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How-To Choose a Track Day Tuner

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Our project R1 posted up at the local bike night.
You finally have that new bike, but now you want to get it ready for the track... Hire a pro to help or learn to do it on your own. This How-To will give you tips to decide.
So here you are with a new bike. You have read and listened to a lot of information about choice add on’s, bolt-on performance pieces and general bling. You may by some good fortune have also come across threads in forums, general conversation with experienced riders or know a racer that tells you to get the bike set up as part of your money allocation with your bike improvement fund. Lots for you to choose from and debate over, so what will you do first? Does that depend on peer pressure? Does it depend on good research or the general type of use you will be putting the bike through? Have you even thought that far ahead?

Most riders that have been around bikes for a long time will tell you to get the suspension adjusted first, so that the bike handles well. There are plenty of resources to read up on and get some information for this task at hand, or recommendations for individuals to work with and a venue to go to in order to get it done. How the hell do you sort through all that suspension information? 

    1. Who attends race events locally (100 mile radius) to support racers? 
    2. Who do local riders that don’t race recommend you go to? 
    3. How long has that person been in business and can you access customer testimonials? 
    4. Does this person specialize in this brand, sportbikes, dirt, what? 
    5. Are there local group internet forums that have opinions you can view on the topic?

How To Test Tires and Suspension
Professionals can easily guide you to the right setup but cost can be a large factor.
Realize at this point you will find a couple of providers or a plethora, depending on the state you live in (there are six in the Bay Area here within a stone’s throw of each other). You will also find a TON of opinion that you should sift through. Daunted? Don’t be – it is worth all the effort and thousands of riders will agree on that. Another resource are internet forums and seeing what real people have done and what they have experienced, preferably forums on your brand/model.

You may also contact suspension professionals, like myself, for some baseline settings based on the year, make, model and your weight/riding ability/use of the bike. This will give you a very basic set up (I do this globally particularly with the Triumph 675 and BMW’s). We all have suggestions on how to set the bike up and can make recommendations based on your weight, but we don’t see you ride, nor do we see the condition of the bike, when the forks and shock were serviced, if the springs are OEM or aftermarket and how you take care of it, and how you are developing as a rider. All critical stuff!

Now you have narrowed the information to: 

    1. A local suspension professional that comes recommended. 
    2. A local rider that has been doing this for years and helped hundreds of riders. 
    3. A really good forum thread that gives you a lot of information that you can implement. 
    4. National publications that provide generic settings.

A stand that elevates the motorcycle from the headstock is required in order to remove the fork. We used a stand by Pit Bull.
Making the adjustments on your own and learning to tune your own suspension can be rewarding but do you trust the forums and do you have the skills to handle it?
Now we are down to individual and very personal choices – are you willing to turn the suspension preload and clickers yourself and learn to build a vocabulary based on experience, or do you want to pay to get the bike set up knowing that it has been done by someone recommended to you and then go ride? My thoughts on that revolve around this. If you pull your bike apart routinely to change oil, tires, replace brake pads etc, try it yourself from the research you have collated. There’s a ridiculous amount of information out there for those willing to roll the old sleeves up, but stick to one reputable source (we will come back to this in a while), and then implement settings and log what you experienced along with the settings used, but don’t change the tires! If you take the bike to the dealership for all services, make an appointment with a reputable suspension professional and see how you get along with them, and if you feel comfortable get it done and paid for.

Once you have decided which path to take, stick with it. Don’t second guess yourself and worse, deviate between the pathways as you will create your own black hole and get swallowed up into the singularity and a non parallel universe where the bike always handles terribly, it rains all the time and you constantly get flat tires and electrical gremlins. Sticking to one source is very important for many obvious reasons. You get the same information over and over, you get an underlying philosophy embedded into you, but more importantly you get to build a relationship with someone who sees you develop as a rider. Sometimes that really works out well, sometimes there are philosophical clashes and sometimes irreconcilable differences and you get divorced. Just as you pick a brand/size/compound set of tires and stick with them, you need to do this with your suspension support person. But as with all things, if it is not working and you don’t feel that you are being listened to, you move on.

How To Test Tires and Suspension
With trial and error comes progress. Sticking with your suspension support person can help make the adjustments you need to put down the times you are looking for.
That sets a good foundation for you to philosophically make decisions from. Next, is a course of action and a commitment to make notes however detailed, to remind you of what was done when and what you thought about it. It doesn’t need to be a multi-volume epic and the best notes are those that are concise as they provide true data to reflect upon at a later date/time.

As part of this process you may be given certain recommendations/observations that you should think about. This may be about immediate shortcomings in your bike’s current set up, it may be recommended spring and valving choices to allow you to be safer as your ability escalates, or it may be advice on how to map out your money over the next three years based on what your personal goals are with this bike. Listen. Carefully.

I will immediately educate riders of obvious dangerous situations with their bike:loose head bearings, incorrect springs, rear wheel alignment, oil servicing schedules for forks and shocks. This gives the bike owner a complete picture of what he has underneath him when he rides, right there, right then. No B.S. as it is a suspension tuner’s responsibility to be 110% honest to make sure the rider knows what they have.

Throttle response at all rpms had increased significantly and the popping and backfiring that we had encountered with the stock map was completely eliminated.
Make time for the track. If you want to improve your skills you have to get in the seat time.
Riders of all abilities need seat time (lots of it), great tires and lots of gas. Once the bike is correctly sprung, set up with SAG and hydraulics, and the chassis geometry correct to the brand of tires, I would not recommend anyone spend money on aftermarket suspension upgrades until their ability reaches the point that they will be over-riding their current set up. This also allows riders to experience a continuum of stock suspension, upgraded stock suspension, aftermarket replacements and as a natural consequence with this pathway, their increasing sophistication of vocabulary and ability to discern what the bike is doing grows tandem with the quality of parts they use.

So, are you ready to commit to a course of action, commit to an ongoing education and a strategy of how to improve your skills and suspension to match improvement gains? You won’t regret it, I guarantee it!
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