Harley-Davidson’s Roadster Sticks with Style over Substance

Harley proves they can fix the Sportster’s problems (then give it new ones.)

bySean MacDonald|
Harley-Davidson’s Roadster Sticks with Style over Substance

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It was no surprise when Harley-Davidson announced their next bike would be a Sportster with a performance treatment. Harley has been steadily releasing motorcycles with upgraded components, and for “the lifestyle brand that also sells motorcycles,” this new Roadster represents real potential. It could be a machine bought for how it rides, more than how it looks. It could be something that gets non-cruiser guys onto cruisers. It could be great. That's what we're in France to find out.

If you’re thinking France sounds like a strange place to ride a slice of Americana, consider this: Europeans love Harley-Davidson and, unlike Americans, they love the Sportster. Harley told us that sales are split 80/20 in favor of the company's big bikes here in the States, but those numbers flip once you get across the pond. Also, the pavement is damn near flawless, something that hides many a flaw, and makes for one hell of a ride.

Unlike Harley’s recent performance-driven upgrades, the Fat Boy S, Softail Slim S, Low Rider S, and CVO Pro Street Breakout, the new Harley-Davidson Roadster isn’t an outright performance version of the base model Sportster. Those S models got The Motor Co.’s premium ride suspension components and upgraded braking systems, but they also got freer flowing exhaust systems and air filters, upgraded motors, and more power.

The Roadster is like half an S package. It’s still powered by the same 1200cc, air-cooled Evolution motor HD’s been throwing in Sportys since the year after my birth. At around 60 horsepower and 60 lb-ft of torque, a sporty bike it does not make. Instead, the Roadster was designed, as senior industrial designer Ben McKinley tells us, to give people a more urban-minded bike. It's a reach back into the Sportster’s history and a grasp at what the bike was designed for in the first place. A little liveliness in a lineup of bikes built solely to meet different aesthetic tastes.

The Roadster is the first in the Sportster line to receive dual discs up front, 300mm discs at that, bit by twin-piston calipers. Out back sits another disc and twin piston caliper. It's a big improvement. While not impressive in size or quality, the three disc setup does bring the bike to a halt in short order, and brake feel isn’t spongy and fade-prone as it was in the past.

The Roadster also bucks the trend of Sportsters getting closer and closer to the ground. Harley’s premium suspension lifts the bike and provides 4.5 inches of travel in front and 3.2 inches at the rear. The 43mm upside-down fork isn’t adjustable, but Harley have damned near nailed the suspension settings, and the setup provides more comfort on rough pavement and far more stability when riding enthusiastically than the standard fork and shock setup.

These two changes alone would be enough to give me a soft spot for the Roadster. If only the riding position showed so much progress.

Harley gave the Roadster lower bars, which they claimed were inspired by clubman bars. The look leans more toward vintage Indian or Harley bars to my eye. Big flowing bends and significant width draw the rider’s torso into more of a tucked position, but the bars splay your arms out wide in a position that doesn’t feel sporty.

Then there are the foot pegs, which are too wide, and which haven’t been moved to accommodate the lower handlebars. It's not a small complaint. With the help of the seat, the Roadster's riding position puts the footpegs right where you want to put your feet at a stop. Worse, when riding, you’re folded in half, with the pegs scraping incessantly at the slightest hint of lean angle.

In the end, the Roadster feels like the result of a marketing meeting. Too many thoughts on Harley performance tacked to the idea board. It’s part café racer, part street tracker, part cruiser and, as a package, it's just a bit too much. Upgraded components improve the Sportster enormously, but only enough to match the performance of the last generation of standards, like Triumph's Thruxton. Maybe it's not a performance package so much as the new standard Harley should to hold itself to. The bare minimum.

Still, the Roadster is light at the end of the tunnel. Proof that Harley can adapt and grow and progress with the times. And, fortunately, evidence that there are growing pains to come.