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.