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Common Tread

Ride whatcha got: Taking a Sportster on two dual-sport rides

Jan 16, 2019

When I signed up for this summer's Hammer Run, a 100-mile off-road ride full of single-track and mud holes, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the response I got.

“I noticed that your registration says ‘Harley-Davidson Sportster’," read the postscript on the reply. "I wanted to make sure you realize this is a DIRT BIKE event, and that you are just messing with us about the Harley.”

I let him know I was not messing with anyone but myself. I would be there on my Sportster, ready to suffer.

Harley-Davidson Sportster
The bike used to roll with a eight-over fork and no front brakes. Zack Gagnon photo.

Now the obvious question is with so many great ADV and enduro bikes on the market, why would I choose a 450-pound tractor like the Sportster? The short answer is probably familiar to many of you: It’s the bike I had. But really, there’s more to it.

I’ve been riding on-road for about a decade, including half a dozen trips coast-to-coast-to-coast and commuting in New England for about five years without a car, and I’ve always ridden a Sportster. Working at RevZilla the past few years exposed me to a ton of great people who ride all kinds of bikes, including the infamous Joe Zito. After two years of listening to him regale me with stories of his vintage off-road racing over grilled cheeses at the local diner, I caved.

My 1973 Sportster qualified for Zito’s AHRMA bracket, but all I had in the garage for the Ironhead were chopper parts and a rigid frame isn’t a good choice for the off-road scene. But I was determined to make it happen, so I turned to my daily commuter, a 1987 Sportster. At the time, it was wearing its best NorCal Style Chopper regalia. I sold most of my Ironhead parts to fund a full dual-sport conversion on the ‘87 Sportster.

In addition to Sportsters, I also had a newborn daughter, so money was tight and free time was tighter. Then, to make things more difficult, my family car was stolen. All that money from the parts sales went towards a new baby-mobile. I was discouraged and really thought that I was never going to get to go play in the dirt with my pal.

The minimum to get a Sportster into the woods

That’s when I took a step back and realized that I had to do the bare minimum necessary to make the Sportster trail-worthy, relying on used, cheap and donated parts. I still had enough parts on the shelf to trade for some shocks, fork tubes, and a gas tank. I grabbed a front mag wheel from Nick’s Cycle Salvage so I could mount a stock brake setup.

Harley-Davidson Sportster
Backwoods riding on a budget. RevZilla photo.

I picked up the Moose Racing Aluminum Handguards and Joe bored the clamp out to one inch so I could use them on the TC Bros Tracker one-inch handlebar I picked up. For tires, Joe hooked me up with a used 19-inch Maxxis for the front. On the rear, I took a look at my very limited options for a 16-inch wheel, which came down to the Duro HF904 Median Dual Sport or the Trail Wing. The HF904 comes in a slightly wider 130 width and a lower price, so I chose that.

KTM skid plate
A discarded KTM skid plate protects the bottom of the engine. "It was a perfect fit," Zack laughs. RevZilla photo.

I grabbed a used front brake setup from eBay and an old Selle Guillare seat designed for an Ironhead that was flat and allowed me to move backward and forward in the saddle. Some of the ADV guys around the office donated a front fender from a Yamaha WR250 and a skid plate from a KTM 690 Enduro R. The skid plate needed a few mounts welded onto my frame and removal of the kickstand, but fit the frame’s lines perfectly.

DIY Harley preload adjusters
Zack's DIY adjusters get the job done. RevZilla photo.

I did my best job of tuning the front end by using a one-inch spacer to tighten up the preload and then made a cheaper version of the Burly Fork Pre-Load Adjusters using my stock fork caps, some grub screws, and a few locknuts. This let me walk in the suspension to where it needed to be to keep my front end from bottoming out. I had come in a little under budget, so I grabbed a fresh chain and a 51-tooth rear sprocket to replace my stock 48-tooth sprocket.

Harley-Davidson Sportster hand guards
Trimmed levers and basic guards offer better chances of finishing the ride. RevZilla photo.

The day before my first ride, The 7 Mountains Dual Sport, my front brake parts finally arrived. After a few hours in the shop, it was clear the piston was just not working. Additionally, when I attempted to load the bike in the truck, I discovered I had a flat front tire. I decided that a front brake was a luxury, not a need. So I grabbed another tube on my drive up and changed it at the campsite. In the pitch black. The night before the ride. What could go wrong?

The trial run: Seven Mountains

Surprisingly, not much went wrong.

Well, a few things did rattle loose. Then there was that rear brake issue, which happened on the steepest downhill of the day, of course. The rear brake failure resulted in me crashing into a tree at speed and then being flung into a second tree. I didn’t find out until later that this spill awarded me and my ankle a hairline fracture.

Harley-Davidson Sportster roll chart
Not many Sporties rocking a roll chart. RevZilla photo.

That said, I finished the 90-ish miles and had the most fun I’ve ever had on a motorcycle. It wasn’t a race, but passing modern dual-sport bikes all day definitely felt like a win. The bike handled really well and Joe Zito was even a little bit jealous of how well my front end worked compared to his vintage Ceriani setup. I whispered constant praise to the bike throughout the day to help it along and it really exceeded my expectations.

A few issues definitely needed addressing, however, so I headed back into the shop. The rear brake control got a stop welded to it so the brake arm couldn’t flip up, disengaging the linkage. That’s what caused my brutal crash and I definitely didn’t want a repeat.

Additionally, I replaced the cracked front fender and drilled and safety-wired nuts and bolts on anything that rattled loose for, you know, safety. I rebuilt the front caliper, giving me a front brake. Finally, I added a Burly Easyboy Lite Clutch, since the clutch pull on any Harley is notoriously tough and my hand was feeling it in the woods. Time for the more serious test.

The real deal: The Hammer Run

Despite the organizer’s disbelief, the Sportster and I rolled out of camp around 8:30 a.m. along with Joe. Right at the start, there were a bunch of decent-sized whoops and wide open sand, which had me smiling and confident in what the day was going to look like. Then, the single-track started. It just kept going… and going... and going. It seemed like any time the trail opened up it was strictly for the purpose of placing a giant mud hole in our path. I would then immediately fall over, since I just couldn’t get the rear wheel spinning fast enough to clear the mud out of the tread on the Duro HF904 rear tire. I didn’t have a choice, really, but running a 60/40-style tire was definitely not ideal.

Even with the constant falling and struggle, the day gave me the same feeling I got at the 7 Mountains ride, where I truly felt the camaraderie and support of the off-road community. People would always stop and check on me as I flipped my bike back over or while I was taking a much needed rest at the bottom of a mud puddle with my bike. The overwhelming sense of belonging, even on my big stupid motorcycle, is the reason I had no hesitation in signing up for this run, in spite of the organizer’s doubts.

Inappropriate motorcycles offroad
Two of the three "Dumbigos." RevZilla photo.

Along the trail, we picked up another street bike rider on a 2008 Triumph Scrambler. We all laughed at our bikes, dubbed ourselves “The Three Dumbigos,” and hit the trail again. I was starting to get the hang of the single-track at this point, consistently standing up on the pegs and letting the bike find its line. But then disaster struck; I broke my footpeg on the right side. That meant I had to stay seated or fall over immediately.

Evel Knievel toy on harley-Davidson Sportster
A tiny Evel Knievel captures the spirit of the build. RevZilla photo.

Shortly after that, I lost my shifter peg. Then I realized my clutch was burning up. And then the sweep riders caught up to us just as the Scrambler’s transmission got stuck in fourth gear. We were 50 miles in, of about 100, and had to call it quits. Joe took off on his own, now free of our dead weight, and finished the other 50 miles, passing riders on modern bikes the whole time.

Looking back, looking ahead

In the end, just by tweaking the 30-year-old street bike I already had, I was able to run two off-road events and I spent less than $500. Moving forward, I plan to convert the bike to a flat-track machine and get a vintage dirt bike to fiddle with. At the end of the day, the Sportster was just too damn heavy for single-track. That said, even in flat-track form, I think I would be able to do the dual-sport/ADV events on the big bike. And I plan to.

Zack Gagnon's Harley-Davidson Sportster
Maybe your motorcycle can do more than you think it can. RevZilla photo.

In the end, I think that’s the real takeaway here. Don’t believe what others say you can’t or shouldn’t do. As Lemmy said, any motorcycle can be an adventure bike if you are having an adventure on it.

Change a few things, get out there, and ride whatever you want.