You may not know it yet, but motorcyclists have a lot of influence over the handling characteristics of their motorcycles. By understanding how your motorcycle works, you can learn how to improve your motorcycle’s handling. This simple breakdown will cover everything you need to know.
A motorcycle’s handling can be improved through a combination of careful attention to your tires, suspension, and handlebar, as well as through specific on road and off road training.
Little steps can go a long way, so let’s get started. Here’s how to improve your motorcycle’s handling, even if you’re a newbie.
Check and consider replacing your motorcycle tires
Your motorcycle tires play a huge role in how your motorcycle handles and should be examined carefully and replaced when necessary.
Typically, thinner tires and smaller tires will offer more responsive handling, and taller and fatter tires will offer more stability and ease over bumpier surfaces. I strongly recommend sticking to your motorcycle’s original sizes, which should be mentioned in your owner’s manual, or easy to lookup on Google. If you’ve bought used, make sure that your motorcycle tires are the original size, if not, consider buying the right size tires for your motorcycle.
Assuming your motorcycle tires are the right size, we need to check out your tire pressure. Tire pressure has a huge impact on your motorcycle’s handling. Tires gradually lose pressure with time, especially in colder weather, and the change can happen so gradually that motorcyclists don’t pick up on the difference and slowly adjust their riding without realizing something is wrong, until the issue snowballs into a serious problem. You can check out what your tire pressure should be on a sticker somewhere on your motorcycle, or in your owner’s manual.
One problem that could come from incorrect tire pressure is premature wear or improper wear on your motorcycle tires. If your motorcycle tires are not being worn properly, or are too worn, they can seriously negatively impact your motorcycle’s handling. I wrote an article and made a video detailing how to know when it’s time to replace your motorcycle tires. You should read the article or watch the video for full details, but for now just know that any motorcycle tires that are too old, too flat in the middle, unevenly worn, or showing signs of cracking, will hurt your motorcycle’s handling. You should replace these tires ASAP.
Check and consider replacing your handlebar
Your handlebar also plays a huge impact on your motorcycle’s handling. You’ll want to consider the dimensions of your handlebar, as well as what kind of condition it’s in.
Let’s start with your handlebar’s condition. It’s not uncommon for a motorcycle’s handlebar to get bent if a motorcycle is dropped hard in an accident. Sometimes this damage can only be by a few degrees and very hard to notice. You may feel like you’re constantly steering left and right to keep the motorcycle riding straight at slower speeds, similar to when your rear tire is running low pressure.
Have you ever noticed you see ape-hanger handlebars and beach bars on comfort-oriented cruisers and tourers, and drag bars and clip-ons on more speed-oriented supersports and street bikes?
That’s because clip-on handlebars keep a motorcyclist low and tight to the tank and that low center of gravity helps with speed and handling. On the flip side, some handlebars can attempt to counteract this by being wider, which would give the rider back some more leverage over the control of the motorcycle. Typically the rule is that switching from a very relaxed position handlebar, to one a bit more aggressive, will usually help you to improve your motorcycle’s handling, while handlebars that are too tall and too narrow are the worst idea.
Check your steering head bearings
Do you feel like every time you give your motorcycle some steering input you’re getting a little bit of a nudge as your turn the handlebar? Your steering head bearings can get tight, dry, or worn out, and make your motorcycle’s handling feel off. When your steering head bearings aren’t turning properly, you can end applying turning pressure to your frame rather than just to your front end.
Like problems with your motorcycle tires, motorcycle steering head bearings can get worse over time, so they can be left unnoticed as a rider subconsciously compensates for the issue with their motorcycle. The problem can go unnoticed until it gets too bad not to notice, and that can be dangerous.
To check your steering head bearing, sit on your motorcycle and swing the handlebar from all of the way to the left, to all the way to the right. If you feel any notches that give you a feeling of uneven resistance, that’s probably a steering head bearing problem. You might also be able to just at your frame’s steering stem for any signs of damage to the bearing.
Check your motorcycle’s rear wheel alignment
Imagine how crooked your motorcycle’s handling would feel if the rear wheel was off by even just a few degrees. It’s a feeling too many motorcyclists have experienced! There’s a reason you’re supposed to equally adjust both adjusters when you’re tightening a motorcycle chain: it’s to keep the motorcycle’s rear wheel alignment even and straight.
You can do a visual check to make sure your wheel is aligned by looking at the tire itself and seeing if it runs straight when viewed on either side from behind the motorcycle. Next you’ll want to take a measuring tape and measure from the center of the pivot of the swingarm axle to the center of the rear tire. You’ll want to measure on both sides and make sure they’re even and adjust your rear wheel alignment if you need to until you get it right.
In some cases, this check isn’t possible because of too many things in the way, so another way to check your motorcycle’s alignment is by using a motorcycle chain alignment tool to test your alignment.
Look for any unnecessary slack
Your motorcycle was designed to have a certain amount slack in some areas to help both the rider, and the motorcycle itself. Too little slack and make things feel jerky and violent and will punish the rider and motorcycle alike. Too much slack in things like your throttle freeplay, or your drive chain, can make things feel laggy, and then jumpy all of a sudden when the power does kick in.
Your owner’s manual may not mention how much freeplay your throttle tube should have before activation. Luckily, most experienced riders will know what feels right, and those that don’t can simply pick up the phone and call up the service department and ask them to look up the information for you. Throttle slack can occur naturally as your cables stretch and wear, but you adjust it using the screws on your cables until you reach the right amount of slack. Alternatively, bring it to the guy at the service department you just spoke to.
A saggy chain will give a similar experience as a throttle with too much free play, but the saggy chain is easier to spot. Most motorcycle swing arms will have a sticker telling you how much freeplay your motorcycle chain should have. Make sure that your chain is within the specification or else tighten up the slack.
Consider bringing in a pro
I like to do as much of my own motorcycle maintenance as possible, but every few years I’ll still bring in a pro. A reputable, licensed motorcycle mechanic knows what to look for, and understands when things look or feel right or wrong.
Sometimes changes happen to our motorcycles so gradually that we don’t notice them. Having a technician give your motorcycle a once-over can sometimes uncover things that we’ve simply never noticed were happening.
Making sure that your motorcycle is in tip top shape is one sure way to get the best handling performance from it as possible. Pay careful attention to the condition and care of your tires. Make sure your handlebar and steering head bearings are in excellent condition. Double check that your chain doesn’t have too much or too little slack and that your rear wheel is aligned correctly. Lastly, even if you do your own maintenance, it’s a good idea to have your motorcycle looked at by a pro every so often.
Now that your motorcycle is set up for success, it’s time to make sure you’re in top shape too. Here’s what it’s like to take an off-road rider training course to help you with your riding skills.