If ever a thing deserved the description “black art,” motorcycle suspension is it. Your bike’s suspension needs to suck up bumps, control fore and aft pitch, steer the front wheel, create traction at the rear … and do it all from straight up and down to leaned all the way over on the tires’ edges.
The basic concepts are easy enough: coil springs and compression damping determine how your suspension compresses. Rebound damping (and the same coil springs) determine how it uncompresses. The rates at which those two things happen and under what conditions is the complicated part. All I know is that when your suspension is right, it’s good, and when it’s not, it’s often uncertain what is exactly to blame.
Paul Thede of Race Tech, a big suspension player, used to say “the best you’ve ridden is the best you know,” and that’s exactly true. Some late-model bikes come really close right out of the box, I noted as I watched the shadow of myself rolling down a bumpy dirt road in Death Valley a couple of weeks ago: the KTM 1190 Adventure’s tires were churning up and down like crazy, but you could barely tell from the saddle. If you’re trying to make that happen on an older machine, you might need a little help, and the fastest, cheapest way to get there in the end is to consult a specialist in the beginning. You might get there eventually on your own, but there’s something to be said for having a big database.
Yours truly has been blessed with the chance to spin a lap or two on some pretty incredible championship-winning race bikes over the years, and while they’re all horsepower-packed, the other thing they share is that they don’t really feel at all intimidating, because their chassis do such a good job of putting that power to the ground. Anyway, you could spend a lifetime studying vehicle dynamics, and a lot of people do. Here’s a partial list, in alphabeticalish order of some of the best (and we’re sure you’ll let us know who got left out.)
In the San Francisco Bay area, Catalyst Reaction is a full-service shop as well as a suspension service. Highly active in the AFM racing association and in AMA competition, CR can help you make the best of your stock suspension or fix you up with something aftermarket. One of the Catalyst principals, Dave Moss, provides hands-on suspension clinics at track days around the U.S.: DMT Suspension School.
Computrack Boston carries top-quality components like Öhlins, Penske, JRi and K-Tech. They can also straighten your bent bike with their GMD Computrack machine, or provide a complete chassis service for $650, where they basically disassemble your bike, grease all bearings, service the suspension components and put it all back together ready to ride and perfectly aligned.
Dick is into dirtbike suspension, mostly your KTMs and Euro-exotic Husabergs and Betas and things, but he can handle it all, including lowering your bike an inch or two the proper way. Now that the interwebs and UPS are here, Washington, Utah, is right around the corner.
Another East Coast suspension option is EPM, in New Jersey, where owner Klaus Huenecke doesn’t want you to think Öhlins is the only game in town. EPM carries Hyperpro shocks from the Netherlands, and YSS Racing shocks for twin-shock motorcycles.
A big player in the world of motocross and off-road racing, FC has five locations around the U.S. to service and ship your suspension ASAP. These guys have been around since the ’80s and have tons of moto experience, as well as a website with valuable tuning info and videos like the one below that peer into the internals of those newfangled dirtbike air forks.
Proprietor David Behrends spent many years in AMA and Canadian roadracing with some very big-name riders, followed by a stint at Öhlins USA. Now located in North Carolina, he’s the source for Öhlins knowledge in the southeastern U.S., as well as Andreani components from Italy.
K-tech Suspension (UK)
High-quality componentry built in the U.K., K-tech under Shakey Byrne has won four British Superbike Championships. At £3,900, a KTR-2 superbike front fork isn’t cheap, but you can opt for just an internal fork kit for £1710.64 for most current models, which still isn’t cheap … $2510 as of today. K-tech also does rear shocks of course, like this one for the Panigale, along with off-road suspension and the usual assortment of other suspension-related tidbits.
In addition to being a distributor of Öhlins and Penske shocks and Eibach springs, these guys build, in house (in Auburn, Washington), fork inserts and cartridges for all kinds of popular sportbikes. We used a set of their fork inserts for my Project R1 as a matter of fact (with a JRi shock out back), and the results are quite eye-opening: greatly improved handling and front-end feedback.
Jeff Ryan’s shocking enterprise builds excellent dampers for every powered vehicle on the planet, including our own Project R1. Latest development is this Streetfighter Extreme shock, $799, fully adjustable and able to fit more than 30 current-model Rs, GSX-Rs, ZXs, etc., simply by swapping clevises. Clevi? Genius.
Dan Kyle Racing
Dan Kyle was AMA Tuner of the Year not once but two times, once upon a time, and claims his little shop on the central California coast is the world’s largest Öhlins dealer. Besides suspension, Kyle carries all sorts of other high-end componentry including Sato, Brembo, Marchesini … as well as a wealth of experience in making it all work together.
Suspension guru Jim Lindemann has left the building (RIP, Jim), but the suspension tuning company that bears his name lives on under former racer Ed Sorbo in Redlands, California. LE deals in Penske shocks, but are also willing to dig into and revalve your original equipment shock.
Sweet Swedish suspension Öhlins US headquarters is in Hendersonville, NC, and its website is full of information to guide you to the products that fit your application (including your automobile), along with a dealer finder to locate your nearest Öhlins outlet.
These guys have only been in business for 41 years in Brentwood, NY, and run a website with over 12,000 part numbers. Among them are the K-tech suspension pieces imported from the UK, including these very blingy new Bullit shocks for Harleys and Triumphs, along with K-tech “bundle” kits for most sportbikes that include a shock and fork internals for around $2500. OE also carries other big-name suspension, including shocks for Hogs and cruisers, stretched swingarms for your Hayabusa – pretty much a one-stop shop for whatever two-wheeled path to freedom you want to blaze, really.
Progressive might be the number-one source for twin shocks for cruisers, both metric and American. Also air shocks for touring rigs, and off-road suspension items for dual-sport bikes like KLRs and BMWs, including lowering kits.
Race Tech is the 800-pound gorilla of the motorcycle suspension world, and the forks in the photo are one of its latest innovations: G6 Custom Fork Legs come with 25mm Compression and HFR Rebound Gold Valves and Hi-Performance Lightweight Springs, custom built to your application. Dirt, street, ATV, UTV, Harley – if you haven’t heard of Race Tech already, you haven’t been paying attention. Selected for the individual rider’s size, type of riding and ability.
Located in beautiful Naperville, IL, SB is your midwestern outlet for all of your suspension needs, including Elka. SB is the official midwest Öhlins service center, but they’ll rebuild any shock, for an average labor cost of around $150.
Tuning by Travis (Flateau) began as a cottage industry in 1991, that’s now grown into a small empire, with four locations including one in Brazil. Strictly dirt for now, TBT offers custom revalving in addition to engine work, etc…
Woodstock, Georgia, is the home of Max McAllister’s Traxxion Dynamics, which deals in everything from Penske and Öhlins sportbike shocks to mountain bike steering tube bottle openers to cartridge fork kits for Harleys. TD also manufactures the AK-20 and AK-Gas drop-in cartridge kits completely in house. McAllister also claims to b “the world’s go-to source” for suspension upgrades to Honda’s Gold Wing. For those on a budget, TD also provides low-cost fixes for old-school damper rod forks in the form of Race Tech Gold Valve installs, and reasonable prices for rebuilding/revalving your stock shock(s).
You know how you BMW guys are. Wilber’s shocks come from the Fatherland, and Wilber’s America caters mostly to BMW via Scotts Valley, California. How about an ESA onversion for your tired old Beemer? Ted tells you all about it in this ten-minute vid. He can also tell you all about other Wilber’s products that allow you to lower your R1200GS Adventure up to 80mm. Which is really the only thing that bike needs to be perfect. While Ted’s motorcycle service business specializes in BMW, his suspension business sells and supports the complete Wilbers product line for all models. They also distribute YSS, Yacugar and TFX, and sell/service Ohlins shocks.
Gilles Vaillancourt was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2009, but he’s been building custom-made suspension components in Canoga Park, CA, since 1973. Go to an AHRMA event, and Works Performance stickers nearly outnumber gray hairs. These days, there’s a Works shock for everything from your ESA-equipped BMW to ATVs to snowmobiles.