The Mild Ones

The Sportster and the Thruxton were wild ones in the 1950s and '60s. In 2004, they're mild ones. But who says there are no roles for aging stars?

Harley-Davidson XL 1200R Sportster 1200 Roadster
Riding the latest incarnation of the venerable Sportster shows you right off that Harley-Davidson gets urban cruising. For instance, though the Roadster scales in at a porky 584 pounds full of fuel (90 pounds heavier than the Thruxton), it carries that heft low, creating a remarkably low center of mass. A short-inseam-friendly 28.1-inch saddle height combined with a wide handlebar for serious leverage, near-perfect carburetion and generous helpings of low-rpm torque result in virtually flawless slow-speed manners. So you can confidently scope out your reflection in storefront windows while cruising.

The new-for-'04 rubber engine mounts keep the Milwaukee twin's inherent quaking to a bare minimum during inner-city recon runs. At around 3000 rpm there is a buzz in the 1-inch-diameter handlebar, but it subsides between 3500 and 4500 rpm. Above 5000 rpm, the quaking makes an unwelcome return; the bar vibrates as in the old days, and the mirrors' images blur into illegibility. The message, though, is clear: Stay closer to legal freeway speeds and stay happy. Ultimately, windblast, a firm saddle and equally firm ride quality will have you stopping for a break, anyway.

The engine's other changes--cams, heads, con-rods, etc.--serve to bolster the V-twin's already entertaining wellspring of torque--a 72.7-pound-foot peak at 3750 rpm, matched with 64.4 hp at 6000 rpm. That torque figure stands out in this pairing because the Sportster boasts some 64 percent more at its peak than the Thruxton (44.4 pound-feet at 6750 rpm), almost entirely because the Harley has about 50 percent more displacement. So, despite being substantially heavier, the Harley romps by in 0-60-mph, quarter-mile and top-gear 60-80-mph roll-on acceleration duels. Virtually identical quarter-mile trap speeds show how close the two are in horsepower, though.

Point the pair down some winding roads, though, and history repeats itself. Admittedly, the Sportster has a long, 60-inch wheelbase, fairly lazy steering geometry and that low cg, adding up to stable, confidence-inspiring behavior as long as you take your time. But lumpy pavement exposes a need for more accurate damping, and the Sportster has very little cornering clearance. Still, the Roadster's mission isn't about uncoiling windy roads at speed--never has been.

Triumph Thruxton 900
If you're a longtime student of motorcycle history, one of the first things you'll notice after settling into the Thruxton's 31.1-inch-high saddle and reaching for the clip-ons is the bike's authentic riding position. Almost instantly, you're transformed into a Rocker on the way to Brighton Beach.

Truth is, no Triumph-mounted Rocker ever had it so good. The Thruxton's around-town manners border on brilliance. If you're used to contemporary motorcycles, you'll be enthralled with the exquisitely light clutch-pull, broad torque band (broader than the Sportster's, with more than 90 percent of the 44.4-pound-feet peak available from 3250 rpm to 6500 rpm) and abundant flywheel, traits that make effortless, stressfree work of urban riding.

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