Bikes we love Test rides The Journey

2013 Harley-Davidson Sportster Custom – First Ride

The XL1200CA isn't the most practical bike in the world, but who the hell cares??


“Oh, baby,” I whimpered. “Baby, I think I love you.”

RELATED: 2013 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Superlow – First Ride

Thus began my experience with the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom, a fat-tired beautiful thug of a machine that I got a chance to test ride recently at Swansea Harley-Davidson.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I had visited Wales’ only H-D dealership on a whim, hoping simply to be able to stare at a few of the bikes up close and maybe, just maybe, sit on one. When I got to the dealership, though, I was greeted with a relaxed friendliness I simply had not expected. Sales executive Paul Chapple said I was more than welcome to sit on any of the bikes, but suggested a test ride or two to get a real sense of the machines.

The first bike I rode was an was a Sportster 883 Superlow. Overall, I was crazy about the bike and the Harley-Davidson experience, but there was something, a certain intangible, that kept me from thinking: “Yes, this is my next bike.”

‘Sure, a drone kills more efficiently, but to imagine terrorists being ripped to shreds by one of Svalbard’s finest is far more emotionally gratifying.’

I felt cramped on the machine, resulting in some serious aching in my back and left knee.

“The controls on the 1200 should be a little more suited to your frame,” Paul said when he handed me the keys.

Paul is my kind of salesman: very low pressure. The fastest way to get me to not buy something is to push me to buy it, and Paul seemed to understand that. Of course, he has the benefit of working with a product that pretty much sells itself. I have no doubt that most men return from test rides weeping and pleading with Paul to take their money.

Certainly I felt like doing that from the very first note of the big 1200’s engine. The additional 300-odd cubic centimeters this machine has over the 883 were instantly apparent. I could hear them. I could sense them. I felt like raising my fist defiantly into the air and madly shouting: “Power! Power! Bwahahahaha!”


What I Loved:

As I say, the aura of power to this bike was impossible to ignore. The common analogy for a Harley is to compare it with a tractor, but this experience was more tank-like. It just makes sense that Wolverine and Captain America both choose to ride these things into battle. The engine shudders with a raw authority that is intoxicating and confidence-boosting. When Kissinger said that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac he was almost certainly thinking of a Harley-Davidson. Sitting astride all that rumble and quake feels incredible.

In every review I’ve ever read of a Harley-Davidson they seem to leave that bit out. They complain about brakes (which were OK, as far as I was concerned) and ground clearance (I got no dragging when navigating the tiny, sharp-turn roundabouts of the Gower) and so on, but they leave out the fact that just sitting on a Harley gives you a feeling of being able to conquer the world.

That’s a feeling backed up by the incredible pulling sensation you get when twisting the throttle. The Sportster 1200 wants you to go. It feels almost impatient for you to push the speed limit. And once you get going, it holds the speed pretty well. On a bit of straight, I was able to easily get the machine roaring up to 80 mph.

The bike seemed most adept at speeds below 60 mph, though. There is no tachometer on the bike, so I was left to operate on sound and feel, but she sounded and felt perfectly comfortable cruising at 40 mph in fourth gear. As I had noticed when riding the 883, the bike’s weight was distributed closer to the ground than on my bike. So, it felt a little more “solid,” a little more more stuck to the ground — especially in straights. I noticed this most when filtering past traffic; I pointed the bike in a straight line and it hurled me there without question.

The contoured, comfy seat added to the general feeling of being “planted” on the bike. And the ergonomics were generally more comfortable than I had experienced on the 883. This, I felt, would be a great machine to take Jenn around on. I could almost feel her squeezing my waist with happiness, as the two of us ride through country lanes.


What I Didn’t Love:

As with the 883, wind protection does not come standard on the 1200. So, once you get up to highway speed it’s something of a traumatic experience. Almost all of the 47 miles between Penarth and Swansea Harley-Davidson are motorway, and on my Honda CBF600 they were a veritable afternoon snooze compared to just one mile of high speed on the Custom. Riding long distances on this machine would take some getting used to and a fair amount of forearm exercises to ensure you keep your grip.

Indeed most of my criticisms of the Sportster 1200 are exactly the same as those for the Sportster 883. Along with minimal wind protection there is limited information provided on the dash. No tachometer. No engine temperature. There did not even appear to be a low-fuel warning light. And again I was faced with the conundrum of what sort of posture to adopt. Slouched? Upright? Nothing felt exactly right.

‘I felt like Thor on this fucking thing.’

These are little things to which a person would probably adapt in, oh, say, an hour or two. But at the end of that hour or two I’d be concerned another issue would crop up: mental and physical exhaustion from the constant shudder and roar of the engine. It’s a sound that bores into the your skull, roots in the marrow of your bones. I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to sustain it for very long periods of time (though, I have to admit, I’d be more than willing to try).

I realize that’s an issue of taste — some people like the H-D riding experience, some don’t. And perhaps so, too, is the question of performance. You don’t buy a Harley-Davidson because you want to win the Isle of Man TT; that is not what the bike’s about. But I can’t help lamenting that for all the sense and sound of power, the 1200 doesn’t actually generate that much of the stuff. Despite carrying an engine that is 600cc larger than my Honda, the 1200 produces a whopping 26 bhp less.

And although the 1200 is brilliant in straight lines, it feels sluggish if you try to throw it around. Filtering straight past a line of cars came easily, but I wouldn’t attempt to weave this bike up through traffic as I do with my bike.



There are plenty of motorcycles that I say I want, but for me to even begin to seriously consider spending my own money on a bike it has to first answer in the affirmative to three questions:

1) Would it fit in my garden?
Yes. The XL1200 would be a tight fit, but I think, maybe, I could manage to get it through the garden gate. Just. Performing side-stand turns to maneuver the bike around, however, would be out of the question.

2) Does it put a big grin on my face?
Oh hell yeah. Without a doubt. I felt like Thor on this fucking thing.

3) Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Uhm, well. No, but, yes, kinda. Maybe. As I mentioned in my review of the XL883L SuperLow, it’s a difficult apples-to-oranges question to answer. It’s a bit like comparing polar bears to drone planes: both are pretty good at killing, but each in a different way. Sure, the drone kills more efficiently, but to imagine terrorists being ripped to shreds by one of Svalbard’s finest is far more emotionally gratifying. So, similarly, the XL1200CA does not have the horsepower, wind protection, fuel range, dashboard information or liquid-cooled engine of my CBF600SA, but, then, my Honda doesn’t make me feel like a superhero.

The 1200 is a machine very much built for the American market and American landscape. It is large, comfortable, heavy, and most easy to ride at speeds of or below 60 mph. In the United States, a lot of motorcyclists prefer to stay off the interstates and freeways, sticking to highways where the limit doesn’t go above 60. And in 49 out of 50 states motorcyclists are not legally allowed to filter. Visibility, solidity and comfort — these are the 1200’s strengths.

So, whether you’d want one boils down to what you want and need of a motorcycle. The 1200 provides a super-crazy-awesome-amazing-unique riding experience, but abandons certain aspects of practicality for the sake of that.

If I were forced to choose between this and my existing bike, told that those were the only two options and that I could only ever have one of them for the rest of my life, I would probably choose the the Harley-Davidson. OK, there’s no “probably” about it. I’d go with the Harley. It looks cooler, and it is better able to accommodate a passenger.

But for the time being, at least, I’ll be sticking to my Honda. If Harley-Davidson were to add ABS it might make the Sportster impossible to resist.