Choosing the right bike as a beginner rider is very important. If you’re into Harleys (I don’t blame you!), then the Sportster is the obvious choice being the entry level family of the Harley-Davidson brand. In this post we’ll take a look at whether the Harley-Davidson Sportster (in its various forms) is a good beginner motorcycle, but in short:
The Harley-Davidson Sportster is not a good beginner bike as it is very heavy, expensive to drop, too powerful for a complete beginner, and has very uncomfortable suspension. If you have some riding experience a Sportster might be a good starter Harley-Davidson, as it is much smaller than the other Harleys.
It is not just about safety. Learning to ride on a motorcycle that doesn’t inspire confidence or that is too powerful may teach you bad habits and you could end up taking longer to become a good rider. Check out my post on what makes a good beginner bike.
In this post, let’s look at whether the Harley-Davidson Sportster is a good beginner bike by judging it by the most important criteria a beginner bike should have.
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Engine Size and Power
Generally, I’d say a smaller, less powerful engine (250cc to 500cc four-stroke) is more suitable for beginner riders. They provide enough power for everyday use without overwhelming new riders.
The latest Harley-Davidson Sportsters, the entry-level Nightster 975 and the Sportster 1250, have slightly larger engines than the previous generation Sportsters, the Harley-Davidson 883 Iron and the Sportster 1200. In sports bike terms, these are massive engines. But in a cruiser, the power delivery is, well… meh.
|Bike Model||Engine Size (cc & ci)||Power (kW & HP)||Torque (Nm & ft-lb)|
|HD 883 Iron||883 cc / 54 ci||40.3 kW / 54 HP||73.2 Nm / 54 ft-lb|
|HD 975 Nightster||976.5 cc / 59.5 ci||66 kW / 89 HP||95 Nm / 70.1 ft-lb|
|Sportster 1200||1200 cc / 73.2 ci||44.8 kW / 60 HP||99 Nm / 73 ft-lb|
|Sportster 1250||1252 cc / 76.4 ci||90.1 kW / 121 HP||127.4 Nm / 94 ft-lb|
See, cruisers need big, torquey engines because they are so heavy. But the design of these engines do not allow them to rev very high, and therefore the power delivery (in kW or HP) and top speed, is not very impressive.
This means that a Harley-Davidson Sportster might actually not be the worst beginner motorcycle. At least not if you are worried about the bike being too powerful or too fast. That is one thing I kinda like about Harley’s.
The low down torque gives you that kick in the pants if you really pull away hard, but it tops out quite quickly. The pull-away may be fun, but it is not the flip-over-backward kick you’ll find on a light-weight dirt bike or a four-cylinder sports bike.
That said, I still feel that the Harley-Davidson Sportster is too powerful for a complete beginner. I’d rather recommend a good second-hand 250 cc cruiser like an old Suzuki GZ 250. Then sell it a year later once you’re ready for your Sportster.
Harley-Davidson: Sportster Weight
A lightweight motorcycle is easier to control at the low speeds at which a beginner rider will learn to master clutch and throttle control. The Harley-Davidson Sportster models are far from light-weight. Luckily, the centre of gravity is low so it doesn’t feel like the bike wants to fall over all the time.
|Bike Model||Wet Weight (lbs & kg)|
|HD 883 Iron||564 lbs / 256 kg|
|HD 975 Nightster||481 lbs / 218 kg|
|HD 1200 Sportster||589 lbs / 267 kg|
|HD 1250 Sportster||502 lbs / 228 kg|
Weights is not much of an issue once you get going. It is at walking pace, or standstill, that a heavy bike might make a beginner rider’s life more difficult. When you first learn to ride, you will be doing lots of slow speed turning and figure of eight riding. This is where the Sportsters heavy weight might not be very welcome.
Another problem with a heavy bike is that it is more difficult to pick back up again if (or should I say when) a new riders drops it.
Luckily, with a low seat height it is not that difficult to keep the Sportster upright.
Harley-Davidson: Seat Height
A low seat will help a beginner rider to comfortably touch the ground with both feet when stopped, which is important for stability and confidence. This is probably one of the best (only?) reasons for a beginner rider to consider a Harley-Davidson Sportster as a first bike.
|Bike Model||Seat Height (mm & in)|
|HD 883 Iron||711 mm / 28.0 in|
|HD 975 Nightster||688 mm / 27.1 in|
|HD 1200 Sportster||676 mm / 26.6 in|
|HD 1250 Sportster||752 mm / 29.6 in|
Sportsters, like most cruisers, have below average seat heights. This is thanks to nearly zero suspension travel (not great) and zero ground clearance (both below the bike and when leaned over).
Cruisers were made for straight line cruising. There’s no need for a cruiser to be able to lean all the way over like a sports bike. That’s why the foot pegs and seat is so low to the ground. Being able to put both feet firmly on the ground on either side of the bike is a big plus for a nervous beginner that is worried about falling over.
The neutral, upright rider position of the Harley-Davidson Sportster is another plus point for beginner riders. The handlebars are easy to reach, the foot pegs are not as far forward as the bigger Harley’s and the handlebars are not as wide.
The physical size of the Sportster is also far less intimidating than the big HD Dyna or Softail, and it is much smaller and lighter than the Touring or CVO Harley models. In fact, the Sportster is so different in design from the ‘proper’ Harley-Davidsons that many Hog fans don’t see them as real Harleys.
My main concern with the Sportster’s design is the (lack of) suspension.
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Suspension and Brakes
The Harley-Davidson Sportster’s brakes are good enough and easy to modulate, so no issues there. The suspension on the other hand can only be described as brutal. Or maybe non-existent. You will feel every little crease or bump in the road, which can be quite unsettling for a new rider.
It is also quite tiring to constantly be slammed in the backside every time you ride over something small in the road. While this is not a deal breaker, a bike with a more forgiving suspension will provide a more stable and pleasant riding experience.
On the positive side, it is exactly this lack of suspension travel that makes the Sportster so low to the ground and so easy to ride for short riders. On the balance, most beginner riders will benefit more from a low seat than from a plush ride.
Harley Davidson Sportster: Clutch and Transmission
A smooth, easy-to-modulate clutch and a friendly transmission can make learning to shift gears less intimidating for new riders. The Sportster have no issues with clutch feel, but the transmissions (like all Harleys) can be quite clunky.
Most HD riders like this about their bikes, but it can be unsettling to new riders as the whole bike jerks when you shift gears. This is nothing to worry about and I explain why in this post.
Some older Sportsters had hydraulic clutches but they switched back to cable operated clutches with the newer models. I prefer a cable, as it is easier to maintain. Either way, the Harley-Davidson Sportster’s clutch feel is great for learning to ride and with all that low down torque, stalling is not such a big issue as some other bikes.
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Cost
Harleys are generally not the cheapest bikes out there. This is even more true if you do not live in the United States. I could not really find a reliable reason why Harleys are more expensive, but some suggest it is due to lower production volumes, higher profits margins, and because they are build in America.
I suggest getting a cheap second-hand bike to learn on instead. A Sportster may not be the most expensive Harley out there, but dropping a Sportster will cost a lot more than falling over with an old Honda CB 250 or even one of the first 2017 Honda Rebel 300s. Parts are cheaper and a second-hand bike will likely already have scratches on it.
You can comfortably learn to ride your motorcycle without having to worry about every little bump and bruise. This will keep you more relaxed as you try to master clutch control and coming to a stop.
The other nice thing about a cheap, older bike, is that your insurance will cost less and you will probably be able to sell it for the same price once you are ready to a buy your dream Harley.
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Reliability
While I would not worry too much about the reliability of the Harley-Davidson Sportster, it is worth mentioning that Japanese bikes are generally more reliable.
As a beginner rider, I am sure you just want to learn to ride and enjoy yourself. You don’t want to worry about being left stranded somewhere and missing out on rides with your buddies. While this is probably not a good reason against the Harley Sportster, I’ll just leave you with this little stat:
According to Consumer Reports who conducted a survey including 4 680 motorcycles, four out of ten Harleys gave their owner issues in the prior four years. For Japanese bike owners, only one in ten had similar problems. While this is far from conclusive, there are a wealth of anecdotal evidence that supports this. I’m just saying 😉
Oh, and one good thing about the Harleys is that they do not have a chain that needs cleaning and adjusting every 500 km. Harleys have belt drives that are lower maintenance. One less thing to worry about, right?
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Style
While not a crucial factor in learning to ride a motorcycle, choosing a bike that makes you feel good is not trivial. Why do most people start to ride anyways? Yes, maybe as a means of getting from A to B, but more often than not it is about the feeling.
The same Consumer Reports report showed that Harley owners are the most satisfied with their bikes despite the maintenance issues. I can confirm that there is something about a Harley. I used to think they’re for old, rich people, posing as bikers at bars. But that misconception changed the first time I took a Harley for a ride.
Since that first tide, I’ve been to many Harley press launches and tested a lot of their bikes, and every single time I just feel invincible when that engine roars to life. I love all types of bikes, but there is definitely something different about a Harley.
If you get a bike that you can’t stop looking back at when you walk away, then you will be far more likely to put in the hours in the saddle to become a better rider.
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Aftermarket and Community Support
A motorcycle with a strong aftermarket and community following will make it easier to find advice from other owners and experienced riders. You can also find info on replacement parts and accessories. Forums are also a good place to meet like-minded riders who love the same bike as you.
Luckily, when it comes the Harley -Davidsons, there is no shortage of online communities.
Here’s a list of just some of the more popular Harley-Davidson forums I could find:
- Harley-Davidson Forums
- HD Timeline
- HD Bitchen Harley Forum
- V-Twin Forum
- HD Street Forums
- Harley Riders Forum
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Sportster 883 vs 1200 (2021 models)
If you are still keen on getting a Harley-Davidson Sportser as your first bike, here are the specifications of the 2021 models of Harley-Davidson Sportsters. The info may vary from model to model, as there are a lot of variations on the market.
You will also not find exactly the same figures and specs on all the websites, so please do your own research as well.
|Specification||Sportster 883||Sportster 1200|
|Engine Type||Air-cooled, Evolution® V-twin||Air-cooled, Evolution® V-twin|
|Engine Displacement||883cc (54 cubic inches)||1202cc (73 cubic inches)|
|Bore x Stroke||3.00 in x 3.81 in||3.50 in x 3.81 in|
|Fuel System||Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)||Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)|
|Peak Power||~54 hp (6 000 rpm)||~60 hp|
|Peak Torque||~54 lb-ft (3 750 rpm)||~73 lb-ft (3 500 rpm)|
|Front Suspension||Telescopic fork, 39mm diameter||Telescopic fork, 39mm diameter|
|Rear Suspension||Twin shocks||Twin shocks|
|Front Brakes||Single disc, 2-piston caliper||Single disc, 2-piston caliper|
|Rear Brakes||Single disc, 1-piston caliper||Single disc, 1-piston caliper|
|Wheelbase||59.1 in||60.2 in|
|Seat Height||29.9 inches||25.7 inches (760 mm)|
|Curb Weight||564 lbs (256 kg)||589 lbs (267 kg)|
|Fuel Capacity||3.3 gal||4.5 gal|
|Price (MSRP)||$8,999 (started at)||$11,299 (started at)|
Harley-Davidson Sportster: Sportster 975 vs 1250 (2023 models)
If you are in the market for a new Sportster, please reconsider if you’ve never ridden a bike before. Go for rider training until you are comfortable enough that you won’t ride into something or someone. And that you won’t drop your new bike.
Okay, preaching out of the way. Here are the specifications of the latest Harley-Davidson Sportsters as of 2023:
|Specification||Harley-Davidson Sportster 1250||Harley-Davidson Nightster 975|
|Engine||Revolution Max 1250T||Revolution Max 975T|
|Displacement||76.4 cu in||59.5 cu in|
|Bore x Stroke||4.134 in x 2.846 in||3.82 in x 2.6 in|
|Fuel System||Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)||Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)|
|Exhaust||2-into-1-into-2; catalyst in muffler||2-into-1; catalyst in header|
|Peak Power||121 HP / 90 kW @ 7500 rpm||90 HP / 67 kW @ 7500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||94 ft-lb @ 6000 rpm||70 ft-lb @ 5000 rpm|
|Primary Drive||Gear, 49/89 ratio||Gear, 49/89 ratio|
|Front Suspension||43 mm inverted fork with compression, rebound and spring preload adjustability. Aluminum fork triple clamps.||41mm SHOWA Dual Bending Valve conventional forks. Aluminum fork triple clamps.|
|Rear Suspension||Linkage-mounted, piggyback monoshock with compression, rebound and hydraulic spring preload adjustability||Rear suspension is dual outboard, direct-acting (no linkage) emulsion technology shock absorbers with coil springs and a threaded collar for pre-load adjustment.|
|Front Brakes||Radially mounted, monoblock, 4-piston caliper||Single rotor, floating, hub-mounted|
|Rear Brakes||Floating, single piston caliper||Solid uniform expansion rotor|
|Wheelbase||59.8 in||61.3 in|
|Seat Height||28.9 in||27.1 in|
|Ground Clearance||3.5 in||4.5 in|
|Tires (Front)||160/70R17 73V, Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series, radial||100/90-19 57H, Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series Bias Blackwall|
|Tires (Rear)||180/70R16 77V, Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series, radial||150/80B16 77H, Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series Bias Blackwall|
|Fuel Capacity||3.1 gal||3.1 gal|
|Oil Capacity (with filter)||4.75 qt||4.75 qt|
|Curb Weight||502 lb||481 lb|
|Lean Angle (Right/Left)||34 degrees||32 degrees|
The Harley-Davidson Sportster is not the ideal beginner motorcycle. Yes, if you’ve ridden before, maybe as a kid, then you will probably be okay. But as a total beginner who doesn’t know which lever does what, I’d start off with something smaller and less powerful like a Honda Rebel 300.
Let comfortable pulling away, turning slowly in figures of eight, and coming to a stop with control. Then go all out on the Sportster of your dreams!
Enjoy the journey!