The recent Shiny Side Up Bike Fest on Kapiti coast, reported on here, was the catalyst for a number of other excellent events. There were talks by Brittany Morrow at motorcycle dealerships around the country, plus a one-off suspension set-up day conducted by Dave Moss just outside Wellington. 

The latter was rare because it was a road-based day (Dave usually does his set-up and evaluation courses at circuits, and seminars in a workshop). In format, it was much like the day Dave did with us as a Ride Forever exclusive. Only this time there were ten riders and their bikes, not one. 

The base for this was the Short Straw Café in Whitemans Valley, in the country outside Lower Hutt. The roads around proved to be an ideal testing ground, with a variety of corners and terrain plus smooth and bumpy sections, to show exactly how a bike’s suspension was working. 

Catch the worm

Dave and I got there early, giving him time to assess early arrivals before the car park filled with bikes and riders. It worked well, enabling Dave to get well under way with a few machines before the official start time. 

First to arrive was Paul Kane, a member of IAM and owner of a recent Bandit 1250 with rebuilt forks and Nitron shock. Dave’s trained eye immediately spotted a problem: the handlebars weren’t centred. Getting Paul to sit on the bike, it was clear his shoulders were out of alignment: the likely cause of shoulder pain Paul reported on long rides. 

After getting Paul’s ergonomics sorted, attention switched to the suspension set-up. Too much free sag was easily sorted with the Nitron’s remote preload adjuster, and a check of the tyre pressures showed 42psi rear and 36 front. While relatively high, Paul commutes frequently over a relatively long distance, and this would help rear tyre wear. 

Next to arrive was Ride Forever instructor and some-time stunt rider Chris Smith on the Suzuki V-Strom he rides for work. Too soft at the rear was Dave’s immediate verdict, and it was already affecting the tyre. 

Karl was next on his KTM 990 Super Duke, with another case of off-centre handlebars.  

As the rest of the riders arrived, each machine revealed an existing set up that was either way too hard or way too soft at one end or the other. And sometimes both. It was certainly a mixed bag of machinery, from a brand new LAMS-spec ER-6 to a low-slung Harley cruiser. No less than three of the ten were Ducatis, however, the significance of which remains unclear… 

Dave gets to work

Establishing where a ‘bike is at is the first job, measuring sag at both ends, noting the existing settings, and doing Dave’s ‘bounce test’. In certain instances this proved amusing. In others, frightening.  

In the case of an ST4s belonging to Andrew, there was no movement at the rear at all. There was zero free sag, and when Dave pushed heavily on the rear the swing arm remained resolutely parallel to the frame. The only suspension was being provided by the tyre. 

Things were little better at the front: too much preload with little to no rebound damping. The end result was a bike Andrew said was ‘slappy’ to ride and potentially dangerous. Funnily enough, Andrew knew the underlying cause of all this: weight loss. At his previous weight, the rear was undersprung. He sourced a higher rate spring but it was shorter, so he used it as a temporary measure with the preload clamps screwed right up to meet the spring. Then the correct length and rate spring arrived, was fitted by a garage, and they left the ‘preload’ setting where it was… This would have been bad enough but in the meantime Andrew lost 20kg. So he was riding a brick. 

Dave reset the preload both ends, then set what looked like an acceptable rate of rebound and compression damping. Similar attention was given to the other bikes, giving every rider a new base set up to evaluate. Ride ‘em

Blue Mountain Road and the other parts of the route we chose turned out to be perfect for evaluation. Dave lead everyone on the first ride, with a brief to ride steadily and pay particular attention to how the suspension is behaving at all times.  

Back in the café car park, as the helmets came off, the expressions said it all. ‘Unbelievable’ was a word that got used a lot, along with ‘transformed’. Most reported more feel on turn-in, better stability over bumps, more comfort and an improved ability to track a line through a corner with no effort. 

So far, so good. Dave listened to individual riders’ debriefs, made a few more tweaks where necessary and then it was out on the same route again.  

Lunchtime surprise

After the second evaluation ride almost everyone was very happy with the improvements in their bikes. Dave sent us away to have lunch while he set about making further changes to everyone’s machines. This was to be done in secret, with no clue as to what he was doing. After lunch it was time for another evaluation ride, again at a steady pace to give a margin for concentration. On return, Dave held a vote: those who preferred their after-lunch set-up and those who didn’t. A slight majority approved the secret lunchtime changes. I’m glad to say I was one who didn’t. Dave revealed that he had simply ‘opened the taps’, i.e. set all damping to minimum. Perhaps it’s years of magazine road testing, but I tend to know underdamped suspension when I feel it and suspected as much. Some obviously preferred their bike that way, but there was also a ‘change effect’ to get over: if making changes has improved the bike, our brains tend to think that more changes are better still. But not necessarily. Making your mind up

In our last couple of sessions the self-imposed shackles were off. And so, at one point, were the engines. On a long, downhill part of the route, Dave got us to kill our motors and observe how the bike reacts without engine braking. It revealed a lot about weight transfer and using both brakes to counter it.  

Sure enough, pretty much everyone gravitated to a balanced level of damping. Apart from Suzze on her lovely Ducati Monster 1200, who struggled to get a set-up she was happy with. The puzzle was solved when we caught up with her at Shiny Side Up the next day: she had a puncture. On the way back she had to call roadside rescue and attended the event on a loaner. As Dave says, 25% of your suspension is your tyres… 

Lessons

The more time one spends with Dave, the more one realises the depth of his knowledge. As well as his easy ability to impart it to people. We had a day attended mostly by very experienced riders, some with advanced training. But many had bike set-ups that were uncomfortable, less stable and enjoyable than they could be and, in at least one case, borderline dangerous. Curiously, the bikes that had the poorest set-ups for their riders had been done by mechanics or otherwise outsourced.  

Dave’s mantra is to de-mystify the process of setting up a bike, giving riders the knowledge, skills and confidence to make improvements for themselves. As he says, you can tell a hell of a lot with a tape measure. 

One important lesson, however, is that set-up has to be tailored to the individual rider. Trying to prescribe turns of preload and clicks of damping for a bike set-up is nonsense. Rider weight and build, riding position and even such things as how old the suspension is and when the damping oil was last changed will all make a huge difference. It’s something Dave outlines in his hugely informative OTT videos and at feelthetrack.com.  Have a look, grab your tape measure and a friend, then as a starting point go measure your static sag. Let us know what you come up with, front and rear.