Motorcycles Why the Sportster is One of Harley’s Best-Selling — And Most Hated — MotorcyclesAs far as motorcycles go, it's a struggle to understand what Harley-Davidson owners want.
- Words & Images Chris Nelson
On the gravel shoulder of I-15 outside of Las Vegas, I sat on my flooded ’98 Harley-Davidson XL1200 Sport, overwhelmed by my thoughts. I impetuously flew to Nevada to buy the mint, 5,000-mile Sportster and ride it 240 miles to Long Beach, but fueling issues stopped me an hour outside of Vegas. Waiting for a tow, I wondered if I’d made a bad decision, not only by buying this Sportster but by buying a Sportster, period. Because goddamn, a lot of people hate people who ride Sportsters.
It’s not uncommon for a Sportster rider to feel constantly dejected and unable to assimilate in the tight-knit World by Harley-Davidson. Since the Sportster is seen as a starter bike, it’s evidently not as cool to ride as larger Harleys. (If you follow that logic, you must think Harley’s Tri Glides trikes are totally tits.) Throughout its 60 years, the Sportster has remained a handsome, democratic Harley that doesn’t intimidate and invites new, often inexperienced riders to Harley-Davidson. The Sportster has more influence now than ever, what with Harley doing whatever it can to coax two million people to get their motorcycle endorsements. Even though the model is now championed by influential characters like Mark “The Butcher” Atkins, people still spew Sportster hate.
As far as I can tell, this unacceptance comes from the incorrigibly close-minded, try-hard assholes who define themselves by what they ride. Egotistical “splitting lanes and splitting legs” types who puff out their chests and are absolutely terrified of being individual, even though they consider themselves outcasts. I ran into more than a few of them at this year’s Born Free motorcycle show, peacocking, double fisting, and flexing for #squadgoals photos. It’s like their personal identities are so tethered to the Harley-Davidson brand that they’ve lost their sense of self, scared to fall out of step with the black-and-orange army. I hated myself for judging them and tried to focus on the show’s beautiful collection of bikes, but I couldn’t and decided to leave after only two hours.
In the parking lot, I got on the all-new Forty-Eight Special I borrowed from Harley-Davidson and watched an attractive young couple pull in next to me. She inched down her jean shorts, then unwrapped her legs from around her sweaty, scowling boyfriend, his traditionally tattooed arms hanging off apes. They did a beautifully choreographed dismount and turned toward me, so I flipped up the front of my modular Shoei “dad helmet” and said, “Hello!” They spun around and walked away without a word, which is when I noticed they were on an Ironhead. Evidently even Sportster owners don’t like Sportster owners.
...a hipster-hating Instagram account lambasted my review of the all-new FXDR 114, simply for using a word they didn't agree with, and the Harley purists gleefully piled on.
“Do I really want to be part of this scene?” I asked myself, still waiting for a tow, and immediately answered myself, “No.” As it stands the Harley-Davidson “scene” is not one I want to be part of, and evidently the Harley-Davidson “scene” doesn’t want me either; recently, a hipster-hating Instagram account lambasted my review of the all-new FXDR 114, simply for using a word they didn’t agree with, and the Harley purists gleefully piled on. (Wait until they find out I’m a sashaying Sportster owner.) For now, I’ll find solace in doing the best Sportster build I can. Ever since participating in Harley-Davidson’s 48-hour Brewtown Throwdown at the Mama Tried Show, I’ve wanted to customize a Sportster and now I’ve got the perfect foundation to build on. My XL1200S’s fueling issues will be forgotten once Suicide Machine Co. installs S&S’s 1,250cc engine kit…the first of many changes to come.
The Sportster is a wonderful platform for learning, for enjoying, and for self-expression through building. It’s simple and straightforward, with timeless styling and plentiful, affordable aftermarket support. It’s why some 50,000 used Sportsters traded hands in America in the first six months of 2018. I can’t tell you why some people hate the Sportster, but I feel sorry for them. That I now own a ’98 Harley-Davidson XL1200 Sport makes me smile every time I think about it, even if it means dealing with the undeserved woe of owning a Sportster.
Big thanks to Josh Bulrice for the tow. I owe you tacos and beer.