The deflection diaries, part 1: Adding suspension to a road bike?

If you ride a mountain bike, chances are you are familiar with having some form of suspension – at least on the fork legs. Traditionally, however, road bikes with drop handlebars rarely use suspension at all. Short of double-wrapping bar tape and fitting wider tires, how do manufacturers bake comfort into their road bikes?


A custom titanium bike made by Triton Cycles. The simple, round tube shaping is reminiscent of how steel bicycle frames were (and still are) made.

Up to the mid-1980s, almost all road bicycles were made of steel, and for good reason. Despite its weight and susceptibility to corrosion, steel delivers a characteristic springiness to its ride quality that helps absorb bumps and keeps a rider fresh over long distances, which is why it’s still a favorite of bicycle tourers.

The later introduction of titanium addresses the corrosion and cuts weight, but is otherwise essentially a “twin” frame material to steel. It has never seen widespread adoption, though, because of its reputation for being hard on its tooling and finicky with welding…both factors driving up its price.

6061 aluminum alloy is one of the most common materials used in bicycle frames.

Due to the expense of titanium and professional cycling’s desire to drop the weight of steel, aluminum came into prominence. Early frames, however, were infamous for a harsh ride. Manufacturers later learned to manipulate it into frame tubes vastly different from the simple round ones of steel bicycles using a couple of favored tricks. Double- or triple-butted aluminum frame tubes have multiple wall thicknesses along their length, allowing comfort to be tuned and weight reduced, while hydroforming shapes the tubes during manufacture to maximize the material’s more meager strength. While current aluminum frames ride better than ever, very few bicycles use the material on fork blades.

My friend Michael Nera riding his white Giant Defy Advanced – a carbon fiber endurance road bike.

The concept of “tuning” the frame material peaked with carbon fiber composites. In addition to tube shaping and butting, the properties of a carbon fiber frame are dictated by the types of carbon fiber ply used, and their subsequent layup. High modulus carbon fiber is good for stiffness per unit weight, but bad for comfort; lower modulus carbon fiber is usually applied to places where either greater flex or a lower price point are desired. With these layups a closely guarded secret, the scope of tuning a bicycle frame is much wider.


Manipulating the material itself to create a suspension effect can only get you so far, though, as competitors of the annual cobblestoned cycling races Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders can attest to.

The Lynskey Pro Cross titanium bike I test-rode in 2016 used a fork stolen from a Specialized Roubaix SL4. Midway up its blades are Zertz elastomer inserts.

Specialized tore out the rule book with its Roubaix endurance road bike. In early iterations, the Roubaix introduced gaps cut into its seat stays and fork blades, filled with elastomer inserts. In a clever bit of marketing, Specialized called the system “Zertz,” making it look like the elastomers doing the job. In reality, the subtle flex created by the gaps they sat in did the lion’s share of the work.

Other manufacturers have taken notice. Notably, Italian manufacturer Wilier injected elastomers into a linkage built into the rear triangle of its new Cento10NDR endurance road bike, which can be swapped for a different density to tune the ride. Another Italian maker, Pinarello, made a damper out of the elastomers themselves with their Dogma K8-S.


Trek first introduced its IsoSpeed Decoupler on its Domane endurance road bike, which induces more leaf spring effect by decoupling the seat tube from the rest of the bike. Photo courtesy CyclingTips; click for review.

Trek went about introducing comfort a different way via the so-called “IsoSpeed Decoupler” on their Domane road bikes. A bearing pivot helps isolate the seat tube from the rest of the bike, helping it flex more freely and making it act like a leaf spring. It was so successful that they even engineered it into the Madone, their aero bike, in a novel “nested seat post” implementation.

Later incarnations of the Domane introduce the IsoSpeed Decoupler tech up front, which is a pivot at the steerer tube and headset area, in order to balance the front end with the bike’s plush-riding rear.


Cannondale’s Slate gravel bike uses a Lefty Oliver suspension fork with a scant 30 mm of travel. Photo courtesy CyclingTips; click for their review of the bike.

Somewhere along the way, the engineers at Cannondale must have thought “why not try something from the mountain bike world?” when they set about designing their gravel bike, the Slate, released in 2015. Coupling with larger-volume 650B tires was a modified version of their Lefty suspension fork, dubbed the Oliver.

Beyond the funny looks, the Slate stoked the adoption of suspension for an otherwise rigid cyclocross or gravel bike. Fox retooled one of its forks into a short-travel “AX” unit, while Lauf got into the game with its Grit fork as well, using glass-fiber leaf springs that shed weight over a traditional damper unit.

Instead of hydraulic pistons, Lauf’s Grit suspension fork uses 12 glass-fiber leaf springs for vibration absorption. Photo courtesy BikeRadar; click for their review.

Where your typical mountain bike will yield anywhere from 100 to 160 mm of suspension travel up front, those adopted by road and gravel cyclists are typically limited to 30 mm.

One downside to this design is it’s susceptible to a phenomenon called “pedal bob.” Under high pedaling loads, the suspension can squish with each pedal stroke, sapping power. On mountain bike forks and similar, this is dealt with by actuating a mechanical suspension lockout, but this also adds a layer of complexity.


During my 2016 visit to Singapore’s Ubi Vertex, the Specialized store had the 2017 Roubaix lineup with FutureShock front and center.

With the Roubaix refreshed for 2017, Specialized retired the Zertz system and dabbled with suspension of its own. They went their own way and put it higher up, above the head tube.

The result is a needle-bearing suspension cartridge within the fork’s hollow steerer tube, dubbed “FutureShock.” A couple of springs provides the 20 mm of suspension, and Specialized gives you three options of upper spring for tuning firmness. Because this design suspends only the weight of the handlebars and nothing else, the company says it is resistant to pedal bob and other undesired effects.

The FutureShock suspension cartridge rules out a traditional star-fangled nut or compression plug for headset adjustment, so that procedure relies on grub screws on the sides of the Roubaix’s head tube. Photo courtesy CyclingTips; click for review.

FutureShock isn’t without its problems, either. As the cartridge occupies the space where a star-fangled nut or a compression plug would sit for headset adjustment, that procedure is done via a couple of grub screws, which some reviews say don’t like to keep their tightness.


Review: Lazer Tonic helmet

The first cycling helmet I bought, a Fox Transition hard-shell, had seen better days. Five years on a helmet that’s seen lots of use is plenty, as the primary EPS (expanded polystyrene) material does degrade with sweat and sunlight exposure. Despite never crashing on it, its foam padding had also disintegrated to the point where I couldn’t sew it up to keep its shape any more.

While it had served its purpose, the Transition was also a cheap, heavy thing with poor ventilation. The loud graphics and yellow shell maximized my visibility while bike commuting, sure, and many friends thought the Transition looked bad-ass, but as an actual helmet, it really wasn’t all that great.

Having had a Lazer Blade for about two years now, as my introduction to the MIPS head trauma reduction technology, my impression of it was favorable but not without criticism. On the Blade, the MIPS liner is sort of an afterthought, so it blocks much of the ventilation baked into the helmet’s basic design. Also proving a bugbear was the worsening hold of the helmet’s foam pads to their Velcro retention points, and the disappointing capacity of the brow pad to absorb enough sweat to avoid it being a distraction while riding. I’ve since replaced most of the padding with those from my broken Specialized Centro helmet, and those work leagues better.

Still, I liked the Blade MIPS helmet enough to give Lazer a second chance. I ended up with their entry-level Tonic road helmet.


  • Weight: 243 g at size Medium (55-59 cm head circumference)
  • TS+ Turnfit System adjustable retention mechanism
  • Adjustable ear strap and chin strap junctions
  • 28 vents for ventilation
  • In-mold construction
  • 8 color variants
  • Small, Medium, and Large size options
  • MIPS version available at a premium


Ben Delaney of BikeRadar rated the Tonic highly, saying that with its fit and finish, it doesn’t feel like an entry-level helmet at all…and I agree. You could do far worse with an entry-level helmet from other brands.

Compared to its other Lazer brethren, there are a few differences. Most notable is the TS+ Turnfit System, which is how Lazer reconfigured its Advanced Rollsys fit mechanism into a more affordable, more generic format. Advanced Rollsys helmets, like the Blade, are adjusted with a stepless knob at the top rear of the shell. In contrast, the TS+ Turnfit System uses the same, smoothly operating wire-and-cradle guts, but is adjusted with a ratcheted knob in a more conventional location on the bottom rear. That does mean the Tonic is less accommodating of riders with ponytails, but in terms of adjustment, it works just as well.

The Tonic also uses a simpler but larger complement of pads. The brow pad is a huge T-shaped thing that also extends to the scalp on the top of a rider’s head, while two smaller pads flank it left and right. I prefer this arrangement over the Blade’s, since Lazer is more generous with the Velcro attachments on the Tonic’s shell. This helmet is excellent at handling my high sweat output. At first glance, the thin pads don’t look like they’re up to the job, but I’ve had zero saturation problems, and sweat never threatened to drip into my eyes.

The five-level rear cradle adjustment is as stubborn as always.

In terms of basic fit, the Tonic fits on my head as well as the Blade does, retaining a trim, svelte form factor. The plastic cradle can also move up and down within a range of five steps, but it’s just as stubborn to move and is best left alone once set to preference. The cheaper helmet trumps its bigger brother by offering a lot more scope for adjustment, mainly in the longer chin strap.

The Blade MIPS has these black decals that turn reflective when hit by light, but they’re recessed into the rear vents.

The rear reflective stickers on the Tonic are larger and more easily seen.

Aesthetically, the Tonic is a treat. It’s a smidge taller in profile than the Blade, and it’s styled a little rear-heavy, although it still keeps the generally trim shape. While not the last word in visibility, and despite Lazer not sponsoring Team Sky, the blue-on-black color scheme on mine looks pretty sharp. Here again, the Tonic trumps its Blade brother by including larger black reflective stickers on the rear, in addition to all the reflective “Lazer” decals.

Close to rated weight, at 250 g

The Tonic has a slightly higher and more upright profile compared to the Blade.

With 28 vents, the Tonic offers lots of exposure to the air and wind, and should offer good ventilation in theory. In reality, it betters the MIPS-compromised Blade, but not by much. The internal air channeling cut into the foam shell isn’t quite that deep, so there’s not much of the “wind rushing through your head” feeling at speed that you’d feel more of from the Specialized Centro. Still, the Tonic works well and should help ward off overheating on hot days. The huge rectangular vents also double as convenient sunglasses storage.


Entry-level, in Lazer’s case, costs PhP3,000. While competitors such as MET can undercut it purely in terms of price, the Tonic makes up ground in perceived quality. In many ways, I get along with the Tonic better than I do the Blade, and in the quality stakes, there isn’t much difference between them at all. Recommended.

How do you build confidence on the saddle?

A colleague of mine chatted with me on the elevator going down and out of the office recently. She had asked for tips about how to improve her confidence while riding, as her on-the-saddle nervousness was detracting from the time she could spend with her kids while they gleefully rode their own bikes.

I figured this would make for a good subject for today’s writeup. So, how do you become a more confident bike rider?


Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic shortcut or an instant cure that will take away your jitters. The best way of building confidence on the saddle is to simply keep riding your bike.

Or is it?

As starkly simple as that advice is, it’s too simple and doesn’t give you much of anything to focus on. A more effective strategy is to break down the task of riding into individual skills you can practice when you do log the saddle time.


This is first on my skills list for good reason. The laws of physics dictate that vehicles with one front wheel just don’t stop as quickly as those with two or more. There are things we can do to improve the odds, though, regardless of what brake system you run on your bike.

Befriend your front brake; it is crucial if you want to stop quickly. Key to making use of it correctly without flipping over your handlebars is to straighten out your bike, get your pedals level, stand up out of the saddle, and push your hips backward as you pull the front brake lever. In a sense, you are pushing the bike away as you brake. This counterweighting action basically makes it impossible for you to fly forward off your bike. Pull on both front and rear brake levers, but bias the front brake more.

It is imperative you practice and get used to this skill quickly, because it can literally save your life. Regular practice recommended.


Easily second on my list is one-handed riding. If you have any plans of riding on the street with vehicular traffic, you will need some way of visually indicating your intentions, and the best way of doing this is with hand/arm signals.

Freeing one hand from your handlebars also allows you to drink or eat while riding, and allows you to turn your waist and head more so you can check for traffic behind you.

So how do you teach yourself to ride one-handed? Take advantage of your speed, as it’s how a bicycle stays upright and stable. At a medium riding pace, around 12 km/h and faster, try to have one hand let go of the handlebars while going straight, and let the loose hand hover a few centimeters over the bar, so you can hold it again if needed. You’ll soon find out that you don’t have to grip the handlebars all that tightly to maintain stability.


Having established that a bicycle is more balanced and stable the faster it goes, what do you do when you take away the speed? You become more active and work to maintain your balance.

This is an excellent skill to learn, one for more advanced riders. It’s also great to go back and practice every once in a while. Without speed, you are forced to constantly tweak your balance on the bike, making adjustments with the handlebars and leaning your body left and right. It’s effective both done in a straight line and while turning or going round in a tight circle.

The good news is that all this low-speed balance work translates directly into better bike handling at higher speeds. On a fast road ride, especially, you can get used to steering the bike with your hips instead of your handlebars.


This might sound too simplistic, but you actually do need to intentionally practice riding in a straight line. Why? I see too many bike riders who cannot ride straight without flopping their wheels over left and right. Imagine the cold bullets of sweat you’d feel having to ride alongside such a cyclist.

The constant need for left-right correction while riding straight just means a rider cannot keep balance well. Much like in car racing, the more you move the steering wheel, the slower you ultimately are. While a fast pace on the saddle isn’t top of everybody’s priorities, I bet most people want to ride without having to needlessly expend energy doing anything else but go forward.

Practicing this is as simple as finding a white line on the side of the road and trying to keep yourself as parallel to it as possible – or even ride over it if conditions allow. Again, the side effect is you learn to steer your bike using your hips, rather than your hands. For added challenge, drop your speed and hold the straight line at a very slow pace.