After years of bike companies battling each other over 'stiffest' and 'lightest', the coveted term for 2017 road bikes may be on the other end of the spectrum: 'cushiest'. But what is the best way to get comfortable without sacrificing performance?
Two new road bikes highlight this trend, with wildly different approaches. Abandoning its bolt-on viscoelastic Zertz, Specialized built its new Roubaix with full-on front suspension — using a cartridge design between the stem and head tube. The new Trek Domane, with a flexing fork and frame, doubles down on comfort in its disc iteration, rolling on massive 32mm clinchers.
I gave the Domane SLR 7 Disc five stars, and declared it the best endurance road bike. My colleague Warren Rossiter rode the new Roubaix, gave it five stars, and, you guessed it, declared the bike to be the most impressive endurance road bike yet.
Aside from providing our readers a laugh — you are both our favorite child — the two bikes do bring up an interesting discussion on design philosophy. Namely, should the bike or the rider be suspended?
Trek is hesitant to even call the Domane design suspension, but the big flexing seat tube is in effect a leaf spring, as is, to a lesser degree, the steerer that pivots fore and aft in the bolted headset. In any event, the frameset has some give, while the handlebar remains fixed in relation to the rider.
On the Roubaix, the front end of the bike is fully rigid — but the stem and handlebar ride on cartridge suspension. The bike’s rear is similar to the Domane, but with the cobra-looking CG-1 seatpost offering substantial fore/aft flex.
I was skeptical about the Domane design until I rode it; now I’m sold. I’m not light, but I can stand to climb or sprint on the Domane and the massive BB90-anchored frame doesn’t budge, nor seemingly does the handlebar when really reefing on it. Yet ride over nasty pavement or rough dirt and the bike — especially with low pressure in the fat tires — just floats.
I have not yet ridden the new Roubaix. But this being the internet, I can still present an ignorant, impassioned argument, right? Seriously, though, I’m wary of two things with the Roubaix: the towering stack height and a bobbing handlebar when out of the saddle. I’m eager to see if I’m wrong.
How much is the frameset, and how much are the tires — or something else?
Back when I was editor of VeloNews, we did a lab test of four endurance bikes, measuring vibration with accelerometers while riding on lumpy rollers. The idea was to quantify comfort, as defined by reduction of a fixed level of vibration.
The old Roubaix did the best by a wide margin, largely because it had 25mm tires while the others were shod in 23s. When we swapped wheels and tires the other bikes, like the Bianchi Infinito, were quite similar. (It’s funny that 25s seemed huge when we did that test in 2011.)
You have probably performed similar experiments on a smaller scale with your own bike; less pressure, especially in wider tires, makes for a softer ride, right?
And comfort can certainly be injected into the mix at other points — the wheels, the seatpost, the saddle, the handlebars, the handlebar tape, the gel under the handlebar tape… and on and on.
But there is a limit to how much cushioning each one of these components can offer before a road bike just feels weird. No roadie wants a saddle that feels like a giant feather bed, or handlebars that flex like taffy.
For years, the tires have been the best place to add comfort — go a little wider, reduce a little air pressure — without sacrificing the overall feel of the bike. One of the coolest things about disc brakes on road bikes is how much they open our options for rubber.
Old flex, new flex and lousy hardtails with drop bars
Adding some mechanical squish to a road bike isn’t new. The Pinarello Dogma K8-S with its elastomer rear suspension, for instance, is really just a rehash of the Klein design from 2001. The Cannondale Slate with a suspension fork? RockShox had suspension forks on road bikes at Paris-Roubaix in the early 1990s.
We’ve also seen a number of suspension designs at the stem of a seatpost over the years. The most recent of which is the BodyFloat, which Californian Denise Mueller just used in her 147mph paced land speed record ride.
So why haven’t any of these designs taken hold? If smoother is indeed faster, and everyone likes to be comfortable, then why don’t we see widespread adoption of mechanical suspension on road bikes?
My colleague Oli cracks up at some of the more extreme examples of adventure road bikes, where huge, knobby tires roll on a rigid frame with a short-suspension fork… with drop bars. "At what point is this just a lousy hardtail?" he asks.
Personally, I like seeing builders push the envelope. Even if 99.9% of us will never have a road bike with cartridge suspension, a good majority of us will appreciate the general trend towards making road bikes a little more comfortable.
What do you think? Roubaix, Domane or something else entirely?