Suspension Talk


Guest:  Hal Massey, an engineer and ADV rider.

Episode Summary:
Join us as we unravel the complexities of electronic suspension systems in modern adventure motorcycles with our guest, engineer and rider Hal, who brings his fresh experience with a Triumph Tiger 900 into the mix. We will explore how the evolution of suspension technology has led us from traditional manual setups to sophisticated computer-controlled systems that offer a variety of settings, even through intuitive pictorial interfaces. We examine how these advancements have impacted both novice and seasoned riders, and I share my own transition from manual to electronic suspension, including insights into aftermarket versus factory-installed options.

Full Transcript:

0:00:15 – Bret Tkacs
Welcome back to Around the Wheel podcast. My name is Bret Tkacs. Today is one of my passion subjects. We’re going to be talking about suspension, and not just suspension. We’re going to be talking about electronic suspension and how that interacts, whether it’s better or worse, and I’m going to let the details of that be left to Hal, who is our guest today talking about that.

With that said, if you’ve never listened to one of these podcasts, this podcast is about riders who have questions. That’s it. I don’t try to bring on a bunch of experts. I’m not trying to bring anybody on that is really over the top. I just want regular riders, and occasionally I get emails that I just find fascinating and I’m very interested in responding. But rather than responding to that email and only having that person get the answer or go through the discussion to find a solution or an understanding, instead we record it right here on Around the Wheel.

With that said, this is a non-funded podcast. The only thing that Christina and I do is we use funding from Patreon, those that support us on Patreon, to host this podcast. We do no advertising. We do nothing else on it, so that you can just take in the content that we’re offering here today and, with that said, I want to introduce Hal. Hal sent me an email asking about some suspension questions, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about. So, Hal, why don’t you pose that question to our listeners and let’s have a talk!

0:01:44 – Hal Massey
Yeah, so thanks, Bret. I have been watching as much adventure videos that I could possibly get my hands on and I gravitated towards Bret’s material because he tends to have a scientific bent to the things he does. He’s likely to pull out charts and graphs and justify things. That appeals to me. I have an engineering background. My particular questions started when I bought a new Triumph Tiger 900. And it has – I’m not even sure exactly what to call it, but it has – to me, my mind – it’s got computer controlled rear suspension and that was my first run in with anything like that. I am suddenly presented with pictures. I’m setting up my suspension by selecting pictures on a screen. I started riding when I was 12 years old.

I was blessed to grow up in the Southern California dirt bike scene in the decade of the seventies, which was awesome, and of course you know we were introduced to things like preload and compression and spring rates and you know it really threw me and to this day, right up to this current minute, I am still trying to figure out how the settings on my screens, you know, relate to something that’s quantifiable and measurable on the suspension on my bike. That’s how I got here and I figured you were a great resource, because I’m never going to own five different adventure bikes. I’m retired now. Yeah, I could use some help figuring this out.

0:03:20 – Bret Tkacs
I think this is becoming more and more a topic for riders. Electronic suspension used to be just for high-end brands, expensive brands. I think BMW may have been the first for adventure bikes with their ESA they called it, and it’s gone through variations where the electronic suspension would only change preload on the rear – or it would change preload and maybe some rebound, but nothing on the front. Now there’s electronic suspension that goes front and back and we have some like you have on the Tiger, and the BMW is very much – at least it used to be this way, where they had a picture of one rider or two riders or two riders with the luggage and they would just go through these pictures and you would just pick the one that looks like what you’re doing and you’re correct. I mean, we grew up talking about spring rates and sag and preload and rebound and that’s all that suspension is supposed to do. But not all electronic suspension is equal either and I think that’s very confusing for a lot of riders and I’ve actually been experimenting with this because I’m a late taker. I have bikes with electronic suspension. I’ve always preferred manual because I wanted full control over the bike. On my BMW, the 1200 that I ride, I ended up going with electronic when I blew out the factory suspension and I went to an aftermarket I was convinced to try the new stuff because it was really really good and the spring rates would be correct and everything else, and I’ll let you know what my thoughts are about that as we get into this podcast.

But I think to start off with, Hal, is to recognize that not all electronic suspension is equal. It depends on the price you pay for the bike and the complexity. Obviously you buy a Ducati Multistrada V4S, which is insanely complex and high-end and potentially, as far as I know, the most customizable electronic suspension I’ve ever certainly seen, and I’m not sure if anybody actually has a better system as far as individual customization. And then you have the other end where you can get a bike that only changes preload on the rear and they still call it ESA. BMW did that with the 800 series, the later ones. Their ESA was strictly one thing on one shock, and it was, to be honest, what I consider pretty pathetic because it didn’t allow anything to ever be correct.

0:05:46 – Hal Massey
Right, yeah, and I wonder about, you know, what are the algorithms? Well, let’s, let’s back up. So I think there’s a huge promise here. I can envision a day when real-time suspension control on an adventure bike is so refined that it’s actually awesome and it’s helpful for a number of class of riders, ranging from beginners, which I would love to get more people into the sport. It’d be great, all the way to those that are experts. I mean just to joke about it a little bit. When my salesman, who’s a great guy, said, hey, this bike has electronic rear suspension, I literally envisioned screens that were not necessarily pretty pictures, but go ahead and set millimeters of preload in – some idea of what the shock might do on a dyno. But instead I’m trying to, I’m trying to reverse engineer what my bike is doing, and there’s times when I honestly feel like there’s two of us riding this thing.

0:06:48 – Bret Tkacs
Well, I think, Hal, the only way we’re going to, we’re going to actually get the answer that you’re looking for and I, you already know the answer and I, I know this, but we’re going to get there together anyways, is to back this up and let’s bring every listener up to speed on what we’re talking about, because suspension is often what people think of as a black art. There’s certain things that are facts. Right, we know spring loads and we can do different things, but also there’s how you ride, there’s where you ride. Spring, the needs of your suspension change just based on speed.

I rode a WR450 for years as my dirt bike and it was set up perfectly for my riding conditions, which were technical trails, large routes, lots of hills, up and down rocks, nothing high speed, no big jumps. And I took that same bike and I went out and I did a desert race with it. Now, when I say I raced, that just means somebody was tracking my time front to end. It was – don’t get too impressed if you’re listening. But what I found is that that suspension was absolutely horrible for that setup, because now I’m going very high speeds, I’m making jumps, I’m hitting things at much higher rates of speed with greater impact and load rates and all of a sudden the bike was squirrely and uncontrolled and harsh. But if you take a bike that was set up for that desert and you take them where I rode, they could hardly ride it because the bike would just beat them up. It wasn’t made to absorb these large travel that it needed

when you’re going over bumps and over rocks at these lower speeds, I need a bike to feel like a couch, that feels stable. That’s the idea. It should isolate me from the abuse of what’s happening below me, but in a controlled manner. And if it’s loose and it’s not controlled, that’s wrong. If it’s transferring energy and beating me up, that’s wrong. And that’s kind of the best way to think about suspension.

But let’s kind of break down some of those terms that you and I are throwing around. You know, preload – and you even in your email you’re talking about you have zip ties and rulers and we have compression and we have rebound and you have high speed and low speed compression and you have all these different things. Let’s kind of define these first, at what each one does, and then we can go back and go now, how does the electronic suspension handle these and is this a good thing or a bad thing? So let’s start off with what you know about suspension and I’ll kind of toss it on the side and we’ll just work our way through it. So let’s start with the springs, because that’s kind of the fundamental factor of suspension. So what do you know about springs?

0:09:23 – Hal Massey
Well, most of the bikes I’ve been on were linear springs as opposed to progressive springs, which made them a little bit easier to deal with in terms of the math.

0:09:33 – Bret Tkacs
So let’s pretend people don’t know anything about springs at all. What is the difference between a linear spring and a progressive spring?

0:09:41 – Hal Massey
Okay, sure, the easiest way to describe a linear spring is for every inch that you’re compressing it, it’s going to respond and deliver you the same amount of force. So if it’s a 200 pounds per inch spring, then you know, at two inches of compression you’ve got 400 pounds of force on the spring. I’m a fan of linear springs because I don’t like the feel of a car or a motorcycle changing as travel changes. A progressive spring, on the other hand, is wound in such a way that typically, as you get the spring more compressed, as you shorten the spring, you’re going to get an increase in the force response from the spring. And if you’re riding a motorcycle or in a car, you’ll feel like the spring is increasing in rate and getting stiffer.

0:10:34 – Bret Tkacs
And the third one that I’m going to throw in here is the multi-rate spring, and this can be a spring that’s wrapped with two different rates, or it can be two different springs that are stacked that are of two different rates, and the rate of compression is what he’s talking about how much it will compress under a certain weight or load.

Manufacturers are generally going to come with one of the latter Linear springs are pretty uncommon on a factory motorcycle. They’re going to come with progressive springs most frequently or they’ll have a multi-rate spring. The reason for this is because the manufacturers have to address a wide range of riders. When somebody buys, he rides a Tiger. So when Triumph sells that Tiger, they’re going to have people that are 150 pounds buying that bike and they’re going to have people that are 250 buying that bike and that’s a massive range to try to compensate for. And the OEMs are trying to come up with some way to make it rideable and relatively comfortable for both sides. And of course there’s always an ideal weight and that ideal weight usually is somewhere around 180 pounds and that can be plus or minus a little bit depending on the model and the manufacturer, but 180 pounds is kind of your magic number for most manufacturers, at least for modern motorcycles.

0:11:50 – Hal Massey
Let me reinforce what you just said a little bit. I’m amazed at one I can’t find my spring rate. It’s not in the owner’s manual in any form. And two, just the range that they do have to deal with in an adventure bike, because it takes me 28 miles to get to a scenic area to start riding in the dirt. So I’m 28 miles wishing I was on a sport bike.

0:12:13 – Bret Tkacs
Adventure bikes are likely one of the most challenging motorcycles for any manufacturer to build, because you’re touring, you’re sporting, you’re on gravel roads and then some people get really stupid and take them and think they’re dirt bikes. And manufacturers are trying to address all of these and of course, you can’t. You can’t be perfect for everything and I think the ideal adventure bike is one that is competent at most things and not perfect at anything. And that’s probably your best adventure bike, because that’s what we’re using them for. We want them to do everything. If you want the best at something, you’re going to have to get a bike that’s specialized.

And we can get into more about springs. Everybody I mean you, can, we can talk about. You know what makes a quality aftermarket high end spring versus an OEM spring and the metals they use, the weight and the way they change weight on those springs for sprung and unsprung weight. But I think we’re going to get in a little bit deeper than what we can do for this single spot cast. So we’re going to leave it with that.

So, in review, you know we have linear springs. They’re all the straight rate for whatever pound you have and it squishes the spring one inch If you put that same weight on it again, it’s going to squish it two inches right. So it’s, that’s linear. You have progressive spring, which changes its rate. As it slowly compresses, it changes into a different rate, and they change that by how they coil the spring. And then you have multi-rate springs, which is either a single spring with two rates or different rates, but straight rates, or springs that are stacked of two different rates. All right, so that’s that’s springs. Now the next part that people talk about with springs and you and I have to address is ride height, which also relates to preload. So what do we know about preload?

0:13:51 – Hal Massey
Preload is the initial amount of compression that you’re putting on your spring, the initial amount of squeeze that you put on your spring. That’s of course going to affect ride height, because if you start increasing the preload on your bike, you’re likely to be raising it, unless you have really unusual suspension.

0:14:12 – Bret Tkacs
The way I like to think about preload is preload you think about as a ride height. And if you look at motorcycles and this is why when you look at electronic suspension, the electronics will first go to the rear. The electronics will first go to the rear and then, as bikes become more expensive and complex, then they’ll add the front end, because the rear is the one that’s affected most dramatically when we add passengers or loads. And what spring rate does for us on preload is to level the motorcycle. And what happens is, let’s just assume you’re the perfect weight rider, you’re sitting on the motorcycle, both ends are perfectly balanced, and then you pack up your luggage, all of a sudden that rear spring right now the spring isn’t strong enough to support you properly and what we do is we add preload, and preload essentially is putting a spacer in to level the motorcycle so it brings it back. So the attitude of the motorcycle is correct, so the steering is correct. And the way I always can describe this is if you have a half ton truck driving to the dump with a ton of stuff in the back, let’s just say the truck could do that. Your front end is going to be pointed up in the air and the truck steers funny, and it doesn’t brake well, but if we put overloads on the rear, you can level the truck and now it starts to steer correctly. Now we have other problems, right, the brakes aren’t still correct and everything else, but at least the truck is sitting level. The other side of that is if you have a spring that’s really set up heavy, like to say, okay, why carry stuff? So I’m going to put a really heavy spring on the back. This can port a lot of weight. Then we go to the other scenario where you have a one ton pickup truck with nothing in the back and when you’re driving down the road it feels like you have no springs and just beats you up. But as soon as you put one ton in the back of the truck, then the truck rides beautifully because it’s made for that weight. And so preload is that spacer that levels the truck.

It doesn’t fix the spring and this is one of the, I think, the biggest issues with suspension that people don’t understand. And you talked about your salesperson and he was talking about how you could just add preload and it would fix everything. Well, it’s not going to fix it. It might level the motorcycle. But it’s not going to fix the actual load capacity. And this is why a spring that’s underrated, that’s too light, that has significant preload to level the motorcycle, actually make the ride feel stiffer or harsher. And this is why people say, well, if you had preload, you make the spring stiffer. Well, you don’t. It’s the same spring. All I did was squish it. I didn’t change it, it’s just squished. But if you were to remove that spring and put a spring in that had the correct load for what’s on the bike, you wouldn’t have as much preload because it wouldn’t need it. But the spring is in its ideal operating range for its load. So by putting a heavier spring in, the bike would actually ride smoother.

The best way to think of preload is it’s a leveling tool or ride height control.

If you drop preload out of front and rear, then the bike’s going to sit down lower and if you add preload it’s going to sit up higher. Yes, it will change the ride characteristic of. All you’re doing is adding, deleting preload, but really it’s kind of a ride height control. Now, your suspension travel doesn’t change. You’ll still have total travel, but where you start within that travel will change depending how high the bike sits or drops down. So if I have three inches of travel, just to make it easy, and I’m riding up at my two inches from the bottom, I have one inch where the bike can move up and two inches where it can compress. Well, if I drop the bike down and I sit an inch lower as a rider, that might feel good, but now I only have one inch where the springs can compress if I hit a bump. But I have two inches of it to extend. So I’m just changing where I’m sitting within that travel, that suspension travel, so that’s that’s kind of a layman’s thing for, for preload and what it’s used for.

0:17:56 – Hal Massey
Anything to add? Yeah, I mean, I guess I feel compelled to say I would love to know what spring rate’s in my bike, and if you are in a position where you don’t think the spring rate is correct, I would encourage you to change it out.

0:18:12 – Bret Tkacs
And one of the things that Hal can do is, you know, we can figure out what the spring rate is. Now, he can pull the springs out and he can actually find out what that spring rate is through a compression tool and measure. But the other one is to look whether the bike has free sag. I’m kind of made a note of that. So we’ll come back and talk about free sag just a little bit once we get our definitions out of the way, because I think that’s going to come back into the suspension, the electronics, what the bike can and can’t do with electronics.

So the other thing that we really address when we get into suspension is so the other thing that we really address when we get into suspension is when we start talking about the damping effects. And you know I’m not going to get into high speed, low speed damping, we’re just going to talk about damping in general. So we have two directions of damping. We have extension and you have compression. So one is called compression and one’s called rebound, rebound’s when the suspension extends. Why don’t you jump into that, hal?

0:19:08 – Hal Massey
no-transcript. So compression is it’s really important on an adventure bike, especially when I get to the end of that 28 miles on the street and I want to hit the dirt. I live in the Rocky Mountain region, so even what people think of as perhaps elsewhere, as a tame county road you know the size of a freeway can turn into an exciting mountain adventure here because of the Rocky Mountains. So when you get in on a surface like that, you’re trying to keep the tire in contact with the road, and so the bike ought to feel like it’s stable and you’re not wrestling with it. So compression, when your fork or your rear suspension is being squeezed in, is your bike trying to keep you in contact with the ground and absorb, turn most of that energy actually into heat and keep you riding on something that’s stable. You don’t feel like you’re on a bucking horse.

0:20:01 – Bret Tkacs
You know that’s a really good thing that Hal brings up, that energy actually stays constant. You know we don’t create or delete energy, but it can change from one form to another and motion. What suspension does is take motion and it converts it to heat temperature. And that takes us to what’s inside the shock, which is oil and valving, and as that oil heats up through this conversion to heat, we don’t think about this as much on the road because our bikes are relatively smooth riding on the road. They kind of move around, but when we get off road and we’re hitting rocks, that suspension is moving really fast and that fast movement means there’s more temperature being built up, there’s more heat building up, which also means that your suspension will need more frequent service and it’ll need to be replaced much sooner than you would if you just rode your bike on the street.

If I buy a GS and I’m touring on that bike or a Multistrada or an Africa Twin, not to leave anybody out I mean it doesn’t matter. But if you ride that bike and all you do is tour on it, that suspension will probably last as long as you on the motorcycle, or at least for the average rider. However, if you’re going to take that bike out and you want to do crazy off-road riding stuff and you’re jumping and you’re riding trails, it’s much more likely that that suspension is going to blow a seal, that that heat will break down the oil and it won’t have the same viscosity levels and it won’t flow the same. And that will become an issue in time where your suspension doesn’t work as well. And that will become an issue in time where your suspension doesn’t work as well.

And this is why a lot of times people end up switching suspension on their adventure bikes, because the manufacturers are making those bikes for touring, for on the road, for light off-road use, and if you’re going to use the bike for something it wasn’t really designed for and priced for, then you’re going to have to make changes. I usually blow out my OEM suspension and then replace it, but they’ll change it out right out of the gate or their weight will be off and they just don’t have a choice. You know, like Paul’s, one of my instructors uh, paul’s outside of the the ideal weight range for suspension. He’s, he’s a bigger guy and it doesn’t matter what he buys. None of those bikes are going to feel great until he changes the springs at a minimum or changes the suspension, where I’m lucky enough to get away with the OEM stuff being close to ideal. So it’s only when the function degrades that I’m really prompted to spend the the amount of money it takes to make that bike to upgrade that suspension.

0:22:31 – Hal Massey
I’m with you on that. I mean I won’t replace a mirror until after I’ve broken it and I’ll get a nice you know two pivot point mirror. Yet the other thing I think that’s hard for the consumer, the retail consumer, to imagine is there is a product life cycle here. Like the marketing people talk to customers and came up with something you know I’d have to say when I look at the some of the data in my owner’s manual for the Tiger, when they talk about taking it off-road, I think they’re thinking about thousand-year-old British lanes that are actually in pretty good shape.

0:23:03 – Bret Tkacs
They’re aware of what people are going to do with these. I can testify this firsthand. I was lucky enough. I just got back from Spain doing the launch for the 2024 Tiger 900, the Rally Pro, and they did. I mean that bike is. It doesn’t look much different on spec sheet or in person as from the old generation, but it was a significant step up. And they announced to us right out of the gate that we’re going to. We’re going to ride light off road. This bike was designed for a light off road. We’re going to be behave ourselves, or I can do bike was designed for light off-road. We’re going to behave ourselves. We’re not going to do anything dumb.

And then we proceeded to spend two days doing stupid things and abusing the heck out of these motorcycles. And then they brought in a professional rider who’s racing the Tiger and watching him. It’s always humbling to see a true, talented professional. You know, ride a motorcycle, I ride well, but I know where I stand compared to the rest of the world. I’m not a competitor, I’m not a racer. That’s not my, that’s not my calling, it’s not my thing. I’m a teacher. It’s incredible what these bikes will do and they know that. But also they’re like yeah, but if you’re going to ride it like that, you’re going to break things. We’re not going to warrant to you and that’s reasonable. Yeah, that’s reasonable. Right, there’s a lot. This is why they don’t. You know, this is why race bikes is used to take a race bike to the road racing course or track day. They’re like, hey, wait a minute, even though the bike was designed for that. Once you put in that high stress environment, you know these things are going to wear out.

And also, I think, suspension failures. I know we’re talking electronic suspension, but I think it’s worth mentioning that there’s failures where the fork seals blow out, where rear suspension will fail, and riders get very upset about this. And I’m like you know, when we have dirt bikes, we wash those bikes every single time we come in. We clean out the seals, we check the bikes, we detail them, we wash them, we look for loose bolts, and yet we take these 600-pound motorcycles off-road, we put them in the garage, we may or may not wash them, and we expect them to function perfectly fine without any failure. So, to be honest, I’m amazed at how seldom these failures actually occur on these bikes, and certainly there are some manufacturers of bikes that have issues, that it’s like these guys are riding their bikes down the road and they have fork failures. Well, that’s an issue. But if you’re out doing things, the bike really wasn’t intended. Where there’s there’s a better bike for that, then you can expect those failures All right.

So just to again to make sure we don’t get too far off topic, because I’m the one taking us there. I love chasing rabbits, damping. So damping is really two different things. We have compression, rebound. Guys, we’re using oil and we’re using valving inside the fork, and when that fork extends, what it does is that oil has to be forced through a restricted hole or restricted path of travel. That slows down how fast that oil can move. That converts it to heat and that’s how we control it.

So the bike just doesn’t bounce up and down on a spring like a pogo stick or if you’ve ever seen a car with blown shocks it’s just bouncing down the road. And compression is for one direction, that’s when the forks compress, and the other one’s when the forks extend. That’s called rebound. Of course, on the compression, it’s not just the valving that’s controlling that, it’s also the spring, because when you come down you’re compressing the spring. At the same time you’re compressing suspensions, you actually have two different things that are controlling that compression, and that’s kind of the the big breakdown when we think about suspension.

Right, so you have the, the springs, you have the compression and rebound, and then of course, you have spring rate and sag, which is related to that spring and the types of springs, and that’s all suspension is, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s electronic or manual. All these things are in place. So let’s talk about this electronic stuff. What is it that electronic suspension can do and what can’t it do? And I think you already know the answers to this, even though you asked the question. So where do you think those limitations on on electronic suspension are? How?

0:27:03 – Hal Massey
yeah, I think that, uh, you’re back to an early remark. I think I can envision a future where and it may be here today, because, again, I’m not right I don’t have the opportunity to ride every you know high-end adventure bike that gets sold. If you’re looking at what’s happening in real time every 10 milliseconds or something tiny fractions of a second, I think the promise that it holds is you could probably do wonderful things for riders when you switch it to off-road. I don’t have the rear end slapping back up when I go over something, so it’s capable of dialing rebound back and everything. Whether it’s doing it today or not is probably one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you.

0:27:44 – Bret Tkacs
Yeah, we’re really talking about a dynamic suspension that makes changes as it senses changes, right. So it has to understand what’s happening and I think, as we get AI into motorcycles that can read terrain for like traction control right now traction control is 100% reactive right, it has to have a slip and then it does something about it or it guesses there’s a slip. Abs is similar to that, but once you start having cameras on the bikes and AI, they can actually read what the traction is ahead of the bike and then start making adjustments to suspension and traction control and braking control based on what it sees, just like we do as riders, then I think we’ll be in a whole new level of of technology. I don’t know when that’ll happen, but you know, I imagine at some point it will. But as we yeah, as we get into this stuff I mean I think the idea to think about is is we’ll go back to Springs, cause they’re kind of the most important and critical thing any rider needs to do.

Electronic suspension can only do what we can do manually. We look at the bike and we go we’re. We’re no longer level, and I used to tell people the way I would set up the bike, as I would set up sag in the garage with your the way I’m going to ride it most of the time and I would turn the headlight on and I would. You can mark the wall, just put a line in the middle of the wall where the headlight hits and then when you load your bike up and you sit on the bike, you’ll see that your headlight sitting up high. Well, without taking all the measurements and sag measurements and everything else, you can just adjust your preload until the bike is level and that headlight comes back down to that pre-marked location and I’m like, okay, based on the load I have on the bike, I’m now back to that right load. Well, now I know that if I really have to crank that preload, in that my spring is my bike is now undersprung, right that it’s going to change that handling. That’s all that electronic can do. It can add or delete that, which is the same thing we do. It just does it for us.

Now the problem that I have with electronic suspension for some is that a lot of the older stuff would just have a preset, like the old early 2000s BMWs. When you hit it it would just go. We’re going to put on X amount, the engineers would say we’re going to add this much preload if they have two riders. Well, the new stuff isn’t like that. There’s a lever on the side of the bike and that attaches to the swing arm and the bike knows whether it’s sitting level or not. So as soon as it detects that the bike’s not level, it automatically adds or decreases preload. So the bike is always sitting level. So if I throw a passenger on the back, the bike already knows that it’s no longer level and it already adjusts the preload to re-level the motorcycle. And they’re not the only manufacturer now that does that, but but they were certainly one of the pioneers on that.

0:30:31 – Hal Massey
That sounds like a great idea, and one I hadn’t thought of doing the headlight one. So kudos on that. I like that. I’ll remember that. I’ll take that away from this talk. And then the other thing, though I worry about is I don’t have a lot of pictures on my bike for to set things up. So I kind of wonder if, in the process of of giving us all this progress and perhaps helping more riders get into the sport, we might be missing something. Because now I’m wondering if I could ever get my headlight level or I’m just going to get close to level. Do you kind of get where I’m going there?

0:31:04 – Bret Tkacs
Well, are you talking about just the amount of travel?

0:31:07 – Hal Massey
when you’re talking about pitch on the motorcycle, no, I’m talking about the digital choices they’re giving me. So take me back to my 70s and my dirt bike. I think I needed a screwdriver, perhaps a hex key or something, and it was all analog and continuous, and I could darn sure make sure they didn’t have headlights, but they had one. I could darn sure make sure that it was level on the garage door. Now I’ve got like five pictures to pick from.

0:31:34 – Bret Tkacs
Right, well, and that depends on the sophistication of the bike. If you’re dealing with a bike that does not have a leveler on the bike where right now, of course, my bike’s still a 1200. So I’m now two generations old on that BMW but it uses a lever and it just knows that, hey, when this lever’s in a different position, we’re no longer level and it can make that adjustment. But as we move on, now we’ve got all these six-axis gyros that are much more common in these high-end bikes and now, instead of having a lever they can tie into, they can tie into those gyros that can say, hey, we’re level or we’re not, and take that information and then run it back to the suspension to go, hey, we need to level ourselves out. We’re now getting to where we have front adjustments that are beyond just some basic damping settings usually a rebound setting and we’re using those gyros. So we are getting to the point where we have technology but you have to have a bike that has that level and you have to know when it is. I mean, it’s, it’s very new, it’s very cutting edge. I said you get on that.

I don’t know if you’ve looked at the Multistrada, the V4S. It’s an amazing machine. I mean absolutely incredibly impressive because I can sit down on that bike and when I open up the dash for settings, not only am I setting up my how much ABS I want where I want the ABS front to rear, how much traction control I have when I want it to interfere, I mean I’m setting all the how much power I want, how linear I want it, but that particular bike also lets you get into the suspension and allows me to change compression settings to my liking. It allows me to change the spring settings to my liking, so it allows me a lot more customization. That feels a lot more like what I do on manual, where I can get down and make individual adjustments. It’s still not quite as varied. I mean, I’m still to the point now where I want on my bike that I’m going to be doing crazy things on.

I want manual and my 1200 has the electronic. I have the uh, a really expensive tractive setup, their top of the line stuff and it’s great stuff. But given what I do with that bike specifically, if I had done it again I would have gone manual, because I understand suspension and I want those controls and a lot of times the damping it’ll dial. In the damping I’m like, okay, well, my compression feels great, but I don’t have enough rebound. But I can’t get in adjust rebound. The bike doesn’t allow me to, because it’s it’s tied very much to the what you have on your bike. Here’s the picture that looks like what I look like, and it may or may not be ideal, because it doesn’t ask me what terrain is, just says, oh, you’re on dirt. It doesn’t say rock or desert or high speed or low speed, it doesn’t know any of that.

0:34:18 – Hal Massey
So a couple of things I’m going to take away and you can tell me if I’m getting this right. One is it sounds like there are some bikes that are already very close to the ideals that the vision I was painting for all you know how a computer could help you with suspension on a bike, and that’s good to know, because I didn’t know that. And then so, no, I hadn’t looked at the Multistrada. But then the other thing is, I guess those of us that don’t quite have that probably have to figure out what we are receiving from the bike. So it sounds like you got a few tips for that. And then, yeah, you went to an extreme which I actually personally worry about a little bit, which is, yeah, I’m starting to think about I wonder what it would take to get, like you know, one of those Olens or something that has all the adjustments I’m used to and it’s totally analog, and I worry about that because it seems a little nostalgic to me.

0:35:10 – Bret Tkacs
I think it depends on the level that you plan to take the bike to. You know, I picked up a Desert X at the end of last season. There are things about you know, like any bike. There are things I really like about this bike and there’s a list of things I would change if I had the choice. But one of the things that attracted me to that bike is that it did go back to manual. I had the choice, but one of the things that attracted me that bike is that it did go back to manual. I had manual controls front and rear on that suspension. It feels pretty good to me.

That bike in overall at the time felt the closest thing to ideal off the showroom floor. The new Tiger I’m going to have to ride them back to back. That new 900 is a really impressive machine. But the one thing that the Tiger doesn’t have is that if it’s not ideal, it is reliant on more electronics, where the Ducati is giving me some more manual control, some more personal customizable adjustment when it comes to suspension.

But I think, listening to this podcast, any rider who’s listening to this needs to ask themselves yes, that’s great, that’s fine, but how does that help me as a rider, what do I get out of this? And if you know absolutely nothing about suspension and you aren’t a crazy rider most riders are. They’re interested in gravel roads, maybe a rocky road or a gravel road. They want to go camping. They’re not doing really crazy stuff, they’re not going to study suspension there, whether it’s just not of interest or it’s hard to understand. And I think that’s where manufacturers really benefit with electronic suspension. I think the masses in general, most riders benefit from this because for as long as I’ve been teaching suspension and I don’t actually teach classes on it anymore, but I did for a while and how to build them and how to set them up, people are scared to touch those knobs and dials because they don’t really understand, they’re afraid they’re going to make it wrong. And I and the hardest thing was teaching people to just take down the original settings, mark them down, because no matter how bad you mess it up, you can always set it back to original and then how to go through the process to test those, to figure out what feels right and to have the time to stop on the side of the trail and make the adjustments, to see if it makes a difference and to ride well enough to tell whether it was your suspension or you.

My first time of trying to learn how to do suspension was a Ducati Monster. I had set up beautifully and it had a 740 front end or 745 front end, I’m sorry, 748 front end on it, so a fully adjustable suspension. And on the back it was an Ohlins and I was just going to go suspension day. I’m going to go around the track and I’m just going to work on suspension. About halfway through the day I got so frustrated I gave up on it. It turns out by the end of the back half of the day the suspension was working better, but I never touched it. So the biggest problem wasn’t the suspension.

It was me, I wasn’t consistent enough, I wasn’t smooth enough. And then, until you can be that consistent, until you can be that smooth, I think electronic suspension is a big win for the average rider. And when I say electronic, obviously the more complex I think, the better off they are. If it steps in and it’s using that six-axis gyro, if it’s adjusting front and rear, if it has sensors to sense changes. And this is where they even get into rider modes and people don’t realize it. As these bikes get into these rider modes and people realize it some, as the as these spikes get into these rider modes, that aren’t just about dialing power back, but now they’re changing the algorithms and the abs. It’s telling the abs or the traction control.

You know this is the conditions we’re starting with, but it’s also something that can go into the suspension to go oh, we’re in sport mode and it automatically goes all. We’re going to be going higher speeds, tighter corners, so we need to change up our settings and it’s going to make its best guess to help you as a rider. I think most people benefit, people like you and I. We enjoy it. If we understand it, then I think there’s still an advantage to having complete and total control over every single one of those changes, and the Ducati, as far as I know, is the closest thing to that, but it’s still not as much as being full manual.

0:39:17 – Hal Massey
Well, I think this is good because we might be kindred spirits in the sense that we’ll experiment. Yeah, I think it’s really important to tell people it’s okay to pull up alongside the trail. There’s no magic, perfect magazine image of an adventure rider. If you want to stop and move the controls over on those screens, I think it’s totally okay. In fact, you know, I’d encourage you to go ahead and take a minute out on a flat spot and discover all these things.

0:39:44 – Bret Tkacs
Absolutely so I owe you one. One more thing before we we wrap this up and I know we’re know we’re just out of time here but I mentioned sag and you were saying well, how do I know what the OEM rate is for my spring? And there’s a good way for any of you that are listening.

A lot of people call it rider sag now, and most commonly people just say sag and what they’re talking about is when you set sag on the bike, it’s you as a rider, with your gear on and whatever gear you might be carrying, sitting on the motorcycle, and how much does that bike sag? Or how much does that suspension compress with that load on it? Just static right and also sometimes called static sag, but those are all the kind of the same term, but there’s one called free sag, and free sag is how much the bike collapses under its own weight without you on the bike, without everything else in the bike. The truth is is when that bike stands up, when you lift it off of the side, stand gently, it should settle just slightly like five millimeters, maybe 10 millimeters of free sag right, and it can even be less, but there should be some when you stand it up where the bike actually compresses. If your suspension is too light for you, you have to put more preload in to get the static sag correct or your rider sag and when you put that in you take that free sag out. So a lot of times what that means if you have no free sag but your bike is level, that you may actually have a spring that is too light for your bike, the more you have to put in preload to get the bike to level. Or if you can get to level but you have no free sag, then what that tells you is that the spring you have, regardless of what the rate is, it’s not correct, and I think that’s the best takeaway that anybody can have.

Also, again, 180 pounds is kind of your target weight and as you add luggage and skid plates and crash guards and all these things, those all go on. So we’re taking away from that 180 ideal weight right out of the gate. So very often, even if you’re at the ideal weight by the time your bike is outfitted, then that’s already your overweight. And certainly bikes like the 890, the KTM. They’re very well protected out of the factory. That’s one of the nice things about them. Their spec weight is their trail weight pretty much. Their skid plates are pretty pathetic but the rest of the bike is really solid, whereas if you grab a Tenere 700, unless you want to buy the body work that bike requires some additional protection to protect the bike from itself and that’s going to add weight to the bike.

And we have to look at all those things and be realistic and we balance between how much protection do I need? But I’m making a tank, I can’t ride, but if I keep it light I’m not going to crash so often, but I don’t have the protection. And I think all of us have to be very realistic in what we’re purchasing and what it needs to do. But that free sag is a nice little tip to just kind of go regardless of what the spring rate is. Are my springs, do I need? Should I change these? Should I, I say, upgrade it? But I think a better term is should I optimize that spring to my, my use and my body weight? And when you’re talking to whoever you buy that spring from, make sure you’re realistic about not only your weights. But are you a road rider, primarily? Are you a touring rider? Are you a sport rider? Are you an off-road guy Because the suspension you buy, you want to set that up for your most common use.

0:43:13 – Hal Massey
Right yeah, For years I thought it would be very difficult to describe my typical usage, but the more I got into it, the more I can write down what my typical usage looks like.

0:43:23 – Bret Tkacs
And I think some of us are lucky enough to have more than one machine, but so we can go. Well, that’s my touring bike, this is my other, but a lot of riders out there Probably the majority they’re stuck with one and trying to make a perfect machine for anything, isn’t it? You got to pick your poison what do you want your bike to be best at, and buy the bike that’s best at that and then set it up ideally, so it’s best at that, and then set it up ideally, so it’s best at that, and then enjoy it when you’re off doing other things, even though you know it’s not the best how? Thank you so very much for joining me on this podcast. This is exactly as I mentioned at the beginning, exactly what these podcasts are supposed to be about just chatting about the things that are on the bikes, that the problems that we run through, whether it’s a riding issue, whether it’s a bike setup, whether it’s equipment questions. This is often what I do is, if I get an email from somebody, I’m like man, this is a such an interesting question, I’ll invite them to do a podcast with me.

You turned out to be one of my favorite guests. You’re very articulate, you have a good understanding of the subject. Ironically, you knew the answer before we even started. Thanks everybody for listening to Around the Wheel podcast and I’ll invite you back for when I do the next one. I do not put these out regular. It’s not because I don’t want to, it’s just because I make my living teaching and when I’m on the road it’s hard to pull these together. But I will continue to put these out and post them here and on the website at Thanks again, and Hal thank you.

0:44:50 – Hal Massey
Yeah, thank you, I really appreciate it.

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