My friends and family are always joking about how contradictory my motorcycle buying choices are. I either buy a silly toy of a bike, then set about trying to make it practical and comfortable, equipping it with luggage and satellite navigation, or I buy a boring, sensible bike, and then try my damndest to make it track-ready by upgrading brakes, suspension and shedding as much weight as possible. I followed this pattern with my Suzuki Bandit 650S, my Triumph Street Triple R, and now I’ve done the same to my Suzuki V-Strom 650.
Those of you who’ve been keeping up-to-date will know that my lightly-used mini-ADV has been slowly transformed into the ultimate all-rounder, racking up 30,000 miles since I picked it up 17 months ago. I’m not well-heeled enough to just throw the Touratech catalogue at my bikes, so every modification was carefully chosen for function rather than bling. Wiring in your own voltmeter takes a lot more time and effort than following the instructions on the latest after-market farkle, but also proves that you don’t have to be independently wealthy or a flannel-wearing hipster to build the bike of your dreams.
I mentioned in my last update that the next big upgrade would be suspension, and so here we are. With touring and commuting amenities sorted and brakes upgraded until they wrinkled tarmac it was time to go for the big-ticket item: suspension.
Before we go any further, let me be clear about one thing: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the stock forks or shock on the current V-Strom 650. In fact, the standard equipment on your own ride is probably just fine. The shocks absorb bumps trundling around town, the forks don’t dive excessively under braking, and nothing leaks or squeaks. Manufacturers carefully examine the intended and expected use of a vehicle when choosing components or design aspects and settle on an acceptable compromise between getting the job done and building a bike buyers can afford.
A Honda PCX125 equipped with Öhlins would probably be the smoothest, most comfortable, best-handling scooter ever made. It would also be twice the price of the standard model and no-one would buy it. Most people claim they want the best, but usually baulk at the price. Case in point, when was the last time you saw a KTM Duke 690R on the road? People really struggle to get their head around small bikes with big price tags. As a result, manufacturers tend to reserve the high-performance running gear for their bigger, more powerful bikes, where that higher price is expected.
My Street Triple R is a notably exception. For not much more than the standard bike, the ‘R’ model gains improved suspension all round, significantly uprated brakes, as well as a few splashes of red on the frame and plastics. I chose this model because I tend to ride my bikes beyond the limits of cheaper running gear, where more basic suspension gets choppy and vague, and simpler brake designs don’t cope as well with aggressive use. From the factory, my V-Strom suffers these same problems, so I set out to build an ‘R’ model for myself.
I wanted a comfortable, upright commuter that could also tour and scrape pegs around the Isle Of Man. So now that we’ve established that it’s my own silly fault for trying to turn a mid-size ADV into a mid-size sportsbike, let’s look at what I did next.
My appointment with suspension expert Darren at MCT had to be made almost two months in advance, but other than giving him the weights of myself and Rosa so that the new shock could be ordered he didn’t need anything else. After years of experience Darren can tell what needs to be done just by bouncing the bike up and down a few times in his workshop, pushing it down with his bare hands and watching it rise back to normal afterwards.
From this he pronounced that both forks and shock were too soft, with too little damping. This explained why the bike was ok when rolling over bumps at low speeds but began to wallow and weave when I pushed it harder. While this might have suited a slower or less experienced rider, it was hindering my enjoyment. Other problems included a preload adjuster on the rear that gave insufficient adjustment range to level the bike with myself alone at one end, or fully-loaded two-up at the other.
Cheap, mass-produced suspension components are designed to be built in their thousands using automated equipment. This inevitably means that cheaper components are assembled with less than ideal precision. My new custom-made Nitron shock absorber was hand made specifically for my damping needs, with the spring selected to give a usable range that covered all my load requirements. I ordered the unit with the optional hydraulic preload adjuster so that I could level the bike regardless of whether or not I was transporting a pillion. Unfortunately, all this one-of-a-kind craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap, and the rear end of my Suzuki is now kept in check by £600 of British-made billet aluminium.
Fitting the new shock was (pun not intended) shockingly quick. Darren naturally knows his stuff and had the tired-looking original unit whipped out in under ten minutes. Threading the new preload adjuster into place slowed the reassembly somewhat, after which Darren spent a few minutes bouncing the bike before tweaking the damping and preload to his liking.
The forks were definitely a trickier job. After drilling out the seized mudguard bolts and pouring out a fluid that had more in common with rancid chocolate than it did with fork oil, Darren spent a fair bit of time filling and draining each fork with varying weights of fresh oil. In between he’d violently compress each fork by hand, gauging it’s resistance and comparing it to his mental target.
It turns out that mass-production techniques result in forks that have different damping characteristics, even on the same bike. Darren explained that he was using slightly thicker oil in one fork than the other to compensate for this difference, resulting in a front end whose two sides were no longer fighting each other over every bump. This is apparently a common occurrence, suggesting that simply buying a kit off the internet will at best be another compromise.
When swapping out the fork springs, Darren did something else I had to ask him to explain. After locating replacements with the desired spring rate (the measurement of how much force is required to cause them to compress) I noticed that the new springs were a great deal shorter than the old ones. Darren explained that the springs in my forks contained soft and hard coils, one set designed to absorb minor bumps, the other harder impacts. With fresh, correctly-chosen oil weights in the forks this was unnecessary, and even undesirable, and the additional length could never be used anyway due to total travel being less than the size of the springs.
After quickly fabricating a set of lightweight aluminium spacers to fill the gap, Darren explained that the added benefit of this solution was less total weight per fork, meaning less unsprung mass for the suspension to deal with. Everything bolted back together and slotted into the bike once again, Darren bounced my V-Strom a few more times before declaring himself satisfied. Time for a test ride!
There’s a fantastic little route on MCT’s doorstep, full of sharp bends, varying road surfaces and the occasional long, empty road to test hard acceleration and braking. Determined to push the new suspension to its limits and provoke a measurable reaction so that Darren could fine-tune his work I set off at maximum attack, and found myself initially underwhelmed. Unlike my Street Triple’s suspension overhaul, which had yielded an immediate night-and-day transformation, I couldn’t initially detect much of a difference in the way the V-Strom rode.
At first I thought this was because the Suzuki hadn’t been as initially horrible as the Triumph, but a glance down at my speedometer revealed something startling. Riding on feedback and feel from the bike I discovered that the chassis now felt calm and controlled at speeds that, in its previous configuration, would’ve had me nervously backing off for fear of losing control. A quick survey of various sections of the route suggested that I was now comfortable riding an average of 20-30mph faster in any given situation compared to the stock setup.
I couldn’t help but grin at the impressive corner speeds the V-Strom now made not only possible, but effortless. Whereas the old forks and shock had to be wrestled like a wild horse when riding aggressively, the bike now felt like it was working with me, rather than against me. A few experimental potholes and manhole covers confirmed that harsh bumps no longer caused the whole bike to shudder for a few seconds afterwards, and deliberately aiming for such obstacles while lent over no longer caused alarming understeer.
At worst I noticed a slight skittishness over very rough surfaces, which Darren put down to Suzuki’s recommended tyre pressures being at odds with the stiff sidewall on my Michelin Pilot Road 4 tyres. After dropping the front from 33psi to just 30 I confirmed that not only was this minor blemish gone, but the tyre bit harder into the tarmac under heavy braking too, resulting in less ABS intervention. Fuel economy hasn’t changed one bit, and the same tweak on my Street Triple with the same tyres has revealed a similar improvement.
On my first pillion ride with Rosa the investment in the Nitron was confirmed when she declared that bumps and the like were no longer causing her vertebrae to fuse together, the suspension now absorbing rather than magnifying the impacts. Coupled with the fact that the Suzuki can now be levelled out perfectly with just a few quick turns reassured me that the money was well spent.
Everyone’s bike is different, and everyone rides differently, so please don’t think I’m suggesting that every biker should spend this much time, money and effort researching and installing a long list of performance modifications on their chosen bike. I usually have very specific requirements that no manufacturer meets with any of their standard production models, so I’ll always have to compromise at retail and do the rest myself. Given how much I ride, it’s worth it for me, but your motorcycle might be fine as it is.
What I will recommend is that you take every opportunity to ride as many different bikes as you can; both showroom-fresh demonstrators and those modified by enthusiastic owners. You can’t learn what you like if you don’t find out what’s available, and you won’t know that you’ve been missing if you’ve never experienced anything better. Your current bike might be one cheap tweak away from perfection; go find out what it is!