Our stock CRF450X is one fun machine, but the same suspension woes from 2006 have transferred into the ’07 model. Our first step in this Project Bike was to hire Watson Performance Suspension to get us dialed in.
Honda’s CRF450X model isn’t one that came into 2007 with adrenaline-pumping advancements or changes. Instead, the popular off-road mount was only slightly revised and brings to the plate essentially the same characteristics of the previous model year. Honda is proud of the fact that this bike comes from pure, race-bred CRF-R technology with the enduro trimmings tossed on for good measure. While “taking trail riding to a whole new level” is a subjective statement, we will say that the CRF-X is a damn good steed. However, the 2007 450X isn’t perfect, and we knew it going into this project.
Our testers complained about the Honda’s nervous suspension components during our 2006 Enduro Shootout. Not only are the Showa springs twitchy, but we had a hell of a time getting them dialed to our liking. Standing at the top of our shit list, we weren’t too surprised when the 2007 model rolled through our doors and exhibited the same problem. The good news was that this year the CRF-X is ours to twist, tweak and maul any way we deem necessary. That said our Number 1 priority immediately became improving the 47mm fork and Pro-Link shock.
There are any number of shops in the Northwest that pride themselves on knowing the ins and outs of suspension requirements for that kind of terrain. We’ve heard of several who have decent reputations, but there was no doubt as to who we wanted rummaging through our sticks. During our CRF250R Project Bike, we turned to Watson Performance Suspension for some guidelines on managing the stock units. The results were so good that we couldn’t wait to get another project going and let them actually customize the components. We didn’t waste any time calling owner Tom Watson and giving him the scoop on what we were after.
A trip to Hood River, OR, to drop off the slightly used and still dirty 450X left us sitting on our hands in nervous anticipation until the work was done. Since the primary tester for this machine is yours truly, we gave Watson the basic parameters of a 185-pound, 5’11” B-level rider, and told him that we plan on spending the majority of our time riding quad- and single-track. We’ve been associating with Tom since he joined our 2005 Baja 1000 effort, so he knows just how full of crap we really are. Even our best laid plans will inevitably get screwed, and he had the foresight to anticipate some additional types of riding despite our claims of single-track glory.
Watson’s special slick-coat fork springs are designed to actually get less sticky as the coating wears. So far we can’t argue.
In actuality, our first couple major tests were WORCS races – a format that blends off-road with a touch of motocross.
“A lot of tuners will target a really small area of performance, but I tried to take more of a shotgun approach with this one,” Watson told us between races at Round 8 of the WORCS series. “It can do the tight stuff like you originally wanted, but it can also do some high-speed GP-style things by turning in the clickers a few. I can get a lot more specific if you want, but most people don’t really stay in one type of terrain.”
We were awful happy that TW called us out on this one because the X model was totally capable of handling the motocross sections of the WORCS courses in Olympia and Toutle, WA. Because the moto portion is such a small percentage of the race, we actually set the bike up for the wooded majority and dealt with the softer action on the motocross portion. Watson prepped both ends of our bike for the abuse. Up front, the 47mm Showas were torn into and the stock 0.47 kg/mm springs tossed in favor of a lighter 0.45 kg/mm. Before installing the new springs, they were baked with a slick-coat to help free up the action.
“It’s something we’re doing in-house,” says Tom of his special coating. “It’s a semi-sacrificial, dry-film lubricant that is baked on. Over time it gets slipperier and slipperier because the springs get burnished as they flex and wear against other parts of the fork. This surfacing actually works into the pores of the metal and keeps the friction down between them.”
In the months that we’ve been testing our modded suspension we have yet to feel any increase in binding. The fork is as smooth or smoother than when we first took delivery from Watson, and overall it’s loads better than the original sticks. Reducing sliding friction is the first step in Watson’s setup process. Next the Hood River resident tackles cleaning up the oil flow at which point he can then properly valve it.
The stock suspension is a little spiky and doesn’t handle as well as it could. Softer fork springs and a stiffer coil on the shock gave the CRF-X better balance and handling characteristics.
Inside the fork, TW opts to scrap the stock piston as well due to the oversized windows.
“It works well in theory but they are exceptionally large and it’s hard to valve,” he explains. “High volume is not necessarily good for flow. We change the valve assembly to one that I’m more familiar with and I like the port shape better because it meters the fluid a little more precisely.
Smoothing out the oil flow creates less cavitation and foaming, which allows the Watson-spec shim stacks on the rebound and compression to do their job effectively. We were very happy with the new characteristics of the fork. The lower spring rate seemed counterintuitive at first, but as Tom explains it, a slightly stiffer rate in the shock and softer front were his solution to better overall balance – an area we immediately noticed improvement. As a result, the front end has a little more weight on it which helps the 450X turn better, especially now that the tire is staying in contact with the ground rather than deflecting.
The heavier rear spring is a straight rate 5.5 kg/mm Eibach coil. The extra stiffness supported our tester’s weight better at the top of the stroke and gave the bike a better stance. Aside from the new spring, revalve and modified piston, Watson says one of the most important things he does to a shock, particularly on Hondas, is to carefully monitor the oil level. According to T-dubya, Honda is notorious for excessive air space – and subsequent foaming – in its factory-prepped state.
“You were really laying it down out there and the bike looked good,” Tom said after racing together at the Olympia round. “That particular section was pretty bad but the rear end was super planted. If you can get your suspension to work in that stuff it will work anywhere.”
We second that. The particular section Tom was referring to was a long uphill. Though not particularly steep, it was filled with wet rocks, a few roots and had a couple smaller ruts – just the kind of trail that is best hit a gear high and WFO. We wouldn’t have dared with the stock settings, but with Watson’s fine touch, we were able to bomb over the treacherous terrain and our wheels kept in constant contact with the ground. One of the biggest issues prior had been this type of rocky terrain where deflection was at its worst, but the revalve kept the rebound in control and our Dunlops hugging terra firma.
Our shock got the full treatment as well with a redesigned piston head, rebound and compression valving and a heavier spring.
“The big goal is to keep the suspension quiet,” confides TW. “The bike doesn’t hop around and what’s happening when you’re riding is that it (rebound) controls the spring force so it doesn’t hop or lift when you’re done with the obstacle.”
Of course, every bike is going to buck at some point, but even when that scenario did arise it always felt as comfortable as possible and we never wanted to crap our pants mid-flight.
For less than a grand we were stoked with the improvement on our 450X. There’s any number of motor mods or bolt-on parts that your can invest in, but we’re convinced that enlisting a suspension guru like Watson is where your hard-earned dollars are best spent. In stock form our bike was plenty of fun, but it was limiting as well with the spikiness and deflection issues. We wanted to push faster and harder, but our confidence in the ability to do so with relative safety was not nearly what we needed. Now, with the proper springs, valving and just the right amount of anti-stiction coating, the Honda is constantly begging to be ridden faster. The result is some of the quickest paces we’ve ever had during off-road testing.
Another reason we like dealing with Watson, aside from the bitchin’ upgrades, is his accessibility. Customer service and timeliness are an important part of getting your suspension totally dialed, and every time we called Tom with a question he was Johnny-on-the-Spot about guiding our clicker-twisting mitts. The best way to find out what Watson Performance Suspension can do for your particular situation is to call his shop (541-386-6911) or drop him an email at email@example.com.
Stay tuned for further CRF450X Project Bike updates as we tear into the carb, emission controls, exhaust system, airbox and more.
Watson Performance Suspension Mods:
Shock Revalve – $225
Rear Spring (5.5) – $110
Shock Piston Mod – $40
Fork Revalve – $230
Slick Coat Fork Spring (.45) – $170
High Flow Fork Valve – $135
Turning ass-clenching terror into maniacal grins – Priceless
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