Smackdown in Chi-Town

Milwaukee Iron Comparo

Second Place XL 1200R Sportster Roadster 

2007 marks the 50th year for this old horse. It represents the first bike for many a rider and almost always leaves a fond memory in their mind. As Longride relayed to us during our stop near Wrigley Field: "I had a brand-spankin' new Sporty in 1980. That was back when rational people wouldn't have gotten caught dead on one. This was never a problem for me, because thinking straight was never my strong point. My friends told me to stay away, but I got one anyway and loved it."

The Sportster has a way of instilling a strong A gorgeous paint job.sense of loyalty. Its no-BS, bare simplicity is simultaneously its greatest weakness and most endearing quality. If you understand the appeal of a Sportster you understand the appeal of motorcycles. You understand why Harley-Davidson is over 100 years old.

In 1999 Harley trotted out their new Big Twin engine dubbed the Twin Cam. Back in 1957 the company released its first Sportster. They could have called its engine the Quad Cam. We're all glad they didn't, but the use of a separate cam shaft for each valve optimized pushrod geometry. Harley also unitized the transmission and engine into a single, rigid assembly - another weakness of all Big Twins until the Twin Cam. In short, the Sportster has always had a superior powerplant design to its Big Twin brethren. As a result the Motor Company has consciously kept its displacement smaller.

The first thing you notice when you hop on the 1200R is how high it sits. Checking the specs we see that the seat height is indeed almost 3 inches higher than the Dyna. Adding to this impression is a noticeably-higher center of gravity; the bike feels very top heavy compared to the Dyna. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives the bike flickability not found in the Big Twins. You can throw the bike into the turns using a light touch on the handlebars, whereas on the Dyna you use your hips to lean into turns. The effect          this has is to make the Sportster not feel like a cruiser. This is as close to a standard as Harley-Davidson makes.

What is going on under here? Visually the bike is impressive. The fit and finish is typical 21st-century Harley-Davidson. The paint job on the tank is almost too pretty for such a raw bike. The one sore spot is the area between the heads and the gas tank. What is going on in there? As the image shows, there are a half dozen cables, wire bundles and connectors all hanging out in the breeze. The otherwise-clean Sportster lines are disrupted by this clutter. Is there not a way to route some of this mess through the frame, or in a space between the tank and the frame? Other Sportster models eliminate this problem by dropping the tank lower. It is cool and old school to have open space between the heads and the tank, but the styling points are lost when that space is filled with unsightly cables.

Longride's Peoria TT

Peoria, IL is the kind of place where decisions are easy. You only need to decide if it's Bud or Bud Light, Ford or Chevy, which shift you work at Caterpillar, and most importantly, what time you're meeting to go see the Peoria TT race.

The Peoria TT is the oldest continuously-held dirt track race in the world. The track is at the bottom of a large bowl, features left and right turns, a jump, and the spectators have a choice of standing five feet away from the action by the fence, or sitting in the grass on the sides of the bowl; no assigned seating here. The track and surroundings are virtually unchanged since its inception. I've been coming here since the mid 60's and nothing has changed a bit. The crowd is still large and enthusiastic, and the police still patrol on horses. You can read more about the track here:.

Gabe enjoyed the Illinois cornfield tour on the way down, and we got to see some great racing action while we were there. We roamed the track and the pits, while Gabe got a few shots of the action. It wasn't too hot this year, but Peoria in August can get close to 100 degrees with high humidity. I can't imagine how the old-time racers did it by driving to the race and unloading all their equipment, wrenching their bikes between practices and heats, and then loading up with virtually no help. It reminded me how much tougher it was then when I was in the pits and saw one of the riders snoozing in a chair between heats, while his crew worked on the bike.

The parking area has thousands of motorcycles to check out, with pretty much everything made in the last 40 years represented. All in all it's my favorite race to attend year after year. If you ever get a chance to go, get yourself to Peoria for the TT race.

"To understand a Sportster is to know why Harley-Davidson is over 100 years old." Sitting on the bike you are struck by how narrow and lean it is. There is just nothing in front of you: a narrow tank, a tight handlebar and a couple of gauges. You feel lucky to have a tachometer. Small-diameter hand grips are just the ticket, though the mirrors mostly show you your elbows. The footpegs are just where they belong: right under your knees. If you try to grip the tank with     your knees the air cleaner bashes into your right shin, just as it should on a Sportster.

The motor is now rubber mounted so the fillings in your teeth stay in place. Paint shaker no more! We almost miss it. Almost. The weakness of the old Sportsters was the speed ceiling. Seventy MPH was unbearable for more than a few minutes, but not any more. Our 1200R also had a quaint device for fuel delivery called a carburetor, complete with antique items like a choke knob and petcock. Turn the petcock to on, pull out the choke, and punch the button to hear the roar. On chilly mornings the choke has to stay on a while, as it is a little cold blooded and lean jetted. After warm up, all is well and Mr. Sportster is a willing partner.

The suspension complained loudly about Longride's 250 pounds frame. The fork is under sprung, and the shocks bottom out with the slightest provocation. If your day job is riding Sea Biscuit you might like the suspenders, but most will like a change. The brakes are average and take a firm pull, but they get the job done. The seat is the hardest on the backside of this bunch, but at the price of this bike you can afford to tailor it to your needs and style. There are just   over three gallons of gas in the tank, but at around 50 mpg, you don't mind too much. Who wants to ride more than 150 miles on a laminated brick?

The power won't overwhelm anyone, but the power band starts at idle and pulls well all the way to redline. Typical of carbureted Harleys, you immediately notice the limitations of the overly-lean fuel mixture and the overly-restrictive exhaust; the engine begs to be set free. Most owners will quickly oblige. The power that is available dials in perfectly while leaning into turns.

This is the best handling of the three by far. Lay it over, dial in the power just so, and the Sportster rewards you with rock-like stability. Pushing hard will make the suspension act up and the bike tells you when it has had enough. On the highway it can run hard and not break you in half like the old days. It's stable and the vibration is only a slight thrumming through the bars. With a better seat you could go for days.

That's really the story of the Sportster. It isn't the best at anything, but can do some of everything. With a few tweaks in any direction, it can be what you want it to be.

The View From East Bay Gabe

Styling/Build Quality: It looks the way a motorcycle should look, to a lot of people. The styling is balanced and very masculine, with a kind of "built in prison" macho edge because of its simplicity and bare looks. I also like the way the motor fills the space between the wheels. Build quality is way better than the pre-03 Sportys and is almost luxurious. There are fewer of those Home Depot fasteners and other crude touches. The paint on the gas tank is rich and glossy.

Ergos/Controls: As close to a standard motorcycle as any Harley I've ridden. The seat is almost too high for me, and I really appreciate the incredibly slim feel-if it weren't for that absurd air cleaner bumping into your knee. Like all of these bikes, the switchgear feels nice and solid, and I liked the self-canceling turn signals. Nothing is more irritating than the middle-aged guy in front of you with his blinker on for 20 miles (unless that guy is me), and H-D has solved that one; thanks!

Motor/Transmission: Warm-up is an issue for the carbureted Sportsters, although it pulls OK once it's up to temperature. Power is merely adequate, and you'll be chasing your buddies on their Dynas, unless you get a 2007 1200R; then they'll be chasing you. The transmission can be annoying if you like to shift into neutral at stoplights; by the time you find it, the light will turn green. However, you can just hold the clutch lever in and not worry about having to buy a fringed-leather wristbrace for your carpal tunnel syndrome, as the pull is very light and manageable.

Handling: The Sportster had a solid, big-bike feel that wasn't too different from its larger brothers. It tracks nicely and only starts to come unglued in the very high-speed sweepers at over 90 mph. However, I was surprised at how much the 1200R resisted steering inputs; quick turning requires some real effort.

Around town is this bike's element, as it is light, turns quickly and is nimble at low speeds.

Suspension/Ride Quality: The best thing I can say about the Sportster's ride quality and suspension is that it gives you what might be termed a "refined vintage" experience. The shocks are stiff and lack travel. The front forks are pretty spindly and offer no adjustment.

Braking: Pretty good, although I'll keep two fingers on that lever and use the rear brake prodigiously.

Observed fuel economy: Highway 47.48 mpg, City 43.2 mpg

Evo Don's last word: Gabe hopes that riding a Sportster will get him invited to join the East Bay Rats MC. Its built-in-prison machismo is cool, but we think it will take more than that to win this comparo.

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