Track Time: Catalyst Reaction Suspension Tuning School

Shedding some light on the black art of suspension tuning

By Ari Henning, Photography by Dito Milan/Got Blue Milk

There are riders who are perfectly comfortable delving into their bike's engine, yet are apprehensive about pointing a screwdriver at the fork's damping adjusters. Unlike the engine's explicit tolerances and torque specifications, tuning the suspension is largely subjective, and it's easy to feel nervous about messing with those mysterious anodized knobs and screws. But there's nothing mysterious about suspension tuning. In fact, suspension setup and adjustment is a scientific and systematic procedure, and there's no reason you can't learn to do it yourself. It just takes experience.

You can get that experience at the Catalyst Reaction Suspension Tuning School. The curriculum is designed to teach riders the skills and give them the confidence to tune their own suspension. It accomplishes these goals through in-depth discussions, hands-on experience and loads of track time.

The one-day school I attended was held at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, California, in conjunction with a Trackside Services (www.trackside-signmeup.com) track day. Like any back-to-school experience, there's some homework involved. Students should review their owner's manual and get familiar with their motorcycle's suspension and determine the adjustment range. You'll be twiddling your own dials during your track sessions, so make sure you have the needed tools packed in your tool box. And don't forget to reset the adjusters once you've counted the clicks or turns!

Under the tutelage of CRST owner Dave Moss, students are introduced to suspension theory and mechanics and taught a methodical, systematic approach to tuning that is immediately put to use on the track. The syllabus consists of six sessions dedicated to covering the primary variables of suspension: spring preload, compression and rebound damping. Each session is broken down into 10 minutes of theory discussion, about 30 minutes of track time, and then a 10- to 15-minute debriefing. Sessions begin with an explanation of the design and function of the component being studied. We start with the basics: For session one, it's the fork cap and spring. With the vitals in hand, Moss explains the mechanics and theory behind the parts and how it influences the ride. Troubleshooting tips are doled out and the relevant terminology is introduced, but that's where this hands-on school departs from your typical suspension seminar.

It's easy to say too little spring preload in the fork will cause excessive front-end dive when braking, or that too much shock rebound will make the bike wallow mid-corner. To appreciate what that means, you have to experience it. The real meat of the school is the track time. After a few warm-up laps, students enter the hot pit and crank the knobs in one-third turn increments, always moving from softest to hardest. Dave instructs us to be consistent and only ride at 80 percent; you need the free mental RAM to monitor the bike's behavior and analyze the changes you are making.

By systematically moving through the adjustment range one area at a time, students get a feel for the adjustments' influence and get something tangible on which to hang the handling descriptions. You intentionally touch the limits in order to feel what too much of this or too little of that feels like, and how it changes handling. Sometimes the shoddy setups we toyed with messed things up so badly that they made the laps uncomfortable and even a little scary. But that's an important part of the learning experience and the reason it's critical to do this stuff in the right environment.

Back in the classroom, there's time for reflection and note-taking before a discussion regarding how the changes affected the chassis, which setting worked best and why. Moss is an affable and patient instructor (he did time as a school teacher in England) and elicits thoughtful responses from the riders regarding what they felt. Proper terminology is encouraged and errant language corrected, and everyone must take part in the debriefing discussion which is the last critical step in cementing understanding. After the first session students scribble wildly in their work books, but as the day progresses comments grow more concise as we begin to understand what the bike is doing and why. "That's the beauty of the school," Moss says, "seeing the riders become familiar with the feel of the suspension and gaining the vocabulary to describe it."

Under Moss' guidance and with lots of seat time and reflection, riders arrive at an optimum suspension setup, with detailed notes on how they got there. At the end of the day, it's time to see how they perform as a whole. You've got several free sessions to find out, and if something feels amiss, there's still time to test and tune. Most students were impressed with how dialed their bikes felt, and spent the free sessions hauling the mail on Thunderhill's newly repaved surface.

Looking to get a handle on your bike's suspension? Tuition to the CRST School costs $295 ($215 for the track day plus $80 for the school), which is a better value than night classes at your local city college.

Moss has a half-dozen Thunderhill schools planned for next year, but check his website (www.feelthetrack.com) often as the program is likely to go national.

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