it is all about comfort of gravel riding
Since the beginning of my gravel bike comfort challenge project, I have tested various bike parts and solutions that should improve the overall riding comfort. Not all of them were great but many have found the way to my benchmark bike. I think that the end of the year is a good time to tell you more about the changes I have made to my bike after all of my tests (to see what was my benchmark bike in May please scroll down to read the initial description).
Let’s start with the most important thing – the tires (and the wheels).
Tires are the first line of defense against the vibrations and the better we use them the more comfortable the ride will be. So I experimented both with the tire size, tire pressure, and the different tires just to find the best tire solution. And for now, it seems that I have found the sweet spot in the Soma Cazadero 700x42c tires run at the 28 psi at the back and 25 psi at the front of the bike.
Why Cazadero? Because it is a very supple tire which means it offers a more comfortable ride compared to for example Panaracer GravelKing SK run at the same tire pressure and very comparable width.
Why 700c and not the 650b? The first part of my 650b vs 700c shootout ended with a conclusion that in my benchmark bike 700c wheels and tires were simply more comfortable compared to 650b (even run at a lower air pressure). Soon I will finish the second part of the comparison (this time test will be done on a rigid bike without any suspension additions and the tires will be run tubeless to make sure that inner tubes are not influencing the results in any way) but, at least for now I am not in the 650b bandwagon.
Why so low air pressure? I have experimented a lot with different air pressures. It all started with the realization that a wider / bigger tire has simply more air in it so to make it more comfortable you have to put less. For example, a 700x38c tire run at 30 psi will be very comparable in terms of comfort with a 700x42c tire run at 25 psi. The wider / bigger the tire the less air is needed to achieve the same amount of comfort. But less air means also a higher risk of bottoming out the rims and the not so direct handling, especially in tight corners. So you have to experiment a lot and find the best solution for you. For example, if you want to have a really comfortable ride on a 650bx50 tire you should try air pressure of something like 20 psi (preferably tubeless to avoid pinch flats). If you go even wider, as I did with Soma Cazadero 700c50c or a Schwalbe Thunder Burt 650b 2,25 inch tire, then you can go as low as 15 psi and try if it suits you. As some sort of guidance, I can recommend this chart that I have found on the internet (it shows how much air a tire has depending on the size and width). For me, after all of those testing, a sweet spot, for now, is with 700×42 tire run at 25 psi at the front (for the best possible comfort) and 28 psi at the back (for better traction and less rolling resistance).
It’s time for the fork.
My Jamis Renegade Exploit bike was equipped with a carbon ECO fork (Enhanced Compliance Offset) which, as the name suggests, improves the compliance thanks to the front axle put not in fork line but slightly closer to the rider. During my test of GT Grade Carbon with its Flip Chip fork I fount that indeed this resulted in improved overall comfort. Lauf Grit SL suspension fork also has a front axle put closer to the rider. Combine this with the added springs that offer up to 30 mm of travel and you get a nice comfort improvement so I use Lauf’s fork. It is not ideal though – there is no real dampening there so the energy from the springs has to go somewhere. To get the best results from Lauf Grit fork you have to use low air pressure in the tires and, preferably, something like Redshift suspension stem. In my opinion, only then you can really enjoy the benefits of unique Lauf suspension. For sure, I am enjoying, it but after testing Specialized Diverge Comp with its Future Shock suspension I must say that Lauf Grit is far from an ideal solution and for sure not the cheapest one.
And now, suspension stem.
I am a great fan of this solution. It is clean, maintenance-free and offers a lot of additional comfort. But only if you put a very soft set of elastomers. I was doing a lot of experimenting with different elastomers setups and found out that if you use the ones that are dedicated to your weight (83 kg in my case) you will get only minor comfort improvement. Yet soft elastomers create a lot of unwanted handlebar movement which was quite apparent when I compared it to the aforementioned Future Shock from Specialized (also in its softest setup). So now I still think that Redshift Suspension stem is a very clever and easy solution when you are after a good front end comfort but Future Shock is better. Yes, it is no maintenance-free and you have to buy a whole bike to get it but… it is better, simply because it provides even better comfort without so much of a handlebar movement. Yet, since I am stuck with my steel Jamis Renegade Bike, and I am using Lauf Grit SL suspension fork, the Redshift suspension stem stays with me.
This is the time… for the handlebar!
I am still before the test where I will try to show the handlebar impact on the ride comfort but I already experimented with a few handlebars in terms of ergonomics. In May, I was using a Specialized Hoover Bar with a 15 mm rise (this was before my professional bike fitting session where I found out that my handlebar was too high and too close to my shoulders). It was a good handlebar with a quite big flare (12 degrees) but nothing special. Then I tried something much more special – so special that it was simply unusable. This handlebar was a Spank Vibrocore 12 Flare. It had a unique foam inside that should reduce the vibrations reaching your body but my tests did not show any comfort improvement. It also had flattened tops that should improve ergonomics but it was made in so awkward way that it was simply unusable (if you set up the handlebar in a way that flattened tops were parallel to the ground, the drops was pointing sky). So I had to change the handlebar once more and for now settled with a Zipp Service Course Ergo 70 SL aluminium handlebar. It has a moderate flare (4 degrees) but also a nice back sweep (3 degrees) and slightly flatten tops (which I really like). And most importantly, it is 42 cm wide (center to center) which is a very welcomed change from 44 cm that I was previously using (this change was made after a bike fitting session). In the spring I will test a very unique Wave handlebar from Coefficient and I will compare it to my aluminum Zipp to find out which is more comfortable (both in terms of ergonomics and measured vibrations) but for now, I like my Zipp handlebar…
Did I change the suspension sestpost?
Since May I have tested many different solutions (Kinekt 2,1 based on an adjustable spring, eeSilk based on a 2 cm elastomer and Specialized CG-R with Zerts inserts). But none of them was overall better than my Ergon CF3 Carbon seatpost. Why? For me, it offers the best suspension feel. Yes, Kinekt 2,1 in the softest setup is more comfortable, but it is also much more bouncy and prone to bottoming out. Cane Creek eeSilk on the other hand, although it has no bounciness at all, is also harsher in terms of the suspension movement (for me it should have a slightly bigger elastomer to ease out the end of the movement). And the Specialized CG-R is only good for a high-frequency road chatter and almost useless when you are riding on a very bouncy road. There is one more contender just around the corner (a Redshift suspension sestpost which I will be testing in the coming weeks) but for now, Ergon CF3 (aka Canyon VCLS 2,0) is, in my opinion, the best suspension seatpost you can buy. Yes, it induces some bounciness and there are no possible adjustments, but the suspension movement itself is the most pleasing one (it works smoothly without harshness and the level of bounciness is very acceptable, at least for me).
Still with the Brooks C17 Carved saddle?
Yes, my saddle shootout showed that it offers the best overall level of compliance and at the same time, the best fit for my bottom. But SQ Lab 612 Ergovawe Active saddle was awfully close in beating my Brooks. This is a very clever saddle with its elastomers put on both sides that allows for a natural side to side movement of your hips and by this creating a very comfortable ride. It also encourages you to go fast and the only drawback is that after a few hours of ride it started to bother me slightly (it is a very thin and firm saddle) but I still have it and will use it occasionally for sure. It feels great but overall, Brooks C17 fits me better.
Any other changes?
No, I am still very satisfied with my Speedplay Frog pedals (my review of them is coming soon) and with the gearing, I created by swapping an 11-32 chainset for a much wider 11-40. It works beautifully with a Shimano 105 7005 long cage rear derailleur and the only thing that may change my mind in terms of gearing is the new Sram Eagle AXS 1×12 groupset that is slowly, but steadily gaining traction in a gravel bikes world (I can’t wait to test one).
Yet, the thing that, surprisingly for me, I am less satisfied now that I was in May is the steel frame of my bike. Back then I was convinced that steel is the only solution in terms of comfortable gravel riding but bikes like carbon Specialized Diverge Comp has changed my mind. Now I think that a good carbon frame, supplemented with a solution like Future Shock and (ideally, something like a Cannondale KingPin rear suspension) will be better than any steel bike and most importantly, it will be much faster and, dare to say it, more fun to ride. Hopefully, in the near future, I will have the opportunity to test more of those suspended carbon gravel bikes to see if indeed this is true but for now, my love for steel is quickly fading away…
Below you will find the description of my benchmark bike made in May.
My quest for the most comfortable gravel bike possible begun in 2016 with buying a steel Jamis Renegade Exploit.
I decided to go with a steel frame because it was perceived as the most forgiving material for gravel. And this is true – the amount of flex and the vibration taming properties of steel frame provides a very unique and plush ride.
My first upgrade was an Ergon CF3 Pro Carbon seatpost. A unique looking seatpost with so much visible flex that you feel like riding on a big plush tire. For some, the amount of flex is too much but I am very happy with it.
To increase the comfort, even more, I also purchased a Brooks C17 saddle. It is a very comfortable saddle with a lot of flex build in.
Having dealt with the rear of the bike I then moved to the front and bought a Redshift Shockstop suspension stem. With a most comfortable elastomer setup dedicated to drop bar it brought a lot of additional comfort to my rides.
Then I moved to the tires itself. Jamis Renegade Exploit comes with 35 mm tires so naturally I wanted to go wider and bought a pair of Panaracer GravelKing SK 43 tires. It made a lot of difference, especially when I go as low as 20 psi (even without tubeless setup!). Usually, I ride about 25 psi but soon I will try to convert my rather narrow (17 mm inner width) Alex rims to tubeless to see if I can gain even more comfort from that setup.
For me comfort is mostly about reducing vibrations but also a general fatigue and that is why I also changed my handlebar to a Specialized Hover Expert with 15 mm rise to get more upright position on my bike (I am usually between sizes and I have chosen a smaller one which naturally is a more aggressive one).
Also to preserve my knees from injuries I bought a fantastic Speedplay Frog CrMo pedals that allow a free leg movement.
Finally, to get more comfortable on steep hills I changed the rear cassette from 11-32 to 11-40 Shimano Deore which also required changing the rear derailleur to a long cage Shimano 105 R7000 GS. It all works perfectly in that combination.
If you know any other comfort inducing solutions please let me know. I will try to test it for you. To do so please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.