- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

Heading home the other night I discovered, in a small way, that the Harley-Davidson 2001 Sportster 883 XLH is a motorcycle greater than the sum of its parts.

When a car on my left-rear flank began honking its horn, I thought maybe I had cut someone off I hadn't or that someone had recognized me, but bundled against the winter wind, certainly no one had.

Confounded, I slowed, looked over my shoulder, and saw three college-age women from Ohio smiling and waving gleefully at me. It was a cold blustery night, but one of them hung out of the car's window beaming at the chance of catching my attention.

I have been riding for nearly a decade with a preference curve that has wandered from miniature cruiser to universal Japanese motorcycle to sport bike. But, on all the Hondas, Yamahas, scooters and whatnot I have ridden, that has never, ever happened before.

In the interest of full disclosure, by today's performance standards the York, Pa.-made bike is unimpressive.

It is absolutely reliable, has disc brakes fore and aft that could stop a charging rhino and a belt drive that avoids the fuss and muss of lubricating a chain.

But on the other hand, it is overweight and underpowered, it turns sluggishly, shakes like a coin-op laundry machine, and is just scary to ride at speeds exceeding 80 miles per hour.

But now, in the dead of winter, snow on the ground, I find myself still wanting to take it for a cruise.

Again, bone-dry the bike weighs 489 pounds. Gassed up and full of oil, it's pushing the scales at closer to 515 pounds. Its 883-cubic-centimeter V-twin engine provides 52 foot-pounds of torque, but with revs topping out around five grand manages only 45 horsepower.

And I was not kidding about speeds over 80 mph. Just too much shake.

But still, people who see the bike love it.

By way of background, the Sportster was introduced in 1957 as a lightweight relative to the 700-pound behemoths in the rest of Harley-Davidson's lineup superbike. Better designed mid-weight British imports were devouring the manufacturer's market base and the Sportster was the reaction.

Today, it's still the lightest bike on Harley-Davidson's list and is a bare-bones, entry-level bike with a price tag hovering under $6,000. The U.S. Capitol Police, forced by "Buy American" laws to start replacing its fleet of lightweight Hondas and Yamahas, are considering the Sportster.

New in 2001 for all Sportsters, which are sold with various options and in a 1200 cc model as well, are high-contact-ratio camshaft gears for quieter engine operation, an oil pump designed to reduce oil carryover, and Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series tires.

Styled the same as when it was first offered in 1957, the Sportster has always been gorgeous in its simplicity.

The white pearl paint on the review model shimmered a faint red or blue depending on the light and prompted comments whenever the bike stood still long enough to attract a crowd.

Crowd attracting, by unscientific measure, took about 30 seconds.

With beefy chromed out forks, teardrop tank, and a solo seat perched on top of a wraparound rear fender, it is a lone-ranging bull of a bike. Some have complained the seat is uncomfortable, but compared to my normal tank-hugging, sport-riding position it seemed plush.

The gauges are bone simple: a speedometer, turn signal and neutral indicators, and the bike's sole concession to modernity, a digital odometer.

The single headlight looks small but easily illuminates the road.

The staggered dual shorty exhaust pipes, while a little too loud for my taste, gave full voice to the engine's tub-thumping rumble.

Sure the bike, with a scant 1,400 miles on it, gasped occasionally and even backfired once.

But that rolling-thunder sound commanded respect.

Bottom line? Would I swap my sportbike for one? No. But that's a question of preference.

If you are looking for an eye-catching cruiser at a reasonable price. One that makes a statement, but makes no effort to be anywhere near the cutting edge, then the Sportster is a good place to look.

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