Is a project ever done?
I don’t think so, but my CRF250L Rally may be as close to done as it’s gonna get.
When we last left our hero (me!) I had pretty much addressed all of the Rally’s shortcomings, except for the suspension. It’s still a new model, which meant that the aftermarket was still prototyping when I went shopping around. As I mentioned back in May, I’d decided to go with Cogent Dynamics. They have an outstanding reputation in the DR650 and KLR650 worlds, and I intend to use my Rally in similar fashion. I’ve ridden a Cogent-equipped DR650, and I was very impressed.
Why did I need to change the suspension? The Rally, like so many budget bikes, suffers from undersprung and underdamped components. I’m also asking a bit more of the CRuFfle than the engineers at Honda may have intended. When I took the bike to King of the Hammers back in February, the cratered lakebed surface quickly overwhelmed the stock components. Even taking shortcuts between spectator positions resulted in unnerving levels of clunking and banging as the fork and shock punished their respective bump stops.
So I shipped the fork and shock to Cogent in North Carolina. This being the first Rally they’d been able to actually work on, turnaround was about six weeks, not only because they’d be prototyping based on my parts—I also picked the busiest possible season for the work. Since the bike was apart in my shop for an extended period, I took the opportunity to clean it up and prepare it for the upcoming Sheetiron. My last outstanding item was tires, so I took the rims over to Moto Guild and spooned on a set of Motoz Mountain Hybrid knobbies sourced from SF Moto.
The Mountain Hybrid intrigued me with its trials tire-inspired tread design and heavier sidewall, intended to reduce flats. I’m not a particularly skilled tire spooner, and the idea of changing a tube trailside doesn’t sound fun.
I also assembled my trailside tool kit: a tiny compressor, a Motion Pro combination axle nut wrench and tire spoon, three other compact spoons, a patch kit, and spare front and rear tubes. All of this fit snugly in a Giant Loop three liter fender bag that didn’t attach to my fender. It did fit well into my dry bag, however.
The arrival of my fork and new shock were the last step of my prep, and definitely the best part. Cogent supplied me with a brand new shock, which added rebound damping adjustment and relocated the preload collar. In stock form, the Rally requires removal of a body panel some hammering just to half-ass a preload adjustment. Cogent’s shock moves the threaded collar down, and uses a rod style handle instead of a spanner, making adjustments to preload a breeze. I’ve taken advantage of this luxury and been able to easily adjust for a passenger now, making the little bike a lot more useful.
Right out of the box, the effect on the unassuming Rally is unbelievable. The chassis no longer dives under braking, bucks over speedbumps, or tries to eject me when riding up or down stairs. The positive changes thanks to the suspension upgrades can only be described as transformative. The previously-common clunks and bangs are gone.
If I were only allowed one modification, sending the suspension to Cogent ($639 for the shock, $411 to $537 for the fork) would definitely be it.
Suspension seriously sorted, the Rally was ready to take on the Oakland Motorcycle Club’s Sheetiron 300.
The Sheet Hits the Iron
I’m no stranger to dirt, but this was my first organized enduro of this magnitude. I slotted myself into a group of friends who are Sheetiron veterans, composed of riders on DR-Z400s, one WR250R and one CRF250L thrown in for camaraderie, figuring the comparable equipment would keep the Rally honest.
If you remember my recent trip to Austin, you’ll recall I often have different priorities than other motorcyclists. I was certainly on the Sheetiron to ride some extensive fire roads and single track, but it was of equal priority to make it to Fort Bragg in time to shower and partake of the offerings from North Coast Brewing. That meant that we wouldn’t be taking all the hard splits, but would enjoy a mixture of difficult and easy terrain.
Priorities set, we departed Stonyford on the paved entry into the Mendocino forest. I have to give credit to the OMC here, as the route wound its way onward starting with paved roads, then less-maintained paved roads, then properly entertaining gravel and dirt roads, with the occasional whoop / jump bisecting the roadway.
I found my speeds increasing as I sought the limits of the Cogent suspension. Bump after bump, whoop after whoop, I kept listening for the clunk, waiting for the violent jolt of the bike spanking me with its seat. Over and over, the bike soaked up everything I could throw at it. The reborn Rally worked so well, I could even sit down on the Seat Concepts seat over some incredibly potholed roads and barely feel the bumps.
My confidence in the CRF peaked as we reached a “hard split” on the roll chart. While re-grouping with my companions, one of them exclaimed, “You’ve just finished the most difficult section of the Sheetiron. Congratulations!”
Riding high on that info, I suggested we take the hard split presented to us. The group reluctantly agreed, and we attacked a singletrack trail of endless, rhythmic bumps. Again, the bike soaked up everything I could throw at it. My dirt skills are nowhere near pro level, but I was able to maintain a very admirable pace.
The 250L was working so well, I didn’t even notice that my dry bag’s retaining straps had failed. That is, until the bits that were still on the bike found their way into the brake rotor and made an awful racket. Upon discovering this problem, I leaned the bike against the side of the trail and removed the disaster from my axle. Riding countercourse to retrieve my tools and jacket on a live trail seemed like a bad idea, so I departed on foot. It took five minutes of walking to find my companions gathering my belongings and dividing them into their luggage. It’s nice to have friends.
Luggage disaster handled, we pressed onward, until…the dreaded flat tire. Luckily, not mine—the fate of the flat was bestowed upon Steve Fooshee, but we stopped as a group to re-enable his disabled DR-Z. In typical Fish fashion, the repair was not the simple tube change we all hoped for.
The DR-Z required the sacrifice of the first tube to the tire iron gods—I pinched it—but installation of the second tube was successful. That got us down the hill to the lunch spot, where it was determined that Steve’s DR-Z also lacked a charging system. With two other DR-Zs present, we swapped a good battery from one in order to revive Steve’s bike, disabled the injured bike’s headlight, and then fashioned a jumper cable from my mini air compressor’s power cord for the dead battery that was now installed in an otherwise fine DR-Z.
The time burned by our trailside repairs meant that the second half of the day (70 miles) would have to be bypassed and we’d take the direct street route.
Arrival in Ft. Bragg confirmed my predictions. Cogent’s work has perfected my CRF250L. The suspension is untouchable in the dirt, with spring rates and damping perfectly capable of handling any speed that’s reasonably attainable with the power and traction available. Additionally, highway riding is exponentially improved. The system required zero compromises from me and exceeded all of my expectations.
Day two was simply some of the best fun I’ve ever had on a motorcycle: incredible scenery, fantastic variety of terrain, picture-perfect weather, and faultless performance from the Rally. An impending Monday morning engagement dictated that I stick to a tight schedule, so I needed to ride fast. I split off with another rider, Matt, who had come from Texas for the event. We stuck to the roll chart, kept our pace reasonable, and made it back to Stonyford in time to pack leisurely and relish the afterglow of a great day of dirt riding.
This may have been my first Sheetiron, but I’d heard rumors that it could have been the last. Those rumors appear to be a bit overstated. The ride has been going on for 27 years, and there’s always a risk of OMC being denied permits. Last year’s ride was re-routed through more small towns, and rider interaction prompted some impassioned letters that brought some very negative attention to the ride. The Forest Service opened a forum to collect comments from the public, and a bit more scrutiny of rider behavior was implied.
I spoke with Brent Snyder, OMC member and organizer of the event for the past 10 years, in order to get a clearer picture of the Sheet-uation.
To paraphrase Brent, there has long been a fairly steady, but low level of backlash toward the ride. It’s hard to imagine 500 dirt riders passing by or through any sleepy little town without making some impact. Brent believes the vast majority of riders who ride the Sheetiron are respectful people who don’t maliciously act out towards locals, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. The opportunities to cut loose in such seemingly remote locations are plentiful. It just so happens that there are people watching when we think they’re not, and that’s when the trouble starts.
Perhaps as a result of this increased scrutiny, the US Forest Service has requested that trail repairs be done by volunteers following the event, asking for 20 riders to spend about eight hours restoring two sections of trails they believe suffered damage from the event. The deadline for this work is currently June 30th, although it seems likely the timeline will be extended. If you think you can help, I suggest you get in touch with the OMC—you can find contact info at oaklandmotorcycleclub.camp9.org. I’d also like to take this opportunity to remind anyone else who shared the ride with me—or rides our OHV areas—to act like people are watching you when you’re recreating. Our access depends on it.
This story originally appeared in our July 2018 issue.