Advanced Riding Course: Bike Set-up

Learn how to get the most out of your bike with set-up tips from Niall Mackenzie

I’m a simple man with simple logic so I’d like to start with tyres as, after all, they are what connect us to the tarmac. Think of it this way, you could be sitting on £5,000 worth of Öhlins suspension but if your tyre pressures are 10psi out you’ll never get your bike to handle properly.

I always start with manufacturer’s recommended pressures both for riding on for the road and for track days and you should check these weekly, or daily should you be doing back-to-back track days. As the standard pressures are given for a wide spectrum of rider weight and road conditions there is no reason why you can’t experiment by lowering the pressures, but only a few psi at a time. I do this regularly as I test many different bikes and tyres, but I always like to get a good feel of things by doing plenty of miles on the stock pressures first.

On track days I start off on standard pressures but as I begin to work the tyres harder I’ll monitor the hot tyre pressures after each session and lower them accordingly. Generally I find 32psi front and 34psi rear (hot) works well on track days, however for the road I find a few psi under the recommended manufacturers pressures works well, but set these when the tyre are cold. I find never going below 30 and above 40 psi is a safe working range. If it happens to be wet I would never lower pressures as this only lets the tread fold in, reducing the tyres ability to shift water.

Remember different tyres can completely change the feel of your bike so ask around and do plenty research when you’re ready for new rubber. And its worth remembering that if your bike is fitted with OE (original equipment) tyres, the aftermarket replacement might be slightly different. OE tyres developed for new models can, for example, sometimes have more endurance but slightly less grip than their replacement as they are designed for wide performance parameters. A little homework can pay off here.

Next on my list is suspension. Your front forks and rear shock are constantly hard at work so at some point they will need attention.

My rule is if the bike is over three years old, or you know nothing of the history of your suspension, then it is time to service or replace. Any rear shock linkages should also be cleaned, checked and lubed.

If you have a sports bike and fancy upgrading your suspension then I would start with a fork kit which will not only give you better suspension but a greater range of adjustment. Budget permitting then next would be a new shock with an Öhlins being the one l’d choose should I have the cash.

Advanced set-up

The Öhlins website is useful if you want to get into the intricacies of suspension and for any suspension info or products my first port of call would be the ever-expanding K-Tech in Coalville.

As with tyres I always start with manufacturer’s suspension settings or 60% of the adjustment available. For harder riding or track days the idea is to reduce weight transfer so stiffening up the front and rear is a good idea. Two full turns of spring pre-load plus a few clicks of compression damping front and rear will help, but only make a small change each time. After this initial adjustment I would only change one thing at a time (preload, compression or rebound) so that you know what is making the difference. Also, it is important to write down your settings before you begin as if you get lost you can always go back to where you started, which may well have been better in the first place! But the tail wags the dog with bikes, and rear set-up is always critical compared to the front. So get that right first.

A chain that is too tight or too slack can give all kinds of handling problems, so it’s worth getting the adjustment dead right. Check your manual but around two finger’s worth of slack won’t be too far away between the bottom of the swingarm and the chain, providing you don’t have massive sausage fingers.

Brake condition is also easy to check so shine a torch into the calipers to make sure you have some meat left on your pads.  If you have time it normally isn’t a difficult job to whip brake pads out and give them a blow off with an air line. Don’t forget to pump the brake lever after replacing them.

My best brake money-saving tip is to never hammer brakes from cold or to do some hard braking then park up just to impress your mates with that ‘ting, ting’ sound. Both of these actions will probably warp a disc so if you thought each of these ‘tings’ might be costing you a tenner you’d be keener to warm them up and cool them down.

Before I spend a decent amount of time on any bike I like to get as comfy as possible. A 10mm spanner or hex spanner is all you need to get the brake and clutch levers positioned properly, which can sometimes prevent wrist ache. I hate too much free play in throttles so I would also adjust this at the twist grip if possible.  The same goes for the gearshift lever. There is nothing worse than a lever that is too high or too low. If it is too low, boots tend to scrape when you go for a gear in left-handers. And if it is too high you can’t get you foot over it and gears don’t select properly. If you have a Ducati, KTM or Suzuki you may well be able to adjust you footrests, handlebars or seat height, something worth getting just right.

Finally, get cleaning. I’m a rubbish mechanic but good at cleaning and constantly reminded why this is a good thing to do. It never fails to amaze me what I find while poking into every nook and cranny. It can be loose bolts, cracked bodywork or stuff that has simply worn out.

Niall’s Set-up Tips


  • Check pressures weekly
  • Experiment with recommended pressures but only a few psi at a time
  • Do some homework with other owners for good or bad feedback before replacing and shop around


  • Depending on use suspension should be serviced or replaced at a maximum of three years
  • Start with manufacturers settings or if not known, 60% of available adjustment is a good start
  • For harder riding increasing  spring preload and compression damping will reduce weight transfer under braking and acceleration
  • The rear’s more important than the front so get that right first


  • Don’t abuse them from cold or stop suddenly after hard braking to avoid warping discs
  • Remove pads and clean them, especially after hard riding


  • Check for wear and adjustment to avoid excessive sprocket wear and help handling


  • Adjust levers, gearshift and throttle free play for ease of use
  • Also, if available, make use of your bike’s seat, handlebar and footrest adjustment