Computers are taking over the world, aren’t they? Just last night, my smartwatch told me it was tea time so I ordered a pizza on my iPhone, took a tinny out of my thermostatically controlled fridge and told Alexa to play some banging tunes. But as much as I love being a lazy mo-fo, there are always going to be certain things that I want to do myself. Like riding a motorbike. I know we’re still a long way from full automation, but motorcycle electronics have come a long way in the past decade or so. And, like it or not, the latest component to succumb to servos, solenoids and stepper motors is suspension. Nowadays, most ‘big bikes’ come with the option of having ‘semi-active’ suspension. Suspension that can be adjusted at the touch of a button. But is it worth it? Or is electronic suspension just another needless gimmick?
The first thing you need to decide is what you’re going to use your bike for. Commuting? Touring? The odd Sunday morning blast? Or is it going to be your track weapon? Let’s talk about trackdays first. If you plan on going as fast as you can around a track, you’re going to need decent suspension. It’s got to compress and extend just the right amount to avoid putting too much stress on the tyres. And it’s got to be stiff enough not to bottom out under hard braking and acceleration. All whilst being plush enough to absorb any lumps and bumps without upsetting the bike too much.
A standard road bike, even if it’s a sportsbike, doesn’t have suspension that has been designed (solely) for the track. It’s got to cater for everything from a six stone rider scratching on a Sunday, to a 20 stone man and his 20 stone wife. And standard settings tend to be very easy going, too. Very middle of the road. Very comfortable. So when you take one on track, you’re probably going to need to start making some changes. Most modern bikes tend to have some adjustment built into the stock suspension setups, particularly the sportier ones. That means you can usually get a bit closer to where you need to be. If you can be arsed to get the spanners out, that is. But it’s a bit of a faff. And you’ll probably find you run out of adjustment before you reach the optimum setup.
On track, you need pogos that you can easily adjust, which is where electronic suspension wins. Particularly if you have a system that offers various pre-set modes like ‘track’ or ‘race’; which plenty of the sportier bikes do. Adjustment like this means you don’t necessarily need to know much about suspension to improve the way your bike handles. Unless you understand terms like preload, compression and rebound damping, you’re going to struggle to improve conventional suspension. You don’t have to worry about that with electronic stuff. The Öhlins EC2.0 system, for example, lets you dial in a bit more ‘front end support’ or ‘mid-corner stability’. It’s just generally a lot more intuitive.
If you are keen to find the very best track setting your top of the range bike can muster and you don’t want to get your hands dirty, then it’s a no-brainer; get the one with wires hanging out the suspension. That said, for the track, I would still sooner have proper racing suspension, be it Öhlins, Maxton, K-Tech etc. With top spec track suspension, you’ve got bags of adjustment. You just need a bit of knowledge and plenty of tracktime to get things set up properly.
It’s a whole different ball game on the road, though. A couple of times I’ve had the misfortune to test out pucka race suspension on the road when I’ve broken down at the TT and had to head back to the paddock via the back roads. And it’s not a lot of fun. With a racing set up, every bump jars your back and tries to rattle your fillings out. No, proper racing suspension is only any good on the race track because it needs to be constantly adjusted and tweaked depending on where you are and how you are riding the bike.
So by that rationale, you’re best bet is to have a bike with self-adjusting, semi-active suspension, for the road. Right? Well that’s a perfectly reasonable argument, yes. I find a lot of bikes can be a little bit soft, straight out of the factory so it’s always nice to have the option to stiffen things up at the touch of a button.
You can, of course, get the spanners out and adjust the suspension on plenty of bikes. That’s all good and well if you know exactly what type of riding you are going to be doing that day. And on what kind of roads.
You see with an electronic suspension system in a ‘road’ friendly setup, you could go just about anywhere in relative comfort. I know because I have done it. Öhlins, Showa and Sachs electronic suspension packages are all capable of helping even the sportiest bikes glide along the roughest of roads. It’s pretty impressive, really.
When you get to the smoother, faster, more flowing roads, you’ll probably find that your ‘road’ suspension settings are a little bit limiting. Especially if you really want to start pushing the envelope. In the same way that the standard settings in your conventional suspension might be. Or you might find it absolutely perfect. Everybody’s different. If it’s not perfect though, it’s dead easy to play with, if you’re on ‘leccy stuff. And a lot of the time, all you need to do is stick her in a sportier, or stiffer mode, and Bob’s your uncle. There’s no need to stop, get the spanners out and spend half an hour scratching your head, trying to remember which knob does what.
I’m trying my best not to be over critical of conventional suspension here. These days, even the stock stuff you get on road bikes usually isn’t that bad. And, for most people, with decent Öhlins stuff in there, they’d only have to get it set up once and it would cope with nearly everything they need, nearly all the time. To me, the advantage of electronic suspension isn’t that it’s semi active and making hundreds of decisions every minute, it’s the fact that it can be quickly and easily adjusted. But who really thinks about adjusting their suspension, every time they go for a ride. I think a lot of us would just rather jump on our bikes and go. Provided we are somewhere in the ball park with our suspension, that is.
On the road, whether you go for electronic suspension or not really does depend on what you want from your bike, and what you are going to do with it. Is it flat out runs on smooth roads and nothing else? Or do you live in the sticks were, to get to the smooth roads, you have got to take on miles and miles of bone jarring country lanes? If it’s a bit of everything then you’d really see the benefit of electronic suspension. If all you ever do is ride on nice smooth A-roads, you’d probably be as well with decent manually adjusted stuff.
For me, where the electronic suspension makes most sense is when you’ve just finished on track, and you want to ride the bike home, ready for the commute to work in the morning. You can have it in ‘Race’ mode for your seven sessions, then put it in ‘Road’ mode for your ride home; hopefully that’ll calm you down. When tomorrow comes and it’s a bit fresh, you can pull a bit of damping out of it to soften things up for the morning commute. Easy peasy.
But who really does that? A lot of us use our bike for one thing and one thing only; riding on our favourite roads at a pace that doesn’t tend to change much from one day to the next. For those people, there isn’t a lot to be gained by having suspension that can be adjusted at the touch of a button. Because they’d seldom adjust it anyway. Once you’ve found a setting you like, why stray away from it?
There’s no getting away from the fact that electronic suspension offers smarter, more precise support. And yes, the systems are really, really clever. But you’re also going to have to spend a load more money if you want a model with space-age suspenders. You’re talking about the thick end of £5k. If it’s only going to equate to another £30 a month on your finance deal, and you like the idea of having the latest and greatest tech on your bike, then go for it. Push the boat out. But for me, I think I’d sooner save a few quid, get some decent spec manually adjusted suspension, find a base setting and stick to it.
Horses for courses, and all that.