American beginner bike, the Sportster is a motorcycle with a massive presence in the Beginner Rider market. No matter how you may feel about the bike, or the culture it can be associated with, you can’t deny its notoriety.
Quick disclaimer: I work for a Harley Davidson dealer, however this opinion has been formed prior to my employment there. Any favoritism that may be perceived is entirely unintentional.
The Specs (via CycleWorld):
SPECIFICATIONS (XL1200C Model)
$10,809 (Other models can be much less)
12.93 sec. @ 102.22 mph
67.7 hp @ 5680 rpm
72.9 ft.-lb. @ 4300 rpm
The Case For The Sportster:
Hazed by die-hard Harley Davidson riders as a “chick’s bike” and by metric riders as “overpowered and slow”, the truth of the Sportster gets lost under the deluge of hate. The Sportster is arguably the only bike in the HD lineup with such a high power-to-weight ratio, meaning it lives up to its name very well indeed (Though the soon to be released mid-range models with the new Milwaukee 8 engine may challenge that). It handles very well, has a very forgiving engine, and friendly power delivery that won’t scare most beginning riders, while packing enough grunt to get them out of any trouble they find themselves in. Most metric riders will see the massive 1200cc engine as an absurd amount of displacement for the horsepower it produces, however the name of the Sportster’s game is torque. The amount of sheer grunt available to the rider can be surprising indeed, as most consider the bike to be too slow for its displacement.
The Sportster can be a wheelie monster if you ask it to be, and it can really be set up as a surprisingly capable Scrambler or Flat-tracker. Harley Davidson even offers a version just for that:
While not as fast as some metric bikes, the Sportster will still happily roar along at 100mph with very little fuss or bother. It won’t win any drag races, but then again, it doesn’t like doing that. The torque it has ensures it will give the opponent a run for their money off the line, but after that, the Sportster falls behind as it really doesn’t enjoy such things. It likes tearing up twisties and cruising to wherever the heck you want in comfort and authority.
Where Sportsters can really stand out is in their fit-and-finish. They’re immaculately painted with beautiful, deep colors that really wear well and shine with minimal effort. Everything feels tight and well done, with no squeaks or rattles to be heard.
Handling is excellent, as it eats up corners and handles most surfaces in a civilized manner. It really doesn’t have as much suspension travel as some other comparable metric bikes, so it will not like pot-holes very much, but it will dodge out of the way of them with fairly good grace. If you want a plushy couch to ride around on, the Sportster isn’t the bike you want, check out the Dyna, the Softail, or the Fat Boy.
The Sportster has a staggering aftermarket, both from HD themselves and from third-party manufacturers, so customization is limitless. There is a kit for everything, and a person who’s used it. People fight over these bikes. If you can manage to get one used, quite often you’re likely to be paying a fairly hefty premium compared to the metric bikes, but quite often the brand holds a premium.
An Outside Opinion:
Chris Hornberger from The Pace Motorcycle Podcast had this to contribute:
I like the 883 just fine. There’s almost too little difference between them in stock form to worry about; the 1200’s punchier mid-range is nice, but on the top end, there’s not a lot of difference. They run out or RPM pretty easily, and that’s where we make all the bigger HP. The peanut tank is, IMO, completely and utterly useless if you want to ride the bike for any distance whatsoever. The very first mod I did to my 883 was put on the Roadster tank so I could get some useful mileage out of it. I also like the better modulation that you get with the twin front brakes like on the Roadster. I don’t think they’re bad as a single disc, because the braking power overpowers the bias ply tires, but the twin discs give you way better modulation and finer control. Again, the single is fine, but double is better in many ways.
The Sportster really is a gem of a bike. They’re reasonably comfortable and wonderful to ride. While mired in the Standard versus Metric war, those who have ridden both sides of the argument will remark kindly about the Sportster. I have my eye on one at the dealer I work at, and maybe I’ll be able to add one to my stable in the future.
“You know what Sportster riders call other Harley riders? The Pirates.” – Cameron Vanderhorst (Cammed and Tubbed Podcast, while visiting the Cleveland Moto Podcast)
One of the greatest under-dogs in the American market, the Royal Enfield is a bike that defies every bike notion you may have. From the oldest continuous-production motorcycle company in the world, the Bullet 500 Classic is a true wonder.
L: 2,120 mm (83 in)
W: 750 mm (30 in)
H: 1,080 mm (43 in)
3.5 imp gal (16 l; 4.2 US gal)
The Case For The Bullet Classic 500:
The true under-dog of the motorcycle scene, the Royal Enfield gets hate from every side except those who’ve owned them. Reviled by the Cafe Racer hipsters for its inability to hit “the ton” (100 mph), loathed both the Japanese and American cruiser/standard crowd, and unknown to almost everyone in America, the Royal Enfield has a lot of ground to cover to get a leg-up in the U.S. market.
While the R.E.’s Continental GT and the brand-new Himalayan (pictured above) are slowly increasing the brand’s visibility within the market, they still arguably have a very long way to go to truly compete with the “Big Six”. While it has had a small presence, R.E. has begun to take massive steps in bringing brand-awareness to America in general by launching the Royal Enfield of North America subsidiary earlier this year, and partnering with GM Financial to help expand their dealer network. This is great news for those people who have struggled against brand anonymity (and antipathy) and a slightly dodgy dealer support system.
Despite the existing issues, owners of this nearly indestructible bike laud it for its mountains of usable torque, its almost unimpeachable reliability, and its classic (some would say antique) build. This bike really didn’t change much, if at all, from its first production date in 1955 up until 1997, when they were forced to retool the Bullet to meet increasingly tighter emissions regulations in the U.S. and Europe. In 2007 they stepped into the modern age by finally outfitting their models with Fuel Injection, thus increasing the fuel efficiency and ease-of-starting (previous carbureted models could be notoriously dangerous and difficult to start when cold or had been sitting for a long period).
The aftermarket for this bike is massive overseas, as it is the darling of its home-countries of India (production) and England (its progenitor nation). Want to make it “do the Ton”? There’s a few shops online who specialize in high-performance upgrade parts for the engine and transmission. Want to make it capable of moving a mountain worth of stuff? The guys in India have made racks for everywhere that’ll haul anything. Want to make it an off-road trials bike? There’s parts for that too. This bike can be anything to anybody.
Beginning riders find its friendly (and substantial) torque to be useful, as it means they have to use little or no throttle to get off the line, while its sturdy gearbox will happily take the fumbling inputs of a new rider and keep ticking along like they meant to be riding it. It makes you look good. Its not fast, true, but it refuses to give up and only an owner with massive levels of ineptitude can possibly break it.
I have a friend who bought a Classic 500 from a gentleman whom he could only charitably describe as “the greatest imbecile to ever be inflicted upon a motorcycle”. The gentleman in question obviously hadn’t taken care of it (it had parts from a Bullet Classic 350 model, we strongly suspect he crashed it quite badly), and had allowed his son to rip it apart ham-fistedly in an effort to make it into a “brat/bobber”. When my friend finally got it home, he was dismayed at the state of the bike and bemoaned what he had spent on it, seeing it as a nearly insurmountable task to bring the Bullet back to fighting trim, but as he dug into it (cursing the previous owner with every turn of the wrench), he began to see the soul of the bike within, and its desire to live again. It has taken him a while to do it, but his Bullet is nearly ready to roar along the roads again:
He informs me he doesn’t have much left to do on it, and will probably be riding it soon.
I love the Bullet Classic 500. It tickles my fancy for a classic bike, while sparing my wallet the threat of “collector” vintage bike prices. It is on my list of bikes I will own, and I recommend you try riding one; you just might want one too.
Used on every Harley Davidson “Riders Edge” training course in the naughties (2000-2009) and beyond until the arrival of the new HD Street 500 & 750, the Blast is a sturdy little bike with a determination that may just make you smile.
Praised for its friendliness for beginner riders and reviled by Eric Buell himself, the Blast occupies a bizarre little niche in the beginner rider scene. Tough as nails, the Buell can take a beating and keep on running. Generally chosen (at the time it came out) by beginning riders for being the only other American bike available aside from the Sportster offered by Buell’s parent company, Harley Davidson. Often the “gateway drug” bike for the rest of the Buell line of American sport bikes, the Blast is a rough-and-tumble starter with no apologies.
Some people criticize the bike for its “built down to a price” feeling, but for what you’re paying for it, it’s remarkably good for beginner riders because it can take the ham-fisted inputs of complete novices and somehow still manage to make the rider look good. I’ve personally sat on one and found it to feel tiny beneath me, and that seems to be a general feeling of most average-sized American male riders. It shakes, vibrates, rattles, and putters around town without any real drama, however it does lack the style and flair of most other beginner bikes, but for what it is, it’s not too bad at all.
Despite the love/hate relationship most people have with this bike, it holds its value quite well, generally staying between $1,500 to $2,000 for one in good condition, with battered examples going for much less. There’s a host of recommended modifications to help civilize the bike a bit more, like a Buell intake breather, altering the stock exhaust, beefing up the suspension, and a host of other mods that are recommended for optimum performance or rider enjoyment.
The Blast really is a case of “it is what you make of it”. If you treat it badly, try to repaint the polymer plastics (don’t do this, paint won’t stick very well to it; buy alternate colored plastics), fail to maintain it, or in general treat it like crap, you’re going to have a bad experience with it. If you accept its limitations, treat it nicely, and take care of it, it will last you a very long time indeed.
I personally like the Blast. Though it feels tiny beneath me, I like what it’s trying to be: a no-frills beginner bike made in America. It’s not perfect, true, but put it against some of the other competing bikes and it will definitely surprise you.
Ubiquitous on Motorcycle Safety Foundation ranges and on the road, the Honda Rebel is arguably one of the pillars of the beginner rider bike market. You know what it is at a glance, and there’s no doubt that this bike is a bullet-proof Honda that’ll get you started safely.
A strong showing in the beginner bike market from Honda, the Rebel has been in (and sometimes out of) production since 1985. This bike, barring the Ninja 250, has seen more new riders astride it than possibly all the other beginner bikes in America combined. Nearly thirty years of production means that Honda has building this little beauty down to a science. While not as fancy as other bikes, this bike shines in its “no frills” attitude. While it is stylish, its simplicity is its strong-point, because it literally is what you make of it. With it being in production for so long, you’d be hard-pressed to find a shop that couldn’t work on it, and any part you could possibly break can be replaced from Honda with ease. The aftermarket for this bike is simply staggering, with mountains of options available to make this bike exactly what you want.
The followers of this bike are dedicated and loyal. You cannot find a more enthusiastic group of people for such a small bike anywhere online. These people have seen it all, and can tell you exactly how to fix any issue you can possibly contrive in a tried and tested method that makes your life easier and builds confidence. The downside (or upside) to this is the Rebel can be difficult to get for cheap used, as they hold their value so well that if you want one cheap, you’re probably looking at getting one that’s completely trashed. If you want one used, join a forum and ask questions on what to look for. The people who own these bikes know exactly what to look for in a used Rebel, and what to avoid like the plague.
Since the aftermarket is so big, if you buy a Rebel that you’re not 100% thrilled with, someone will be happy to buy the bits you don’t like, while someone else will happily sell you the bits you do want. The Rebel is arguably the king of the beginner rider scene, and the chance of it being dethroned any time soon is highly unlikely.
Honda built a truly great motorcycle with the Rebel. The power is friendly, the drive-train and handling very forgiving, and a ride that can carry even the most rotund gentleman with ease and comfort. With the Rebel, you’re unlikely to be surprised at any point, as the bike handles just about everything in its stride, rolling over rougher roads and plowing through rain with calm authority. Even the most ham-fisted rider can get this bike down the road fairly well, and a more experienced rider can give bigger metric cruisers a run for their money on city streets. Its longevity in the market is its true endorsement, as no manufacturer would continue to produce and sell a bike for 30 years that was garbage.
My Kind Of Weird: Old-school Style
I love the Old-school look of bikes from the 50’s, and one of the things the Rebel can do very well is convert itself into an excellent homage to that look with very little in the way of major modification.
“Springer” style seat
Classic style rear fender
Pillion pad mounted on or above rear fender
If I was going to build an ultimate rebel, I’d use the look of the old BSA’s or maybe even the higher-end Brough Superior as a style cue to build something that would keep the average motorist guessing and the Rebel enthusiast drooling.
The Rebel truly is a chameleon, capable of changing into almost any style of bike you could possibly want with just a little time, patience, resourcefulness, and money. I can believe without a doubt that in 50 years, they’ll still be fighting over these bikes, because they’re that good. Go ahead, go test-ride one, you won’t be disappointed.
Now, as many of my regular readers will have noted, I’m an odd duck indeed. I love the underdog bikes, and I adore bikes that step outside of their established niche (more on that in a bit).
In this post, I shall shine the light on a bike that has seen more beginner riders through their learning phase than most would realize. the Ninja 250. I speak of the “Third Gen” Ninja specifically because of its nearly twenty years of production, thus its proliferation in the US Market. I may touch on the later generations, however in this post I am laboring towards a point, and as such, they need not detain us at this juncture.
With a massive following, the Ninja has been debated, argued, and mused over exhaustively regarding its many vices and virtues. Beloved by beginner riders, MSF courses, and unassuming long term riders, the Ninja sports an excellent record of reliability and ownership. Since this particular generation was in production for nearly twenty years, nearly every facet of the bike has had time to be fettled, massaged, and tweaked to comparitive perfection. If you want to do anything to the bike, there’s probably a post on a forum somewhere that has been made on the topic where many wrenchers have argued every aspect of the post until a concensus was reached. You want to make it faster? There’s posts for that. Want to make a mini-ADV bike out of it? There’s even a few on that too (more on this later).
Since it was produced so long, the aftermarket for this particular bike can be downright staggering. Nearly anything you might want to do with this bike has aftermarket parts designed to meet your needs. Any significant issues with the bike also have aftermarket parts to rectify them, from preformance to suspension and everything in between.
The performance, weight, and handling of the bike lends itself well to new riders, as it has enogh power to get out of its own way, but not so much that it becomes unmanageable to the nervous novice. It is neither too tall for most riders, nor is it so small that most riders feel cramped, rather, it is a marvelous balance of the two. Seasoned riders love this Ninja for its reliable and predictable performance; most riders will not find themselves riding outside their skill levels on this bike, which is good if you want something to get from A to B with as little drama as possible. It is comfortable in the city and out on the twisty backroads and byways. It is a civilized motorcycle with the ability to turn hooligan in an instant, without endangering your life in the process.
My Kind OF Wierd: The Ninja Adventure
A small jewel in the ADV rider community, the Ninja makes a surprisingly good mini-ADV bike for beginners and regular riders. While it can’t really handle the hard-core stuff, it can take quite a bit of terrain in its stride if set up correctly.
Possible gearing changes
Full pannier and top-case rack mounts
Many riders who try this out opt for raised handle-bars as well, though not everyone does this. It may be scoffed at by the more “hardcore” elements of the ADV community, but for the average ADV rider, the idea seems like a fun diversion from the high-CC bike war that normally consumes the ADV rider community.
The Ninja can be anything to anybody. It is a chamelion with the ability to do many things for many people, and for that, I love it.