A Click Here Or There | Suspension Testing With Race Tech
With only weeks until the start of the 2015 Monster Energy Supercross Series, the mood in Southern California is a mix of anticipation, confidence, and panic. Test tracks are currently packed with riders hoping to perfect their bike setup, a process they began soon after the 2014 Nationals ended, and they know time is ticking away to make any improvement that will give them an edge over the competition. For the most part a rider will stay with the same style of products for their entire career, rarely changing from a certain sweep of handlebar, but are often seen tinkering with suspension settings on either end. The equipment and setup for a professional rider is arguably the biggest difference between a showroom bike and race-ready machine, and trust us when we say days of riding are spent just looking for the right blend of bounce and absorption. During a recent visit to Milestone MX Park, we watched Vince Friese work alongside a large crew from Race Tech as they swapped shocks and forks between sessions on the track. We wanted to know what goes on through the entire day, so we stole a few moments with Friese and Race Tech top tech Rob Brown.
Suspension testing starts almost as soon as the rider jumps on a new bike, and those first motos with a base setting are used as the shakedown sessions. "Rob usually knows what I like from bike to bike, so I will ride that for a couple of days and get a feel for it," said Friese. "Today is the first day that Rob has been out with me on the new bike, the Suzuki RM-Z 450. He watched me ride for a little bit and I came in to give him my feedback, and from whatever he saw with it, we have made the changes to the front and rear."
The changes occur quickly thanks to Race Tech's years of experience, even with new suspension components or rider complaints. "I feel every year we have new questions to ask the rider so that we can pick the bike apart and see what they want," said Brown. This is where bridging the gap of what a rider wants and what Race Tech thinks is best becomes somewhat of a challenge. "Some pro riders think their suspension needs to be extremely stiff to go fast," said Brown. "But when you look at the lap times, you still need to have the bike track into corners, turn well, get through rhythm lanes, and absorb all of that."
The process gets even more involved once a rider has a valved set of suspension on the bike. A flurry of questions come after the first rides, and this is when Race Tech finds out the bulk of their information. "A lot of times riders don't know that it can be better," said Brown. "But if you ask the right question they might realize, 'Oh, it actually does a little of that.' We will work on that, to make something they didn't even realize they wanted to change even better. We have a pretty good average that we are not far off when we bolt the stuff on, that it only takes a click here or there."
Bringing multiple sets of suspension and a box van service center are key parts to professional tests, and Race Tech's setup is no different. After every session, we watched Friese and the Race Tech team discuss what the bike did on the Milestone SX test track before going to work. "We will bring multiple sets so when a rider has a complaint, we will valve up the next set and then send him out on the original set he had an issue with so he can feel the track in its current condition," said Brown. "Then we bolt on the new set to see if we made any of the progress that the rider wanted."
"On this day of working with Vince, he was looking for a little more acceleration traction and for the bike to be a little softer over the chop," Brown continued. "Getting the thing to settle a little more is what we worked on, to get across the whoops, through the rhythms, and making sure he can seat bounce obstacles with no issues."
While most of the Japanese-built bikes coming equipped with air forks, the suspension company has been forced to learn the process of tuning. Although a wide range of adjustability is the biggest perk of the pneumatic dampener, Brown remains partial to the traditional spring suspension. "I think the spring fork is just easier to tune. Air is a little more susceptible to change based on temperature and it's very picky, so you have to have it exactly right," Brown stated. "It's a little hard to tune, but it takes less parts to tune, so there are positives. Of course with this being the first year for a lot of new components, it's like starting over again [Laughs]."
The Showa SFF Triple Air fork that Friese's Suzuki originally came equipped with has been dropped in the favor of a classic spring fork, and this is a move that Friese supports. "We've done some testing with the air fork, and Rob has gotten it really good for me, but I still feel most comfortable on the spring fork. I know how it works better and Rob has more time with it," said Friese. "Everything is going to the air fork, but I'm going to stick with the spring until I ride an air fork that is better."
Since Southern California is the center of the Supercross universe, the Race Tech team is able to test at a number of facilities with a long list of riders. "Typically at this point in the year, we are working with between fifty and one hundred riders and getting them dialed in," said Brown. Maintaining that many machines is a challenge, so Race Tech often brings two rolling workshops and enough personnel to the track to meet the demands. Working with riders based on the East Coast is another challenge they must overcome, but they've found a way around the distance. "Sometimes a rider will fly out here and work with us, and even if it isn't necessarily on his bike, we will tune his suspension and send him home with the proper settings," he continued.
Making the most of their time on the track is another challenge that rider and technicians have to work with, since it will change drastically over the course of the day. "When they do long water breaks, it's hard to get the exact same feel when all the guys are riding," said Friese. "But Rob is quick when it comes to making changes and my mechanic can get the bike back together. It makes it easy for me to get back out there quickly and ride the track while it's in the same conditions."