Common Tread

Bikes that made me: The little Harley-Davidson Sportster that could

May 22, 2023

Motorcyclists purchase bikes for a myriad of reasons. Some prize power and speed. Others seek comfort and convenience. One criterion alone governed my first bike-buying experience — style.

Burdened with a modest sum of disposable income, I sought the least sensible way to spend it in one place. A motorcycle ticked all the boxes. I was a late-twenty-something-year-old. It was the café-racer craze of the mid-2010s, and I trained my spendthrift sights on a Triumph Bonneville T100. The clean and classic lines, two-tone paint scheme, and peashooter pipes defined my aesthetic ideal. Yet, I stopped short of stepping foot in a Triumph showroom.

Editor’s Note: Dustin Wheelen is Common Tread’s new Associate Editor. He has contributed articles to other websites, including Rider Magazine, RideApart, Electric Cycle Rider, and InsideEVs.

Convinced by Harley-riding friends that a Bonnie wouldn’t hold up to the rigors of long-distance travel, my hunt pivoted to Hogs. More specifically, one 2015 Harley-Davidson Iron 883. Blissfully ignorant of the Sportster’s own long-haul handicaps, I fully believed this year-old, used example met my needs. Never mind the lack of wind protection. Ignore the non-existent storage. The Iron had the look. The rest would work itself out, right?

With a few thousand dollars burning a hole in my checking account, I surrendered my hard-earned cash to a local H-D dealership for the Sportster with a few thousand miles on the odometer. Just like that, I was a motorcycle owner. With the exception of a Vance & Hines exhaust system, my black beauty appeared as it did the day it rolled off the assembly line. It didn’t remain that way for long.

A big step goes a short way: slammed bars, a bobbed rear fender, and a solo saddle barely altered the Iron 883’s silhouette, but they made all the difference to me. Photo by Dustin Wheelen.

Bolt-ons like foot pegs, a solo saddle, and a handlebar instantly changed the riding posture. Soon, the rear fender was bobbed and the front fender was in the waste bin. A high-flow intake and tuner finally did the short pipes justice. Even after all that work and all that money spent, my Iron looked largely the same. Still, it felt like mine. There’s a certain feeling you get when you buy a bike. It’s a completely different feeling once you make it “yours.” 

Nevertheless, none of those modifications actually addressed the bobber’s inadequate touring accommodations. A 10-inch sissy bar signaled my first act of compromise. Without adding too much visual luggage, the accessory added more than enough actual luggage to my iron steed. At least enough for a maiden voyage from Los Angeles to Yosemite and back.

The 1,200-mile journey took us from the high desert to the High Sierra. There were moments of wonder and awe, and just as many wind-fatigued pit stops and frigid nights. No matter how tall the task, the Iron marched on. Buzzy, overloaded, and peppered with bug guts, the Little Sportster that Could hummed along, eating up miles like a station wagon during summer vacation. The question was never whether my trusty Hog could make it. It was always whether I could.

The Sportster loaded down with a backpack, four-man tent, sleeping bag, blanket, and reserve gas bottle along the shore of Ellery Lake. Photo by Dustin Wheelen.

No form of travel compares to your first motorcycle road trip. For the fortunate, things go to plan. For the luckless, things go south. But for all, it’s memorable. I’ll never forget the smell of riding through redwood groves. Crossing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is a necessary inconvenience in a car. It’s an achievement on a motorcycle. Even so, logging significant miles on the Sportster was far from a breeze. From the hand-numbing V-twin vibrations to the relentless buffeting barrage, the Iron made me earn every turn of the odometer.

That didn’t stop me from racking up the miles, though. Armed with the Motor Company’s nearly bulletproof Evolution engine, the Sportster endured road trip after road trip. Whether I pointed it toward San Diego or San Francisco, Big Sur or Palm Springs, it met the challenge without one mechanical mishap. Eventually, I caved and purchased a pair of saddlebags to ease my increasingly frequent expeditions — even if the bulky bags sacrificed style points in the process.

Pack it in, pack it out: Living off the bike for a few days is the perfect lesson in light packing. Photo by Dustin Wheelen.

Despite all the Sportster’s merits, it was far from perfect. The raucous exhaust regularly set off car alarms. The rear suspension launched me out of the saddle with every pothole. Don’t even get me started on the 90-mile tank range. However, with the benefit of time, those flaws seem downright endearing today. I remember the bone-rattling engine vibes as vividly as tranquil rides down the Pacific Coast Highway. I look back on them both with similar fondness.

Over time, I outgrew my indomitable Iron and moved on to bigger and better bikes. While I favor supermotos and sport bikes these days, a Sportster-shaped hole remains in my heart. Would I do it all over again? No way. Do I regret it? Not in the least. Whether I’m wrangling a 185-horsepower naked bike or negotiating a heavyweight ADV over loose terrain, no thrill is quite like the first time. The Sportster was there for my first ride, first oil change, and first motorcycle rally. For that reason, the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 will always be one of the bikes that made me.