There is a lot going on recently in bike industry in terms of improving rear comfort of gravel bikes. Cannondale Topstone Carbon or MBC URS are two most noticeable examples. But I want to make a strong case for the much less obvious trend concerning the front comfort of the bike. Why?
Because my initial tests prove that it is not the back but in front of the bike that we should be now focusing on.
Let’s start with the numbers.
We already see that adding a flexing setpost to the bike (Ergon CF3 Pro carbon) is much less beneficial in overall comfort improvement than adding a flexing stem (Redshift shockstop stem). Of course if you start with much less comfortable bike frame (I have a steel one) and you ride a narrow tires with high air pressure (I run Panaracer Graveling SK 43mm on 700c rim with a air pressure as low as 20 psi) the improvements will be bigger on both sides of the bike but still I think that proportion of those improvements will be quite similar.
But lets put it another way. My favourite chart from Cervelo website (https://www.cervelo.com/en/ride-quality) shows what contributes to the overall riding comfort of a road bike. Consistently it is tires that are most relevant. In terms of rear of the bike the second most important thing is a saddle, then seatpost, shorts and only after those there is a frame itself with a rather modest impact on the overall comfort of the bike (comparable to the wheel). So my point is that if you are already riding on voluminous tires with low air pressure, have a flexing setpost and a comfortable saddle then all the bike manufacturers trickery regarding rear bike suspension will have much less impact on the overall riding comfort that you may initially think of (with a short side note regarding solutions like Cannondale’s Kingpin suspension and BMC’s MMT Micro Travel Technology which, at least in theory, should not only provide an increased amount of comfort but also a better wheel traction which no flexing seatpost will ever do).
But now let’s go back to the numbers once again.
We can easily see that in terms of raw data from the vibration measurement app front of the bike creates roughly from nearly 2 to 4 and a half times more vibration than the back. Of course, you can try to mitigate some of it by easing your hold on the handlebar but this is not the point of my argument. My point is that we are now in the situation where we somehow reached the limits of improving the rear bike comfort while the front of the bike can still be much more improved. How?
A look at Cervelo’s chart reveals that a tire is still important but less than in the back. A lot of comfort (or lack of it to be exact) comes from the fork itself which, apart from solutions like Lauf Grit, cannot be easily improved to provide significantly better comfort. That leaves us with a handlebar comfort inducing solutions. Oddly, there are not many of them right now apart from Giant D-Fuse, Cannondale SAVE handlebar, Canyon odd-looking Hoover bar and Spank Vibrocore handlebars (but the last one focuses more on reducing bad vibrations that providing flex itself).
Moving on with Cervelo’s chart we have arrived at steerer which in general, like the fork itself, is very hard to work with in terms of improving comfort (apart from solutions like Specialized FutureShock). Then we have rather minor things like bar tape and gloves and stem as the last thing. But this can be misleading as my test of Redshift shockstop stem proves. This is no surprise because when other parts cannot contribute much to the comfort, flexing stem is doing all the work. And for now (till I will have an opportunity to test Specialized Diverge with its FutureShock and Lauf Grit fork) for me shockstop stem is the most comfort improving bike addition in terms of the front (of course apart from tires itself).
I really hope that in near future bike manufacturers will shift their focus to the front of the bike and give us a lot more interesting solutions helping us dealing with front end vibrations. Because now for me at least, this is the key obstacle on the road to better gravel bike comfort.