As I trawl Instagram on a daily basis (that in itself is a problem) I’m confronted with some gorgeous looking bike builds with big money spent. Yet quite regularly they fail in respect to function over form, dripping in brand hype but looking like a bone shaker. I can’t help but focus straight in on the areas of the bike that deliver the comfort and think “are you actually going to be riding that?”.
So the way I see it there are five areas you need to focus on to maximise your riding comfort on a rigid bike. This does exclude bike fit though, we are talking strictly componentry here. Bike fit and body to bike geometry are a key factor that work hand in hand with the parts fitted to a bike. It’s no benefit to have your reach, saddle, bars positions all set correctly if the bike is like riding an anvil down a set of steps.
Before we get into those five areas, I want to get the fact that I’m not including the frame out of the way. Despite all the marketing hype thrown out at the launch of every new bike there are minimal gains to be had in comfort from a standard rigid frame, regardless of the material it is made from. They all have to be strong enough to carry the same weight (as mass produced bikes always work to a bare minimum of heaviest rider/load) and rigid bikes are mainly a truss design (double triangle). The only thing that differs is the strength to weight ratio of the frame material and, in turn, how much of the material you have to use to make a frame strong enough for general consumption. For example: to make a frame strong enough not to fold under normal use it would weigh circa 2.5kg for steel, 1.75kg for aluminium, and 1.25kg in carbon. They all have to work under the same conditions, ie carry weight directly downward through the seat tube, suspended at each end on the axle mounts (like a bridge). Frames are specifically designed to hold the weight of the rider and withstand impacts with no deflection in the vertical plane. If they did the wheelbase/seat angle/head angle would constantly change causing some very weird riding characteristics and the frame would likely snap. Where a frame can differ with materials used is in how stiff the truss is laterally for power transmission, but this doesn’t really relate to comfort. Unless you were to ride the bike standing up with weight only on one foot. Stiffness in this plane is highly debated though, especially by the likes of Jan Heine on the subject of “planing” – the ability of frame flex to assist higher rider power output….. but that’s a whole other story!
So essentially if you are looking for comfort from a rigid bike don’t spend too much time worrying about frame material, they aren’t going to be discernibly different they’ll just vary in weight and price. Looking at the following though will make all the difference ……..
Seatpost and Saddle
Simply, a seatpost is joined to the frame at one end. The seat clamp. The saddle end is suspended in mid air with your favourite perch attached to it. If you aren’t maximising the opportunity to gain comfort here….. you are missing out. The greater the length of exposed seat post you have, the greater opportunity for deflection. Deflection means comfort and the best material here by far is carbon fibre, it has the ability to withstand a high level of flex whilst returning to original shape. Aluminium is a “do the job” product to get a bike off the production line, it’s stiff. Aluminium doesn’t bend, it work hardens and snaps so don’t go looking for comfort in and alloy post. In fact it’ll probably make it worse. Steel is too heavy and too expensive to produce nice posts in comparison aluminium, hence why we see so few. So why do so many companies make expensive alloy seatposts? Simple, marketing and profiteering. They are cheap and have a relatively low failure rate, easy money when you can market a Thomson seatpost at £100+ and make a 90% profit based on looks alone. Back to the carbon fibre, depending on post exposure you could have up to circa 30mm of “travel” on a carbon post. That’s a big number, especially seeing as Moots Routt with the YBB 30mm travel softail is £10k+ for a full bike. A layback carbon post is sub £30 from aliexpress. Let that sink in. As a note diameter is key here, the slimmer the diameter of the post the greater the deflection (within reason), my preferred sizes are 25.4mm and 27.mm depending on seat tube diameter. Don’t be afraid to use a seatpost shim to fit a smaller post, as long as it’s the right size your post should clamp perfectly.
The saddle attached to that post is also a great place to add comfort. It’s not just by chucking the most padded one on you can find though. It’s key to get the width right, ie where your sit bones (bones in your butt that contact a chair first when you sit down) match to the width of the saddle. Then also to get the fore/aft and nose angle position correct so you aren’t having to shift around when riding. Saddle too far back and it’s hard to stay on your sit bones, too far forward and your things will rub and be restricted. Nose too high and you will put too much pressure on your perineal area, nose too low and you will put too much pressure on your sit bones and slip forward. Saddle height is always key as well. Make sure you have enough height to mean you don’t crunch your legs up on top of the pedal stroke and not so much that you have to stretch to the pedals when at the bottom of the pedal stroke. These can both make you rock side to side when riding and make for a very sore undercarriage! Choosing a saddle is a very personal thing and it’s always best to buy on fit rather than brand. Spend your time and money wisely here, most shops will have a set of demo saddles that you can test. Failing that, ask your mates what they have kicking about, no one gets it right first time so most will have spares. It might not be right for them but it might be the killer app for you!
Another carbon/alloy/steel conundrum. As you would expect the answers are exactly the same. Handlebars are fixed at a single point in the centre and the further the distance your hands are from the fulcrum the greater leverage they have. In turn the more deflection. Material matters again and carbon is the first across the line every time. A set of wide carbon handlebars can have the same deflection as mentioned for the seat post above making a huge difference in comfort. Again aluminium is a cheap fix and designed for profit, there won’t be any difference in strength as quality bars will be designed to work to the same minimum requirements. Steel is often a better choice for handlebars over aluminium because you can weld and bend easily into exotic shapes, but they will be heavy. There’s a lot to be said for bars with multiple hand positions and an ergonomic shape.
Yes, carbon bars (and seat posts) can snap but that will be down to two reasons; 1. Improper installation, over torqued or loose clamps/clamped in incorrect place 2. Poor quality manufacture/underspecced for purpose. Although these could be an issue for any bar material, as long as you install correctly and do your due diligence on quality you will be fine. I’ve seen more aluminium bars snap than carbon in the last 20 years.
So often do I see solid rubber grips and lock ons used, or even fabric/woven bar tapes. These are a recipe for hand pain, calluses, and arm/wrist pain. Take a look at your hand (palm up), it is not flat. You have large palm muscles on your thumb and on the outside of your hand below your little finger. Your palm in concave, so resting your upper body weight for a prolonged period of time through your hands on a flat bar is not going to be comfortable. My tip would be to use a ergonomically shaped grip made of foam. Something that tapers towards each end and supports the centre of the palm. Foam is my absolute favourite material for grips as it forms to the shape of your hand, it’s doesn’t force your hand to flatten out. When it comes to handlebar tape, it’s as simple as going for the thickest you can find or adding in gel pads directly to the bar that you then wrap the tape over. Both helping to fit the ergonomics of your hands.
Where your tyres meet the ground is a crucial area of focus if you want to improve the comfort of your bike. The short story is the larger the tyre and the lower the pressure the more comfort the tyre will give. There are drawbacks though, a larger tyre will have slower handling and weigh more, and lower pressures could lead to pinch flats and tyre roll (moving sideways under cornering). Larger tyres do increase the ability to run a lower tyre pressure without fear of bottoming out or pinch flatting your inner tubes though, so volume is king here. You can also increase a tyres useable pressure range as well using a foam tyre insert. Tyre inserts allow you to run a lower pressure without the fear of bottoming the tyre out against the rim. They help by both ramping up the pressure as the tyre compresses and providing a physical bump stop that prevents the tyre getting to the rim.
A much overlooked part of a bike, mostly taken as a given when purchased as part of a frameset. Regularly disregarded for the comfort gains it can give. Hence the rise of suspension forks, even a cheap set of suspension forks with give vastly increased comfort. But what about rigid forks? The key here is deflection, just as it is for seatposts and handlebars. The best way to introduce this is with a curved fork blade, the material of choice: steel. Yes you can build a curved fork blade from aluminium and carbon but both would have limited flex due to build requirements resulting from material properties. The curved fork blade essentially allows the wheelbase of the bike to extend and the front of the bike to compress toward the ground, akin to a suspension fork. Although with a suspension fork the wheel base actually shortens. The deflection may be only small for a curved steel fork blade (up to 30mm) but that makes a huge difference in comfort. In fact SRAM are now selling a rockshox Rudy suspension fork at £600 upward….. with 30mm of travel.
So there you have it, my 5 tips or areas to look closely at when aiming to make your rigid bike more comfortable. It’s not rocket science, it’s just an exercise in function over form. Don’t reach for that aluminium seatpost (no matter how posh the brand is) because no matter how much you spend on one it’ll have just the same ride quality as the cheap £10 one. Choose your saddle wisely and try a few. Handlebars are all about material and width, the wide the bar the greater the deflection. Aim for carbon as the material, if not go for those with the best position. Grips are simple, soft and ergonomic. High density foam rather than rubber. Tyres, go big and drop your pressures or use a tyre liner. Finally, forks. Not always something you can play with but if you have a steel frame and the option for a curved fork blade, take it.
What are you waiting for? Go grab some comfort!