Vibration Damping is a critical factor influencing both the rider experience and overall bike performance
Mountain biking and gravel riding, with their dynamic and challenging terrain, demand not only skill and endurance from athletes but also a keen understanding of how equipment can limit or facilitate performance. Throughout my 25-year career as a cycling coach and mountain bike skills instructor, I’ve witnessed a significant evolution in our understanding of the interplay between equipment and performance, fueling incredible advancements in equipment. One common theme in equipment evolution is the concept of vibration damping – a technological pursuit aimed at mitigating the impact of rough, uneven surfaces on the rider and bike. Vibration damping, in essence, is the countermeasure to the relentless jolts and shocks experienced while riding on uneven surfaces like trails or gravel roads.
In the rugged world of mountain biking and gravel riding, vibration damping emerges as a critical factor influencing both the rider experience and overall bike performance. The relentless vibrations generated by uneven roads and trails can quickly translate into rider fatigue, diminishing performance. As athletes strive for marginal gains, the need for effective damping systems becomes paramount. This article delves into the multifaceted realm of vibration damping for mountain bike and gravel athletes, exploring its benefits, technological solutions, and the profound impact it has on both the rider and the sport as a whole.
Benefits of Vibration Damping:
Reduced Rider Fatigue: One of the primary benefits of effective vibration damping in cycling is the significant enhancement of rider comfort. Riding in rugged terrain often subjects cyclists to continuous vibrations, causing discomfort and fatigue. By integrating advanced damping systems, these vibrations are absorbed, dissipated, or otherwise minimized, providing a smoother and less impactful riding experience. Reduced physical strain translates to increased comfort and prolonged performance. As vibrations are dampened, the physical toll on the rider is significantly reduced. The result is prolonged endurance, with higher performance levels later in the ride or event, while experiencing reduced wear and tear on the body.
Enhanced Control: Beyond mere comfort, vibration damping plays a pivotal role in augmenting a rider’s control over their bike. Uncontrolled vibrations can lead to a loss of grip and stability, especially when navigating technical descents or challenging obstacles. Damping technologies, whether incorporated in the suspension system or specific components, contribute to better traction and stability. This, in turn, allows riders to maintain precise control over their bikes, making split-second decisions with confidence, and ultimately navigating technical sections with more speed and efficiency.
Increased Speed: Improved vibration damping plays a pivotal role in enhancing the speed and overall performance of bicycles. Excessive vibrations, transmitted to the bike and rider from rough terrain or uneven surfaces, result in energy loss. Controlling those vibrations, or otherwise dissipating or absorbing them, reduces that energy loss, helping to maintain speed. A good example here is the relatively recent evolution in understanding about rolling resistance in tires. Compared to 10 years ago, we’re generally running lower tire pressures now, across the board. Why? With better measurement techniques, we are able to detect that a tire with low enough pressure to absorb uneven terrain is faster than a tire that transmits those forces into the bike and rider.
The quest for effective vibration damping in cycling has spurred a wave of technological innovations, transforming the very architecture of bikes and the materials used in their construction. These advancements are not just about mitigating vibrations; they represent a commitment to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on the bike, enhancing both performance and rider experience.
Suspension Systems: In mountain biking, the forefront of technological solutions for vibration damping is centered around sophisticated suspension systems, comprised of advanced forks and shocks. These components serve as the frontline defense against the relentless shocks and impacts encountered during a mountain bike ride. Suspension systems work to absorb vibrations, ensuring that the rider’s journey is characterized by a smooth and controlled glide over rugged terrains. The evolution of these systems continues to redefine the standard for mountain bike performance, offering versatility and adaptability to a variety of trail conditions. Suspension has even crept into the gravel scene, with riders choosing short-travel suspension options for the most rugged courses.
Tire Systems: As mentioned before, tire pressure is a critical factor in optimizing vibration damping. Riders can also choose from different tire widths/volumes, sidewall stiffness/protection, and tread patterns. A more recent trend is the use of tire inserts to physically protect the rim from deep impacts but also to reduce the internal volume of the tire, resulting in more progression in ramp up of tire pressure as it is deformed by an obstacle. Tire inserts also change the quality and force of compressive hits and resulting rebounds, providing a “damping” effect to the otherwise uncontrolled “spring” of the tire.
Material Innovations: Innovative materials play a pivotal role in the ongoing quest for effective vibration damping. The traditional notion of rigid bike frames has given way to a new era of materials engineered to absorb and dissipate vibrations. Cutting-edge composites and alloys with inherent damping properties are strategically incorporated into bike frames, components, and accessories. This integration of advanced materials not only reduces the transmission of vibrations to the rider but also contributes to the overall weight distribution and balance of the bike. The result is a harmonious blend of lightweight agility and robust durability, epitomizing the intersection of technology and performance in modern cycling. One example of innovative materials and manufacturing processes comes from Gulo Composites in Brevard North Carolina, maker of wheelsets featuring woven carbon composite spokes.
As a cycling coach and mountain bike skills instructor, I’m constantly on the lookout for innovations that can enhance the riding experience or performance for my clients. One such breakthrough comes in the form of Gulo Composites bicycle wheels, which have taken the cycling community by storm with their superior vibration damping properties. I was surprised to learn that Gulo manufactures their braided composite carbon spokes right here in my hometown, Brevard North Carolina. This small mountain town is a cycling mecca with fantastic access to an endless amount of mountain bike trails, gravel roads, and quiet road riding, but it hasn’t really been known as a location for high-end carbon composite manufacturing.
I had a chance to test a set of Gulo wheels early in their development. I was skeptical at first. Sure, the wheelsets were impressively lightweight (the spokes are some of the lightest spokes ever produced, 40% of the mass of a traditional steel spoke), but would they break or have a harsh ride quality? I remembered back to the 90’s when I had a brief “sponsorship” with Fiber Flight spokes, some of the first carbon composite spokes ever made. Those spokes were very brittle and broke easily. One good stick caught in the wheel would shatter half a wheel of spokes, earning the brand the alternate nickname “Fiber – Fright.” Throughout my racing career, I’ve ridden lots of other carbon spoke options from various manufactures. Pretty much all of them had a stiff and harsh ride quality. I always came back to traditional steel spokes as my first choice for a better “feel.”
I stood in the Gulo Wheel House where the wheels are assembled one at a time by hand and watched a testing rig drop a heavy anvil onto the middle of a Gulo spoke, over and over again. The braided composite took the blows and never looked any worse for wear. “Isn’t carbon fiber brittle when it is hit like that?” I asked. “Well, there’s carbon composite there, but it’s also woven with some other materials that make it super strong,” said the wheel tech, being secretive about what else was braided together in those spokes. “Great, doesn’t look like they’ll break on the first ride anyway, let’s put a set on my mountain bike and I’ll try them out,” I said, still skeptical but curious.
Out on the trail, I immediately noticed something felt different. The ride quality felt smoother than normal. The effect was so noticeable I initially thought something else on the bike had changed. Maybe a tire was a couple psi less than normal? I checked both tires with my little digital pressure gauge. Nope, both tires were exactly where I normally run them. Maybe the suspension lost air or the damping adjustments were off? I checked the pressures and recounted clicks. Nope, the suspension was set exactly as I typically run it. My mind even thought of random things. Is the frame broken? Is the spoke tension super low and floppy? A quick inspection ruled out both those possibilities.
With my mind at ease, I pushed harder on the trail, slamming the wheels into all the roots and rock tech I could find, from continuous small chatter to single big hits. I built up speed and railed around flat corners and berms. I hit some big jumps and drops, building confidence in taking big hits from landing from height.
All I had changed was the wheels, yet I could detect a noticeable difference in ride quality. The ride felt smoother, like the harshness of the bumps had been muted slightly. At the same time, the wheels also felt more precise, like it was easier to be exact with the timing and coordination to handle difficult features. In the past, features and technology I’ve tried that improved vibration damping also made the bike feel dull, slow, and sloppy. I didn’t get that sensation on Gulo wheels. The ride quality was sharp and precise, without the “flexy” feeling. On long downhills, I noticed less fatigue. I didn’t get the hand and arm “pump” nearly as quickly, allowing me to feel more in control and less tense when I got to the next section of bigger features.
Back at the Wheel House, I chatted with the engineer about the sensations I felt while riding. Turns out the vibration damping comes a lot from the materials they are braiding into the spokes, a proprietary blend woven with a technique that Gulo invented. Those materials and manufacturing techniques work to dissipate vibration rather than translate those vibrations to the bike and rider. The “precise” feeling I experienced comes in part from the fact that Gulo spokes don’t elongate or “flex” under load like a traditional steel spoke. The movements the rider makes to balance, steer, and force the bike around feel more precise because that “energy” isn’t lost due to flex. Fast forward a couple of years. I’ve been riding Gulo Composites wheels on the mountain bike, e-bike, and gravel bike that I coach with regularly. The spokes have stood the test of time and abuse, shedding attempts by errant sticks, rocks, and other foreign objects to shatter my carbon composite bliss.
The quest for optimal cycling performance has led to groundbreaking innovations in vibration damping technology. From reducing rider fatigue to enhancing control and increasing speed, effective vibration damping has become a transformative factor in the cycling experience.
Technological advancements, including sophisticated suspension systems, tire innovations, and cutting-edge materials, highlight a commitment to pushing the boundaries of what is achievable in modern cycling. Gulo Composites stands out as a trailblazer, revolutionizing the cycling community with their superior vibration damping properties, particularly in their braided composite carbon spokes.
Having personally tested Gulo wheels, I can attest to the noticeable difference in ride quality – precision, smoothness, and reduced fatigue. As we embrace these innovations, we propel the sport forward, redefining what is possible and unlocking new levels of performance and enjoyment on every ride.
by Josh Whitmore
Cycling Coach and Mountain Bike Skills Instructor