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MD Project: Building a Better SV 650 Part III: Suspension

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Racetech Gold Valve Cartridge Emulators

Part the Third, in which our hero dabbles in the black art of suspension.

As you may or may not have read in parts one and two of this series, the 1999-2009 Suzuki SV650 and SV650S is a dependable, affordable, good-handling, light and very fun motorcycle that appeals to commuters, racers and track-day junkies, but it’s not that great out of the box. And of all its flaws, perhaps the hardest to tolerate without modification is the suspension.

Here’s the thing about suspension. No other modification gives you more riding pleasure when done properly, but doing it properly is much easier said than done. It’s not easy to understand how suspension works and how to best improve it. Want more power or better throttle response? Easily done with intake and exhaust modifications (which may not actually make you faster, but it will be louder, which seems to be good enough for most riders). Better braking? Steel-braided lines, master-cylinder rebuild, new pads will yield massive improvement in most cases. But suspension? I talk to a lot of riders, some with many years of riding experience, who have a fuzzy understanding (at best) of what all those valves, tubes, springs and oil do.

I am one of those people. Believe me, I’ve talked to many suspension gurus over the years, including the brilliant Jim Lindemann (ride in peace, Jim!) and equally brilliant Paul Thede, and even though I can (sort of) adjust suspension and (sort of) understand what those guys say, when I try to talk suspension with laymen, I realize how little I truly understand.

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Luckily, you don’t have to learn from me. If you really want to understand suspension, get a copy of Paul Thede’s Motorcycle Suspension Bible and wallow in the 256 pages of very readable text (co-written by Total Control author Lee Parks) and 534 photos and illustrations (by talented illustrator and graphic designer, and occasional MD contributor, Alan Lapp). Another cool source of suspension knowledge is this iPhone app that contains all kinds of suspension-related videos, podcasts, blog posts and other material from Dave Moss Tuning.

You may not be a book learner, though, so I’ll share with you a brief summary of what I’ve learned in the last 20 years of sport-riding, racing and moto-journalism when it comes to improving your stock front suspension.

1) Damper Rods Suck.

Back in 1934, when the Nimbus appeared with the first hydraulically damped fork, it was a big deal. Eighty years later? Not so much. Here’s my understanding of how they work, which will, no doubt, be corrected in endless (if boring) detail by our enthusiastic readers below.

With a damper-rod design, oil squirts through tiny holes in a tube, controlling how fast the fork compresses and returns to its original length (also called “rebound”). There are different kinds of suspension action: “low-speed” refers to smaller bumps and irregularities that cause the fork to move slowly, and there are “high-speed” (also known as ‘oh, crap!’) bumps that make the fork move faster. The problem is that with a damper-rod, high-speed or low-speed compression and rebound have to be the same, since they use the same holes. As you may have guessed (or noticed), what’s good for the high-speed goose isn’t always best for the low-speed gander, and vice versa, which means you have to find a compromise between too harsh and too soft, which, like many compromises, means both actions are far less than ideal. For a better, and more detailed explanation, read this excerpt from Motorcycle Suspension Bible on the Racetech website. Do not feel guilty if you have an urge to do laundry after reading three paragraphs.

I tried to find a balance with the stock SV dampers. I asked well-known moto-tuner Dale “Holeshot” Walker what he recommended for those looking for an ideal springs-and-oil upgrade. He sells the Progressive Suspension fork springs kit, which includes progressively wound springs and a couple of pieces of PVC tubing for spacers.  Progressive tells us its springs reduce front-end dive by being progressively wound, which means the springs get stiffer the more they compress. Interestingly, Progressive’s spec sheet shows their spring’s initial rate at .71 kg/mm—just a hair stiffer than the stock .706 kg/mm springs. Dale recommended I use thicker oil as well: 10-weight, much heavier than the 5-weight Suzuki recommends (if you’re not bored enough by suspension arcana, check this out: there is no standardization of suspension fluid weight, so one brand’s 5-weight may be closer to another brand’s 10-weight, which is why you may want to use branded fluid for your specific suspension products).

The spring swap is easy to do: pull your forks off, pour the oil out after removing the top caps (here’s a concept for you, Suzuki: drain plug) and set the new oil to the recommended level (pro tip—do this at your workbench, with the springs out and forks compressed so you can easily shine a light down there and measure the level). Note the Progressive springs are longer and take up more volume, so you have to use a lower oil level than stock). Drop in the new springs, calculate your spacer length, bolt on the caps and then put your front end back together. This would be a good time to bolt on some preload-adjustable fork caps if your SV (or other damper-rod equipped bike) doesn’t have them. You can buy the Suzuki parts or try an aftermarket vendor: they should be under $100 either way.

I’m not sure the new springs were worth the effort. I did notice less dive while braking, but damping was not much improved, with the bike’s front end bouncing about as we traveled over bumpy California freeways. Not the springs’ fault. I tried heavier 15W oil, which made rebound slower and compression harsher and did only a little to alleviate the bouncing and vague feel from the front. It was clear I wasn’t getting off cheap.

No worries—my 2000 is actually my second SV, so I knew the magic word: emulators.

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2) Cartridge-Fork Emulators make you go faster for cheap.

If I told you there was a little gadget that would make your front suspension work as well as really good stock suspension for $170 you would want it. Racetech makes such a doo-dad, called the Gold Valve Cartridge Emulator. Paul Thede says he invented it in the early ’90s to “provide the compression damping curve of a cartridge fork, make it tunable, and offer it at a very reasonable cost.”

Emulators look like a dreidel that sits atop your damper rod, under your fork spring. There’s a lot of jargon involved in explaining how it works, but it basically substitutes for the function of the stock damper rods (the installation process requires you take out those crappy things and drill out their orifices) and through some clever but simple check valves and other tricks, emulates (hence the name) the action of a cartridge fork’s shim stack.

Clearly, there are disadvantages. First, you have to drill out and modify your damper rods to install emulators. Next, even though they offer some adjustment, you have to pull out your springs and fish out the emulators to turn the adjuster screws. Finally, if you know less about suspension than I do, you need to have a professional shop install them, unless you’re a hardcore do-it-yourself-er and love trial-and-error.

Racetech will do the install for about $125 on top of the cost of the parts (you’ll want to use Racetech’s recommended springs), but I called up James Siddall at Super Plush Suspension in San Francisco to do a fork service as well as an emulator installation. James has a very long history of off-road and roadracing suspension tuning, and one of the techs, Matt, has a long history of racing and riding SV650s. He calculated the spring rate, preload, oil weight and emulator setup I’d need and bolted it all together. Time to see if the emulators were as good as I remember.

3) Swapping out for fancy GSX-R forks may not be worth the trouble and expense

Back in 2002, before I sold my first SV, the common wisdom was to install emulators, not just for street and trackday riders, but racers as well. In fact, Thede claims an emulator-equipped SV and cartridge-fork equipped SV were on the same WERA endurance race team (ridden by Total Control author Lee Parks) in 2001, taking a national title while posting identical lap times. Eleven years along, things have changed, with the zeitgeist favoring swapping out the entire front end for a late-model GSX-R setup. So what’s better?

I’m going to ride my bike back-to-back with a GSX-R-equipped example and see which I prefer, but I’m here to tell you that I did a trackday on my bike recently and found the emulators still do exactly what Thede promises. The ride is plush, controlled and there is no wallow or vague feel from the front end. I think it needs a bit more dialing in, but the front is much more confidence-inspiring, keeping the front tire firmly on the ground. I maintained a brisk B-group pace, passing many riders regardless of what they were on, without feeling like I was outriding my suspension. For street riding, it’s great, allowing me to ride faster and more confidently on bumpy pavement.

I’ve seen sites discount the springs and emulators to $262 as a package (another interesting option is to purchase Traxxion Dynamic’s “Drop-in” kit that includes new damper rods in addition to the emulators and recommended springs for $350, making it easier to do the swap yourself and preserving your original equipment if you want to return to stock). That means you’ll spend about $450 to do this upgrade (with shop help), about half of what a GSX-R swap would cost. Of course, the GSX-R swap gets you modern four (or six)-piston calipers and giant discs…but you also have to contend with subtle changes in steering geometry as well as a need to customize your instruments, headlight and handlebars. I’m here to tell you there’s an option, thanks to Racetech—stay tuned to see if it’s the best one.

Next: Rear Suspension.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is the Editor of City Bike magazine, and a frequent freelance contributor to MotorcycleDaily.com

51 Comments

  1. navin r johnston says:

    I just bought a 2002 sv650s. It has the fairing removed and aftermarket dual headlights, instrument panel and exhaust. It was a heart purchase, not a head purchase. Loved the sound. I don’t even have my bike licence. So why am I telling you this?
    (1) because I haven’t told my parents yet and want to tell someone, anyone how irrational I’ve become
    (2) because I want to tell the sv community to stop knocking my stock suspension. I wouldn’t have even known it was bad if y’all just kept quiet.
    Now, before spring comes I can either buy a helmet and safe riding classes, or a gsxr front end. Seriously people, doing mods and upgrades is addicting and a bit of a sickness. We got 24000 days on earth and we’re talking about the weight of fork oil. I’m not gonna mod my bike. I’ll do a bit of maintenance and I’ll do it socially with friends. I’ll use the bike as a conversation starter and when I ride I’ll do it with a heart of thanksgiving. And yes I may steal a glance at the next article in this cool little series.

    • Jeremy in TX says:

      Haha! Good on you. At this stage, the helmet and riding classes will give you a much better return on investment.

      And you are not irrational. You HAD to buy it. Everyone here knows this.

    • dino says:

      Welcome to the world of two-wheeled madness!

      By all means, get the helmet and safety classes (for free training, sign up EARLY for MSF training, which is usually free, with just a deposit, and some states it will get you your license if you pass the course!)

      When we say something is bad, take it with a grain of salt. Unless something is broken, most stock suspension will work just fine for most folks. Once you start riding more aggressively, you might have more trouble with a stock suspension. Once you ride a bike with high quality suspension, and you get used to how well it soaks up bumps, and keeps the wheels planted and gripping the road, it gets hard to go back to a poor suspension. that is why some guys instantly throw out stock components, and upgrade right away. They have ridden better, and don’t want to go back!

      Don’t worry about your stock suspension. Maybe have a more experienced rider test it out for you to make sure it is OK.

      As for telling your parents… I don’t have much advice there (my parents and brothers rode bikes, and they knew it was inevitable!) Get the helmet, jacket, gloves, etc. Go through the safety riding courses and they should feel a bit better. After being “exposed” to risks on a motorcycle, I have become a much more defensive rider, assuming I am invisible to all other motorists, and can actually “see” trouble coming. Luckily, I have not crashed a bike, or a car, in over 25 years now. I know it can happen tomorrow, so that little bit of fear keeps you from doing stupid things! Also, a used SV650 almost never loses money, unless it gets trashed, so you actually made a sound purchase there.

  2. brad says:

    the sv is the most raced model of motorcycle in every state I’ve been to traveling around and racing (though recently being challenged by the little ninjas). there are $18,000 sv’s out there, so I know people would spend a bit more for a much upgraded one, but the whole reason suzuki doesn’t make anything sporty besides the gsxr is cuz they want you to just buy a gsxr, even though they are nowhere near as fun on the street or the track(after you spend some dough making it less budgety)

    • Jeremy in TX says:

      I always believed the discontinuation of the SV had to do with Suzuki’s perception that the SV was pillaging sales of the GixSix. While I am actually one of the few people who thinks the Gladius / SFV is a nice looking bike, the first thing I though when it was unveiled displaying a steel frame and goofy passenger foot rests that can’t be easily removed is that Suzuki has intentionally killed the weekend racer appeal of this bike. They also killed the SV brand name itself clearly wanting to go in another direction with their intermediate-level bike.

      • Norm G. says:

        re: “the first thing I thought when it was unveiled displaying a steel frame and goofy passenger foot rests that can’t be easily removed is that Suzuki has intentionally killed the weekend racer appeal of this bike. They also killed the SV brand name itself clearly wanting to go in another direction with their intermediate-level bike.”

        great observation. XO has the con.

    • Dave says:

      If only we could get sport riders to see the “light”. Unfortunately the “peak hp” figure on the spec sheet is all to compelling to too many.

      • MGNorge says:

        It’s always been that way. How else would people brag about one over another over a few beers? In the past I owned some bikes not especially known for maximum oomph but out on the street their great torque spread made it easier to stay on the boil. For all but the best riders it made more sense that a bike with a narrow power band which required much more work to extract maximum performance from.

        I remember when I was really young it was common to compare two vehicles simply by who’s showed a higher MPH number on the speedo. A speedo with 150 made that car better than one that only showed 120.

        • Jeremy in TX says:

          That gave me a chuckle. I was completely gobsmacked the first time I saw how awesome a YFF750R was by looking at its stratospheric speedometer.

          And a new squid was born.

  3. Randominator says:

    On my second SV, the first an ’03 and this one an ’05. The Gladdy is an unfortunate, er, “progression” of the line. Not sure what the thinking was over there, but it ain’t working over here. I would suggest that Suzuki retool the latest SV with better forks, slightly less angular styling, and 800cc’s and I’ll buy one. In the mean time I’m following along with Gabe as he works out some of the more obvious bugs of the older models.

  4. Stone996e says:

    “I’m not sure the new springs were worth the effort. I did notice less dive while braking, but damping was not much improved”. Really, so your attempt at improving dampening by making a change to the springs was a failure. Go figure.

    • Fred M. says:

      You really should save the snide for topics you understand better.

      Did you see the part where he wrote “I use thicker oil as well: 10-weight, much heavier than the 5-weight Suzuki recommends”? That dramatically increases damping (not “dampening”).

      The rebound damping is also related to the springs. Damping that is perfectly tuned becomes too hard (harsh) when the spring rates and/or preload are lowered and too soft (mushy) when spring rates and/or preload are raised.

      That’s why the author wrote “I tried to find a balance with the stock SV dampers.” He did that by changing spring rates, changing the preload, and going to a heavier weight oil — as he described, in detail, in the article.

      • Solenoid says:

        You need to dampen your trailer-trash-know-it-all attitude.

        dampen

        verb
        1. smother or suppress; “Stifle your curiosity” [syn: stifle] [ant: excite]
        2. make moist; “The dew moistened the meadows” [syn: moisten]
        3. deaden (a sound or noise), especially by wrapping [syn: muffle]
        4. reduce the amplitude (of oscillations or waves)
        5. make vague or obscure or make (an image) less visible; “muffle the message”
        6. check; keep in check (a fire)
        7. lessen in force or effect; “soften a shock”; “break a fall”

        You’re only babbling terms you do not understand, obviously.

        • goose says:

          Please site the source of your definitions.

          Goose

        • Jeremy in TX says:

          The proper term from the physics discipline is damping. That is why it is called a “damper rod” instead of a “dampener rod”.

          Damping has a definition very similar to your number “4” above. The word dampen is used with respect to acoustics and refers to soundproofing. Damping the vibration of the wall material is a good first step in dampening a room. :-)

          He didn’t need to be rude about it, though.

          • Fred M. says:

            I chose to be rude, offensive, and bullying because Stone996e attacked the writer when, in fact, what the writer did was perfectly reasonable. I want Stone996e to think about being publicly humiliated next time he considers picking on someone online. He was ignorant and the writer was perfectly reasonable and intelligent.

        • Fred M. says:

          My “know it all attitude” comes from knowledge — I’m an engineer. And as far as “trailer park,” I’ve been building satellites while you’ve been prowling around here trying to pretend you actually have something to contribute.

          If you had any knowledge, you’d have recognized that I was completely right and the other poster, who was being rude to the writer, was a putz – or in your case, a fellow putz.

    • Jim says:

      lol, he said “dampening”, way to look like a fool.

  5. Gary says:

    I had a 2001 SV650S with a modified front and rear suspension. I added Gold Valve Emulators (as per the Race Tech instructions), adjustable preload fork caps, 20W fork oil and springs for my 180 pound riding weight. I also modified the bike to accept a rear shock from a ZX-9N. I then took the time to dial in proper static and race sag and adjusted the clickers on the shock to get everything working perfectly for my weight and riding style.

    The good news is that bike handled much better. No dive under braking and very predictable handling. The bad news is the bike had a very harsh ride, bordering on (but not) uncomfortable. At the time I thought it was well worth the trade off.

    However every time I had the opportunity to ride a 600 class bike with a proper suspension I was reminded of the constant compromise that the SV650 represented. It didn’t do anything well and was only competent – at best.

    GSX600 forks and a Fox shock is really the best solution for the SV650…but with the expense associated with those mods you’d really be much better off with a more competent motorcycle.

  6. Provologna says:

    Since the ’08 recession/market crash, modern central bank planning (monetary policy AKA printing paper AKA “creating” imaginary wealth moving decimal position via computer) in all or most nations, devalued currency with stated goal being to drum up foreign sales/export.

    The result is increasingly large share of middle class wealth moved toward the so-called “top 1%.” (Sidebar: CPI does not track spending of the top 1%, such as art, which have lately risen faster than ever before. The Wall Street Journal lately added a special section just for the most costly residential real estate such as luxury multi-million dollar condos.) As one investment banker recently asked, “How has the average US consumer benefited from the Fed’s monthly purchase of $85B in debt from the US Treasury?”

    Motorcycle manufacturers such as Suzuki could not raise prices, so they must continuously cut value from goods, because there’s no other choice. This explains Suzuki trending from the original SV frame, to the 2nd gen frame (lower cost), to the current frame (still lower cost), while pricing stays more or less constant, or increases slightly.

    • Jeremy in TX says:

      Japan needs to print some more money then, because the price of the Gladius is significantly more than the price of an SV.

      • Selecter says:

        Do people think that a bike that was, what, $6000 *ten years ago* would stay $6000 forever? Or even more than a year or two?

        The 2008 SV650SF (the last version sold in the USA) was $6899. Six model years after the fact (the ’14s are out, remember???), the SV would be an $8500, easily, judging how by both their competition and Suzuki’s lineup’s own prices have shot up since then. Six years is no small timeframe…

        The SV is okay and all, but I’m still amazed at how the SV fanboys compare apples to fossilized dinosaur droppings…

        • Dave says:

          The Gladius is being re-released at over $8k. Yamaha seems to be the only make to at least6 somewhat buck the trend of degrading content and raising prices with the FZ-09. Not sure how they’re making money on that one..

          • Stone996e says:

            Check with you local Yamaha and Honda dealers…these new lower priced units that are so called “customer friendly” come at the expense of the dealers profit margins, with the factories cutting the dealers profit substantially on these new “value priced” units.

          • Dave says:

            That’s unfortunate but these dealers have all brought on these bikes because lower margin bikes make more money than higher margin bikes that must be sold at deep discounts or don’t sell at all. They also open the door to profitable accessory and future service sales.

          • Jeremy in TX says:

            The two Yamaha dealers here I’ve spoken with about the FZ-09 are extremely excited to have it in the lineup.

        • Jeremy in TX says:

          The issue most people have with the SFV is not that it costs more money than an SV, but that it is less bike AND more money than the bike it replaces and alienates its weekend racer fan base with the goofy passenger pegs and such. Price increases over time are to be expected, but so is improvement. A 2013 Ninja 650 cost roughly the 15% more than a 2008 Ninja 650. The SFV is about 16% more than the ’08 SV650SF, but they also stripped the bike of the fairing, clip-ons and trick aluminum frame. Which of these Suzuki’s was the dinosaur turd in your analogy?

          And now we have the Yamaha FZ-09 which is just whizzing in the face of everyone.

    • johnny ro says:

      Then again there is the march of technological progress where the same performance level gets cheaper as time passes and ultimately that performance level drops off the bottom of the chart as newer products offer more and more. In some ways manufacturers build to a long term market positioned price point not to a performance level, in the long run. In some places, not others such as food or sex.

      …compare FZ7 to an XS650 or BSA M50.

      And don’t overlook the yen devaluation.

      Finally so few bikes are sold in the US anyway, the USD price is somewhat of a local phenomena here.

  7. Jeremy in TX says:

    So did you do anything with the rear shock? Or is that part of Part IV: Suspension Continued?

  8. Randy Singer says:

    Stinkywheels, your Suzuki Sv1000 has cartridge forks. Unfortunately the cartridges are sealed, but that hasn’t stopped some enterprising owners from figuring out how to modify them for better performance. You may want to join our discussion list for SV1000 owners and have a look through the archives for the procedure:
    http://www.sv-portal.com/

  9. stinkywheels says:

    I’m on the fence on emulators or GSXR on my 07 SV1000. I’m gonna have to find 03 to 05 forks that will even take emulators as the 07s won’t (don’t know about 650, might check). GSXR forks will be adjustable easier but will still have to be revalved most likely. Suspension makes you faster everywhere, engine on straights only. I know, butchered the quote.

    • Jeremy in TX says:

      Doesn’t your SV1000 already have a cartridge fork?

      • Gabe says:

        I think Stinky meant to type “gold valve kit” instead, which would make more sense. According to Racetech, it’s a non-rebuildable cartridge in the 07 SV1000, which means the internals can be serviced, but the valving can’t be altered past the stock adjuster knobs (which means not much). Racetech offers a new internal kit for a cool $1000. Maybe there’s some other bike with similar fork? Or can you retrofit the 02-05?

        • stinkywheels says:

          I’ve seen the Racetech cartridges (cool $1000?). I seem like a tighta–, because I am. I’d like to get adjustable, rebuildable, revalveable forks for around $500. I’ve seen articles on putting Gixxer cartridges in Duc SS Showas but I’ll have to look at the SV portal (don’t get there often). I prefer RSU forks as they’re easier to put seals in, which is 90% of the fork work I do on my fleet. But a sealed cartridge fork is just spring, oil wt, like it or lump it. 025s are direct fit, so are Gixxers except for ignition switch, I believe, if you get the WHOLE front.

  10. Gabe says:

    Like a dummy, I forgot to mention a very important point in what became a very long story. Emulators are awesome not only because they are cheap, but you can use them to upgrade the suspension performance of almost any vintage motorcycle while maintaining a stock appearance. I’ve used them in my 71 CB350, a 1988 Ninja 250 and even my ill-fated 1980 FT500 Ascot roadracer.

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “Like a dummy, I forgot to mention a very important point in what became a very long story.”

      gotta phone call from the 951 did ya…? :)

    • dino says:

      good point! nothing messes up the look of vintage 60’s than a GSXR front end!

      good article overall, for the rest of us with just a marginal understanding of all the nibbly bitsinside those fork tubes.. Thanks Gabe!

  11. Gronde says:

    Did slow sales kill the SV650? I wish Suzuki would bring back the SV650 and dump the ridiculous Gladius.

    • Gabe says:

      I can hazard a guess-Suzuki changed the SV to Gladius for the same reason they changed first gen to second gen–profit margin. The square-tube SV frame is simpler and cheaper than the oval-tube first-gen unit. The heavy tube-steel Gladius (ahem: SFV) frame is cheaper still.

      • Don E. says:

        The frame tube shape wasn’t the reason the bike got uglier. The smooth styling of the first gen got lost with the shift to the Gladius.

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “Did slow sales kill the SV650?”

      no, bad judgment. if they weren’t slow then, they sure as hell are now. still see 1st and 2nd gen SV’s all the time. can’t throw a rock. fwiw I have yet to see a single gladius anywhere ‘cept a picture…? and I’ve recently spotted a unicorn.

      • SecaKid says:

        “Bad judgment”- reminds me of the time Coke changed their formula. I just hope Suzuki does what Coke did and brings back the SV.

      • Fred M. says:

        Agreed completely on the bad judgment explanation. I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they replaced the attractive SV650 with the ugly Gladius.

        P.S. Not a good idea to admit to having recently seen a unicorn since, supposedly, they can only be seen by virgins.

        • Dave says:

          It was not bad judgment. The did it for good reasons, the biggest probably being profitability. If the old bike was becoming too expensive to make at a profit then it had to go up in price or away all together. The economic climate changed over the lifespan of the SV. That’s just the way it is.

        • Norm G. says:

          I know right? now you see what makes it all the more shocking.

          • Norm G. says:

            re: “Not a good idea to admit to having recently seen a unicorn since, supposedly, they can only be seen by virgins”

  12. Tom says:

    Did the same thing to my 2003 SV back in the day. Added a GSXR-1000 shock on the back and my suspension was da bomb.