Chuck a leg over the low, narrow seat and everything feels right, with the wide, tapered-section handlebar pulled back to deliver an upright but still sporty stance-although we wouldn't want the footpegs any farther back. Semi-aggressive ergos are appropriate here, as Harley has never made a Sportster that steers so well. In spite of its 551-pound dry weight and pronounced 54-percent rearward weight bias the XR handles brilliantly, even by such benchmark standards as the Aprilia Tuono or KTM Superduke. It steers very precisely, if a little heavily-you have to use the wide handlebar to lever it from side to side in a succession of turns. But the long, 59.6-inch wheelbase delivers excellent high-speed and mid-corner stability without sacrificing feedback from the front tire.
Speaking of which, the sportbike-spec Dunlop D209 Qualifiers developed specifically for this model provide plenty of grip and secure cornering. "We tried different-sized tires, but settled on the 18-inch front as giving the most assured handling," said project leader Jim Graham, explaining the unusual (nowadays) front wheel size. "The 17-incher commonly found on sportbikes made it overly responsive and not easily controlled by the average rider."
The non-adjustable Showa 43mm inverted fork and preload-adjustable twin shocks were a big surprise, offering unexpected compliance and good ride quality. The shock springs look to be variable-rate but aren't; the fact that the XR doesn't skip and hop over bumps suggests that H-D's calibration staff spent ample time optimizing valving and damping.
Though seemingly small for such a heavy bike, the four-piston, 292mm front brakes are so responsive that it generally requires no more than a single finger to produce hard stops. Amazing-good brakes on a Harley Sportster! Thanks to the conservative steering geometry, you can trail-brake deep into bends without any sense that the front wheel will tuck in, nor will the bike try to sit up if you grab a little more while leaned over. The Harley seemed satisfyingly stable under hard braking, without any need for a steering damper, even when you meet a bump cranked over in a fast sweeper.
After a long day spent duking it out with the Parker posse along Spain's finest racer roads, my only question remained the same as 18 months ago: What took Harley so long to build a proper XR750 replica? And why did it take the persuasive power of the European importers to finally convince Milwaukee management to make a Harley that handles? Better late than never, I guess-unless you live and ride in the USA!