BARE BONES: LOOKS AREN’T EVERYTHING WHEN IT COMES TO FORK TUBES
By Bones Bacon
“My bike isn’t handling so well and I don’t understand why. Everything was good until I decided to invest some money into making it look like a factory bike. I took it all apart and sent everything I could think of out to get polished, anodized, coated and blinged out. I had the fork legs and fork stanchions anodized, re-coated, re-polished and gold-plated. My bike looks awesome now, just like a factory bike, but I don’t like the way it feels on the track. There must be something wrong with the suspension. I’m going to send it out now and have it all gone through.”
“IF I’VE HEARD THIS ONCE, I’VE HEARD IT A HUNDRED TIMES —
AT BOTH THE TRACK AND THE SHOP.”
If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a hundred times — at both the track and the shop. Customers bring in their suspension after investing time and money into trying to make their bikes look different, better or cooler. Sadly, I have to be the one to break the bad news to them. My recommendation is to replace the fancy parts with the stock OEM units that they just took off.
Let’s start with the most common part I see that was altered to make a bike look pretty—the fork stanchions and fork legs. The manufacturers spend engineering and computer time designing your bike’s fork components. These tubes have a huge influence on how the bike feels and handles due to the interrelated angles, tapers, inner diameters (I.D.), outer diameters (O.D.), anodizing, precision honing, coatings and other processes done to them. Some things may be held back to keep the retail price down, but for the most part the factories do a really good job of making a quality part. Then, you came along and sent the fork legs out to change the color. Or, someone has convinced you that there is a different titanium coating you could put on the fork legs that would make them just like works forks. Be forewarned, the first thing that happens when changing the color or coating is that the tube has to go through a very harsh stripping process to remove the original coating and anodizing that is embedded into the metal.
After the stripping process is done, the tube is a mess and has to be polished out. This is normally done by hand on a buffing wheel. The big problem is that the precision tolerances that were machined into the tube to make sure that the mating surfaces of the I.D. of the clamps and the O.D. of the outer tubes are as precise as possible go right out the window.
If you are redoing the inside as well, then you are also dealing with the fact that it’s hard to strip, polish, re-anodize and coat the inside of a long tube with any kind of consistency and precision.
It is true that there are better inner fork tube coatings available that not only look nicer but perform better than straight chrome. The difference is that these coatings are applied during the manufacturing process and the end result is much better. These coatings are often done in a layering process, so it’s not as bad to apply them later if you are redoing an outer tube, but, in my opinion, it’s still not a good idea to mess with it for the small gain in stiction reduction. I have never seen a coating applied to an inner tube, after manufacturing, that felt better than the straight chrome that was on the tube from the manufacturer. Not to mention the fact that it’s not an easy task to remove the inner tube from the axle lug, which has to be done before sending it out, without damaging it.
Shock bodies fall into the same boat as the outer tube as far as harming the inside is concerned. If a color change is all you are looking for, you can plug the inside and just redo the outside without really harming it.
In my opinion, parts always turn out better, whether you are talking about shock bodies or inner or outer fork tubes, if they are anodized and/or coated during the manufacturing process. They not only look better, but the design and machining tolerances are close to the minimal tolerances, and the engineers factor in a certain amount of buildup for these coatings. Anything done after the fact never looks as good and the tolerances are a crapshoot.
So, before you start thinking about changes to your fork and shock to make them look tricker, take a look at some of the factory bikes—a close look. What you will see is that attention to detail is what makes them what they are more than anything else. Colored coatings and anodizing may make your bike look cool, but save your money, pretend you’re colorblind and focus on the details. Then, and only then, will your bike feel like a true works bike.