Top 10 Sportbike Performance Modifications

Evans Brasfield
by Evans Brasfield

What is it about motorcycles that makes riders immediately want to modify their bikes? Sometimes, they don’t even make it out of the dealership before some of the OE parts have been replaced with “performance enhancing” upgrades. Back in the days when tires seemed to made out of stone, swapping out the stock rubber for something stickier truly was a way to earn street cred (assuming you scrubbed off the chicken strips) and improve the bike’s performance. Of course, this was during the Pleistocene epoch, when aluminum was considered an exotic material, and swapping out steel parts was another easy path to a sportier motorcycle.

Today, modern sporting machinery comes with titanium engine internals and gumball tires. What’s a rider who wants to trick out a bike to do?

10. A Number Plate

Everyone knows that motorcycles with number plates mounted on them are faster than those without. Riders who really want to show how fast they are – even to people who don’t ride motorcycles – will sport the number 1. Riders with a little knowledge and more outsized dreams often use 46. That way, only the cool kids will understand what a truly talented rider you are.

9. Engine Modifications


Tuners who have learned their way around the inside of motorcycle engines understand that there is big power to be made by altering an engine’s internals. However, they also are aware of the compromises that are inherent in each of the modifications. Getting a bike that is a fire-breathing beast – and not an unrideable monster – requires the right balance of the quirks each modification brings to the party.

Newbies should stay away from splitting the cases.

8. Gearing Change

The beauty of a chain final drive is that it can easily be altered to suit the rider’s purposes. Shorter gearing makes the bike leap out of corners by raising the rpm that the engine is spinning at any given road speed. Stunters like this because it helps them with their tire-smoking, front wheel-lofting antics. Road racers like it because they can have their bike’s power delivery set to work at its best on an important section of track.

Making the gearing taller will lower the rpm throughout the rpm range, which is why you will find this kind of gearing in use on the airport runways, dry lake beds, and salt flats of the world.

Bottom line: Know why you’re changing your gearing and how it will affect your motorcycle across the rpm range.

Ten Steps To A New Chain And Sprockets

7. Aftermarket Exhaust

Once upon a time, dumping the OEM exhaust was a great way to strip a ton of weight off your motorcycle and uncork an impressive amount of horsepower hidden in the engine. Times have changed, and stock systems are lighter and flow better than in the Bad Old Days. Yes, if you pop for a titanium system, you can still pare away some poundage from your bike.

Let’s be honest, though, the real attraction of an aftermarket pipe for many riders has always been the volume of the exhaust note. Yep, they sound really fast. The good news is that some pipes actually do improve not only the bike’s top end power, but also its power curve throughout the rpm range.

The question is: Do you really need that additional 3.7 peak hp to bop over to Piggly Wiggly for some Beer Nuts? Also, you might as well admit that you just want people to look at you if you just mounted your full system or slip-on and didn’t bother to adjust your…

6. EFI Tuning

No matter what the pipe vendors say, if you really want to get the most out of your aftermarket exhaust, you’ll want to invest in some dyno time to have a custom map created for your motorcycle’s particular fueling needs. Of course, if your bike’s EFI can’t be refreshed, you’re looking at adding an aftermarket control unit from a company like Power Commander or Bazzaz. The good news is that you’ll get the most power out of your bike’s engine, and you’ll be able to minimize any undesirable valleys in the curves as well.

Note: This type of modification is illegal in some areas. This should go without saying, but if your bike has carburetors, then EFI tuning doesn’t apply (but you knew that, right?) A jet kit is what you should be looking for.

5. Suspension

Up until now, the modifications have focused on massaging your motorcycle’s power output. Now, we’re entering the realm of helping the rider do more to control the bike, a step some would argue should come before adding power. If you’ve got simple damping-rod fork legs, you can give them the tunability of cartridge units with Cartridge Emulators. Cartridge forks can have their shim stack altered to make compression and rebound settings more closely suit the rider. Out back, shocks that only have preload and rebound damping adjustments can be swapped with a fully adjustable unit. Before replacing anything, however, if your suspenders are adjustable try playing with the clickers to find a setting you like, starting with a proper sag setting. Don’t forget to write down each change so you can revert back to previous settings if needed.

Remember, as the Spider-man’s father said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Indiscriminate suspension tuning can turn your motorcycle into an ill-handling turd. Do it right, though, and the potential is for motorcycle nirvana.

Top 10 Misconceptions About Motorcycle Suspension

4. Tires

Many riders believe that when it comes to tires, the stickier the better. While you do want grip, you also want tires that will perform their best in the type of riding you do. Track day riders will want rubber that can provide the most grip and handle the increased temperatures experienced in a closed-course setting. Backroad scratchers might generate enough heat to get a track tire up to its operating temperature, but those gumball tires rarely offer the mileage of other, more street-focused rubber. Sport tourers will, most likely, seek a good compromise between mileage and absolute grip, and the good news is that tire technology has advanced significantly in this area over the years, giving surprising grip while wearing like iron.

Motorcycle Tires 101

Tire Care & Maintenance Buyer’s Guide

Metzeler Roadtec 01 Tire Review

Metzeler Sportec M7 RR Review

Michelin Pilot Road 4 Review

Sport-Touring Tire Buyer’s Guide

3. Braided Stainless Steel Brake Lines

Brakes are the most powerful force on a motorcycle, attenuating speed in a fraction of the distance it takes to generate it. In order for the rider to scrub the most speed from their motorcycle, the rider needs maximum feel and a firm lever. Although the additional plumbing of ABS brakes has increased the complexity of this modification, braided stainless steel brake lines are the best way to get that directly-connected-to-the-calipers feeling. Many aftermarket companies sell kits with the lines appropriately sized for individual motorcycle models. You can also buy them in cool colors as shown by these Galfer lines.

2. Brake Pads

While you can always spend big bucks mounting larger diameter aftermarket discs and better calipers, the most important half of the brake upgrade one-two punch, swapping pads, just happens to be pretty cost effective, too. If you’ve read MO for any length of time, you’ll periodically notice us mentioning that we think a set of aftermarket pads will improve a bike’s stopping capabilities. Like tires, though, pads can be bought for a variety of purposes. When it comes to the aftermarket, the focus is more on power and feel, rather than outright mileage (which the OEMs always consider).

MO Wrenching: How To Replace Brake Pads

MO Better: SBS RS Brake Pad Review

1. Software Upgrade

No, we’re not talking about reflashing your bike’s ECU. Instead, the way to get the absolute best performance out of your motorcycle is to improve the software in the control unit connecting the seat to the grips. Let’s get really honest here: Modern sporting machinery has capabilities that, even in stock form, can tax the abilities of even the most advanced riders – especially when ridden on the street. So, the true way to improve a motorcycle’s performance is to upgrade its operating system (that’s you). The rider does so much more than just twist the throttle to the stop, mash on the brakes, and toss the bike into a turn. While you can learn a ton from books (and Andrew Trevitt’s Troy Bayliss: A Faster Way is a great example of an educational read), riding schools offer the best way to learn the most from trained experts in a controlled environment. If you want to learn the most on how to improve your riding ability – and we can all improve – a riding school is the ticket.

When you’re done, you’ll swear your bike performs better, too.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Review

Track/Racing School Buyer’s Guide

Evans Brasfield
Evans Brasfield

Like most of the best happenings in his life, Evans stumbled into his motojournalism career. While on his way to a planned life in academia, he applied for a job at a motorcycle magazine, thinking he’d get the opportunity to write some freelance articles. Instead, he was offered a full-time job in which he discovered he could actually get paid to ride other people’s motorcycles – and he’s never looked back. Over the 25 years he’s been in the motorcycle industry, Evans has written two books, 101 Sportbike Performance Projects and How to Modify Your Metric Cruiser, and has ridden just about every production motorcycle manufactured. Evans has a deep love of motorcycles and believes they are a force for good in the world.

More by Evans Brasfield

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2 of 9 comments
  • John phyyt John phyyt on Jun 30, 2016

    Another great read thank-you Evans; I would only query your suggestion that number plates only make your bike faster.
    I would suggest , that they also make it handle better and shorten stopping distances . They also make you and your cycle irresistable to potential lovers.

  • Mahatma Mahatma on Jul 01, 2016

    Done #5,4,3,2. Did #7,but got caught red handed,so must revisit DoV here in norway with my original exhaust mounted.#1 is irrelevant on my nt650gt.

    Nice article.