Do road bikes need sus­pen­sion?

More new road bikes are com­ing fit­ted with some form of sus­pen­sion unit. Is this mar­ket­ing gone mad or a vi­sion of the fu­ture?

Cyclist - - Lead Out | Talking Point - Words PETER STU­ART

‘We en­listed the help of Mclaren to un­der­stand if mak­ing the ride smoother is ac­tu­ally faster and, us­ing their sim­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy, we were able to prove that it is’

hy would I want sus­pen­sion on a road bike?

It’s not such a new con­cept. Greg Le­mond used a Rock­shox sus­pen­sion fork while rac­ing on cob­bles in 1991, be­fore Gil­bert Du­c­los-las­salle won Paris-roubaix us­ing the sys­tem in 1992 and 1993. But, these days, some man­u­fac­tur­ers see enough po­ten­tial gains in com­fort and speed that they’re in­tro­duc­ing it to nor­mal road rid­ing.

‘When we first thought of sus­pen­sion for road bikes, we wanted to give the rider a lit­tle more com­fort, but we’ve also seen gains in speed too,’ says John Cor­doba, road prod­uct manager at Spe­cial­ized. As a re­sult, the com­pany’s Roubaix and Diverge bikes in­clude Fu­tureshock – a tiny sus­pen­sion unit, sit­ting above the head tube, that al­lows the stem up to 20mm of ver­ti­cal travel.

Trek also be­lieves speed and com­fort gains are to be had from sus­pen­sion, go­ing as far as in­stalling its Isospeed de­cou­pler sys­tem in its aero­dy­namic race ma­chine, the Madone.

How does sus­pen­sion make me faster?

By smooth­ing out the bumps. ‘We en­listed the help of Mclaren to un­der­stand if mak­ing the ride smoother is ac­tu­ally faster and, us­ing their sim­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy, we were able to prove that it is,’ says Spe­cial­ized’s Cor­doba.

This is partly down to the fact that it re­duces fa­tigue. ‘Sus­pen­sion takes those road vi­bra­tions away from the hands, neck, fore­arms and triceps and, as a re­sult, we’ve seen peo­ple be able to go longer,’ says Cor­doba.

On per­fectly smooth roads, this wouldn’t be an is­sue. But on the rut­ted and pot­holed roads we all know and love, the re­duc­tion of road buzz – pro­vided by sus­pen­sion – helps the rider con­serve en­ergy. ‘Sus­pen­sion, on any plat­form, helps pre­serve mo­men­tum over ob­sta­cles, to keep your speed up,’ Cor­doba adds.

There is also an el­e­ment of trac­tion added by the in­tro­duc­tion of sus­pen­sion – it can im­prove grip and han­dling on less-than-smooth ter­rain.

How is road sus­pen­sion dif­fer­ent?

‘On a moun­tain bike you ob­vi­ously have much big­ger ob­sta­cles – big drops, big rocks – but you’re still us­ing the sus­pen­sion for mo­men­tum and com­fort,’ says Cor­doba.

Brands such as Spe­cial­ized, Pinarello and Trek have de­vised new, lighter weight units in­stead of retrofitting ex­ist­ing sys­tems.

‘Ped­alling ef­fi­ciency and frame stiff­ness are more im­por­tant on a road bike than on a moun­tain bike, while the ter­rain re­quires less sus­pen­sion,’ ex­plains Ger­ard Vroomen, co-founder of Cervélo and owner of Open Cy­cles. ‘This means you will need to find a sys­tem that sac­ri­fices noth­ing (or very lit­tle) in ped­alling ef­fi­ciency and frame stiff­ness.’

What sort of sys­tem works best on road bikes?

Sus­pen­sion can be at the front or back, in the form of springs, hy­draulic cylin­ders or com­press­ible poly­mers. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are tak­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches.

‘With “smoother is faster” in mind, we wanted to fo­cus on the front end,’ says Cor­doba. ‘Es­sen­tially, when the front wheel hits an ob­sta­cle, you want the bike to move over it with­out los­ing speed.’

Spe­cial­ized has its Fu­tureshock, Trek has its front Isospeed de­cou­pler, which al­lows the steerer tube to move within the head tube, and Fox has pro­duced air-sprung sus­pen­sion forks specif­i­cally for road/gravel bikes (see p19). But some man­u­fac­tur­ers have fo­cussed on the back of the bike. Wilier has its Ac­ti­flex sys­tem, and Pinarello has the DSS 1.0 unit that sits be­tween the K10S’S seat tube and seat­stays.

‘Usu­ally on rough ter­rain, pro riders shift their weight onto the rear wheel, un­load­ing the front wheel,’ ex­plains Mas­simo Polo­ni­ato, R&D en­gi­neer at Pinarello. ‘Con­sid­er­ing that, we chose to work on the rear of the bike.’ Which is best? As Vroomen puts it: ‘The bot­tom line is that for MTB this has all been fig­ured out al­ready; for road it has not.’

Are there any dis­ad­van­tages?

Keen-eyed tech nerds will no­tice some brands have tri­alled sus­pen­sion sys­tems with pros, only for riders to re­vert to con­ven­tional frames.

‘Sus­pen­sion or no sus­pen­sion is al­ways a bal­ance be­tween the added weight of the sys­tem, the de­crease in ped­alling stiff­ness due to the sys­tem – mean­ing the flex in the links and piv­ots – and de­creases in ped­alling ef­fi­ciency as it in­ter­acts with the sus­pen­sion,’ Vroomen ex­plains.

‘I think all riders want to make sure this new tech­nol­ogy doesn’t take away from the other per­for­mance as­pects that they want from a road bike,’ says Cor­doba. For now, even though Spe­cial­ized’s re­search sug­gests there are speed gains to be had on tar­mac, the pros will likely use sus­pen­sion only on rough ter­rain.

Will all road bikes have sus­pen­sion one day?

‘I think that we’re go­ing to start see­ing more and more brands com­ing out with dif­fer­ent kinds of sus­pen­sion on road bikes,’ says Cor­doba.

That said, Vroomen ar­gues that there may be a sim­pler so­lu­tion. ‘Get big­ger tyres,’ he says. ‘That’s a form of sus­pen­sion – it weighs lit­tle, the frame stiff­ness re­mains the same, and it has added ben­e­fits in grip and han­dling.’

The fu­ture is springy, but, as for the form it will take, we’ll have to wait… in sus­pense.

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