Champions’ Motocross & Off-Road Bike Modifications

Piece-By-Piece // What’s That, How’s It Work, And What Does It Do?

Today’s motocross and off-road bikes provide incredible performance and adjustability right off the showroom floor. Add in aftermarket accessories and services, and it’s easy to get lost in all the possibilities. Race teams employ specialists and take the testing time to find the best settings, so after several seasons on factory equipment, the professional riders usually develop a very fine feeling for what a bike is doing under them. We grabbed four champs, representing a total of 33 major championship titles, and asked them to break down what each adjustment and modification does, and the share their experiences of what works best for them. It’s a fun way to look at a bike, and should help you gain some insight into ways to make your bike better for you.

Here we give you the web version of this story, where a few comments we didn’t have room for in the print version have been added back in, in bold.

Ricky Carmichael on bike setup
Ricky CarmichaelPhoto by Shan Moore

RICKY CARMICHAEL

10x AMA Motocross Champion, 5x Supercross Champion, RCH Soaring Eagle Suzuki Team Co-Owner

TRIPLE CLAMP RIGIDITY
"When I was at Honda we played a lot with the rigidity of the triple clamps, trying to get the front end to flex and be compliant, which affects front-end grip."

OFFSET
"I liked my bikes to feel a little more relaxed, so I would run my offset a little more raked out, which "relaxed" the bike. You can get it too relaxed and if you have too much offset it will get to where the thing won't want to turn, but I always just tried to find that happy medium."

BAR BEND
"I pretty much ran the same bar bend my whole career. Real flat, linear bar bend for the most part."

THROTTLE CAM/PULL RATE
"We never played with it too much, but I do like a lot of play in my throttle."

FRONT TIRE
"I liked more of a hard pack tire in all conditions because I like a little bit of slide in the front wheel. I don't like my tire to be too aggressive, especially in the sand, because it makes the steering feel too hard."

REAR TIRE
"With rear tires, the biggest thing I liked to focus on was side grip, like when you're leaned over going up the face of a jump. Most of the time I ran an intermediate pattern with really good side grip."

STEEL FRAME VS ALUMINUM FRAME
"I liked the steel frame for a long time, but as years progressed I really started to like the aluminum chassis. When I went from the steel chassis to the aluminum chassis, there were places where I couldn't ride as hard on a steel frame bike as I could on an aluminum frame bike just because there was too much flex. But once we figured out the aluminum frame I think it was a better chassis."

FORK VALVING
"I've always run a little softer fork valving than most people. I have my theories for that, but with forks, I liked them really soft initially so it had good plushness and got progressively stiffer. If I couldn't bottom my stuff out then it was too stiff for sure."

REAR SHOCK
"I liked my rear shock to be like my forks, really soft initially with a spring that was probably softer than what I was rated for. I liked it to get progressively stiffer."

SET UP
"When I was testing for supercross, I knew exactly how the bike needed to be in order for me to win, whether my suspension engineers liked it or not. We would go back and forth and they would say, 'Hey, you probably need it like this,' but I knew how my bike needed to work in order for me to win and for me to be comfortable and that's how I set it up. A lot of times it was on the soft side, more choppered out and low in the rear - especially on two-strokes. As we got on the four-strokes I became a little more conventional."

SPROCKET SIZE
"You have different leverage points on your swing arm that are dictated by the size of the sprocket. So you really have to pay attention to what you're doing when you start changing the rear sprocket. I see a lot of guys change rear sprockets but then they never readjust their sag. Just remember when you're changing your sprocket you're adjusting the leverage and angle of your swing arm, which in turn adjusts the shock. So the bike is going to perform differently."

AXLE PLACEMENT
"We played a lot with moving the rear axle forward and back. For Supercross, through the whoops, I thought it worked better with the rear wheel forward. I think on starts it was a little bit better as well with the wheel forward. On outdoor tracks I'd run the wheel back just to get it relaxed. And the sprocket was smaller in outdoors so you could run it back as well."

HANDLING
"I don't like when the rear end is pushing the front end. I like for my bike to be in the track, feel like I'm in the dirt. If I feel like I'm on top of the track and not driving forward I don't feel stable. I feel uncertain. So I felt that the more relaxed my bike was and the lower my center of gravity was, then the more comfortable I was. The suspension engineers always used to get so mad at me because they said, 'It's too soft, you could go faster if it was stiffer.' And I'm like, 'Well, in certain areas, yes, you're probably right,' but overall I just felt like it was better for me when it was softer. If there were areas where I knew it would be too soft I would adjust my line or manipulate the throttle to not pull the suspension down all the way."

SAG
"If there's too much sag the bike can feel really low in the rear. You run out of spring. You bottom out a lot quicker. When you do that it can make the front end feel really light because your balance is wrong on the motorcycle. If the rear end is low because of too much sag it can [also] make your front end feel stiff. It doesn't turn as sharp. If you don't have enough sag and too much preload then the thing will be stink bug where the back is really high and basically it's driving the front down. To me at high-speed scenarios that's a horrible feeling to have when the back is overpowering the front."

POWER
"One thing that I liked about the four-stroke is the torque. The power was instantaneous. It just always seemed like you were in the good part of the power at low RPMs and still had a lot of snap, a lot of response, low RPM response. Where a two-stroke, depending on what bike you were on you had to keep the thing wound up for the most part. So for me, I liked a lot of snap, a lot of low RPM power and torque. That was key for me on both two-stroke and four-stroke. I loved that. I didn't need so much top end. I wanted a lot of bottom end and some decent mid-range. As long as it could rev at higher RPMs, it didn't necessarily need to pull."

TWO-STROKE VS FOUR-STROKE
"I always felt like the four-stroke had good grip, and it always felt like it held the shock down nice and low and made the shock squat, getting it into that happy part of the stroke."

SETUP ADVICE
"I feel like most people try to have their setups too specific for one part of the track, like the whoops. When I was testing in the off-season I always tried to have the mindset to get my bike right for every single scenario so I didn't have to change it at the races. I knew exactly what I had. If it didn't work perfectly on the weekend, I knew exactly how it was going to work so I could ride around the problem. I just tried to get it to where it was good for the start, but it was good everywhere else on the track, too."

Mike LaRocco on bike setup
Mike LaRoccoPhoto by Rob Koy

MIKE LAROCCO

AMA 500cc MX Champion and AMA 250cc MX Champion. GEICO Honda Co-Manager and Test Rider.

BAR BEND
"I preferred the straighter of the options. I don't like 'em high, either, because it just feels like you're out of position a bit."

GRIPS
"I ran a medium [compound] because I felt like that grip stayed consistent; the softer ones always seemed to roll in my hands.

RATE OF THROTTLE PULL
"When I was racing two-strokes I didn't use the clutch a lot so I equated it to connecting the throttle turn to the rear wheel… I liked to feel everything I could, so I did run a short turn."

BAR MOUNTS
"I would typically get my handlebars over the top of my forks. I actually felt like that gave me the best feel in the front end."

TRIPLE CLAMPS
"In the early days, to reduce rigidity we got to the point where we even ground down the sharp points on the triple clamp to minimize rigidity, on the edges [of the top and bottom clamp], and I'm going to guess you'd see a period of time where we had red clamps with silver edges back in the day, and that would have been why."

STEERING STEM BOLT TORQUE
"I just don't like any restriction… It makes the bike feel heavy to me… When I hop from bike to bike I'm fine with most everything, but if someone has tight steering it bothers me more than anything."

FORK VALVING
"[Focusing on] front wheel traction is what I remember most. And it's kind of a Catch 22 because you can find the traction and then you don't have the hold up; and I was always trying to find that balance between having them stiff enough to handle the supercross whoops or the downhills in outdoors, and yet having that compliance to get your lean angle security. And I'll tell you that's not going away, it's kinda the same, all these guys are looking for the same thing."

FORK SPRING RATE
It's actually not that hard [testing for the team's lighter racers] because in the case of weight for me when I ride as a test rider, most of that comes from what we do with the rear spring. I find that the fork's more relative not to body weight but how hard you attack a jump or brake in the corner or whatever… From what I've experienced it comes from the intensity of the rider more than the weight of the rider."

FRONT TIRE
"I find that even with the guys that we have here, it's what they're used to, the one they've spend the most time with; they know it, that kind of thing. That's what it was for me, also. I had tires that I felt were more round, or easier to lean, or just stuff that I liked. And I would deal with it for its shortcomings knowing it was comfortable… I know that when were in the early aluminum frame days I was extremely picky with the front tire… [re: running the 20"] I did, because I was looking for traction. I liked the 20 early. As soon as it started getting a little more favorable for traction and turning [with the 21"] I got away from [the 20] because it's less nimble."

FRONT BRAKE
"I hated when it faded, because a lot of times I use it to turn with it, to hold the front tire in a rut, so I liked it to be progressive and you could have 'a little,' 'a little bit more,' and, 'stop.'… If the brake had to work hard it was hard to sustain it, it would get hot [and fade], so we ended up just going up in [rotor] size and minimizing the work that that brake had to do."

GRIP TAPE
"I used that diamond sandpaper [on the airbox area] when the bikes started to get more plastic-y on the sides. Plus some of the boots that came out were more full of plastic so there was nothing really to grip with so I had to add stuff."

GEARING/SPROCKETS
"I believe we used a smaller sprocket outdoors, even if our ratio was the same, based on pitch coming into the turns and a bigger rear one [in supercross] based on minimizing squat."

REAR TIRE
"I wasn't so picky about rear tires… If there was one that performed better in the whoops I would take that."

POWER CHARACTER
"We managed to get a really nice, smooth power based on rideability, that was sort of the focus, and each year just trying to add power and keep the same rideability."

FUELS
You've got to imagine that, 'A lot of a little makes a lot,' and that's how we look at it. You're not really going to just bolt on a ton of horsepower, so we've got to try every little thing… We'll find stuff that just gives us any little advance. Fuel seems to be important but more than anything it adds to how clean we can get it to run."

HOLESHOT MAPS
"We actually had 'em back then but I never really liked 'em. My problem was I put too much on how I liked it on the track. Maybe it wasn't the best choice on the start; mine was really aggressive, so very hard to hold down. When I look at it now, I make sure that even though we like it, we go to the starting line before we go racing and make sure that thing is easy [to get a good start]… It's a trumping factor. If we have something that's great on the track and it gets beat on the start we won't use it."

CLUTCH ENGAGEMENT
"I was picky about that. That's along the same lines as the throttle, I didn't want anything to be on and off, I wanted to be able to ease everything so I needed a bit of progression there as well."

MOST SIGNIFICANT THING TO ENGINE OR MOST IMPORTANT
"In the 250 class you've got to get some power. I think it's really related to having a rideable bike and having a pretty big window on the start. I think even if it's down on power, if it's easy to [get a good] start I'd still pick it all day long."

Mike Lafferty on bike setup
Mike LaffertyPhoto by Shan Moore

MIKE LAFFERTY

8x National Enduro Champion

REAR BRAKES
"I've always been hard on brakes. So we went to a solid rotor and then we would double up the rear brake pedal spring to keep more tension on it. It just seemed like I had to have that feel on my foot. I rode it really hard and I would end up overheating the rear brake. Then in '03 the calipers on the new bikes were bigger, with bigger pads, but then in '04 they went back smaller, so I started just running the '03 rear caliper on all of my bikes after that. The new ones were more off and on like a switch, but those old ones were more progressive, and the rear wheel wouldn't lock up as much."

SEATS
"Seats were always a big thing with me. My mechanic back in the KTM days was Alan Randt and he would make taller seats for me, taller right in the center but not so high in the back, because I sat down all the time so a taller seat just suited my style. We always tapered it down a little bit, but usually a good inch in the middle, right in the center; it was quite a bit. I was always a fanatic with my seats and I'd find one I liked and I would take that seat with me wherever I went and raced with it. I still ride with a tall seat now."

GRIPS
"I liked the bike a little more wore out, and I even liked my grips to feel worn, so on the grip where my thumb would kind of lay into the grip, I always wanted it wore out a little bit. I remember Al would always put a blade in there and kind of trim that out so it felt worn... If I had new grips I was like, I don't like new grips. I wanted the bike to feel like it had been ridden for a while."

TIRES
"Early on I wasn't particular because we were with Michelin and we'd always run the same exact tire all the time. I'd use S-12s no matter what: a muddy race to a dry race; west coast to east coast… Once we went to Dunlop, we got a little more variety, and that was weird to have a different type of tire for different conditions. I didn't have that much confidence in it. The Dunlops had a real hard carcass compared to a Michelin. It was just hard having the confidence in the thing because it wanted to skate around a lot more. My last three or four years, I got comfortable with the Dunlops. The tire would be good in some places, bad in others, but as long as you kind of knew where it was going to do its thing and where it shined, I think it was all in how you knew what the grip was going to be like. I was mostly picky about my front tires. I always swapped around and tried different stuff."

SUSPENSION
"At one point in my career I started getting picky about my suspension. I was with Factory Connection and we were always testing. I didn't like it when the ride height was low. So I was always about getting the bike to stay high, but be supple too, which is kind of a hard thing to do. I remember going to one national on my two-stroke and I ran like 51 fork springs and the biggest shock spring they ever had. The stuff didn't seem like it was staying up high in the travel. It would turn good but it just didn't ride high. I didn't like the ride height being so low. We put a lot of oil in the forks to raise the thing up a little bit so it didn't have a lot of bottoming. It's weird because we'd bring the clamps in to make the bike turn, going from like a 20mm to an 18 mm, but it made the front end dive so we would add more oil. And then the front end would get raised, and I swear, that was one of the best turning bikes I ever had. It was a PDS and I'd always tell myself, 'Why am I adding more oil to the fork and it's making the bike turn so much better?' It was because it actually wasn't diving so easy in the turns. It stayed higher and I could just drive into a turn and carry a lot more momentum. So I learned a lot with suspension that way."

TRIPLE CLAMPS
"I know when we played with the triple clamp offset it was always 20mm versus 18mm on the two-strokes. I was riding the WP PDS shock bikes and that feel was always the same, so I would just move my clamps in to make the thing turn. When we switched to four-stroke I think we beefed up the suspension and brought in the clamps to make it turn better, but the bike was kind of heavier and I didn't have to do much to it. So it was a lot less work."

CLUTCHES
We've always ridden with hydraulic clutches, and in '03, '04, '05, we had that anti-hopping, slipper clutch. They used it a lot in Supermoto, so when you were coming into a turn or downshifting the rear tire's not hopping around. It slips a little bit, and it was called a slipper clutch. For me, in off-road when we tried it, it just made the bike feel so much freer. Instead of coming down a hill and downshifting and then having the bike feel heavy, you'd downshift and it just felt light and it free-wheeled so much more. So when we started running slipper clutches I automatically started feeling like the bike felt lighter, and I actually started being way more competitive."

Randy Hawkins on bike setup
Randy HawkinsPhoto by Shan Moore

RANDY HAWKINS

7x National Enduro Champion, Owner AmPro Yamaha Racing

SET-UP
"Back in my day, we were making changes to the bikes just trying to get them so they worked in the woods. But today, bikes are good to go right off the showroom floor. All of the changes we make to the bikes these days, it's not that we're adding performance to the bike but we're actually fine tuning it to fit the rider."

OFFSET
"A few years back we had Josh Strang as part of our program. Josh steered with the rear of his bike, so he would go from a 22 millimeter offset, which is stock, to a 23mm offset to get the front end out just a little bit because he didn't like it to turn as well as it did. On the opposite side of the spectrum we had Paul Whibley and he drove with the front of the bike. So we would go from 22mm to 20mm for him because he steered with the front of the bike. Could both of those guys win with 22mm offsets? No doubt. But we were working on making the riders more comfortable on the bikes."

TRIPLE CLAMPS
"I do feel the easiest thing to do to make the most change is in the triple clamps. There are probably five different companies out there making triple clamps for Yamaha. When I rode Yamahas, nobody made triple clamps for that model because it was a new bike. Basically I was right at the front-end of the four-stroke program with Doug Henry, which was the YZF. The bike was pretty good for motocross, but I needed to turn more and we had no way to do that. So my mechanic, Dale Stegall, and I built a jig. We cut the steering head off of the frame, and then we actually angled the steering head a little more and changed that almost like changing the offset on the triple clamp. So we went from like 23mm to 22mm."

SPROCKETS
"Back when I rode Suzuki, we were riding RMXs, and the thing that we were really working hard on was stability, because the bike turned very well, it just needed to be more stable. So one thing you can do, when you can keep the two sprockets as close as possible in size, then you actually make the bike more stable, versus if you had a small counter shaft and a larger rear sprocket."

SWINGARMS
"When I rode Suzuki, on the RMX, one of the worst things on the whole motorcycle was the brakes. So we actually put a KX swingarm on the RMX, and that accomplished two things, the KX had better brakes and the KX swingarm at that time was a little bit longer, which helped with stability. Also, we had more options with the KX linkage than we had with the RMX linkage."

FORK HEIGHT
"Fork height is another rider preference thing and there's a formula you need to use. Say if you're running 22mm offset and you're running the fork tubes five millimeters above the triple clamps, then if you change to 23mm offset you may want to slide the fork tube up one more millimeter because now you've pushed the fork out. Versus when you go to 20mm you would slide the fork tube down. Whibley was completely different, though. He steered so much with the front end he would actually run the forks about three millimeters higher in the triple clamps than everyone else. But how do you argue with a guy who won championships?"

HANDLEBARS
"I've been with Pro Taper since '92 and back then we were struggling to get bars narrow enough for the tight Enduros. At that time we would just cut the tips of the bars off. But when you cut the tips of the bars off then the end of the bars are sticking up at a different angle and when you slide your levers on they're sticking up. We couldn't figure out how in the world we could get that to work. So we decided to cut the handlebars in the center, so that we'd be taking the width out of the center of the bar. We made an aluminum dowel pin so we put that back in it and pinned it, so with it pinned they wouldn't rotate. The bars aren't going to break there and your angles would be correct at the end of the bars."

FORKS
"When I first went to Husqvarna, we really struggled with suspension on the front. So we figured out to put Honda forks on them. I was notorious about fixing whatever I had a problem with. The Honda fork was really the best fork I found at that time. We took the triple clamps to the machinist because he had to machine them out. That also gave us a better front brake, so you had a Honda front end on the bike."

CLUTCHES
"Back when I was working with Yamaha on the YZ-F, we were struggling with those first clutches. Instead of having a wet clutch, they pumped the oil into a separate tank and the clutches weren't in a bath of oil. That was fine for motocross, because you just raced for 30 minutes. But in a five-hour enduro with tight woods, it's really rough on clutches. So we came up with an idea to get oil in there. We took off the oil lines and the tank, and now instead of oil going to a tank, we drilled holes in the center case and just let the oil go into the clutch case. We did that for a couple years, to show there were no failures with the system, and if you notice further down the road they started coming that way from the factory."