Words: Bryan Yates
Consider the rise of suspension gadgetry that has recently shown up on an increasing number of road and gravel bikes. Today’s mixed-surface revolution has given engineers fresh cover to add suspension that would otherwise not be tolerated on drop-bar bikes. We are seeing it built into frames, stems and forks designed exclusively for drop-bar bikes. Aside from keeping our bodies a little more comfortable and less fatigued, frame and fork suspension both offer a critical performance application. Done right, it keeps the bike better connected to the ground, allowing it to roll over bumps rather than being bounced over them. This quest for compliance can, however, precariously straddle the line that divides innovation from gimmick.
As road-race courses have grown ever more challenging and the gravel movement has picked up steam, road bike designers looked to their mountain bike counterparts for inspiration. Belgian cobblestones, Paris–Roubaix pavé and Strade Bianche gravel are the obvious kinds of terrain that had pro teams seeking the technological edge that a little more shock-damping comfort might provide. Like mountain bike trails, these are places where rolling one’s way to the finish is preferable to bouncing there. Keeping the tires on the ground means the bike is more efficiently applying power.
Bike manufacturers have created many technologies in the name of achieving this goal. Trek has tried to address this with its IsoSpeed and IsoCore systems on the Domane SLR. The adjustable rear IsoSpeed uses a two-part seat tube to create frame compliance. Trek has applied that same principle to the bike’s front end too. As the bike hits rough surfaces, the seat and steer tubes move fore and aft to create greater comfort.
Specialized has also pursued its own shock-inspired approach to compliance with its Future Shock system. Unlike Trek, Specialized’s focus is on vertical compliance in the handlebars. Future Shock—originally launched on Specialized’s Roubaix and Ruby bikes—adds 20mm of travel just above the head tube and stem. As the bike passes over rough roads, it moves upward to the hands to soften the blow while maintaining momentum.
Instead of a stand-alone platform, Pinarello has adapted its highly regarded Dogma with rear-suspension, the Dogma K8-S. With elastomer providing 9mm of tunable travel in back, Pinarello claims the K8-S delivers more speed with fewer watts over the Roubaix cobbles. For 2018, Pinarello is launching a new version of the technology, EDSS (Electronic Dogma Suspension System), that can be customized and analyzed with an app while managed in the saddle on your Garmin.
Aftermarket players are getting into the suspension game as well. The ShockStop Suspension Stem by Redshift Sports uses a mechanical pivot system to soften road impact. As the bike passes over bumpy surfaces, the stem pivots up and down with up to 20mm of travel. With adjustable stiffness, the ShockStop stem can accommodate a range of riding styles and fits. It’s also compatible with any bike that uses a standard stem, making it one of the simplest and cheapest ways to add suspension to an existing platform.
Both Lauf and Fox have launched suspension forks to meet the expanding demands of the gravel rider. Washboard descents on a rigid fork are a bone-shaking endeavor. The Lauf Grit is a progressive spring, through-axle fork with 30mm of travel that also has rack mounts. Fox’s 32 Step-Cast AX has 40mm of travel and three-way adjustable firmness settings. Both forks can fit 700 and 650b wheels, making them versatile suspension add-ons. Cannondale’s 650b Slate also debuted with the Lefty Oliver, a fork with 30mm of travel designed specifically for drop-bar adventure.
Though suspension on road bikes is overkill in many situations—like a dose of lithium the experience can feel a little flat, a little less peppy—being able to ride farther, more comfortably over varied terrain is a worthy goal. It’s clear that many cyclists want their bikes to tackle more mixed surfaces with equal deftness on the same ride. Of course, on any road or gravel bike there’s one surefire, simple way to affordably improve shock absorption. Adding higher volume tires should be the first step. Wider tires not only plush-up ride quality, they also improve stability. Judging by the number of new 650b-ready models coming to the market, bike manufacturers clearly concur.
From issue 69.