Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Suspension Stems

Like lots of other rehashes of old technology posing as something new, it seems that suspension stems are back. In the days before suspension forks became a virtual marketing requirement on mountain bikes, some companies tried marketing "simpler" alternatives for suspension by putting the suspension into the stem. Using pivots, linkages, elastomers or, in some cases, coil springs, some of these suspension stems actually rivaled suspension forks for complexity and price -- and were eventually dismissed by buyers as pointless before basically disappearing from the market.

One of the original suspension stems. The Girvin Flexstem (originally known as the Offroad Flexstem) used elastomers to provide some damping. (photo from MOMBAT.org)

One of several versions of the Softride suspension stem. I remember when it was known as "Frankenstem." (photo from MOMBAT.org)

Recently, the editors of Dirt mountainbike magazine listed the stems as one of "The 15 Worst Mountainbike Products Ever." They wrote, "The young 'uns amongst you might not believe this, but there was a time when even the validity of front suspension forks was questioned." (Yes, I was one of those who questioned it -- and in many circumstances, still feel the same way). "For those that weren't sold on this newfangled idea, but didn't want to suffer the pain that a fully rigid bike dished out, there was an alternative . . . the suspension stem. The most well known of these was the Girvin Flex Stem, and that was a crime against suspension itself, but its saving grace was that it was at least relatively cheap compared to a suspension fork. The Softride stem on the other hand was the supposed dog's bollocks of suspension stems, and it cost as much as many suspension forks . . . but unsurprisingly it was just as rubbish as the Girvin, which is why I think it's the Softride in particular that needs naming and shaming."

Although the stems were primarily intended for mountain bikes, I imagine some were put into service on road bikes. Nevertheless, perhaps hoping that road riders are either unfamiliar with the old follies, or have perhaps forgotten about them, this new crop of suspension stems are primarily aimed at road riders. I'm still convinced that they're even more unnecessary on road bikes than they were on old mountain bikes.

It's even more complicated than it looks.
(photo from Nailed.it
One of these new stems comes from Naild and their R3ACT (I think that's supposed to make us think "react"). Their website declares, "The patented R3ACT System preserves the rider's energy by acting like a rigid fork on smooth terrain. Once a structure is encountered (potholes, bumps) the rider's weight reacts on the handlebars (Newton's 3rd Law) activating the system. Now fully active, R3ACT can track the terrain maintaining wheel contact with minimum loss in forward momentum. The system combines travel from above and below the frame, geometry and tire contact remain constant throughout resulting in improved handling, braking and control while reducing fatigue."

Or you could just run larger tires and keep your body loose over bumps.

By the way, their marketing materials mention Newton's 3rd Law so much, you'd think Sir Isaac had a hand in developing this thing.

The Naild R3ACT stem is actually a pretty complex item, as it incorporates extra linkages which keep the handlebar angle constant even as it pivots up and down. But more than the pivoting of the stem, the system also incorporates elastomers in the fork steerer, so it isn't really something that can be retrofitted to an existing bike -- the bike must be designed for the system from the beginning.

Simpler than the Naild R3ACT, but I suspect just as pointless.
(photo from the ShockStop Kickstarter page.)
Another new suspension stem comes from Redshift Sports: the ShockStop stem. Using hidden elastomers inside the stem, the ShockStop doesn't look a whole lot different from other threadless stems, and can be installed on most modern road bikes (with a common quill-stem-to-threadless adapter, it could probably be installed on older bikes too).

Here's what they say on their Kickstarter page: "Bikes should be comfortable, but ride more than a few miles and you realize very quickly that bikes are stiff, and they transmit every little bump straight to your hands and arms. After a while those impacts and vibrations make it hard to enjoy the ride."

Again - anybody who slams into every pothole and road imperfection with arms locked probably doesn't enjoy riding much anyhow.

In their promotional video, the company claims that with ShockStop, "You can relax and enjoy the ride. Instead of dodging every little bump and crack, you can focus on the road ahead." Suspension stem or not, focusing on the road ahead for bumps and cracks is still a good policy. Good technique is essential with or without suspension.

I still have some questions about this new generation of suspension stems, so I thought I'd go right to the source -- and ask the ShockStop stem directly.

Retrogrouch: So, isn't this basically just a reboot of old rejected mountain bike technology?

ShockStop:



Retrogrouch: Couldn't a person save a lot of money by keeping their current setup and just learn some decent riding technique?

ShockStop:



I'll take that as "Yes" on both counts.

Fully expect to see the current crop of suspension stems selling cheap on eBay in a few years, just like those old Girvins and Softrides do today.

15 comments:

  1. I've been a cyclist long enough to see at least two new generations of cyclists who were mostly unaware of both the merits of some of the things their forebears rode as well as some of the follies that, we'd hoped, were relegated to the dustbin of history.

    Among the "follies" that have been resurrected recently are elliptical or ovoid chainrings--and now suspension stems.

    I'm sorry, but I just can't ride when my handlebars are flexing the way they do when they're installed on a Flex Stem or Softride.

    (I will say, though, that if I were building a bike tongue-in-cheek, I just might choose a Soft Ride because it looks like something a seven-year-old might make with an Erector or Meccano set.)

    If nobody benefits from using a suspension stem, then relatively few benefit even from suspension forks and frames. About 95 percent of the people who buy them won't benefit from them. People buy them, I think, because it's almost impossible to find a new mountain bike without them. Also, people actually think it will make the ride more comfortable. On roads or streets, it doesn't (unless you're riding cobblestones). The real purpose of good suspension is to absorb shock in order to make the bike more stable as it's being hopped over rocks, across creeks and such.

    When you've been around long enough, you realize that there's no idea so silly or impractical that someone won't try to revive it.

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  2. I used a Softride stem on a mountain bike in the early 90s; they actually worked quite well; I'd say that mine worked as well as the contemporary top-end elastomer fork I also owned, which was much heavier, more complicated, and much more expensive. In fact, a Softride stem and suspension seatpost worked very well together for washboard and small, sharp bumps.

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  3. I'll add that the supposed bike expert whom you quote, calling the Softride a failure, probably has never used one. I know quite a few knowledgeable riders who praise it.

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  4. That list of "15 worst mountain bike products" is mostly stupid. Mountain biking has been ruined by downhillers and BMXs. Say what you will about gravel bikes, but they are the spiritual descendants of the early mountain bkes and much more fun than what that sport has become.

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    1. Yes - quite often, those "10 best" or "worst" lists are pretty dumb overall. And for the most part, I have no interest anymore in mountain bikes, which have become more and more like engine-less motorcycles. About gravel bikes -- I don't really have an issue with them except for the fact that so much of it is about niche marketing and fads. But a practical bike that takes fat tires and is comfortable over a variety of terrain? Great! The thing is, many people already have gravel bikes, they just either don't know it, or they call them something else.

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    2. Great point, Brooks! When I see some of the new bikes people buy, I wonder whether those people have old ten- or three-speeds in their attacks or basements--or whether they sold, or gave or threw away, such bikes. Most of the time, they could have gotten the kind of bike they wanted--perhaps with an even better ride--by replacing a couple of things on the old bike. Doing so would cost less money and keep a nice old bike in use, and out of a landfill.

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  5. I still have my flex stem I bought in probably '90 or '91. I was a young two-striper in the military at the time and didn't have the scratch for the Rock Shox Mag 21 I really wanted. I used it for a couple seasons and then off to the spare parts bin it went. It took the edge off trails so I don't think it was a total waste. I get it out every few years and just laugh at it's bright florescent yellow.

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  6. I tend to like crmo steel stems and handlebars when feasible, because they dampen buzz naturally but are strong as heck and will take yanking on climbs and maneuvering and such. I can't imagine seeking out flex in a stem.

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  7. I have found two types of road conditions where suspension stems shine. The import word is road. 1#. Old style concrete roads which have deteriorated. Bonus points for those which where asphalted over then separated. #2. Super crappy chip sealed roads. Both you tend to find in more rural locations. As a MTN bike invention I don't see the point.

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  8. I'm in the latter half of my 70th decade, and have pretty severe arthritis in my wrists. My road touring bikes have "progressed" (?) over the years from drop bars to moustache bars and now butterfly bars, all to minimize the pain in my wrists. One of the bikes has an original Softride stem, and I have been looking for years for another for the second bike. When your wrists get arthritic, you won't knock the suspension stems!
    My next stage will likely be a recumbent!?

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  9. Came across this thread. I am 65 years old and have been riding more or less everyday since I was 5 years old. One of my bikes is a Specialized Sirrus Comp set up for commuting that has about 40,000 miles on it. It is on its second Softride stem. For most of the last 16 years my daily commute was 12 miles each way. Boston has terrible roads. The Softride simply makes the ride more comfortable and enjoyable with less fatigue. It has excellent lateral stiffness so steering feel and input is really not effected. The more comfortable I am, the more miles I am going to ride.

    Ray Urban

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  10. Still riding my Bridgestone MB1 with its suntour friction shifters, Softride "frankenstem" and all the bright aluminum bits that were popular "upgrades" back then (when I was winning women's MTB races). That bike is lighter weight and has more mojo than any other MTB I have ridden and will always be in my stable!!! Call me a geezer now...

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  11. If you use a very long stem, then it tends to make the front forks flex more which irons out the bumps.

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  12. Guys need some advice,I got in a very bad wreck in France and after Ulner surgeries it's not better. It hurts /kills to put pressure on my Arms. I need a softride for my ride because I don't want to put cruiser bars on my Super X. I love and miss riding please tell me suspension like softride will help..Thanks

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