Our recent trip to Northern NSW on the hunt for Captain Thunderbolt (more on that soon) left both Stephen and I a bit underwhelmed with the handling of our Africa Twins.
Now, this wasn't a shock. Pardon the pun. We knew from the start that we would need to make suspension modifications to get the bikes to work the way we wanted them to. And we deliberately chose to wait until after our first trip away to make any modification, just to see how the standard suspension coped with what we would put it through. The results were not good. In fact, it was downright dangerous a couple of times. The fact is motorcycles are made to suit a particular size rider, and when you're a different size to whoever that mythical person is, you need to make adjustments. It's normal. So it appears Honda made the Africa Twin to suit a rider of about 80kg in weight and with no luggage on board.
But Stephen and I are a pair of dynamically muscled Aussie blokes who tip the scales at a fair bit more than 80kg, and with all our camera and video gear we need to carry, as well as our normal gear for a few days away, plus spares and tools, we are saddled with more than an average amount of luggage.
So our trip north revealed some frightening results. Literally.
Stephen's bike wasn't too bad, but he's a good 10kg lighter than me and had less weight in his luggage. Besides sitting way too low with too much suspension sag, and being a bit under-damped, it wasn't the worst handling thing in the world.
My bike on the other hand, was a death trap. Accelerating from anything from 80km/h upwards induced a huge dynamic weave in my bike. Not a head shake, a full on weave through the whole chassis. Front tyre would go to one side, rear to the other, then they'd swap, and that would continue and get faster. Normally you power through that kind of behaviour and it sorts itself out, but that just made it worse. As did backing off. The only way to remedy it was to hold a constant throttle and loosen your grip on the bars. Within a few seconds the whole show would have settled down, and all was right with the world again.
I just had to hope I was still on the road when that relief came, and wasn't buried into a metre wide tree trunk.
Worst of all, the main time it would happen was when I pulled out to overtake a car, so I basically had to power on to get past the car, weaving a bucking like a bull at a rodeo, then let the whole show slow a little and ease itself into a controllable state, then pull back onto my side of the road.
Other times the weave would be set off by a road irregularity, or simply powering out of a bend.
There was one particular occasion where I did almost think I was in serious trouble. Thankfully I was able to muscle it around enough to stay on the road.
But before you assume I blame the bike, or Honda for all of this, I don't. It's just physics.
With me and my luggage aboard, I was using up over 70% of the suspension travel at the rear end, even with the preload fully wound up. No bike is going to cope with that. Combine that with the rearward weight bias and you also have a front end with a steering head angle that now resembles a Harley Fat Boy, rather than a dirt bike.
You can also toss in the fact that we had switched to Motoz Tractionator Adventure tyres just before the trip, and I am convinced the front tyre's love of following cracks and grooves and irregularities in the road was an integral part of starting the weave in the first place, as well as helping it continue.
So there are a bunch of factors here that all combined to create the perfect storm. None of which are Honda's fault, so I'm certainly not shit-canning the bike. Besides, it's my fault for doing the trip on the original suspension, to sate my curiosity. I knew it wouldn't work. I just didn't know by how much.
Tricked up shockies. It feels like Christmas!
So a week or so back we dropped both bikes at Teknik Motorsport in Penrith, NSW, to get Nick and his team to fix both bikes up. Nick has done a lot of work already fine tuning the Africa Twin suspension for other customers, and is always getting feedback from them to further improve his settings for the bike.
Teknik have put in new heavier springs in the rear and totally revalved the unit. Nick reckons the stock Showa shock is a good quality unit and just needs a spring to suit the rider and damping rates to match. At the front the original springs stay put, but the original set up does not allow virtually any preload to be added to the springs, despite being adjustable. Even at full preload there is relatively little preload being applied to the spring itself. Nick fits spacers to the front springs to add preload, and revalves both compression and rebound rates to firm things up and keep things under control.
As a racer, I know only too well the importance of correct suspension tuning. It's critical for a safe, fast motorcycle.
So now we have bikes set up specifically for us in terms of both spring and damping rates, and that's with everything set back to minimum adjustment, so as we add gear or a passenger, we now have a full range of preload and damping adjustment to make allowances for that. Previously it took almost all of the adjustment available to get it somewhere remotely close to suitable with just us on board with no luggage.
We are yet to go and test them, but initial (very short) rides show the bikes to be much firmer, more planted, and quicker to steer. We will wait until we get them loaded up and onto the rough stuff before we give you a final verdict, but Nick's been doing this a long time, and knows his shit. We'll be stunned if these bikes haven't been transformed.
Suspension mods to set a bike up to suit you may not be cheap (we paid just over $1200 per bike), but it is seriously the best money you will spend on a motorcycle. A motorcycle that handles well could even save your life. As a racer, I will always look to suspension set up to improve lap times before I worry about searching for more power. It should be the same on the road, or the dirt road for that matter.