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I got Scrammy back from the Race Tech shop last week and, well, holy shit. When I started on this project, I thought maybe a product review might come out of it, but I now think there’s something more fundamental worth sharing.
Before I share this cautionary tale, there are probably a couple of disclaimers I should get out of the way. First, the solution that led to its happy ending worked for me, but it might not work for you. As you’ll see, there can be great peril in getting advice on the Internet from people who don’t know you, and that includes me. And second, this isn’t really a product review. It’s a lesson. I paid for all this stuff with my own money, and possibly almost with my dignity and a broken bone or two. Here goes…
Oversprung and underdamped.
One of my bikes is a 2013 Triumph Scrambler. I adore it. For all of its mechanical rawness, it has a fun loving personality that clicked with me the first time I saw one and heard its characteristic lumpy idle. Like all of Triumph’s first-generation ‘modern classics’, though, it had a weakness: its suspension. If you’re an urban rider who just loves the style of the bike, you may never find it bothersome. But on a twisty road and feeling their oats, these bikes are, in my opinion, oversprung and underdamped. Not for nothing is the aftermarket for Triumph suspension bits so robust.
It seemed like an easy fix. I haunted internet forums looking for advice, weighing the number of happy customers most heavily in narrowing down my choice. That and price… it didn’t make much sense to spend many hundreds, let alone thousands, on a bike that wasn’t itself expensive. “Anything’s better than stock,” went the conventional wisdom on sites like Triumphrat. In due course, a clear candidate emerged. I won’t name the brand, but the parts seemed very reasonably priced and consistent with the period look of the bike. The shocks could be custom sprung for my weight. And, best of all, this brand also offered “matching” progressive wound springs for the fork (the quotes are from an online magazine review).
It seemed like a slight improvement, but if it was a quantum one, I didn’t notice. Maybe, I figured, motorcycle suspension is just too subtle for me. In the meantime, though, I noticed something else: the bike had developed a habit of seeming to hop sideways if I made certain mid-corner corrections and – strangely – in gusty crosswinds. One episode of the latter – trying to stay in my lane while 50 Harleys on a group ride closed in from behind – caused me to consider carrying a change of underwear on the bike if there was any wind in the forecast. It wasn’t good. And believe it or not, I never made the connection to the new suspension bits. I thought it was some kind of skill problem.
And so the detective work began. First, I consulted the internet cool kids to see if there was some setup issue or technique problem. Silence. Other than a few desultory suggestions that maybe the tires were over or underinflated, or maybe the wheels weren’t aligned, or maybe I was hanging on too tight, the same crowd that was so opinionated about whose suspension to buy had not a clue about why my bike was acting like a demented kangaroo. Calling around to shops didn’t get me a lot further or, sometimes, even an answer. Not, that is, until I got deep enough into Google to find suspension guru Todd Topper at Mission Cycle, a Race Tech center in Angus, ON.
“Your shocks are unloading,” he said without hesitation.
Seems obvious when you say it, but nobody had up to now. Then he asked about my setup. He didn’t say much about the shocks, other than that he thought they were a good brand, but the forks lit him up like a Roman candle. “Why would you put progressive springs in a damper rod fork?” he thundered, or words to that effect. For the next fifteen minutes, he patiently explained that damper rod forks are already very soft through the first part of their travel, a limitation of the design. Progressive springs multiply that effect. Basically, a gnat could land on my handlebar and use up a quarter of the fork’s travel.
Oh. The truth was beginning to penetrate. Todd said I could drop the bike off and he’d test ride it. Maybe they could help me iron out this setup. When we spoke again, he’d noticed something else compounding the problem. The ‘custom’ springs in my shocks were very stiff, spec’d for the upper limit of my riding weight. Because of that, I was running no preload at all. And there it was. A ludicrously soft front end combined with an even more oversprung rear end than stock. The Scrambler has pronounced engine braking, so if I chopped the throttle at all – as I might when screwing up a corner or flinching at a gust of wind – the bike dove into the forks as if it was ducking gunfire. At speed, it was scary.
Custom built Race Tech shocks in the rear plus Race Tech’s springs and emulator in the forks.
The offer to try to sort it out still stood, but I had already unsheathed my credit card. “What would it take to make it right?” The answer didn’t leave me much change from two grand, I’ll confess (it was my birthday, mind you). Custom built Race Tech shocks in the rear (based on my weight, riding style and experience level), and new springs plus Race Tech’s emulator in the forks. But here’s the important part: I didn’t set it up. They did. It turns out that suspension is the blackest of motorcycle arts, with variables I’d never even considered, too numerous to even try summarizing here (and, apparently, too complicated for the internet cool kids). Todd put my Scrambler back together, and then finished the setup with a spirited road test. The bike came back with no chicken strips. At all.
This long story has three morals I think most riders ought to consider.
First, you’re a better connoisseur of suspension than you probably think you are. My Scrambler is a completely transformed bike. It’s not subtle, it’s stunning (and the cornering speed data from my ESR app proves it). And that means you should probably trust your instincts if you think there’s a problem.
Second, I no longer think you can just bolt this stuff on and tell yourself you’ve made your bike better. That’s just square one. If you knew that already, good for you. If you didn’t, then I humbly suggest either leaving it alone or getting a pro to help. It’ll be worth far more than it’s going to cost you.
And finally, for me at least, this was a lesson in the limits of internet group-think. It’s fun to debate stuff online when it doesn’t matter, but those guys don’t know you, or your bike, or where you ride, or –surprisingly often –much about motorcycle suspensions at all. They’re the last people you should trust your life with. Bike suspensions aren’t just about being comfortable, they’re about whether or not your bike will go where it’s pointed and leave you any margin for the unexpected. I can’t think of a component more deserving of professional attention. As for the chicken strip removal, well… that, as they say in the ads, is “priceless.”
Editor's note: Bruce Philp rides a Triumph Scrambler and a BMW F700GS. Off-bike, Bruce is principal brand activist at Heuristic Branding and the author of Consumer Republic, Winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award.