Apr 25, 2011

Product Review: Elka Street Motorcycle Series Shock Absorber

[NOTE: I'm disappointed that the MMM editors took so long to find a place for this review. I understand it, but I think this is exactly the kind of product that gets a short shift from magazines because suspension parts aren't noisy, flashy, or the kind of thing that newbie riders or vintage collectors care about. From my experience, it's hard to describe the value of a giant change in a stock bike's suspension can add to an otherwise competent motorcycle.]

(courtesy of Elka Suspension)
All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

The V-Strom clan from Stromtrouper.com got together in late 2008 to make a group buy on rear shocks from Elka. I almost passed on the opportunity because I wasn't convinced that my V-Strom needed any suspension help; especially the kind of help that costs $1100. In the end, thinking about the 9,000 mile trip I'd be making that summer to Nova Scotia and back, I decided to gamble on a major suspension improvement. I bought a two-way remote reservoir damping system with the remote hydraulic preload adjustment. There are a variety of options available and I'd suggest you call Elka's customer support line (1-800-557-0552) for advice for your bike and riding conditions. John Ilkiw was incredibly helpful to me and the shock I received required next-to-no setup after installation. These are custom shocks, designed and setup for your bike, your weight, and your riding style. If you give Elka enough information, the shock will come practically ready to ride.

When the shock arrived, I was impressed by the bright and shiny red, black, gold, and stainless-lined made-in-Canada Elka parts. Jacking up my bike's rear end and pulling the OEM shock provided my next impressed moment; but it wasn't a good impression. The stock shock seemed under-built and cheap in comparison to the Elka. I struggled in sorting out Elka's installation instructions, since the manual that came with my shock was missing the V-Strom information, but it all went together in a short Saturday afternoon.

After messing with the preload a little, I took the shock out for a test ride. Within a few yards of home, I was already convinced the bike felt more "planted" than it had with the OEM part. Accelerating through the 10mph curve that outlines my front yard, I found the back tire felt unnaturally stuck to the asphalt. Fifty miles later, I was convinced that I'd lost some pressure in my rear tire during the shock installation because my dual purpose tires simply seemed too solidly connected to the road to be inflated at their usual 42psi. The ride was a little too smooth and the front wheel tracked a little too predictably. I checked, the tires were at their normal pressure. The only thing that had changed was the rear shock.

I rode out to the trails of Carlos Avery Game Reserve to give the shock a real test. In the past, I've had to set the forks at the softest position to keep from pounding my wrists into dust on those trails, but I actually ended up adding some preload to the forks this time. The stutter-bumps that cars and trucks have ground into the trails were literally non-existent from my riding position. If the road got a little rough, I just shifted more weight to the rear tire and cranked up a little more throttle. Skating the deep sand was less terrifying, too. I could steer the V-Strom through sand, using the throttle and peg weighting, almost like a real dirt bike.

The real test would come in 2008 when I loaded up the bike and headed north into Canada later that summer. By then, I was used to the Elka's ride improvement but it wasn't that long ago that I made the trip around the North Shore to Ontario. My last trip was a real bun beater, but in 2008 I had the added benefit of a hail storm at the boarder crossing and intense rain for the next 150 miles east. Not only did the V-Strom's new suspension soak up the winter-crusted Canadian Highway 17, but my new stability really became apparent in the rain and high winds.

For the next 9,000 miles, the bike was so comfortable and predictable that I forgot all about the changes the Elka shock had made in my ride, until I met another V-Strom rider in New Brunswick. His bike was tricked out with all sorts of Touratech adventure touring farkles, some of which I was thinking of adding to my bike. We were both riding on dual purpose tires. The bikes were loaded close to equally. We swapped rides for a few miles and I got a quick reminder of the stock suspension. He'd put a cartridge fork emulator on his bike, but it didn't make much difference as far as I could tell. He, on the other hand, thought my bike was a lot nicer ride than his own. We were on some fairly rough 2-lane and gravel farm roads, traveling at a quick pace, and it was a good test of suspension parts. The Elka shock really made an impression. In 2009, I took the V-Strom into North Dakota and covered almost 1,000 miles of dirt roads during my 2,500 mile tour of that state. Deep sand, rutted gravel, and wet clay was so much easier to handle than it was two years earlier that I can only credit the Elka shock for the transformation of my bike and my riding capabilities.

Last spring, I test rode Kawasaki's Versys and my only negative comment about the bike was that the rear shock seemed unresponsive and transmitted a lot more shock than I was used to receiving. I suspect Elka could resolve that complaint. An ex-pro-racer friend commented that suspension parts are the least noticeable bits for manufacturers to cheap out and the most noticeable improvements you can make on a production bike. My experience with the Elka Street Motorcycle Series Shock Absorber proves him right. I'm buying one for the new WR250X. Enough said.

Apr 24, 2011

Techmount Mini Handlebar Mount

All Rights Reserved © 2007 Thomas W. Day

This cute little bracket fits all 7/8" handlebars and the blank mounting plate will accept anything that will mount on a 2.25" x 3" flat plate. If you care, it comes in two colors, anodized black and chrome and two "flavors," the 30996M standard mount and the 30996MX off-road version. The manufacturer claims it is suitable for mounting "GPS, Radar Detectors, Toll Transponder, Cell Phones, Radios, Cameras, Change Holders, Garage Door openers, PDA's" and the like. I bought mine from RiderWearhouse in Duluth for about $80.

The mount comes with Velcro® strips for attaching your farkles and the necessary (allen wrench) installation tools. Techmount claims that their "handlebar mounts use a machined clamp designed to clamp onto round handlebars without damaging the bar. They require only 1/2" of bar space." The "universal" mounting plate is universal in that it's possible to drill pretty much any set of holes you might need to mate the Techmount to whatever you're trying to mount. The Techmount's plate is connected to the handlebar bracket with a ball mount that is positioned by a trio of very small Allen screws, so practically any angle is possible for your farkles and electronic equipment. That's the good news.

The bad news is that this mounting system is not made for moderate weight accessories (like my Garmin 2610 GPS) and it's not tough enough for rough road use. The screws are too small to provide much torque on the mounting ball and that allows the plate to sag under mild vibration. I hoped to mount my 2610 with my Mini Handlebar Mount, but I was continually disappointed with the inability of the mount to hold the GPS in position. The Mini Mount was totally useless on rough roads. In fact, even smooth freeway vibration eventually caused the GPS to droop out of sight.

I tightened and re-tightened the setscrews on this thing in the eight months I owned it and it always gave up after a bump or so. This makes the unit more irritating than useful. I'm considering drilling out the ball mount's Allen screws to install larger screws, in an attempt to increase the mount's strength. Eventually, I gave up on the Techmount system and installed a Ram Mount, which a lot of folks (including me) think is the most durable, flexible equipment mounting system available.

Apr 18, 2011

The Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Check out the fancy backpedaling.The guy nearest the curb shows some excellent reaction time and moderately good logic. The guy at the other end of the line of bikers and the guy behind the first row quickly recognized a dumb shit in a semi and got the hell out of there. If you look closely, there was a bicyclist who dropped his bike and ran. I think the bike vanished in the truck rubble. What do you want to bet a cell phone was involved in this? If that boy gets another driver's license in his lifetime, civilization as we know it is doomed.

Apr 17, 2011

If Loud Pipes Save Lives . . .

From Imagine T-Shirt, PJ's Parts for only $17:

"Imagine T-Shirt

"If loud pipes save lives, imagine what learning to ride that thing could do.
Let the world know that you believe in and support rider training and competence over riding strictly to get attention.

"This is an original saying coined by PJ, who, along with Paige, is a former Motorcycle Safety Foundation RiderCoach. We truly believe that every person should ride the type of bike that suits him or her best, but only if he is willing to get professional instruction and continue to work on improving his skills throughout his life.

"Visit www.msf-usa.org for information on rider training in your state."

Apr 14, 2011

Fleeting Fame

Fame is fleeting, but infamy lives forever. This year, I experienced a little of both:

I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk, "I'm in the phonebook!"

Actually, it's pretty cool being in an Aerostich catalog. The rest of the Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly staff has decorated the magazine's illustrous pages for years. Now, I'm there too (3rd from top, far right).

If I had to snag any picture of myself that moment, standing on the watchtower at North Dakota's Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park with the Missouri River in the background, would have been high on the list. My mostly-off-road trip around North Dakota in 2009 was one of the coolest motorcycle trips of my life. It was a real adventure and nothing but good things happened to me while I hung out around Bismark, ND.

Apr 9, 2011

The Rest of the World

You gotta like this:

Too Tall for Me

For years, I've suffered the outrage of being discriminated against by every off-road motorcycle manufacturer in the world. They just don't care about short people.I suspect the dirt bike engineers' favorite song is by Randy Newman.

Well, I don't want no short people
Don't want no short people
Don't want no short people
`Round here

 36-38" seat heights are normal for modern dirt bikes. I have a 29" inseam, so even if I could get a leg over a 38" seat, I'd be dangling 10" from the ground. Admit it, you feel sorry for me. Michael Jordan looks like a giant spider on a sportbike, but he'd fit perfectly on a 2011 Honda CRF400F.

My WR250X is one of those over-tall discriminatory machines. However, once I'm on it the suspension squashes down to something rideable. The problem is getting on the damn thing. Since I really wanted one of these things, I figured I'd sort out that problem once I had it in my garage.

A month and a half later, I've dropped the suspension about an inch and a half, installed a shorter seat pad, and the bike is a bit shorter. However, I still have to use one of two weird-assed bike mounting tactics to get a leg over that damn giraffe of a bike. I either use the side stand as a step ladder or I get on the bike as I drop the clutch and swing up on the move. We used to call that "pony express style" when I was kid learning to ride a bicycle. I get back off the same way.

Once I'm on the bike, the height isn't much of a problem. I can get the balls of both feet down and I don't spend a lot of time with my feet on the ground when I'm riding the WR anyway. It's just getting off and on that is pretty much a clown show.

They got little baby legs
That stand so low
You got to pick em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin' peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time
Well, I don't want no short people
Don't want no short people
Don't want no short people
'Round here

Yeah, I got your "little baby legs" right here assholes.

I was feeling pretty lame about my bike mount and dismount style, until I hung out with a friend who has about a half-foot on me, height-wise, and a good bit of inseam advantage. He rides a collection of off-road giraffe bikes and told me that he "always" uses the side stand as a mounting crutch. Paul is a notoriously macho guy and if it's good enough for him, it will do for me.

Signs of Spring

The freaks are out of their cages!

In my rarely humble opinion, that is the first sign of spring in Minnesota. As soon as the temperature rises above 40F, all bets are off on what you'll see on the public roads. Friday started off weird and decayed into something Terry Gilliam would have had trouble putting on screen. First thing, as I'm getting on to the freeway ramp I see a ramshackle Honda Accord stopped just past the on-ramp with all four fenders dangling from scraps of metal and duct tape. Seriously. The Honda has been pulled over by one of Minnesota's Finest, or largest, since the HP walking toward the collapsing piece of Japanese junk has to weigh 400 pounds, minimum. He is so fat that his legs bow outward because his huge thighs are forcing his feet to splay. Calling his gait a "waddle" would be complimentary. The state must install truck springs on the left side to offset the patrolman's mass.

On the road, it appears that every evidence of common sense has left the majority of the driving public. "Crazy" would be a compliment if you were describing the highway tactics of the tailgaters, wannabe road racers, and distracted idiots with cell phone lobotomy devices. "Stupid" would be more accurate. From the air, I35E must have looked like a bumper car track. Maintaining space among this crowd of mental midgets is impossible, so I gave up and went to surface streets.

Unfortunately, the residential streets have been taken over by bicyclists. Now that the roads are clear and most of the icy obstacles are gone, the bicyclists have decided that the only place for them is the middle of the road. After toddling along behind two spandex-lined doofuses on bikes for a block, I split the "lane" between the road hogs and they practically disassembled themselves in shock. For characters who appear to believe they are invincible and entitled, they sure collapsed into insecurity when their road-hogging plan failed. They were still wobbling when they vanished in my rear view mirror.

Getting to work was worse than an episode of Jackass. But I swung by the parking garage gate and headed to my usual space. This time, I was followed by one of the garage's many non-English-speaking employees who wanted to present the annual "no motorcycles" argument. The garage is decorated with motorcycle parking spaces and their are motorcycles parked (mostly permanently) on every level. Usually, I put up with this yearly idiocy and try to politely explain to the resident Arab-in-charge that I have an annual pass and would be happy to take my business elsewhere if my money isn't good enough. This time, I left the earplugs in place and ignored the moron. My idiot-quotient has been exceeded and neither of us wants to see how I will deal with one-too-many-stupid-people before 9AM.

Work was work. Too long a story to tell in less than a million words.

The way home was detoured by a quick trip to Woodbury for a consulting gig. On the way out of St. Paul, I was trailing a really big dude on a fairly new KLR. It appeared to be his first ride of the year as he struggled to get into the right lane, to get the bike rolling after each light, and his entry into rush hour I94 traffic was a horror show. If I had been wearing my helmet camera, I'd have trailed him for a bit, but without cinematic motivation, I had no reason to stick around for the carnage. The trip to Woodbury was a carbon copy of my commute into work that morning. Stupid has been spending a lot of time reproducing over the winter and I suspect the country has more than enough brain damaged consumers to sustain corporate America for the residual years of the American Century.

The state is clearly giving out drivers' licenses in Cracker Jack boxes and too many people are eating Cracker Jacks.

Apr 7, 2011

Spring, Spring at Last!

The temperature hit 60 today, for the first time in months. Snow is melting, the roads are clear, and all that's left is for the OHV parks to open the trails. I made a quick dash north to Carlos Avery this afternoon. The trails were closed, but the dirt roads on the way out and back were great. I am clearly out of shape. Only 100 miles and my butt is sore and my legs are stiff.

When I insured the WR250X, the agent asked me which of my 3 bikes would I consider my "primary motorcycle." At the moment, it's hard to imagine that being anything but the little supermoto. I will have to put the V-Strom on the road soon or I'll forget why I own it.

Apr 2, 2011

Why Don't We Get That?

 All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

Yamaha's YBR250 sportbike
I hear this all the time, "Why don't we get that great bike? The Europeans/Japanese/Chinese/Canadians/Icelanders get all the cool stuff." When the conversation goes further, it almost always turns out that we are going to totally disagree about what's cool and what's not. For example, most guys are upset at not getting the latest full-on liter-plus racerbike.  I could care less about that sort of over-priced, over-powered minutia. I can't afford a bike like that and, if I could, I'd be bored riding something that can do 200mph in a 55mph world. I'm too old and poor for racing and uninterested in pretending to be a racer on public streets.

The rest of the world is demanding moderate performance, high fuel mileage, multi-purpose bikes and that's exactly what I'd like to see here. When I did race, I was a 125cc motocrosser and I still have a special feeling for small, lightweight motorcycles. Like the Yamaha YBR250, a 21hp, fuel-injected, air-cooled, 4-valve 4-stroke single, electric start,  300 pound "naked bike." Or Honda's CBR125R, the XL125V Varadero, or the mid-sized bikes like the L700V Transalp and Yamaha's XT660X.
Honda's XL700V Transalp
Since Honda brought the 600cc Transalp into the US in 1987 and gave up on us in 1988, that bike has become cooler and cooler every year. Apparently, Honda doesn't even consider bringing it to the US. We're not hip enough to want something this trick because we're easily distracted by wads of chrome and blubbering engine noise. Even Canada hasn't been worthy of the Transalp since Honda decided North America was living in the dark ages.

Practically everybody but the US is drenched in Japanese small iron, from 50cc to 400cc models. Every once in a while, Japan brings in something half-cool, like Suzuki's TU250X, but they only make a half-hearted run at creating a market for this kind of practical motorcycle and they become disappointed easily. I half-suspect they take it personally. When we don't appreciate their finer works of engineering, they pout and blow off the substantial customers who are interested in those products.
Honda's XL125V Varadero
When the product is smaller than 250cc, it seems that we have no chance at all of seeing it. There are tons of bikes in the 100-250cc territory that have never seen the light of the Port of Long Beach.
Honda's CBR125R
The Honda VTR250 was a late-1980's marketing bomb and that was the end of the US version of that experiment. The Ducati Monster version of the VTR250 just kept getting cooler and cooler until Honda canned the model in 2009. Honda's XL125V/CBR125R singles are every bit as cool and every bit as unavailable in North America. Why? I wish I knew. The CBR version is a 13hp, 300 pound, fuel injected natural for any urban road warrior. With a 2.6 gallon tank, fuel injection, and an estimated 94mpg, the CBR is perfect for about 90% of what most of us do on a motorcycle. One test claimed the bike had a cruising speed of 60mph and a top speed of 75mph with a 160 pound rider. Totally thrashing the bike on-and-off road, one owner recorded an average of 62mpg out of the dual purpose Varadero version of this power plant. The CBR125 is imported into Canada, mostly as a trainer, but the Varadero is only available in the twin-cylinder liter version. We get neither.

Yamaha's XT660X
The liter Varadero is pretty appealing, but Yamaha's XT660X and the macho version, the XT660X is way more interesting. I've lusted after the since it was a paltry 600cc dual purpose bike with way more function than style.

Kawasaki and Suzuki make a couple of interesting 125's that we don't get, but it appears that their days of cool small bikes may be declining. Suzuki has the DR125SM and Kawasaki has the Kawasaki D-Tracker 125, but they didn't list any interesting small street bikes on any of their 2011 ROW sites. Either Suzuki and Kawi are giving up on the modern motorcycle market, or they are waiting to see what happens next. That's not much of a marketing approach when playing it safe could be the same as handing off the future to those with the guts to go for it.

With the many problems motorcycling has--our crappy public image, mediocre fuel efficiency, noise issues, high prices, old demographic, and general lack of social value--small motorcycles offer a lot of solutions. Call them "starter bikes," if that makes you feel good about yourself, but many serious riders spend their whole riding lives on 400cc or smaller bikes. Getting great mileage, light enough for the smallest riders, versatile as a Swiss Army knife, easily maintained, and more fun to ride than practically anything else on the planet, small motorcycles are a solution to a collection of problems that haven't even been asked yet.

My current road bike is a 650 and it's bigger than I need for one-up touring. Most modern dirt bikes are too damn tall for me, as much as I love them. Many of the 250 street bikes that have been imported to the US aren't just starter bikes, they're kids' bikes. My 250 Kawasaki Sherpa is too wimpy for anything other than local commuting. My new best friend, a 2008 Yamaha WR250X is the closest thing to a perfect all-around motorcycle engine ever built. A few weeks ago, Andy Goldfine introduced me to formula that explains it all: L + S = MF. (Light plus Simple equals More Fun.)