You Can Cross the Sahara on a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster

by Gabrielle DeSantis

Considering what the 2021 Pan America 1250 offers, Harley-Davidson might cause a shake-up in the adventure bike world. But the Pan America isn’t the only way to take a Harley off the beaten, or rather, paved path. And no, this isn’t about the Buell Ulysses. With enough prep work, it’s possible to make a decent off-roader out of some unorthodox machines. For example, taking a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster through the Sahara during Scram Africa.

Scram Africa lets scramblers loose in the desert

Scram Africa 2021 poster | Fuel Motorcycles

Several international off-road races, such as the Paris-Dakar and the Baja 1000, welcome motorcycle entrants. But while Scram Africa was inspired by the Paris-Dakar, it isn’t a race, Cycle World explains. Instead, Fuel Motorcycles, the company that created the event, describes it as an “experience [of] adventure and friendship.”

Although the exact route changes year-to-year, the overall Scram Africa formula has been the same since it started in 2011. The event sees riders criss-cross Morocco over multiple days, covering 1200-1500 miles and multiple kinds of terrain. That means mountains, plains, rivers, and, yes, parts of the Sahara Desert, Cycle World reports. And depending on which riding group you’re in, you might use a map and compass rather than GPS, Flat-Out explains. But there is a digital roadbook to help the truly lost find their way, Meta reports.

Originally, Fuel Motorcycles allowed a wide variety of off-road-prepped bikes to take part in Scram Africa. Starting in 2017, though, the event shifted to customized motorcycles and dedicated scramblers, new and classic. However, that doesn’t mean riders are limited to Triumph and Ducati Scramblers or the BMW R nineT Urban G/S. A modified Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster is also welcome.

What’s it like riding a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster scrambler through the desert?

An olive-green 2021 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster next to a concrete bridge
2021 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster | Harley-Davidson

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At first glance, a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster seems like an odd choice for an off-road bike, given that it’s a cruiser. However, seeing as an Indian Scout can be modified for jungle duty, why not an Iron 883 for desert riding?

To be sure, a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 isn’t an ideal off-road machine, partially due to its 550-lb curb weight, CW reports. But some adventure bikes weigh noticeably more. And with the proper clutch and sand-riding techniques, it’s possible to avoid getting too stuck.

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All the same, having the right armored gear is crucial, because crashes and spills are inevitable. And riding over dunes and rocks means damage is a distinct possibility. The Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster scrambler CW borrowed sheared off a rear shock bolt, wore down a rear tire, and almost clogged its air cleaner. Still, as Fuel Motorcycles founder Karles Vives told CW, “‘the fun is in the challenge.'”

You can build your own and experience the desert yourself

The red-and-white Biltwell Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster scrambler 'Frijole 883' racing in the NORRA Mexican 1000
Biltwell’s Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster scrambler ‘Frijole 883’ | Biltwell

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The Fuel Motorcycles team isn’t the first to turn a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 or some other Sportster into a scrambler. Gear company Biltwell entered a Sportster scrambler in the NORRA Mexican 1000 and finished 27th out of 43 bikes. And in 1986, another modified Sportster finished fourth in its class at the Baja 1000, Motorcyclist reports. Harley-Davidson Iron 883 scrambler builds have also competed in the Mint 400, RideApart reports.

It helps that the Harley-Davidson Sportster platform is a long-lived and reliable one. As a result, these bikes are commonly modified into a variety of custom builds. And it’s possible to turn a Sportster into an off-roader fairly easily, even on a budget, RevZilla reports.

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It’s mostly down to off-road wheels and tires, skid plates and similar protection, and a quality set of off-road shocks with extra ground clearance. Traxxion Dynamics, for example, has a long-travel fork kit specifically for Iron 883 and Iron 1200 Sportster scrambler builds. Hugo Moto has a full bolt-on kit, CW reports. And multiple tire companies have off-road tires sized for Sportsters, Cruiser reports.

As for the Scram Africa, registration costs about $3700. The fee includes ferry transport, food, lodging, and access to chase trucks and GPS. Riders are only responsible for fuel, renting or bringing along their bike, and getting to the ferry, CW explains.

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