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Rocket Ron shows you how it’s done

Published: 05 May 2000

HANDS up if you don’t know how half the functions on your video recorder work and therefore never use them. If it records at the appropriate time and on the right channel, you’re more than happy.

Many of us are much the same with our motorcycles. We’re in such a rush to get on them and out on the road or track that we rarely pause to find out how little details like suspension adjustments work – and what they can do for our riding.

But, with a little patience – and the help of an expert such as Rocket Ron Haslam – you could soon be confident about twiddling and tweaking your bike’s suspension and on your way to getting more from your riding.

Since the early ’70s, Haslam has ridden everything from Yamaha TZ 750s to works Hondas, Suzuki GP bikes and even a hub-centre-steered development bike raced by the French Elf team. It all helped to make him one of the best-known development riders of his era.

Suspension set-up comes naturally to him, so follow his guide and you’ll be left with all you need to know to give your bike a neutral, balanced set-up.

In part two, we’ll take things on a step further and tell you what effects you can expect when you make changes from this neutral set-up.

With many modern sports bikes, the array of suspension adjustments available can turn your bike from a sweet-handler into a lazy-turning pig if you go at them all ham-fisted.

Haslam’s guide will show you which knob does what and what happens when you turn the screws, so you’ll hopefully avoid the worst mistakes.

Most suspension is only adjustable within a certain range. Manufacturers don’t build in enough for you to actually make your bike unsafe, so don’t be too concerned about having a go. The worst you could do is make your bike handle worse. And if you’ve followed the tips you’ll have all the original settings to put it back to, anyway.

Haslam will show you step-by-step what to tweak and where on a current Honda Fireblade, but the principles apply to any bike. A handful of bikes don’t have them in the same place. If you’re not sure, check your bike’s manual and all will be revealed.

But before you start, check the basics.

Are the brakes and tyres in good condition? Tyre pressures should be set to the recommended pressures or to those you’re happy with. A good starting point on something like the Blade on a warm summer’s day ride is 36psi rear and 34psi front when the tyres are cold.

Now, if you’re ready, Mr Haslam is ready to show you round a FireBlade...

COMPRESSION, REBOUND and PRE-LOAD EXPLAINED

THROUGHOUT our guide to suspension set-up, we’ll be talking about three key factors: Compression damping, rebound damping and pre-load. If you’re more intimate with them than you would like to be with Catherine Zeta Jones, feel free to turn to the set-up guide straightaway.

If you’d like a recap, stick around...

COMPRESSION DAMPING

When wheels move up towards the bike, the suspension is being compressed. This can happen when you hit a bump, hit the brakes or hit the power. The fact that a bump makes your suspension compress is fairly obvious. Braking makes the forks dive and so compress. Power makes the rear squat – which compresses the rear shock.

Compression damping controls the speed at which all this happens. The damping is controlled by oil flowing through holes of varying sizes within the forks’ damper assembly or within the shock.

REBOUND DAMPING

Where compression is the movement of the wheel towards the bike, rebound is its return journey away from the bike.

The suspension rebounds when you come down the other side of the bump, when you come off the brakes, or when you roll off the power. Again, damping controls the rate at which this rebound occurs.

PRE-LOAD

Pre-load is simply the initial amount of load on the spring – or the pressure a spring exerts when the suspension is fully extended. Adjusting it does NOT make suspension any stiffer or softer. All it does is change the height at which the bike rides. It is usually adjusted through turning a threaded collar.

HOW TO ADJUST YOUR SUSPENSION

FORK COMPRESSION AND ADJUSTMENT

The Blade is fitted with the latest generation 43mm upside-down telescopic forks. They’re fully adjustable for pre-load, compression and rebound. Haslam starts with compression. You’ll find a small slotted screw on the bottom of the lower portion of the fork behind the front axle. There’s a small H and S (standing for hard and soft) cast into the fork bottom. Simply by turning the slotted adjuster with a screwdriver you can make the compression damping either harder or softer. At this point Haslam needs to find out exactly how much adjustment there is available. He counts the number of half turns until the adjuster is screwed in as far as it will go. Be gentle when you do this and write down the result. Now count the half-turns from fully-in to fully-out the screwdriver can make before reaching the other extreme. Do it again just to check your results. Now set the adjuster slap bang in the middle. Do exactly the same with the other fork. If your front tyre seems to be lower on grip than you would expect, try backing off the compression damping.

REAR SHOCK REBOUND ADJUSTMENT

The rear unit on the Blade is a gas-charged damper. Just in front of the rear linkage plate nestles the rebound adjuster. You’ll find it has another of those small slotted screws. As you did on the front suspension, count the number of half-turns it takes the adjuster to go from one extreme to the other. Write down the number and then reset the screw in its midway position. You can see the difference rebound makes by pushing down on the rear of the bike. Watch the speed at which it bounces back. Rebound adjustment controls that. Haslam says a symptom of too little rebound is a front-end shake while powering through a corner. If the rear end is not rebounding fast enough, it squats, making the front lighter with resulting headshakes.

REAR SHOCK PRE-LOAD ADJUSTMENT

In the toolkit supplied with your motorcycle, you should find a short, crescent-shaped wrench – also known as a C-spanner. There may also be a short extension handle to give you some more leverage. Use this to turn the adjusting collar on the main spring. Before you adjust the collar, wipe off any dirt and give the ring a squirt of

WD-40 or something similar – it’ll make life a lot easier. You’ll see that there are a number of steps of adjustment available. Turn the collar until it clicks into the middle step. This is the one area Haslam veers from the middleway in his initial set-up. He always adjusts the rear one step harder from the middle setting, raising the ride height. The effect of this is to slightly steepen the front end, giving you faster steering response.If your bike is turning a bit slowly that may be an indication that you need a bit more pre-load. And rear pre-load is particularly effective in changing the way a bike copes with additional weight on board. Refer to your owner’s manual and you should find advice on how many notches it should be turned up if you are carrying luggage and how many more you should increase it if you are carrying a pillion for any distance.

REAR SHOCK COMPRESSION

To find this adjuster look at the top of the shock. Again it is a small slotted screw with an H and S marking. Check the number of half-turns and set the compression to halfway between its hardest and softest settings. Haslam conducts a quick road test to check for too much compression. Ride over some catseyes at around 30mph. You should be able to do this without being jarred out of your seat. If your butt takes too much of a battering, you’ve got too much compression dialled in.

FORK REBOUND ADJUSTMENT

You will find the fork rebound adjusters on top of the fork legs. It is usually a small slotted head screw set in to the middle of a large stepless pre-load adjuster. It is also marked with a small

H and S. Haslam’s next step is to go through the same process as he did with fork compression to set the fork rebound in the middle of its range of adjustment on both legs. One symptom of too much rebound is the front end " pattering " under braking.

FORK PRELOAD ADJUSTMENT

To complete the neutral front set-up, you need to do the same with the pre-load. To adjust this you need a spanner. There will almost certainly be one of the right size in the toolkit supplied with your bike. Because it is stepless, it is useful to mark the adjuster with something like Tippex or a pencil so you can see how many turns it takes to go from one extreme all the way round to the other. When you are satisfied, turn it until it is at its middle setting and make a note of where that is.

IF you’ve followed Haslam’s step-by-step guide, you will now have a good starting set-up, but you’ll probably want to start retuning it to suit your own riding style.

And that’s what we’ll be helping you with in part two.

We’ll tell you the effects of increasing and decreasing each of the six variables we’ve got to grips with this week: Front rebound, compression and pre-load and rear rebound, compression and pre-load.

We’ll also help you avoid some of the pitfalls many people fall into when they start adjusting their suspension for the first time – giving you the benefit of tips from experts with a lifetime of experience.

In the meantime, get out and get a bit of riding done, because not only has Haslam given us the basics on suspension, he is now ready to share his best road-riding ideas with you.

This is a man who has taught his son Leon to ride to GP level before he’s old enough to hold a licence to ride a bike on the road!

He also runs his own race school at Donington Park but, as you’ll discover, Haslam is well aware that there is a big difference between the road and the track and that the lines you use have to be changed if you are going to ride fast, safe and smooth.

RON ON THE ROAD

LOOK at pictures of racers and (if their visors are clear enough) you’ll see they are looking a long, long way down the track. They do this while being acutely aware of the rider who is about to clash elbows with them right by their side.

It is this high level of observation which Ron Haslam takes with him when he rides on the road. And there is no doubt that really concentrating on everything around you and ahead of you will make you smoother, faster and safer.

Being aware of constant changes in your surroundings is one thing, reacting to them is another.

Simply spotting a diesel spill on a roundabout won’t save you, seeing it far enough ahead to give you time to slow and steer around it, will.

Good observation will also keep you from being sucked in to a corner that tightens up midway through. Look for skid marks on the road, perhaps the telltale sign of a previous accident or near miss.

If the vanishing point of the road seems to be coming closer to you, take the hint and slow down.

When Ron’s on the road, even he tends to approach a corner positioning himself so he can get as much of a view as possible round the bend. It may not be the racing line but it means you have a better chance to react should you spot a hazard. He’ll also get the earliest indication that the corner is clear for him to power through. He may run in almost on the kerb then sweep through the bend, looking ahead as far as possible.

It’s easier to leave a bike in a higher gear to run smoothly through a corner, and tempting with the amount of torque modern machines make. But if you need to react in an instant, if you are in a lower gear you have more instant access to power and drive. Brief delays can make all the difference.

Haslam also advocates that riders become familiar with exactly what their brakes can do. Many people only use 50 per cent of their capabilities, fearing they will lose control if they use the brakes any harder. Go out and test them on a quiet, flat, dry road. Keep braking from various speeds until you lock the front wheel so you get a feel for it. Obviously, check your mirrors before you go performing stoppies or you may give that Montego driver a nasty surprise.

If you find yourself losing concentration on any ride, try talking to yourself. It sounds mad, but if you commentate your ride to yourself it forces you to concentrate on what you are seeing.

Don’t forget, every ride is a chance to learn – take it.

Ron Haslam’s Race School offers track tuition at Donington Park and Knockhill on bikes ranging from CB500s to FireBlades. Details: 01332-883323. See What’s On for the latest dates.