Beginner Bike Spotlight: Harley Davidson Sportster XL1200C

Harley Davidson Sportster XL1200C, image courtesy of

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):

Price: $10,809 (Other models can be much less)
Dry weight: 556 lb.
Wheelbase: 60.2 in.
Seat height: 27.7 in.
Fuel mileage: 36 mpg
0-60 mph: 4.2 sec.
1/4-mile: 12.93 sec. @ 102.22 mph
Top speed: 118 mph
Horsepower: 67.7 hp @ 5680 rpm
Torque: 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:

HD Sportster XR1200X, image courtesy of Harley Davidson

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.

Bonus link: The Pace Motorcycle Podcast

My Kind Of Weird:
The Adventure Sportster

An Adventure Sportster, image courtesy of

Bonus link:, a Sportster-centric forum

Final Thoughts:

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)