Our sport bike rider and CCS racer Ryan rides and reviews the new Harley-Davidson Sportster S


There are many places motorcycles have taken me in my life so far. Besides the obvious freedom of the open road they provide, motorcycles have given me the opportunity to travel all across the U.S. riding various roads and race tracks, and allowed me to meet many fantastic people.

My heart has always been in sport bikes but I find myself with increasing interest in other forms of motorcycles, from motocross, supermoto, adventure, touring bikes, even the electric bike movement is starting to gain curiosity to me. One area however, that has never quite taken hold for me has been the cruiser world.

I’ve never been a cruiser guy.

Being a resident of Wisconsin, many find that fact surprising with Harley-Davidson’s world HQ being just down the road. In recent years the brand has been trying to expand towards the youth market, looking to the future and building a brand of new lifetime loyal riders, after realizing the nostalgic market base is changing and the need to remain relevant is even more important.

Fast forward to 2021 and the latest offerings of the brand show they are serious about looking towards the future, with the introduction of the all electric LiveWire and te hPan America adventure ADV touring bike.  But how does a brand keep its DNA yet still show it has an eye towards the future? Something that appeals to the nostalgic crowd but also intriguing new riders? Enter the new 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S.

Clean, minimalist lines, two wheels, a motor…and those pipes! Photo by Harley-Davidson.

As I stated before, cruisers have never been my thing but I was interested to see how my first taste of the cruiser lifestyle would go aboard the Sportster S. To arrange my ride I contacted my buddy Paul James who is not only our Marketing contact from Harley-Davidson, he is also an accomplished racer in his own right and all around great guy. I met Paul a few years ago when he was riding his Buell in our club endurance rounds. We see each other at select events and at the local kart track where Paul shows he is no slouch on his Supermoto.

Knowing I am coming from a non-cruiser background, Paul gave me all of the information I needed and more when I showed up at Harley-Davidson HQ to pick up my Sportster S which would be my street ride for the next few weeks.

Aggressively Simple Looks

The first thing I noticed walking up to the bike is how aggressively simple it looks. Paul explained the designers sought to make the bike look like just an engine and two wheels. I think they hit the mark right on with that expectation. You could tell right away this was not the typical offering that one would expect, considering of Harleys of the past. From the simple chassis to the rectangular futuristic looking LED headlight, it’s easy to see there was a lot of fresh, outside-the-box thinking put into the design and it all comes together in a very slick package.

“It’s going to be a different experience,” Paul exclaimed, and I wholeheartedly agreed. I was expecting to simply show up, he would walk me through some basics, and I’d be on my way. To my surprise Paul insisted on giving me a thorough overview of the controls. In my head I thought “He knows I know how to ride, what exactly does he have to show me?” Boy was I glad he did!

I did not want to be biased in my riding impressions of the Sportster S so I purposely did not read any other reviews or information on the bike. Had I read any of them I would have found out this is much more than a simple cruiser and would have understood why Paul needed to show me a few things.

Nice dash and bars layout, nice ergos. Photos by Harley-Davidson.

The Sportster S has a variety of features that one would expect to see in a modern automobile or higher end sport tourer, certainly not on a motorcycle that was designed to appear to be nothing more than an engine and two wheels. I was shocked at all of the modern tech the designers managed to integrate into it’s simple-to-use package.

The dash on the Sportster S looks like merely a simple round gauge but it is in fact a slick 4-inch digital display. This dash contains a full infotainment system which can integrate into your headset and provide music, incoming/outgoing calls and navigation, all via the H-D App.

An impressive array of modern tech.

In addition to the modern dash, the Sportster S has a variety of rider aids including selectable riding modes (Sport, Road, Rain, Custom), Cornering ABS, Traction Control, tire pressure monitoring and C-DSCS or Cornering Enhanced Drag-Torque Slip Control System, which helps control rear wheel slip and prevent rear wheel locking under powertrain induced deceleration. In other words, if you downshift too abruptly and quickly reduce throttle on wet or damp roads, this system keeps the bike under you. I thought of it similarly to a slipper clutch for those of us in the racing world.

Once Paul had finished his tutorial and I felt comfortable with all of the knowledge I had just received, we set off. Paul led me out to the quickest route back to the interstate and I got my first dose of the cruiser life. The first thing I noticed about the Sportster S at highway speed was the power delivery from the Revolution Max 1250T Powertrain, which is also shared with the new Pan America. The powerplant generates around 121 hp and 94 ft.lb of torque and it is smooth. This is not your stereotypical Harley I had always imagined before, with a lot of shaking, vibration and unnecessary noise. The power felt smooth, linear and refined and was a great surprise as I made my way north up the freeway back to my home.

The peaceful, pleasant country roads around The Kettles region and Elkhart Lake. Photos by Ryan Nolan.

I could comfortably maintain highway speeds in 3rd gear and on the way home I also gave the cruise control a try, something I must confess I have never utilized before on a motorcycle. But this was to be a review of many firsts!

During the hour-long drive back up the interstate, I had a lot of time to settle in and get acquainted with the riding position and controls. Being mostly open road, the seating position did take some getting used to with how far forward the foot position is compared to what I am accustomed to. Paul mentioned there is a mid-control conversion kit which moves the footpegs back to a more familiar neutral position. He said most media testers who were more sport oriented commented they would have wanted to try that set up and I would agree with that as well.

The Sportster S was a good companion.

Once I got the bike back home I wanted to plan out my rides moving forward. Since I got a taste of the bike in highway conditions, I planned to take advantage of the Kettle Moraine region nearby and ride the bike through the scenic Elkhart Lake area and nearby Road America. Hey, I am a racer after all! I remembered where the beautiful country roads were that Gerard and I used to get some footage of Rob when he was up here for the MotoAmerica races, so I thought those would be an appropriate place to take my first cruiser as well.

Given that the front tire on the Sportster S is the same size as the rear on my SV650 race bike, I knew I wasn’t hopping on a sport bike with lightning quick handling but it still felt predictable and smooth rolling through the hills and curves of the Kettles. For exploring the winding roads of the picturesque countryside, the Sportster S was a good companion. I’m about 5′ 10″ and the ergonomics were spaced out well for me. The reach to the handlebars was comfortable and footpegs, even though they are a bit farther forward than I am used to, still left me with a fairly neutral riding position overall.

My home track, and some local off-track curves. Photos by Ryan Nolan.

Over the next few days I took the Sportster S out to try riding it in town and through some more of the countryside. I kept coming back to it but the biggest characteristic I frequently noticed was the smoothness of the engine. The power delivery was so crisp in how it flowed and really made it a joy to twist the throttle. If I had to sum up the Sportster S I’d call it the ideal urban and countryside commuter with a design that I noticed turned quite a few heads as I made my way around town. If you’re looking for something to go on a long highway cruise and tour for hundreds of miles, I’d look at the Pan America which shares the buttery smooth engine.

Has the Sportster S made me a cruiser guy?

So the big question- has the Harley-Davidson Sportster S made me a cruiser guy? I would say not quite, as it’s very hard to undo over a decade of sport bike experience. My heart and soul will always be that of a knee dragger. However, the new Sportster S has opened my eyes to the cruiser world a bit. I think this new take on their legendary cruiser was a great move for Harley-Davidson and I’m intrigued to see what the future has in store for the brand. I have to thank Paul and Harley-Davidson for this opportunity and for opening my eyes to this side of the two wheeled world. If you had told me a few years ago I’d be riding a Harley-Davidson I would have replied that you’d had better luck turning turnips into the next currency. However, I’m happy the Sportster S was my first cruiser. Life will throw you curves like this sometimes and to call on a cliche phrase from my sport riding world, “when life throws you a curve, ride it!” This time I rode it on a Harley-Davidson Sportster S, and I enjoyed every moment and mile.


*For more on the Harley-Davidson Sportster S, click here:

H-D Sportster S

*Check out our video review of the Sportster S, without ever leaving this page:


  1. OLdwood

    They should have named the bike something else. A Sportster it is not. “Nice ergos” the writer mentions. I was going to stop reading right there but I continued. “Rider aids like selectable riding modes”, not a Sportster. I began to speed read a little. “Cruise control”? I’m out.
    The question is, “Will the garden variety Millennial put their I-phone down long enough to test drive one or an even bigger question, buy one?” I’m thinking not in any great numbers. Maybe if they include a “Dorky Obama Bicycle Helmut” they might have a chance. And what about that all important “Carbon Footprint”?

    • Rob Brooks

      Someone seems to have gone from critiquing H-D for calling this a Sportster, to criticizing a generation. Venting a bit? Sorry you are so disgruntled, but we feel it’s been time for a change with the revered Motor Company, and with flagging sales and losses for literally years now, we believe they had to make some dramatic changes. We’ll see where they go from here.

  2. Ron F

    A dream got real with a 1977 XLCH Sportster (kick start only, extra lively competition hot) and I signed at the dealer as soon as my job was a sure thing. The engine on wheels look was so infectious. I ended up running AVGAS for some noticeable extra power – it made the difference when dragging another Sportster. I didn’t mind the numbness after long rides. Next was a 97 Buell S1 Lightning. It was everything without the numbness. Too bad I sold it to a serious chopper guy. Whats next? I’ll be 72 in 22, so I’m getting maybe smarter. I went down on the S1 due engine induced deceleration, my bad. No more. The tech on the new Sportster is welcomed, the looks live up to the image – even more so than the evos, and the engine is just getting started. This new Sportster is a both a jewell and a jack hammer. I need to sign.

    • Rob Brooks

      Thanks for chiming in, Ron. I grew up lusting after those Sportsters. Still love the line. Several of us have ridden the new S now, very different, but really like it.

  3. Rick

    IT needs other pipes like the original Sportster has.


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