Motorcycle Suspension: Harder Than It Looks

Ohlins makes excellent but expensive shocks
Ohlins makes excellent but expensive shocks

For beginner motorcycle riders, suspension isn’t usually given too much thought. Considering how much it affects a motorcycle’s performance and riding characteristics though, it should be given a lot of thought. The bikes on my recommended beginner’s list typically have low-tech suspensions with only one adjustable feature, but even understanding just how that one feature affects your riding will make a noticeable difference in how the bike feels. When you’re ready to move onto a true sportbike, their suspension components become more complicated, more expensive and more important to set up correctly.

Two bikes I really like for sportbike beginners are the Ninja 300 and Honda CBR500R; both offer relatively simplistic forks and shocks. The only adjustment you can make is to the rear shock spring preload, which basically refers to how tightly the spring is compressed while at rest:

  • Loose preload – the rear suspension will travel more and feel softer
  • Tight preload – the rear suspension will travel less and feel tighter

The bikes come with a small toolkit that includes a weird looking tool to turn the spring preload adjuster; the Ninja has five settings while the Honda has nine. It takes a little effort but is relatively simple to change; just pick a setting then take a test ride to see how it feels. Rinse and repeat if needed.

When it comes time for you to step up to the next level of bike, the suspension becomes a lot more complicated. The shock and forks on a full sportbike will typically have adjustable suspension preload, compression damping, rebound damping and sometimes high/low-speed compression damping (the speed refers to how quickly the suspension gets compressed, not the velocity of the bike). Frankly it’s beyond my skillset to optimize the settings on my bikes, so I pay an expert to do it for me every couple of years.

My new-to-me Aprilia is an incredible bike, but also felt incredibly stiff on my first long ride through the canyons. The next Saturday I took it to a well known suspension tuner; for $50 he set my bike’s suspension up correctly for my weight and riding style, had me test ride it for 30 minutes, then made a final adjustment. It’s incredible what a difference it made, and my confidence increased immediately afterward because the feel and responsiveness had improved. The bike no longer feels super stiff and the suspension is actually moving like it should be. This same tuner has also been at some of the trackdays I’ve attended on my R6, which he also set up for me. The benefits are even more pronounced at the track, allowing me to go faster in the turns and improving feel.

Motorcycle suspension is something of an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole; you can spend countless hours learning about it, but understanding it will help your riding. For more detailed information, I really like the guide Sport Rider Magazine has put together.

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