By AJ Jacobsen
Any track rider and racer can tell you that having a properly tuned suspension can make a massive difference in the handling of a motorcycle. Yet, I’ve seen and heard arguments from top level coaches on down to casual racers saying two very different things. On the one hand, they tout that proper set up is key, and one of the “best investments” you can make in your motorcycle. On the other hand, however, they will go on to say how so-and-so was only “x” seconds off the lap record on a stock bike that wasn’t set up for them.
Now, it can’t be both things – or can it? Does a properly set up and handling motorcycle really make a big difference, or are all of the suspension folks out there pulling our legs?
In my opinion, those two things are not as similar as some sources make them sound. I believe a rider’s background, experience, and technical skills has a lot to do with the direct importance of set up and being able to go reasonably quick on a bike at a given track.
Most of the riders who are touted as having the accomplishments of riding bone stock bikes, quickly, are people who are very fast, and very experienced, and have been actively riding and racing motorcycles for years, if not most of their lives. They have ridden many different kinds of bikes, in many different situations, and spend multiple days a week, and likely every single weekend, riding, training, and practicing. They know how to handle bikes and situations that aren’t ideal, and have years of experience and miles to make their reactions fluid and easy. They are boldly confident in their skills, and a bike isn’t going to intimidate them because of it.
The rest of us, many who came into the sport of motorcycle track and racing at a later stage in life, seldom have the plethora of opportunities afforded those who grew up doing it with their parents support – or who have been participating longer than some of us have been alive! We likely learned our “skills” (and a number of bad habits) riding on the streets, where survival is skill #1 to master. We’ve likely made mistakes on our bikes at some point, and the physical toll on older bodies, plus the expenses of having to fix our own toys we just broke, makes us take a step back. Caution becomes a part of our game, whether we wish it was or not.
Here’s where I see set up starting to play a major roll. A properly set up bike, on good suspension, can and will forgive a number of “sins” an otherwise stock bike would not. A bike that is doing what we want, when we want it to, inspires confidence. As we deal with abnormal situations, and realize that the bike is capable of handling things far more predictably, our confidence takes further steps.
This confidence can allow an average rider to push their limits, pace, and overall pace. More experience at faster paces increases confidence in handling those situations, and bodies and muscles and minds gain references on how to handle these things. With enough of this experience, even an average rider can become a quick rider. Somewhere in this experience, this rider may even have gained enough confidence and skills to be able to closely repeat their fast times on bikes that aren’t as accommodating.
Those riders, however, are unlikely to gain that confidence or those skills at high levels without first having a bike that is working properly. Every rider’s needs in this area may vary, some will gain confidence faster than others, but proper set up that works the way it should really is key to laying a foundation a late-comer to the sport may need.
Working closely with an experienced suspension tuner, who understands you and your motorcycle is key to getting you and your bike where you need to be. Finding the right tuner for you, however, can sometimes be a very frustrating task. Even I have found that some people claim to have knowledge, but their knowledge is very limited, but if you don’t know, how can you tell they do not?
It may be a challenge to find the right tuner, or the right combination of tuners, to get your bike where it needs to be. Don’t be afraid to try someone new if your results with your current tuner are lack-luster. Don’t be afraid to ask around, and talk to people in the pits about who they have worked with and the good – and not so good – results they have had.
Once you find that sweet spot, things will come together for you, and you will see your confidence soar.
Of course, once that happens, you’ll drop 2 seconds and everything will need to be changed again!