If motorcycles could be ordered like cars, with a long list of options and trim packages to choose from, odds are some current equipment would all but disappear from the motorcycling scene. Damper-rod forks, for example, have long since been obsoleted by cartridge forks, and yet survive in many bikes priced below a certain threshold, or made for more pedestrian riding than exotics and high-priced models. With no factory options available to upgrade damper rods, many riders turn to aftermarket companies like Race Tech, whose Gold Valve Cartridge Emulators are the, well, gold standard of fork upgrades.
The problem with damper-rod forks is they’re a compromise. Simply put, damping is accomplished by fork oil flowing through holes as the fork compresses and extends. The holes are a fixed diameter chosen to provide controlled damping over a wide range of fork speeds. The faster the oil flows the more resistance the holes offer to its flow. But at the extremes––like when you hit a big bump––the oil can’t move through the holes fast enough, resulting in what’s called hydraulic lock, which is what’s going on inside the fork when you feel like you’re holding onto a jackhammer. At the opposite extreme, the oil flows easily through the holes over small bumps, providing little or no damping.
Enter Race Tech Emulators. They mimic the action of cartridge forks, which replace the holes in damper rods with valves that provide damping at low fork speeds, and open up to let oil through at high speeds, preventing hydraulic lock. As a bonus, the Emulators have adjustable compression damping for different rider weights and riding styles; rebound damping is adjustable with different weights of fork oil.
The ease of installation depends on your willingness to take your forks apart. The stock damper-rod holes need to be drilled out so they’re big enough to have no effect on damping; for some applications extra holes need to be drilled. This means you’ll have oily fork innards all over your workbench. My workbench was covered with other things at the time, so I farmed out the Emulator install. I was told that the job is easy: remove the damper rods, drill the holes, put the rods back, drop the Emulators on top of them, add the fork springs (Race Tech sent a pair of its fork springs to go with the Emulators), add oil, and button up the fork.
The effect on my 2012 Bonneville’s front suspension was significant. As delivered, the fork probably wasn’t a big improvement over those on classic Bonnies. With the Emulators and the Race Tech springs they responded to bumps big and small without drama, never locking up on the steep, hard-edged ones, and yet smoothing out the small ones like pulling the wrinkles out of a bed sheet. Now, in bumpy corners, the front wheel feels more planted than before, and under hard braking the fork neither bottoms nor stiffens up excessively.
The Gold Valve Emulators for my Bonneville retail for $169.99; the springs go for $114.95. Race Tech’s website has detailed illustrations of how Emulators work, how to tune them, and general installation instructions so you can decide if you want to tackle the job yourself, or send the fork to Race Tech for factory installation, or to one of its many authorized service centers around the country. Race Tech also sells new fork seals, drain-bolt washers and Race Tech fork oil––a good thing, since you’ll need all of it to complete the installation.
For more information: Call (951) 279-6655 or visit racetech.com
(This Gearlab review was published in the November 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)