Making rides more fun: an interview with Calvin Collander, design engineer at Cirrus Cycles (Kinekt suspension stem and seatpost).

Comfort and fun can go hand in hand. The more enjoyable the ride the more fun it can be. But there is an even more exciting trend right now: more and more people come to realize that comfort can also mean a faster ride because tiredness comes much later. Read my interview with Calvin Collander, an engineer from Cirrus Cycles to find out more about making rides more comfortable (and how challenging this process can be).

Gravelbikes.cc: Can you tell a little about yourself? What is your background and working experience?

Calvin: My name is Calvin and, in terms of cycling background, I have been riding bikes basically as long as I can remember. Primarily, this has been mountain biking, although I have also dabbled in road and cyclocross. In terms of mountain biking, I enjoy everything from cross-country trails to jump lines. Sometimes, I even do gravel-like rides on my hardtail, just exploring. Yeah, I just like riding bikes.

As for my professional experience, this is my first job in the cycling industry. I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and my first job was a steel fabrication company. We were making very stationary objects such as piping and tanks. Then I moved to a smaller engineering company where we were designing dynamic machines and custom solutions for a variety of industries, cranes for example. There I get a machine designing experience which I use here, at Cirrus Cycles. Working in the biking industry excites me and was always a sort of dream job for me.

Gravelbikes.cc: You said that you enjoy a wide range of bicycles so it is interesting for me to ask you about gravel bikes. Do you own one?

Calvin: I don’t have a real gravel bike. I have a commuter bike which is like an old cyclocross bike with fenders and gearing that is not great for gravel. Then I have my hardtail cross country mountain bike. I rode Gran Fondo on that one using our suspension seatpost. A lot of work but great fun. Now I am getting a company gravel bike which is exciting because I will do a lot more gravel-specific testing.

Gravelbikes.cc: This is good because I think that designing suspension solutions for gravel bikes demands a different approach than designing something for flat handlebar bikes (the weight distribution for example is different, more forward-oriented). So it is interesting to know if you take this into consideration when designing your suspension stem?

Calvin: I wanted to design a general usage product that will work with any handlebar and especially with e-bike which is a very important target for us.

Gravelbikes.cc: This sounds like a very challenging project to create something that will fit everyone’s needs. Aggressive riding on drop bars puts a lot more weight on them and maybe this is the reason that you get a lot of feedback from road bike riders saying that the springs are simply too soft?

Calvin: Yes, I definitely think so. It is not only about the handlebar type but in general about body position. Some people like to ride more aggressively and some like to seat almost straight. Even the seat position can significantly change your body position so it is very challenging to design one product that will work great in any possible scenario.

Gravelbikes.cc: What is your role at Cirrus Cycles and did you design both suspension seatpost and suspension stem that you are selling currently?

Calvin: I’m an engineer here at Kinekt, but of course at a small company like this I have a wide range of responsibilities. That means taking a product from an idea to a 3D model, to stress testing, and into production. I started here in 2019 and my first project was suspension stem. From there my role has grown to cover all of our products but the suspension seatpost designed Paul Barkley, co-founder of Cirrus Cycles. He came with an excellent concept, coil springs with lots of adjustability and a pretty compact design.

Gravelbikes.cc: Why focus on designing comfort improving parts? Was this your particular area of interest when looking for a job in the biking industry?

Calvin: My interest is mainly getting people out and having fun on the bikes. I like to see as many people as possible riding bikes and enjoying it. Products that we have made just allow people to do that more. People who may have back or neck pain may simply be happier and ride longer when using our solutions. This is our interest and I really think that there is still a lot of potential to innovate in the area of comfort.

Gravelbikes.cc: Do you see a growing trend in terms of comfort improving parts?

Calvin: I think there is a trend towards that, especially with e-bikes it is about bringing more people to the sport and making them enjoy rides more. Not everyone is about efficacy and there is a lot of room for products that focus on comfort. In general, when technology improves people’s expectations getting higher and I think that is why this comfort trend will go on.

Gravelbikes.cc: I really agree with you and I do too see a change in riders approach. Back then it was mostly about going as fast as possible on-road bike and the pain and suffering were the necessary cost or even proof that you are riding really hard. Now, I think that more and more people come to realize that going fast does not have to be painful and you can combine efficacy and comfort to get better results, to ride faster, and most importantly, longer.

Calvin: Yes, absolutely. Even in the racing scene people realize that it does not have to be necessary painful to go fast and sometimes a little more comfort can make you go actually faster. You can also see it in the tires right now. People are using bigger and bigger tires and try to use a lower air pressure just to realize that it can be faster and more comfortable at the same time.

Gravelbikes.cc: Front end or back end comfort is more important to you?

Calvin: If I had to choose one product from our offerings to make my commuter bike more comfortable, it would be the stem. My hands are more sensitive to vibrations, bumps and everything and the suspension stem makes a big difference for me. But of course, both our products make a big difference.

Gravelbikes.cc: I am asking about that because from my experience I see a lot more solutions for improving comfort at the rear of the bike and only a few for the front end. Why is that?

Calvin: It is very challenging to design something for the front, especially if you want to make it work with all possible handlebars. The other thing is that there are suspension forks widely available (not necessarily for gravel bikes but in general) so for many people, front-end comfort is good enough but in reality, is not that effective when dealing with vibrations. Especially the cheaper forks with a lot of friction. Big bumps are solved but it is not the same as isolating little vibrations. Suspension stem were first on the MTB market and then came to other sports. So for many suspension forks were better than suspension stems but in reality, they were solving different problems.

Gravelbikes.cc: Let’s talk about your suspension stem. Why did you go with the springs solution? There are other options as well (like elastomers) so why do you think that springs are the best for front end comfort?

Calvin: From the start, we decided that we wanted to take our suspension design from the seatpost and use it for the stem. Get the same suspension effect for the hands. For us elastomers alone don’t provide the small bumps absorption we aim to deliver. We have also considered air springs but there was simply not enough space in the stem linkage to fir an air spring, so we did not get very far from there. We also considered using dampers but we wanted to have our product relatively simple and compact and achieving that with added dampers is very challenging. Finally, we went with springs because we wanted to offer something unique from what was already on the market.

Gravelbikes.cc: It looks like the biggest challenge with designing front end suspension is the limited space that you can work with. Adding dampers and other, more complex solutions not only increases the risk of failure but crucially, also demands a much bigger design. And if you don’t have the luxury of designing the suspension system hidden in the head tube (like Specialized Future Shock which in my opinion is still the benchmark in terms of front end comfort) then you simply have to choose one solution and go with it.  

Calvin: Yes, I like the idea of Future Shock from Specialized but our goal is to make products as versatile as possible and this is an aftermarket solution for pretty much any bike. This definitely creates a lot of limitations but we still want to deliver the best possible experience.

Gravelbikes.cc: The biggest issue, in my opinion, when it comes to springs based comfort improving solutions is the bounciness. Not only in terms of suspension stems but also solutions like the Lauf Grit suspension fork. What are the possibilities from the engineering point of view to countering that effect?

Calvin: I agree. Conventionally, a damper is used to control the movement of the suspension and to counteract the bounciness that springs have. Alternatively, if the input frequencies into the suspension are in a relatively narrow range, the spring rate can be tuned so that the resonance frequency is outside of this range. This provides great vibration reduction without causing bounciness. This is the concept that our seatpost and stem are designed around. The trouble is that the more dynamic a riding discipline is, the less suitable our products are because there is no damping to control the input that are outside of the tuning range. A somewhat counterintuitive example in our seatpost is that if the spring rate is too stiff, the resonance frequency will be too high and will overlap with the pedaling frequency, causing significant bounce. So the solution is sometimes actually a softer spring!

Gravelbikes.cc: And what about the advantages of spring based solutions? For me, both your stem and Specialized FutureShock offers a very nice floating sensation, that you are somehow riding above the road imperfections. Is there something else to your stem design and what are the biggest drawbacks that you see and want to address in the future?

Calvin: Yes, apart from this floating sensation there is our linkage design. This is the most advantageous part of our stem design compared to the single-pivot designs because our suspension feel is consistent no matter the handlebar shape of stem length. Also, the handlebars stay level throughout the travel. The thing that I would like to address in the future is the quick rebounds of the stem. The suspension can hit the top-out bumper hard, which is a source of discomfort for some. Finally, there is the weight of our stem, which again, can be a disadvantage for some, but in my opinion, this is not a big deal because it is not a racing product.

Gravelbikes.cc: Let’s move to the rear-end comfort theme. It seems that there are much more options for suspension seatpost on the market. Why is that?

Calvin: I think there is a bigger market demand for seatpost. A lot of bikes come with a front suspension fork that takes the edges of bumps coming through the front wheel, so riders want something for their rear, too. I guess suspension seatpost is just a fairly intuitive product. The difficulty with so many options is that there is a wide range of quality and effectiveness in the other seatpost on the market.

Gravelbikes.cc: Yes, there is a lot of products to choose from when shopping for suspension seatpost. Springs-based solutions, elastomer-based solutions, or flexing carbon products, like Canyon VCLS 2.0. You went with springs. Again. Why?

Calvin: Paul went through a ton of different design variations through the process of creating this seatspost. He always used the springs, steel springs, because they are the most reactive and lowest friction that we can design. And two springs with different stiffness variants offers a lot of tuning possibilities to achieve desired level of suspension by anyone. This makes it a good, very effective design in a relatively simple and durable package.

Gravelbikes.cc: I agree that tuneability is very important and usually when I am reviewing suspension products I spend a lot of time tinkering with the products trying to achieve the best possible effect. With your product, there is a lot of tuning possibilities but for some, this can be also the biggest drawback because I think that many people are just looking for a simple, no-hassle solution and they do not want to waste time for fine-tuning it and in the end, they use product with subpar performance compared to what it can actually do. Do you see that too?

Calvin: Yeah, it is a challenge to make a product that is tuneable but at the same time not too complex because when people have too many options they will start to wonder which one is right for them and they do not want to think that hard about the product. They just want it to work. But I think that creating tuning guides as a starting point helps a lot and solves a lot of potential issues.

Gravelbikes.cc: What next for the stem and seatpost? Do you consider a stem with a negative angle?

Calvin: We got a lot of stuff going on right now. Lots of ideas both for the seatpost and the stem. Our goal is to keep innovating and we always try to make them even more effective, durable, or simply more attractive in terms of look so yes, there will be improvements but I can’t say anything specific at the moment. As for the negative angle, this is definitely possible. It is not something that we heard a lot of requests for but it can be done. In general comfort, the market is usually about a more upright position and for those people, a negative stem angle would be a counterproductive solution. In the end, we will keep listening to our customers and if we see enough requests for a different variant, we will make it happen.

Gravelbikes.cc: You are an engineer dealing with bike comfort. Do you see, apart from suspension stems and seatpost, other areas that should be addressed in near future to achieve an even better level of comfort, especially on gravel bikes?

Calvin: I think that there is room for improvement in gravel forks. Something in between a suspension fork and a rigid fork, something purposely build for gravel riding. That would be definitely an interesting idea but in general, I think that we will see a lot more innovation in the future. Whether it will come from us it remains to be seen but for now, we are focusing on improving the stem and seatpost.

Gravelbikes.cc: I really hope so that there will be more solutions like Lauf Grit fork because, in my opinion, there more comfort the better. As long as it does not kill the fun of the riding. Thank you Calvin for your time and I am eagerly waiting for you to introduce improvements on your products and test them properly both in my LAB and in real-world scenarios!

Calvin: Thanks for having me and for sure, you will get the opportunity to test them the moment they will be ready.