there is a lot you can do to enjoy your rides more…
For the previous couple of months, I have been testing different bike parts and measuring their impact on comfort in terms of lowering the perceived riding vibrations. Below you will find a short summary of my findings and a list of questions that I still need to find the answer to…
Does supple tire really make a supple ride?
In short answer: Yes!
For years I have been reading reports stating that this tire is much more supple than that tire and it improves the overall comfort dramatically. Finally, I have managed to test that opinions by comparing a not so supple Panaracer GravelKing SK 700x43c tire with much more supple Soma Cazadero 700x42c tire. The results are very clear: both in terms of slow but very bumpy forest ride and fast gravel grinding the more supple Cazadero tire provided up to 13,4% less vibration than a GravelKings. The best results were on the forest route where the tire could really show its flexing abilities. On gravel, the improvement was much more modest but still up to 6%.
Does a wider tire bring much more comfort?
In short answer: It depends…
To find out if this is true I pushed my benchmark bike to its very limits and installed a 700x50c GravelKing SK tires. The results were not conclusive. Generally, at 30 psi, a wider and bigger 50c GravelKing tire did not bring any improvement over my standard 43c variant in terms of the front of the bike and 2,4% less vibration in the rear while riding in the forest but a whopping 9% more vibration when riding on a fast gravel route. So the bigger tire offered just slightly more cushioning with bigger bumps but on a fast gravel route, the vibrations were somehow enhanced by more air in the tire. The amount of air in the tire is the key aspect here because when you run 43c and 50c tire with the same air pressure the bigger tire has more air and thus, in theory, the stiffness of the tire is bigger. To compensate that you should run a bigger tire with lower air pressure and you can do that with a bigger tire more easily without worrying about bottoming out too soon (or encounter a pinch flat). But when you already are riding 43c tire (which is a sweet spot size in my opinion) you don’t need to worry about bottoming out at 30 psi so you will have to run a bigger tire with even lower air pressure to achieve some improvement and this is a risky tactics because at for example 20 psi tire starts to affect handling quite badly. To have a more decisive conclusion I will try to run a similar test in the future but this time using a much more supple Soma Cazadero tire in 700x50c variant (and compare it to 42c version) but I think that for now we can assume that going from something like 35c to 43c combined with lowering air pressure to something like 30 psi will be beneficial in terms of comfort but going even wider will not bring you any improvement unless you are willing to ride tire with a very low air pressure (which bigger tire will allow you more easily).
Should we all lower our tire air pressure?
In short answer: YES! YES! YES!
To be honest I am constantly amazed by people not wanting to try and experiment with their tire air pressure. Yes, maybe (but this is not a certain thing) you will be a tad slower, but riding a tire at something like 30 psi (which in my opinion is the best compromise between safe riding characteristics and the comfort) can dramatically improve your overall comfort. It is enough to lower air pressure from 40 psi to 30 psi to see more than 32% comfort improvement (fewer vibrations) in the front of the bike and 17% in the rear. This was achieved on my benchmark bike with Panaracer GravelKing SK 43c tire.
Should we all jump on the 650b bandwagon?
In short answer: not really, but I need to do more tests to really know.
I have bought a 650b set of wheels and mounted on them a Panaracer GravelKing SK 650bx48 tires. My initial observations (based on my benchmark bike equipped with suspension stem and flexing seatpost) are that a smaller wheel but a more voluminous tire (compared to 700x43c) run at 30 psi does not change the comfort of the bike dramatically in any way. Moreover, I feel that a bigger impact is felt more due to the fact that the bigger wheel simply rolls over on tree roots with more ease. Of course when you set up the tires tubeless and use air pressure as low as 20 psi then you will feel the difference compared do 700x43c tire run at 30 psi. But then you will definitely feel the tire moving in the tide corners and this is a feeling that I am not very fond of. In a couple of weeks, I will post the final results of my testing but for now, I am not convinced that 650b is the best answer on the road to the max comfort…
Does a tubeless setup improve comfort?
In short answer: I don’t think so.
I have conducted a lot of testing and the results were so mixed that I simply gave up trying to evaluate that. Or in other words: my testing methodology is simply not accurate enough to measure so small (if any) difference in terms of comfort. So in general tubeless setup can be perceived as a more comfortable due to the ability to run at a very low air pressure (compared to inner tubes) but when you compare both setups at the same 30 psi air pressure I simply could not perceive any real difference in terms of reducing vibrations.
Can you expect a comfort difference between different forks?
In short answer: Yes, but a very slim one.
I am currently testing a GT Grade Carbon bike with its flip chip fork so I had an opportunity to measure a possible difference. To my surprise, there was a small but measurable difference between the forward and backward position of the wheel. If you think of it (and when you look at a fork of my benchmark bike – Jamis Renegade which uses an ECO Compliance fork) there is something beneficial in putting wheel slightly back. From my understanding when fork and wheel are in the same line the hits go straight to the handlebar but when the wheel is moved back than the fork itself bends more reducing slightly the impact force before it reaches the handlebar. If you look and a Lauf Grit fork you will quickly notice that apart from suspension itself, the wheel is also moved far back and thus promotes more compliance. I am currently testing Lauf’s fork so stay tuned for the results!
Should we put more attention to the wheels itself?
In short answer: I don’t know. Yet!
I have read a lot of reviews saying that this wheel is much stiffer and unforgiving and that wheel is providing a lot of flex. I don’t know if this can be measured with my testing methodology but for sure I would like to try and compare both comfortable aluminum wheels (for example based on a Spank Vibrocore rim) with a carbon one and see if I can tell the difference. What I can say now is that a smaller wheel (650b) can be perceived as a harsher due to the fact that it is simply smaller and thus offers less flex that a bigger 700c one. Yet again, I don’t know if this is only a subjective feeling or I will be able to measure it with my vibration measuring app.
Should we buy a flexing/vibration reducing handlebar?
In short answer: I still need to find out!
One of the few remaining things that I definitely want to test is the impact of the handlebar itself. I am interested in testing both solutions like Giant D-Fuse handlebar with a significant flex and handlebars like Spank Vibrocore Wing 12 which are advertised as a vibration-reducing handlebar. I am aware that this may be very hard to measure with my methodology but still, I want to try to feel the difference.
Should we put more attention to the handlebar tape, shorts and gloves?
In short answer: I don’t know yet.
This is another aspect of improving riding comfort that I need to evaluate. But I am not in a big rush for it because from many different articles about bike compliance I have learned that the impact of handlebar tape, bike shorts and gloves may be very hard to measure with my phone vibration app. Yet for sure I will try and at least tell you about my subjective feelings.
How much comfort can you gain from the saddle?
In short answer: A lot, but not necessarily in terms of vibrations dampening.
I have tried to test different saddles in terms of vibrations but (just like with the tubeless vs inner tubes comparison) I found out that my measuring tools are probably not accurate enough to make a fair judgment. What I can say is that the more firm saddle the more work has to be done (and it is done) by a flexing seatpost or flexing seatstays of GT Grade Carbon which somehow compensates for the harshness of the saddle itself. What I can also say is that apart from the vibrations itself – choosing the right saddle is crucial to your overall riding comfort (which should be no surprise to any experienced bike rider). I have tried many different saddles and right now I use Brooks C17 saddle which fits me best but a saddle is a very personal thing so try different ones yourself before you choose the one you really like.
How much comfort can we gain from a well-engineered frame?
In short answer: a lot!
For now, I had only two bikes tested (my steel Jamis Renegade and a carbon GT Grade) but based on this small sample I can already tell you that a good steel made frame can so much vibration dampening that even the newest and latest advances in carbon technology have a hard time catching up. Still, I have to say that the flexing seatstays of the new GT Grade is a technological marvel. It gives so much compliance that you simply do not need to add anything like a flexing seatpost or a big tire to stay seated and enjoy the comfortable ride no matter the surface. So yes, a frame matters and I am looking forward to testing more bikes with frames designed to improve comfort (like a Topstone Carbon bike).
Should you use a flexing seatpost?
In short answer: Yes! Unless you ride a new GT Grade Carbon 😊
My test shows that a flexing Ergon CF3 Carbon seatpost provides up to 8% comfort improvement on my very comfortable steel Jamis Renegade frame (for sure it feels like much more!). So there is a high probability that with much stiffer (especially aluminum frame) you will get even better results. But is this the best solution in terms of a suspension seatpost? We will find out soon enough when I will get for testing a Kinekt spring-based suspension seatpost and (in a few weeks time) a similar solution from Redshift sports.
Should you buy a suspension stem?
In a short answer: Definitely! No question about it!
From my testing experience and all the knowledge, I have gathered I can honestly say that buying a suspension stem like Redshift Shockstop stem is a single best thing (apart from simply lowering your tire air pressure) that you can do to improve your front end comfort. It is also one of a very few solutions aimed to improve front comfort (apart from a FutureShock from Specialized and a suspension Lauf Grit fork). It will be a very interesting comparison between Redshift stem and Lauf Grit Fork (which I am currently testing) and a FutureShock installed on Specialized Diverge (which I should test very soon) but for now I will say this again and again: If you are in desperate need of front end comfort of your bike just buy suspension stem and feel a real difference (up to 30% less vibration in the softest setup is a huge and very perceptible improvement!).