For the last 15 months, I have been testing dozens of different comfort improving parts as well as gravel bikes to find the best possible combination of comfort and fun. Is my work done? For sure not, but I believe I have managed to create a unique, very comfortable, and fun to ride titanium bike. Let’s meet my benchmark bike!
I have started my comfort journey with a steel Jamis Renegade Exploit bike. It was a good base for creating a comfortable bike. Steel is lively, springy, and offers a lot of compliance. But it was a heavy bike and not the fastest one. This was very apparent when I started testing carbon gravel bikes. So naturally, I wanted something faster but at the same time, I wanted a bike that will allow me to ride with my son using a child seat mounted on a rear rack. Titanium seemed the only logical solution so I went with a titanium bike. I bought the Enigma Escape frame for two reasons. One was the fact that its geometry was very similar to my steel bike and I wanted to maintain this geometry because I really liked it. The other one was… the price. Titanium bikes are very expensive so instantly I had to rule out solutions like Moots or T-Lab, even though they seemed to be great for what I was looking for. Enigma Escape frame is very reasonably priced but at the same time you are not risking much because Enigma itself is making titanium bikes for years, so they know a thing or two about titanium. So I have pulled the trigger in May and it turned out to be the best decision I could make.
Frame and fork
Enigma Escape frame is very lively, springy, but at the same time meaty and very efficient in terms of power transfer. So I got the best of both worlds (comfort and fun meaning fast and agile ride). It is also quite a lite frame (a tad above 1500 g without the fork) so I managed to build a bike well below 10 kg, whereas my Exploit was over 11 kg (believe me, it is a huge difference in terms of how the bike feels!). Titanium also looks very cool and it is very scratch/damage resistant. One time I rested my bike on a steel bench and I did it so poorly that the bike has fallen. Of course, I thought that the frame will be damaged but the only thing that was damaged was the black lacquer of the bench itself. A huge relief and a testament of how great a titanium frame is in everyday usage.
But of course, not everything is perfect. Enigma Escape in size 54 has a rather steep seat tube angle (74 degrees) which combined with a short top tube resulted in the need of putting the saddle way back and this forced me to abandon the Redshift suspension sestpost because it could not allow me to do that sufficiently. The other thing is that the seat tube itself is rather big (31,6 mm) so I ended up using a shim and this is a problem because you need to clean the entire setup quite frequently and use a lot of carbon paste to avoid cracking noises coming from the seat clamp area. For sure I would like to have a 27,2 mm seat tube so I would not need any shim. But it is what it is and the rest of the frame is so good, that you can quickly forget about those minor problems.
I did not buy the frame with the fork because during my testing I found that OPEN U-Turn GravelPlus fork offers outstanding levels of comfort (for a rigid fork) and I wanted to have it in my bike. When I discovered that it comes also in orange, my favorite color, it was a no-brainer for me. I had to have it on my bike and I am very pleased with the results. Despite the fact that this is a straight fork (no bending magic) it really flexes (you can definitely see it) on rough terrain and offers a lot of additional suspension. To be honest, I don’t think that you can get more comfort from a rigid fork, and my tests proved, that even Lauf Grit SL fork can be less effective in some cases than this OPEN fork. A truly remarkable feat indeed form the OPEN!
Seatpost and saddle
The most comfortable seatpost that I have managed to test and review is the Redshift suspension seatpost. So naturally, I wanted to use it on my benchmark bike but as I already mentioned, it does not offer a lot of setback and the clamping mechanism is not great and does not allow you to move your saddle way back. Of course, I wanted it to work so I have installed a longer stem (110 mm) but still, it was not enough and made the bike steering too slow so I abandoned the idea of a Redshift suspension seatpost in my benchmark bike and instead I went with a second-best solution: Canyon VCLS 2.0 seatpost. It offers a very similar level of comfort on fast gravel and loses only on a bumpy forest route (but not by much) and offers a lot of setback and the possibilities of moving the saddle way, way back. On top of that, it is much less springy and lighter and you get a better feel of the bike. So I am happy with this seatpost.
To improve the comfort even further I am using a Sqlab Ergowave 612 Active saddle with the softest (white) elastomer. This saddle was fighting till the end with Brooks C17 carved saddle for the title of the most comfortable saddle and although back then Brooks won, now I am using SQ Lab saddle on a daily basis. Why? Mostly because it feels more sporty and once you get used to its flat shape, it becomes also very comfortable over long distances. I still would give a slight edge to Brooks C17 in that department but at the same time Sqlab saddle encourages you much more to ride fast and I like that. It also looks very cool and does not show any sign of usage whereas you can clearly see signs of wear on Brooks C17 saddle after a couple of months of riding.
Stem, handlebar and the bar tape
Recently I have been testing Cirrus Cycles suspension stem and although it offers more comfort, especially when riding on tops, I still use Redshift’s suspension stem on my benchmark bike. Why? I think it starts to become clear why… Comfort is very important for me, but during my 15 months of testing different bike parts, I realized that comfort that comes at the cost of fun is not what I really want from my bike. Cirrus Cycle stem gives you less control and connectedness with the bike and believe me, you need this especially when you are riding hard on a bumpy terrain. I like to ride fast whatever the road so I need something that will provide not only more comfort to my rides but at the same time, more fun and security that comes from the feeling that you are in control, no matter what. Redshift stem is giving me all of that and in the 100 mm variant, it is very comfortable (the longer the stem the better the results – it is just physics at work here and that is why moving from 90 mm to 100 mm improved the comfort noticeably in my case).
Yet the stem is not the only thing that improves front end comfort of my bike. Coefficient Wave carbon handlebar is doing a lot to keep me comfortable. In two ways. One is the fact that it is made from carbon and it flexes a lot, especially on the drops which translates into a more suspended ride. The other thing is the unique shape of this handlebar. The tops, which are not only raised but also tilted makes for a very comfortable hold. But this shape also promotes multiple hands position so you really have a lot of options to avoid a hand numbness even on the longest rides. Much appreciated benefit of this unique design and I highly recommend this handlebar to anyone!
To improve the comfort even more I use a thick Specialized Roubaix bar tape with the additional gel inserts. No, they are not sold with the tape itself (although they once were) but I strongly suggest buying a proper gel pads no matter how thick or comfortable the bar tape seems. It really makes a huge difference! But why Specialized bar tape? I like the way it feels and grips (without the sticky feel of something like Supacaz Sticky tape). Cinelli Gel Cork tape is slightly more comfortable but also less enjoyable to hold so, at least for now, I am staying with Specialized bar tape.
Wheels and tires
Tires are the single most important thing when comfort is considered. Period. That is why during the last 15 months I spend a lot of time testing different types of tires looking for the best in terms of comfort but also tires that roll fast and provides sufficient level of grip in various conditions. Because, again, comfort alone, without the traction and grip is not good and you have to find the right balance. I have found it in this unique combination:
My front tire is WTB Bayway 700x44c tire (that in reality measures just below 41 mm on 24 mm wide rim). This tire is very comfortable but at the same time, offers surprisingly good grip and rolls very fast. It is also a quiet tire. Great for my mixed terrain usage.
The back tire is Rene Herse Barlow Pass tire. It is a semi-slick tire that measures 39 mm (again on a 24 mm rim) and rolls supremely fast. Combined with much-improved puncture protection that comes from Endurance casing, it gives me a lot of confidence when riding in any conditions. Of course, it is not the most grippy tire, but it is at the back so not only I can live with that but it also gives a more fun ride when you can easily slide the rear wheel. Although, for the snow and muddy conditions that will soon arrive, I will probably change it for the Rene Herse Steilacoom 38c tire. It is a much slower tire, but also much, much more grippy one. And in the Extralight casing, it is also supremely comfortable. The only problem I could face with this tire is a weak puncture protection but we will see…
The wheels I am using on my benchmark bike are Spinergy GX ones. I like them a lot! Not only for the springy feel that comes from unique PBO spokes but also for the toughens itself. I am currently testing Argon 18 Subito e-bike and believe me, its rather standard Vision wheels can withstand much less abuse that my Spinergy wheels, that are yet to show any sign of noticeable side to side movement. Did I also mention that they are quite light for aluminium wheels? Of course, they are not cheap and not easy to service but I am very happy with them and certainly, they will stay with my benchmark bike for a long time. Of course, I have tested carbon wheels as well and I was not blown away by both the comfort and the speed they offered when compared to my Spinergy GX wheels…
For me, comfort and fun are related also to the gearing you have on your bike. For example, I tested many 1x bikes and I found that, although simplicity can be beneficial, the lack of sufficient gearing will ultimately kill the fun of riding (the steps between each gear are too big for my liking, especially when riding on-road). Also, the road-oriented 1x setup is not good enough when climbing really hard. That is why I decided to stay with 2x solution. In my benchmark bike, I use Shimano GRX 810 groupset (31/48 crankset) with Deore XT 11-40 rear cassette. This gives me plenty of options whatever the conditions and the GRX groupset itself offers a great ergonomics, quality of shifting, and more than enough braking power that can be easily modulated. Maybe the new Campagnolo Ekar 1×13 groupset would change my mind but, at least for now, I am happily staying in 2x camp.
The end result
For the last 15 months, I have ridden many top gravel bikes. Some of them were faster than my benchmark bike, some (I am talking about Specialized bike with Future Shock 2.0 suspension) were more comfortable at the front. But overall none of those bikes offered a more compelling package in terms of both comfort and fun of riding. Thanks to a titanium frame, suspension seatpost and stem, great wheels and tires, and things like Wave handlebar I really think I have achieved something special with my benchmark bike.
I am very pleased with both the level of comfort and fun I have but at the same time, I am fully aware, that things still can be better. Like I said, Future Shock 2.0 tops what I have achieved at the front of my bike, and the increasing solutions for semi rear suspension (like KingPin from Cannondale), although not quite there yet, are promising something even better than just an improved comfort: an improved traction. Also, I am very interested in finding how well the new Lefty from Cannondale will perform at the front of the bike. So my quest is not over yet but I am still amazed by the results I managed to achieve in the last 15 months…