Neevesy's bike-hacks: How to set up your motorbike like a road test pro

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So your bike is sitting patiently in your garage, waiting to blink back out into the sun again when this is all over, but what can you do to it to make it work better for you, without spending any money?

Adjusting and checking everything from levers, to suspension, tyres and electronics will help you feel more at one with your machine and give you more control.

You have to bear in that many factory test riders are hugely experienced ex-racers and are generally small and light so the bikes they develop and sign off will suit them and not necessarily the rest of us. Having said that I’ve met BMW, Kawasaki and Ducati test riders who are taller than me (I’m 6'), but you get the idea.

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After 17 years road testing, doing tens of thousands of road and track miles a year on everything from scooters to Harleys, superbikes and tourers, these are the things I normally check and adjust when I jump on a test bike. You can watch a video detailing these changes at the bottom of the page, too.

Levers

Motorbike lever adjustment

  • Tools: Usually 10/12mm spanners and 4-6mm Allen keys
  • Cost: Nothing

Each manufacturer has their own way of setting their front brake, clutch, gear and rear brake levers and they’re usually all too high.

For both hand levers loosen off their brackets and adjust them (usually down) so they’re an extension of your arm when you’re sat on the bike. It makes a huge difference to brake and clutch control.

Slacken the lever bolt to adjust

The gear lever can by adjusted up and down via its threaded tie-rod and back brake lever height can be altered using the adjuster going into its master cylinder.

Suspension

Adjusting the rear shock

  • Tools: Usually 14/12mm spanners for front preload nut, C-spanner for rear preload collar (or adjuster knob, if you’re lucky) and screwdriver for damping screws
  • Cost: Rien

This is a huge subject and one we won’t go into in depth here. It’s very easy to get in a spin trying to get your head around sag, spring rates and damping control, so here are a few very simple hints.

Firstly, if you’ve just bought a used bike, return the suspension back to standard as you don’t know what settings are in it. The number of bikes I see (even trackday and race bikes) that have uneven fork preload and damping settings or are max’d out because someone had adjusted it the wrong way somewhere along the line.

You should find your bike’s settings in the handbook or maybe online, so start by writing everything down and checking, even on a brand-new bike – you’ll always know where you are in the future.

Adjusting rear suspension pre-load

Preload is always expressed in turns or millimetres, so you need to wind the adjusters all the way out and count turns/mm in. Damping is either turns or clicks and you have to start with the adjusters all the way in and count the turns/clicks out.

Make a note of what the settings should be and what they actually are. Also see what the range of clicks/turns there is, so you know whether you’re at the soft or hard end of adjustment to start with.

Some manufacturers, like KTM suggest settings for different types of riding, so you can dial those in, but the good news is that most new bikes work pretty well out of the box and you’ll only need to fiddle if you’re exceptionally heavy/light, carry luggage/pillions or go on the track. Aftermarket suspension will always yield massive improvements, but that’s a whole other box of springs…

Adjusting front suspension damping

It’s not always a case of stiffening the suspension, sometimes you need to soften it, especially to get feel at the front. Many Japanese nakeds, like the MT-09 family/Katana/CB1000R are too stiff at the front and soft at the rear, which is possibly the result of their light 'n' fast test riders. They don’t need rear shock support for their weight, but they brake hard and need the forks to hold them up.

For the rest of us that means those bikes bounce around at the back when you push hard and feel vague and ‘understeery’ at the front, especially in slippery conditions where you can’t push hard enough on the front to get confidence.

I won’t go into where you should go from there to actually start making meaningful adjustments or talk about sag (which is a two man job without the right stands anyway). You’ll need to ride your bike for that and right now that’s not an option. That can wait for another day.

Tyres

Get your tyre pressures right

  • Tools: Tyre pressure gauge
  • Cost: Niente

Tyre manufactures know what they’re doing. I’ve spent lots of time on tyre launches and with testers over the years and stock rubber, running standard pressures is all you need for the road. These guys are so good they could run around the outside of most fast group trackday riders on sports touring tyres with 36psi in the front and 42psi in the rear (pretty much the norm for most 17” fitments nowadays), so you don’t need to go fiddling with them.

So, keep to standard pressures. Many think that dropping them will improve grip, but all that does is squash the tyre profile and muck-up the steering balance that it’s taken the tyre testers two or more years to perfect. If you think you’re running out of grip on the road, you’re either the next Hickman or doing something very wrong in the middle of a corner.

But you do need to drop your pressures for the track, as you’ll put more load into them, the air heats up inside and balloons-out the tyre, reducing the contact patch. You’ll never generate that kind of heat on the road, which why fitting ex-race ‘scrubs’ isn’t a great idea, either. They’ll normally have a flat shoulder on one side where the racer has taken the best out of them and they’ll never work as well on the road as a proper street tyre.

Of course, fitting the latest generation tyres, whether they’re sports touring, sports, fast road or trackday, will improve feel, confidence, comfort and give you more of a safety margin. You’ll notice a big difference over new Original Equipment tyres, knackered old ones or mismatched rubber.

Electronics

Yamaha R1M electronics

  • Tools: Your pinkies
  • Cost: Nada

As a general rule of thumb, after testing all the different modes and functions on new bikes I’ll settle on medium settings for the road. I’ll go for a middle throttle map that doesn’t jolt when you accelerate (or numb the power too much) and if it’s got electronic suspension, a plush setting for comfort and tyre grip.

Middle traction control settings usually let you push-on without the electronics intruding, but still working away in the background, just in case. The same goes for a ABS – not too much, not too little – the days of backing-in are sadly gone thanks to modern ABS.

Turning off anti-wheelie for the road is more fun but keeping it on for the track makes fast laps on a superbike easier.

When a nice stretch opens up, or on the track I set everything harder and for the wet softer. It’s amazing how much flexibility and adjustment there is at a flick of a button on many new bikes nowadays.

That should give you something to do in the garage for a while…

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Michael Neeves

By Michael Neeves

MCN Chief Road Tester, club racer, airmiles millionaire.