Harley Sportster Project: Adventure Tourer Planning

For folks not following on Instagram, I brought home a new (to me) motorcycle a couple of weeks ago. “Charlotte” is a 2006 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Custom with about 9,000 miles on the clock. For anyone that followed the Dirtster Project stories, it goes without saying I have a soft spot for Evolution engine Harleys. I wrote a bit about leaving “the cruiser life” when I started lusting after the Triumph Tiger. My perspective on my “preferred” riding experience remains the same, however, I believe I’ve become a bit more “self-aware” over the last 6 odd years.

On any day of the week, if I’m riding the Scrambler to work, commuting across Dayton, through a decade-old construction zone, and playing a little fast and loose with traffic laws. I know better, but I’m apparently too childish to change, or simply fall prey to my frustration and emotions regarding inattentive drivers, and nonsense traffic patterns. With that, several solid seasons of maintaining dirt bikes has worn down my patience. I obviously know my Triumph inside and out, and after replacing clutch packs, sight glasses, wheel bearings, and who knows what else, I’d much rather be riding than wrenching.

What if I could buy a motorcycle that’s about as needy as a car? All I need to do is buy oil, gas, and tires? Hydraulicly adjusted valves, belt drive, and slow-wearing tires? Sure, that sounds good about now. Unlike the sanitized cabin of a car, what if I could feel like I was going fast when I’m actually going slow? Having driven a “Deuce-n-a-half” while working for Uncle Sam, there’s something to be said for being “actively engaged” in the driving process. Here’s the thing, you only have so much attention you can devote to anything. The more raw and “stimulating” the experience, the less attention you can focus on something else. A rubber mount Sportster shakes and vibrates at idle. The carburetor adds a very specific “character” to the riding experience, at least that’s what I like to call it when it’s coughing in protest of the low temperatures. Three paragraphs to say, I want to embrace a more “relaxed” riding experience on the street… at least for a while.

Current State of Affairs

Being a 16-year-old used motorcycle, Charlotte has no shortage of aftermarket parts and previous owner “modifications”. Forward controls were stock on the 883 custom, it also has drag bars, no front turn signals, speedometer hood, fender accents, custom rear brake light, special license plate bracket, a leather tank “accent”, custom grips, and other chrome odds and ends. Horses for courses… I want to return this bike to stock form (less forward controls) as much as financially prudent.

Ergos

The forward controls with drag bars really irritate my back. That’s one of the reasons I started to outgrow the Speedmaster. Unfortunately, the reach from the Harley seat to the bars is especially long, making it more uncomfortable. I’m hoping a cheap bar swap to something closer to stock fixes this. While shipped from the factory with forward controls, I’ve been looking around at all kinds of online flea markets in search of mid controls for this model. Aside from an ironing board seat, I was really happy with the cockpit ergos on the Dirtster, I could see that being a possible solution long-term, but I’m going to get these bars swapped for cheap asap and see if that makes it more ridable in the meantime. Mid controls, despite being used are gonna set me back almost $200.

Suspension

This is where my vision for this bike has divergent ends. As one could imagine, one of Harley-Davidson’s current challenges is that they’re known for emphasis on form over function. The “Sport” has been systematically removed from the “Sportster” over the decades as “slammed” suspension and loud pipes seemed to take priority over “rideability”. That said, the “lowered” rear shocks, and I suspect, softer or lower front forks mean I don’t ride this bike nearly as fast as her British stablemate. That does accomplish my intent to “enjoy the experience” a bit more, but functionally I want to get some progressive 13-inch shocks on the back of this bike straight away. As I said, the best I can tell, the front end looks like it’s sitting lower in the 5-inch stroke when I sit on it than I believe it should. I don’t know for sure, but it may have a set of lowering springs in it, it’s likely long overdue for a fork service. Either way, I may spend the Benjamin it will take to drop some fresh progressive springs into the forks along with new fluid.

Luggage

Top boxes are the ugliest thing you can do to a motorcycle while simultaneously the most functional. I love the function of a tail bag on a cruiser. I have the intention of commuting on this street bike as much as possible, and I hate, excuse me, “loathe” wearing a backpack, so I need a solid place to put my lunch and a change of clothes on this Sporty right now. It currently has one of those leather “tool roll” type bags zip-tied to the bar riser, which works for a garage door opener, but here’s a shocker, it’s ugly as sin to my eyes. I’m on the fence about how long I want to preserve the “form” of this machine. I say that as I keep a tank bag on the Scrambler almost permanently now. The leather fringe “accent” the previous owner put on the tank is fugly, and it’s glued down to the tank. I started to pull it off, but I’m not sure just yet how to remove the soft glue and I have a strong suspicion it’s hiding a scratch in the paint. Ultimately I want it off the tank and I’ll put down a piece of clear vinyl to protect the tank and drop a tank bag on it for long weekends.

Wind Protection

Long-time readers know I’m not a big fan of windshields. With the drag bars, I can ride on the highway without a windshield pretty easily… but there’s no way I’m tolerating this setup for long. Once I have mid-controls installed, I expect I’ll feel a lot more pressure on my arms and chest and I’ll be looking for a solution. Per my go-to, I’m likely to buy or fabricate a flyscreen for the Sporty. Dart makes a great screen, unfortunately, they don’t seem to offer the larger Marlin screen for the Sportster. It’s entirely possible the standard screen will work just fine, it’s obviously been quite functional on the Scrambler for tens of thousands of miles at this point, but we’ll see if the ergos work out on the Sporty.

Long-Term Vision

For right now I want a bare-bones commuter and weekend motorcycle. I want to spend as much time as I can riding with my Dad, go see my Grandma, and generally have a bike that’s in the garage and ready to ride at any moment the mood strikes me. That said, long-term I want to build a utilitarian long-distance touring bike. Are there better solutions? Absolutely there are. Are they as simple as a carbureted Sportster? Perhaps; but few of them have hydraulicly adjusted valves. Oil changes can be done in a parking lot, belts can last up to a hundred thousand miles, and while carbs are finicky, with so few wires and sensors, it’s much easier to work on a carb’d bike when the time comes.

To be more specific, to build a comfortable touring machine, I want to upgrade the suspension, swap wheels out for better tire choices, find suitable luggage that makes living off the bike easier, and fine-tuning the ergonomics to ensure the bike is all-day comfortable for weeks at a time. Helping Jeff build Ripley The Dirtster offered a wealth of knowledge on both building a purpose-built Harley, but also in how to work on a motorcycle. The recent updates to Rosie the Scrambler were heavily influenced by my experience working with Jeff.

There’s no doubt that a “touring” motorcycle in my mind is an “Adventure Touring” motorcycle, but I don’t want to take it to the same level of off-road capability we did with Ripley. Five to six inches of Suspension travel will likely be plenty assuming the springy bits are set up properly for my weight and intended use. There are a myriad of front suspension options for the Sporty, from Ohlins and Andreani fork cartridges, Traxxion Dynamics Damper rods, emulators, and springs, and who knows what else. Progressive makes a (non-adjustable) fork cartridge kit as cheap as $250 for the sporty, while a set of fully adjustable Andreani kit is around $700. Ideally, I’d lean toward an adjustable solution, but Rosie’s spring damper forks have worked well so far. On the back end, the story is the same. 13.5” rear shocks are under $400 if I’m not picky; inversely I can spend a pretty penny on piggyback shocks from multiple brands that are close to two grand. I want to be able to firmly put my feet on the ground, especially if I’m on the road for a week at a time, so ride height is important, but my biggest concerns are comfort and ergonomics, the 2 inches of shock travel I have now is laughably bad.

Speaking of “adventure touring”, I’m on the fence about having the wheels re-laced with dual 17’s for better street rubber, or springing for more ADV-friendly 19”/17” buns. Right now the Sporty is wearing a 21” front wheel and a 16” rear. The 21” front has lots of cruiser and dirt tire options, but that 16” rear is pretty limiting if I want sport-touring rubber. I bring up all of this because for as thrifty as cruiser tires can be long-term (I got like 16,000 miles out of a rear tire on my Speedmaster), they generally suck in the rain and cold. I may try out a set of Pirelli Night Dragons and so on to see how those shake out, but I have a strong suspicion that long-term I’ll be trading the stock rear wheel for a spoked wheel and have them re-laced with more ADV oriented wheel sizes.

Luggage is a whole new conversation; I’m generally a proponent of soft luggage, especially for adventure and off-road riding. That said, I admit I’m interested in having lockable luggage for a bike that I expect to see spend most of its life on pavement. Considering it’s a Harley, the solutions are virtually infinite, from lockable HD replica hard bags to ultra-utilitarian hard panniers from Tusk or Givi. Fiberglass replica Harley “bags” would match the aesthetics better, but might prove a bit delicate if I find myself burning down a dirt road in Utah. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ultimately I see a blend of the “Burly Scrambler” and my Triumph. Right now I want to keep the belt drive for functionality, but I want the best tire options I can get to burn up the pavement rain or shine. Similar to Rosie, I expect to see Charlotte experience an evolution in form and function over time. I think the ultimate goal will be a V-twin Scrambler with bags, 15″ rear shocks, cartridge forks, heated grips, mid controls, comfort seal, upright ergos, and a dashboard full of navigation tools. I don’t think I’ll be an Iron Butt Rally competitor, but I’d like the machine to be capable of such a feat.

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4 Responses to Harley Sportster Project: Adventure Tourer Planning

  1. Bud Bingham says:

    Looking forward to seeing how this project comes out. I have a highway peg foot rest I will donate to the cause.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Days i Ride says:

    I just picked up a 2003 100th Anniversary Sportster in near mint condition a couple of months ago. I had grandiose visions of doing some mild off-roading with it, but it’s so pretty I decided to leave it as is. Now I’m prepping it for long-distance trips. I just added a rear rack, I have saddle bags but I need the Mounts for them and I just need an engine guard. I have long monkey arms so the forward controls and straight bars are fine for me. I’d be interested in seeing what you do with the suspension in the rear. Oh, and I have the 21″ front laced wheel and 16″ cast wheel. Good luck!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • MotoADVR says:

      Hey Ted! I was just thinking I heard you comment about that Sporty in a recent show. I’m anxious to see how you get along with that solid mount on long trips after being in a big twin for so long. I really wanted a 1200 to cut down on the engine vibrations a little bit (spins slower for folks reading the comments), but budget reasons led me the other way. I feel like the 883 is more playful in the twisty stuff but it does drone a bit in the highway.

      This Sporty will likely be a slow burn kinda like my Triumph (go read that recent article if you haven’t already). I’m gonna cruise around with my Dad while he’s still riding, and slowly evolve this machine into an Adventure Tourer. My mind says 19 front 17 rear… but it may no joke be cheaper to do 21/18… although tire selections aren’t as good. I just picked up mid controls yesterday… I prefer them, but I admit the seat is still too low. How am I this young with a finicky back?

      Liked by 1 person

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