Lately I’ve been pondering on aspects of ride comfort relative to road surface. In a nutshell, I see three primary mechanical variables that effect how nice a bike feels: tires, saddle, and frame.
Noticing the wear on the rear Pasela Tourguard is what really got me thinking about this and what options I have for replacing them on the Trucker when both tires are no longer serviceable. The Tourguards, at 37c, are high volume, have supple fabric sidewalls, have more of a road tread than trail, and are very easy to mount. Each has a kevlar weave which provides some flat protection. I can think of three flats I’ve had with these tires: one was a nail coming up through the sidewall, the second was a narrow thorn that made it through the tread, and the third was a piece of wire that also made it through the tread. I get roughly 3000 miles on a pair of these to where either the tread is worn down or the sidewalls start to fray, so I’d say I’ve had good luck.
But getting back to comfort, I think that the large volume, sidewalls, and tread have been crucial to establishing a good ride. This all seems pretty obvious, but there are tourists who use both narrower and wider tires. I believe that I could go a little narrower for my current style of riding without sacrificing comfort, but I don’t think it would add anything. I would probably be sacrificing the ability to ride on certain roads/trails in exchange for a nominal decrease in rolling resistance. Since getting back into biking five years ago, I have yet to experience a pinch flat, but that possibility would increase if I went narrower.
If anything, I want to go with a larger tire with a little more flat protection on the LHT, provided they would fit on the bike and be easy to mount. That would allow me to bike on even rougher surfaces/trails without sacrificing ride comfort. The choices are limited, but I’d probably be focused on something from Schwalbe.
Saddle choice can be really subjective, but seems to be related to overall position, sit bone width, cost, and durability. For both my bikes, after a lot of trial and error, I’ve settled on sprung Brooks. The Champion works on the X bike because I lean forward more; and the B67 is ideal for the Trucker. Both saddles are leather that have a bit of give and are broken in as my sit bones might move a bit, and also have the horns tied so the fronts are narrow.
I think a crucial element, though, is that both are sprung. A lot of riders avoid sprung saddles because of the weight, the noise, and the added cost; plus they feel that the springs are so stiff that they don’t add to the ride. I find the springs quite effective, and believe that they contribute to the overall ride quite a bit. I’m sold on this so much that I have a suspension seat post that I use whenever I’m playing with my Selle Titanico saddle (currently in the parts bin), because that saddle is unsprung.
Finally I’m going to mention the frame. I’ve had a number of steel frames over the years, but only one I can say that I’ve noticed the flex. The Trucker is too stout to flex under unloaded riding, the Marin had oversized tubing with no give; but I remember my lugged Fuji flexing whenever I would stand on the pedals.
There seems to be a relationship between tire clearance and frame tube thickness which kind of makes sense, because you assume that a bike with big tires is also going to haul big loads or travel over big bumps. So ultimately, while I still recognize the advantages of a steel frame, I’m not convinced that the ride is necessarily one of them.
I can point to the X bike, which is a very stiff aluminum frame, but also has larger tires (32c Vittoria Randoneurs) and a sprung saddle; and frame stiffness is a nominal factor, cancelled out by the other two, which results in a relatively good ride. Conversely, my old Cannondale ST400 was a stiff aluminum frame, with narrow tires (23 and 25) and an unsprung saddle; and the ride was terrible. It was unfortunate that the Cannondales can’t be converted to 650B because of the narrow chainstays.
I’m not even going to touch carbon because I don’t have any experience with it, and I’m spooked enough by the concerns over sudden failure to even explore it.
So as I ride more, and spend more time on each ride, comfort becomes a really big factor. While tires and saddles seem to be critical in my mind, I’m not going to dismiss steel frames at all – if I’m on tour, I want a steel frame. Fortunately, while a little more expensive, I don’t see any of these three variables being cost prohibitive, and can in fact be cheaper when the right deals are found. I also think that the service life of all three is typically longer than the other options, to the point where the combination not only provides maximum road comfort, but also optimal cost effectiveness.