Riding Skills Series: Helping Your Bike's Suspension
Using your legs and arms to assist the suspension’s task of keeping the bike stable
Riding Skills Series: Helping Your Bike's Suspension
When you use your arms to support your weight under acceleration, it can result in unintended inputs into the steering, shown by Pedrosa’s slightly off-center front wheel.
Riding with the balls of your feet on the footpegs allows you to more easily get up slightly off the seat to reposition your body for an approaching corner or absorb bumps that get through the suspension.
Note that even under the tremendous braking force of MotoGP carbon brakes, Dani Pedrosa still keeps his arms slightly bent to allow easier movement and help absorb any bumps.
Virtually every riding school in existence stresses the principle that being smooth in your control actions is paramount to achieving more speed. This is why proper suspension setup becomes so critical as your speed increases; the faster you go, the more energy that gets loaded into the bike’s suspension and chassis, and that energy needs to be managed correctly. If your bike starts bouncing or wallowing, things can start to get out of control in a heartbeat.
This is also a reminder of how remaining relaxed — even when riding aggressively — contributes immensely to your bike’s stability when speeds increase. Part of being relaxed on the bike involves not sitting rigid on the seat, but letting the bike move around underneath you. In effect, your arms and legs becomes the bike’s “secondary suspension,” helping to soak up bumps and movement that get past the motorcycle’s actual front fork and rear shock.
If you sit rigid and stiff as a log on the seat, you actually add a considerable amount of extra mass that the bike’s suspension has to deal with. And as speed increases, that mass can quickly create additional energy over bumps that will overpower the suspension’s capabilities to dissipate it through its damping componentry, upsetting the bike’s normal stability and resulting in a wobble or weave that can force you off your intended line, or worse, off the road/track surface.
Watch an off-road motorcycle race, and you’ll notice that the riders spend more than half their time standing up on the pegs. While the comparison is extreme (pavement riders can’t be expected to actually stand upright on the footpegs because of the difference in bike ergonomics), the concept is the same: The rider’s legs and arms act as a secondary suspension to assist the bike’s real suspension in absorbing bumps and allow more speed than would ordinarily be possible.
A common recommendation is to ride with the balls of your feet (the front portion just behind your toes) on the footpegs. One benefit of this position is that it’s easier to use your calf muscles to help get your weight off the seat and move around — as you would if you were getting ready to hang off for a corner —rather than only using your larger quadriceps in the upper leg area. You can use this to your advantage over rough pavement by just rising up enough to get your butt off the seat and allow your legs to absorb some of the bump energy that gets past the suspension. You’ll be amazed at how much this will help a bike’s stability, especially at racetrack aggression levels where the suspension’s abilities are already taxed to their maximum.
Obviously this requires some good overall leg muscle strength (performing leg squats helps build endurance here), and the actual time you spend off the seat can’t be very long because of the energy it demands. And it can’t be done while hanging off in a corner on the racetrack — although your legs do provide a similar effect when in this position.
Your arms can help the front suspension by staying relaxed as well. Because your arms are forced to support much of your body weight under hard braking, a natural tendency is to lock your elbows to help ease the muscle strain. The problem with this is that any bumps you encounter while braking will transfer directly into your upper body, not only making it difficult to maintain control but also unintentionally creating more steering inputs during a time when the front suspension is heavily loaded. Locked elbows also make it difficult to change your body position for an approaching turn.
Keeping your elbows slightly bent allows your upper body to remain flexible during braking so that it can help absorb any big hits and avoid putting any unwanted inputs into the steering. This also makes it far easier to move your body in preparation for an upcoming turn.
And speaking of unwanted inputs into the steering, it’s also easy to get lazy and use just your arms to support your upper body under hard acceleration. Because your torso isn’t supported and leans back, this often results in riders putting a death grip on the bars, which feeds input into the front end right when the steering geometry’s self-centering balance is most susceptible to becoming upset, especially over rough pavement. This is the leading cause of tankslappers, where the bars swap violently from one side to the other.
Here is where you’ll find the off-road method of gripping the fuel tank with your legs can help keep your upper body flexible and more relaxed. Using your leg and abdominal muscles to support your torso frees up your arms to make body-positioning adjustments without simultaneously feeding unwanted inputs into the steering. This also helps keep your upper body weight forward to help load the front end under acceleration. And because your leg muscles are brought into play, they’re much more prepared to help absorb any sudden bumps that might be encountered.
For those with off-road riding experience, much of this subject is probably already second nature. And it’s no surprise that many riding schools use off-road training as part of their curriculum. But for those who haven’t yet been able to attend one of these schools or have little off-road riding experience, hopefully these described techniques can help you in your quest for better riding skills and more speed.