Suspension setup – the art of compromise

Suspension setup – the art of compromise


Nearly every budding, and sometimes in full bloom, biker I meet these days seems to want a motorcycle with a stiff suspension. If the bike has a nice cushy ride…well, then it’s terrible because it won’t handle, it’s scary around turns and ya da ya da ya da. As a matter of fact, one of these days I’ll goad a custom bike builder to marry the geometry of a sportsbike with the suspension of an old Harley hard tail and let that monstrosity loose on this pack of don’t-want-it-if-it-ain’t-stiff lot. Why? Because it irks me that many are simply all to happy to spout their views without really even comprehending that too much of anything is good for nothing. Now that we’re past that rant, let’s get on with the business of understanding the link between suspension set up, the motorcycle’s dynamic abilities and its ride quality.

The first thing to understand is that the suspension’s primary role is to compress or extend, depending on the surface, in a bid to do two things. One, to absorb some of the shocks resulting from variations in road surface and preventing them from coming to the spine. Two, to always keep the tyres in contact with the ground. If you run your motorcycle with the wrong setup then both of these are severely impacted.

If the suspension is too soft then your motorcycle will wallow all over the placed. Worse, it will never have time to settle between two inputs and will also be prone to bottoming out too soon. Too stiff on the other hand means that over anything less than marble smooth tarmac, the bike will hop around and behave skittishly since the tyres will be constantly losing contact. The continuous loss of contact between the tyres and the tarmac also means reduced dynamic abilities since you don’t really have any handling to speak of when you’re not in touch with the ground. Not unless you’re an aeroplane, or a bird. And no, Superman only flies in a straight line and Iron Man is supremely unstable even in full flight. Not to mention, the ride quality will completely go for a toss. As will your spine. So what’s my point? Simple. Suspension setup depends entirely on the nature of the surface you’re going to be riding on.

The same stiff setup that will work wonders when you’re carving up a canyon on superb black top somewhere in Europe will have you go slower and slower on the roughly paved surface of the Gata Loops in Ladakh. Instead a softer setup will see you go faster, and without spoiling your spine or rattling your ribs. Take the old Honda CBR 650F for instance. The same slightly pliant setup that European evaluators didn’t find endearing is exactly what makes it sweet on our rough shod roads. Because it isn’t stiff, the tyres stay in touch with the ground. A skittish bike on the other hand would simply provide a lot of sensations while actually going slower.

For manufacturers whose business it is to mass produce motorcycles, this throws up a curious challenge. How does one provide a machine that is as adept at handling as it is at absorbing the shocks and bumps of a road? Many manufacturers put their faith in the old saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, and provide either this or that. So the bikes that offer a plush ride quality aren’t the ones that will delight you on a ride through the twisties. The ones that will make you smile and ensure you have a rum time, will not be so kind on the bum over bad roads. A vast majority of them strike the middle ground by offering adjustment for preload. The bigger bikes skirt around the issue by offering myriad adjustability, the number of adjustments being in direct proportion to your desire to part with wealth. The best bikes however are those that will strike a compromise. They are the ones that walk the plank with a straight back, tilting neither towards softness nor towards overtly stiff. These are the bikes that will let you enjoy the Thrill of Riding without the requirement for an iron butt. Those are the ones that I like.

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