I have tested different handlebars, suspension stems and various forks to find out the best possible combination in terms of front end comfort. But there is one more thing that can increase comfort at the front of the bike. Yes, bar tape. During my testing, I managed to try various different bar tapes and now it is time for me to tell you which is the best when comfort is considered.
My first benchmark bike (Jamis Renegade Exploit) came with Fizik Superlight Microsoft Touch bar tape that I thought was a very comfortable bar tape. But then I did not know that underneath this tape were hidden gel pads and mostly they were responsible for the very good level of comfort. I know this because when Fizik bar needed a replacement, I changed it to Supacaz Super Sticky Kush bar tape. Unfortunately, I could not reuse those gel pads so it was only Supacaz responsible for the overall level of comfort at the handlebar. As a result, I thought that I was not that comfortable with my new bar tape. So I bought a new pair of gel pads and in combination with a thick Supacaz bar tape, I was very happy with the overall comfort. Why I am talking about this? Because my first and the most important advice in terms of choosing comfortable bar tape is to buy good gel pads first. Seriously, they improve the overall comfort significantly and I see no point in using only a bar tape if you are after comfort. No matter how thick the bar tape, nothing will fully supplement the benefits of having gel pads under your hands.
The other thing that I found trying to measure the level of vibrations when using various bar tape is that my methodology is not precise enough to really show any real difference. I could not even measure the difference between using and not using gel pads (which subjectively made a very significant difference). The main reason behind this is the fact that I had to measure the vibrations when riding on tops (where I hold the bar tape) and measuring vibrations on the tops is not accurate enough (because when on tops you put only little weight on the handlebar and your hands are moving freely generating a lot of vibrations that do not translate into more rough ride because your arms simply works as a great suspension for the rest of your upper body). So in this article, you will not find any results from my measurement and instead, I will solely focus on my subjective feelings. Both in terms of the comfort provided by the different bar tapes and the feel when you hold them in your hands (I will also talk a little bit about the wrapping experience).
This is the bar tape by many considered as the most comfortable one and this is the main reason I bought it in the first place. It is a thick tape (30 mm) that has a layer of Kush foam that improves the overall level of comfort. But the selling point of this tape is its very sticky outer layer. Some love it. I am not a fan because it is too sticky for my liking and attracts a lot of dirt (so the black color seems the only reasonable choice with this tape). Sure, you can easily ride with this tape without gloves, and even when wet or with sweaty hands you have a great sense of control but the overall feeling is not that pleasant. At least not for me. The other thing is the wrapping – this tape is stiff and it does not like stretching so you will have to be very cautious when wrapping it to get the desired effect. Also, the edges of this tape simply does not look good (in my opinion this Supacaz tape offers the least clean look of all tapes I have tested). Yet, it is a very comfortable bar tape in terms of reducing vibrations. Use it with good gel pads and it will be as good as it can get when comfort is considered.
Cinelli Gel Cork Tape
This was my next tape after Supacaz and it was a true revelation! It is very thick and thanks to heavy usage of Vibra absorb foam you get the comfort level very comparable to Supacas Super Sticky Kush tape but in the much more enjoyable package. The wrapping is much easier, the effect is cleaner and you still get a lot of grip from the outer layer. The cork surface can be slightly irritating in touch for some (at the beginning it was also for me) but you can use it and easily ride without the gloves. The additional benefit of this tape is the best tear-resistance of any tested tapes. You can easily wrap it many times and still get satisfactory effects. I know this because when I tested the Wave handlebar I had to rewrap it many times and Cinelli Ger Cork tape was taking it very well! It is also one of the least expensive tapes which makes it a great choice when you don’t want to spend a lot of money on bar tape. And it is the best proof that you really don’t need to…
Lizard Skins DSP 3.2
This tape, on the other hand, is one of the most expensive. It is famous for its Lizard Skin look and feel. And rightfully so because its surface is very nice to touch and hold, no matter the conditions. It is less sticky than Supacaz but still very good at keeping your hands on the handlebar without the unwanted, sticky feeling. It also looks good and I would not hesitate to buy this tape in any color, even white (although, I think that buying white is only for those who really can take care of their tape on daily basis). DuraSoft surface and 32 mm of thickness make this handlebar very comfortable although slightly less than the previous two. The wrapping process is not that difficult like with Supacaz but also not that easy like with Cinelli. You can also rewrap this tape couple of times if you need to. But is this Lizard Skin really worth the premium you are paying for this tape? In my opinion, no. Yet I can totally understand those who fall in love with this look. It is really good!
Specialized S-Wrap Roubaix
This bar tape is currently on my benchmark bike and I have to say that it grows on me every day. It is quite cheap and offers a quite unique 40 mm wide variant (which I have). The wrapping was very easy although I was surprised that the extra-wide variant is significantly shorter than the standard, 30 mm one so when you have a handlebar like my Wave one, you still have to be very careful with the overlapping. Then there is the grippy suede finish. This is the biggest surprise for me because at first, I was not fun of it but after a couple of rides, I started to really enjoy it. This finish is quite grippy and works well without the gloves. When wet, it is less enjoyable but still quite usable and it stays clean for much longer than something like Supacas Super Sticky Kush tape. And how about the comfort? The thick vibration-absorbing EVA foam works really well and this tape is easily on the Lizard Skins 3.2 mm level and very close to the best like Cinelli Gel Cork Tape. S-Wrap in many ways is very similar to the Cinelli Gel Cork tape, both in terms of the grip, wrapping, and the overall comfort. The only difference is a slightly different sensation when touching them (for me, S-Wrap is slightly more pleasant). What is important when buying S-Wrap now is the fact that Specialized used to sell this tape with 4 gel pads and now you get only the tape. Honestly, I was disappointed at first but the tape itself is comfortable enough and you can always (and definitely should) buy gel pads separately.
Coefficient Wave bar tape
This tape is unique for two reasons. One, it is the length. It was made by Coefficient to allow for easy wrapping of their Wave handlebar (which demands the longest possible tape). The other thing is its thickness (this is by far the thinnest tape in this comparison). So how well it performs in comparison to the much thicker tapes that I have already tested? The answer is not that easy. Thin tape, even with gel pads is definitely less comfortable. But Wave bar tape is very long so you can wrap it very tidy and in the result, got something like two layers of tape. Then, the comfort is definitely improved but still, I don’t think that is on par with the best in this test (mainly Cinelli and Supacaz). Wave bar tape is by far the easiest and the most enjoyable to wrap but also, it is the least tear-resistant of all tapes that I used. Forget about rewrapping it a couple of times (or even one if you will be not careful enough). The wave bar is the best in terms of the overall feel. Sticky, but not overly sticky, soft, and very pleasant in touch. A real joy to hold. And it is not that expensive which definitely is a plus!
What is the best bar tape in my opinion? I am currently using Specialized S-Wrap Roubaix tape and to be honest, I don’t feel the need for changing it even though it is not the most comfortable in terms of reducing vibrations. It is comfortable enough and combined with proper gel pads it gives me enough comfort. It is also nice to hold the tape and it is well priced. But when I will need to replace it I think I will go back to Cinelli Gel Cork Tape. This is also an inexpensive tape that offers a great level of comfort and everyday usability. So if I had to choose one, I would go with Cinelli. This may be a surprising result for many, but it shows that sometimes you really don’t need to buy the most expensive tape to ger the most desired level of comfort…