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.


Chris said...

Good review. Could I ride your WR after you get the new shock? I'd like to know what good suspension feels like.

T.W. Day said...

I'm still wrestling with the particulars on the shock, but you are on. Elka hasn't designed a shock specifically for the WR but the WR group may do a buy like the V-Strom group did in 2007 and that would make it worth the company's time and effort.