Contact points maketh the bicycle

If you’re a veteran of  bike reviews in the cycling press, you will have noted that there’s an awful lot of hogwash spouted therein; “the inherent springiness of steel”; “one can feel the shock absorbing qualities of those titanium saddle rails”; “the space age nano-technology in that silica tyre compound makes for a plush ride, even at 120psi”.

I’d like to say that, given more than a minute to think, no-one would buy this crap. A whole psuedo-science has sprung up around frame materials, tyre compounds and the like, which detracts from the glaring if unglamorous fact that what affects the perceived ride quality of any bicycle are its contact points; and by this I mean the bits that are in contact with the ground and the rider.

Despite the received wisdom of the bike press, the plushness you feel when riding a quality steel frame probably isn’t coming from any inherent properties of the frame itself. More likely it’s the thick bar tape, the cush in those 32mm tyres or the shape of that well worn-in B17 that’s isolating your lower back and wrists from the ‘thousand natural shocks’ of an average ride.

As much as tyre manufacturers would like to convince you that the highly evolved rubber compounds and mithril-like tyre casings of their expensive, top-end tyre is giving you that magic-carpet, perpetual motion feeling, it’s more likely that it’s the cheap-as-chips air inside the tyre that’s providing that feeling of cush.

I’m an natural-born bike tinkerer and this has led me to try many different combinations of handlebar, tape, grips, stems, saddles, pedals and tyres on my bikes. This experience has taught me that you can completely change the comfort and dynamics of a bike by changing its contact points.

A recent case in point: I’ve just swapped out the original quill pedals on my junk-shop find ten speed Peugeot, replacing them with a pair of my favourite pedals – DX style concave platform pedals. This is the last in a series of changes I’ve made to the bike – a low-end ‘racer’ bike from the late eighties, made from plain old steel and with bottom of the pile but honest to goodness components. All of the changes I’ve made to the bike (bar a wheel swap due to a dodgy rear wheel) have been to the contact points:

  • Gel padded bar tape for shock absorbency
  • Leather saddle for tailored comfort and breathability
  • Wide as the frame will allow 35mm tyres – enabling me to run them at around 60psi, as opposed to 100psi for 25mm hoops
  • Wide, grippy and supportive pedals which approximate the size of human feet.

These upgrades are all ergonomic – they’re all to do with interface between the bicycle and I, and the bicycle and the earth. I feel sure that these modest upgrades to this modest bike have more effect on comfort (and therefore ‘performance’) than a host of high-tech, weight-weenie indulgences.

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8 thoughts on “Contact points maketh the bicycle

  1. Stephen

    I’m sure one of the arguments from Thorn for the tandem designs that they use is that wide tyres are as fast or faster than skinny on all but the smoothest of surfaces. Bigger tyres seem to soak up some bumps which allow you to keep pedaling consistently rather than hoping in and out of the saddle to go over the lumps.

    1. livinginabox

      Stephen,
      Skinny tyres are almost certainly faster than fat tyres on smooth surfaces.
      However, in the real world, roads aren’t perfect and have numerous surface imperfections that deviate above and below the (lost for ‘les mots juste’) mean road surface. This means that with virtually incompressible tyres the bicycle and rider’s masses have to be raised and the cyclist has to provide this energy. Whereas, with fat tyres, this effect is greatly reduced. The related effect: that of lifting the whole body with each step is why walking a given distance requires around two to three times the energy than gentle cycling the same distance.
      Note: Fat tyres tend to have higher rolling resistance.

      I think it’s fair to say that:
      For out and out speed a cyclist needs skinny tyres and an athlete’s physique.
      For everyday cycling on everyday roads, a cyclists needs fat tyres and a normal physique.

  2. I’ve never owned a quality steel frame
    nor a quality aluminum frame for that matter
    but I have ridden aluminum and hi-ten steel frames
    in direct comparison
    with non-leather non-Brooks saddles
    and narrow tyres or tires
    and the ride difference in frame materials
    is immediately apparent.
    I don’t doubt the other variables
    mitigate the stiffness of any ride
    but you won’t get me on an aluminum frame
    unless it’s a Caminargent

  3. dilys

    I agree with Seamus, aluminium frames are a ‘dead’ ride compared to steel. On the tyre issue raised, the Scwalbe website has a whole lot of data on rolling resistance and their two inch Big Apple low pressure tyre scores very well.

  4. Geoff

    I couldn’t agree more. I find the all pervading marketing hype and pseudo science quite tiresome. I steadfastly resist any tendancy to over-complicate what is for me the beautifully simple activity of cycling. Like you I think it is important to get the contact points right, to make sure the pedal/saddle/handlebar triange fits well, and the bike is finely adjusted and lubed. Once these bases are covered, the only thing left to do is to pick some great routes and get out there!!

  5. George Krpan

    I think steel does ride better and that one of the reasons that it does is because of it’s extra mass. More mass, more vibration absorption, less vibration reaching the rider.
    Bigger tires are also heavier tires and are more comfortable due to the extra mass AND air volume.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Thanks Ryan. The pug is now with a new owner but I’m currently riding an equally lovely Raleigh Clubman. Check out my latest posts for details!

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