“kchkchkhchkhchkhhckchchchkh”-your tire on gravel
Riding on gravel can take a serious toll on your body. You have to work harder to pedal through it, and on top of that, your bike is probably heavier than a dedicated go-fast road bike. Even on flat-ish rail trails, you can’t really stop pedaling because as you slow down, your tires will dig in, quickly bringing you to a stop.
And then there is the constant and incessant buzz of the gravel…
The vibrations from your tires riding over millions and millions of little rocks have to go somewhere, and unfortunately for you, they’re going to go through your handlebar, into your hands, up your arms, and into your neck and shoulders. This is going to cause fatigue and pain far faster than when you are riding on smoother surfaces.
So what does all of this mean?
It means that riding 80 miles of relatively flat gravel rail trail is significantly more difficult than riding 80 miles of pavement at a similar grade, and you should do everything you can to make yourself more comfortable while still keeping your bike somewhat efficient for the task at hand.
There are a lot of ways to dampen the vibrations of your gravel bike, and like all things, some are better than others.
The first thing you can do is to go with a larger tire. The more tire you have, the lower pressure you can run. The lower pressure you can run, the more comfortable your ride will be, (a 47mm tire can provide a half inch of “suspension” over rough surfaces). Just figure out the largest tire you can squeeze into your frame and call it good.
The next thing you can do is re-wrap your bars with a thicker tape. Some tapes even come with a nice gel strip on them for added comfort. *I currently use a 3mm thick bar tape from Giant with a nice and tacky grip, but there are plenty of options out there.
Also, get yourself some gloves. Half-finger or full-finger is up to you, but the gloves will serve two purposes- One: the padding will absorb a lot of the buzz from your handlebar, preventing tingling and numbness in your hands, and two: you won’t be picking little rocks out of your hand if you crash.
A Little Bit of Squish
The biggest and most obvious thing you can do to make your bike more comfortable is to get some form of suspension. There are a few different ways to do this, including some gravel-specific forks, but replacing your fork is really expensive and some of those forks cost the same as a decent hybrid bike.
A few years back, Specialized introduced the Future Shock on their Roubaix and Diverge models, which is essentially a little spring/shock built into the steer tube below your stem. This allows most of the vibrations from bad surfaces to be absorbed before they ever reach your handlebars.
It’s a pretty cool feature with a few pretty big problems; The most obvious being, you have to buy a new bike in order to get it, and you can’t really get rid of it if you don’t like it (it’s integrated into the frame/fork so it’s just always there).
So what about the rest of us?
The Shock Stop Stem by Redshift Sports
*First, let me just say, I am not paid by Redshift in any way, and I bought my stem at full price.
If you don’t want to buy a whole new bike, but still want a little more comfort, Redshift Sports makes what I think is one of the single best components that you can put on a gravel bike: the Shock Stop Stem. (Now, I’ll be honest- the first time I saw this thing I had flashbacks to the horrors of suspension stems on early mountain bikes, but believe me, this is not anything like those, and I’m now a believer).
The Shock Stop does what the Future Shock does, except without any of the problems that are inherent in a system that is integrated into your actual bike.
The Shock Stop is a standard 1 1/8″ stem and it comes in several different lengths so you can get the right fit. This means that you can use it when you’re craving unpaved adventures, and remove it when it’s not needed. You can put it on different bikes or loan it to a friend. Or you can just put it on your bike and leave it there. It’s up to you. Plus, It’s fully tune-able to the level of squish and comfort that you need, and it basically looks like a regular stem.
So, what is this stem good at? It’s excellent at absorbing the high frequency buzz of rough surfaces such as bad pavement and gravel. It only moves a maximum of 2cm so it’s not going to absorb big hits or suck up giant potholes and fist-sized rocks. What it will do, is dampen the vibrations of a gravel surface enough to keep you comfortable, allowing you to ride faster and farther before fatigue and pain set in.
It sucks up the constant buzz of rail trails with authority and it absolutely shines on steep and bumpy forest road descents, allowing you to rip through washboard and ruts while maintaining confidence and full control of your bike.
The stem is easy to set up and comes with five different elastomers to fine tune the feel that you desire. Redshift gives recommendations for different combinations based upon rider weight, and this is a good place to start. *Remember that rider weight isn’t you, naked on your bathroom scale, It’s you in full kit including the camelback and liter of water that you may or may not wear.
I found the recommended combination to be a little too squishy for my taste which resulted in a noticeable bar dip when climbing out of the saddle, so I opted for a stiffer setup which feels about perfect for me.
For the most part, I forget it’s even there. It just quietly does its job, allowing me to ride longer and farther without suffering from hand numbness or shoulder pain.
The stem weighs about 280 grams (depending on what length you get) which is roughly double what a decent stem weighs, but let’s be honest, if you’re worried about 140 grams then why are you even reading this? The comfort that this stem provides on longer days is 100% worth every gram.
I used this stem on my annual trip to Ellensburg and back on the Palouse to Cascades Trail and it made a pretty significant difference. Normally on day one, my neck and shoulders start tensing up around mile 50, but I found myself happily pedaling into town at mile 76. The most noticeable difference was heading back on day two; I took fewer breaks off the bike and was able to go significantly faster than in years past (and that’s not due to training because I was WAY out of shape this summer).
As a gravel bike component, it’s worth every penny and the benefit that it provides far outweighs the miniscule weight penalty. At this point, I wouldn’t ride without it.