Busting the myth of cushioned handlebar tape

Busting the myth of cushioned handlebar tape

Have you ever considered putting your handlebar tape on a diet? Probably not. That is because cyclists have become used to relatively fat handlebar tape. Even though the Gripper is the thickest cloth handlebar tape on the market, many riders and bike shop owners are worried about comfort. How can such a skinny tape feel comfortable?

It's easy to think that "more is better." However: We can stop believing that thicker tape is the only way to achieve handlebar comfort. It is one of those fantastic-plastic myths the cycling industry has been upholding for too long.

We want to bust this myth.

First, let's understand how (little) your handlebar tape actually contributes to comfort. >  

Second, we tell you some options on how to increase cushioning without resorting to thick tape. >

Third, we share our future vision of achieving comfort with a cloth handlebar tape that does not hurt our planet. >

This is a long read - feel free to skip to the section that interests you most.


Why cushioned bar tape does (not) matter?

Your handlebar tape is the last link in the chain of vibration and impact reduction measures you have to worry about. A myriad of other things impact handlebar comfort before the vibrations reach your bars.

First down the line is tire volume and pressure. The trend toward fatter tires and lower pressure in gravel cycling has a reason, and speed is only one aspect. Overall, higher tire volume and lower tire pressure result in less vibration at the handlebars. If there is no front or rear suspension on the bike, the tire pressure is the second-largest driver of damping.

Spring tire

Image source

Second comes frame geometry, material, and damping properties of the bike. The critical factor determining the "comfort"-or let's talk here better about the shock–and vibration-absorbing capabilities of your bike–is its overall stiffness or better the inverse of stiffness. It describes the flexibility and "compliance" of the bike (in engineering language: 

Young's modulus x second moment of area (E x I)

Without going too much into detail, I refer to a great YouTube channel where they explain the science behind stiffness.

Due to the double diamond shape of all gravel bikes, there is little compliance overall. It's pretty stiff regardless of what material you use. Compared to steel and aluminum, a carbon frame can absorb vibration slightly better due to its composite structure containing polymers or epoxy material. Wood is another pretty great vibration-absorber if the weight would not matter. However, frame material is a tricky and vigorously debated topic among cyclists, and we don't want to take sides here. Ride whatever you feel comfortable on.

Luckily, you can tweak other aspects independent of your frame material, such as the fork, seat post, and handlebar. We are most interested in the last item here (for obvious reasons). Concerning your handlebars, it comes down to the geometry and material. So, it's not straightforward to take a carbon handlebar because it's both the handlebar material and its shape that make a difference.

For instance, let's assume you have a round aluminum handlebar. To reduce the stiffness and make it more flexible, you can change to an oval-shaped handlebar with the same wall thickness and material. Why does it matter, and how? The oval-shaped bar bends more because the second moment of area is reduced in the load area. Also, your palms can comfortably rest on a larger surface instead of limiting the weight distribution to the surface of a thin and round tube.

Second moment of area

It brings us to the third and last topic: Your overall bike fit.

It does not matter how thick your handlebar tape is as long as your bike fit is wrong. Whenever you put too much weight on your wrists, you will feel pain in the wrist after a while, and your arms will be less able to absorb vibrations. The correct size of your handlebars also plays a role. Make sure to have an appropriate reach and choosing bars that aren't too wide, especially when you ride a more aggressive position. The further apart your hands, the less effective your body will absorb vibrations and impacts. It's as if you try doing push-ups with your hands wide apart. 

We recommend you check the above aspects first before resorting to thicker handlebar tape. In fact, try riding your bike without any handlebar tape. Suppose you experience immense discomfort on your hands. In that case, it's probably either because your bike is not made for the terrain you're riding on or because your bike fit is terribly off.

Changing the above parameters should take priority before fine-tuning the comfort via your handlebar tape. Tackle the root rather than the symptom. It might be far-fetched, but we dare to say that thicker tapes might be one way for the bike manufacturers to cover up the discomfort.


Alternative ways to achieve handlebar comfort

If you feel that you have maxed-out comfort from your tire volume and pressure and have optimized bike-fit, there are other options for increasing the thickness and the cushioning of your handlebar tape. First, we recommend upcycling your old inner tubes. In our video, Jan explains how to wrap some inner tubes under our Gripper. The great thing about this option is that you can adjust the thickness to your needs. You can change two variables: The tube's thickness and whether you wrap it double or single. Want to go full dampening? Wrap a thick city bike tube as it is around the tops of your bars. Want a minimum of cushion? Cut the tube in half and use a thinner, racing-optimized tube.

Cushion Handlebar Tape

Second, you can wrap a thinner silicone or cork tape underneath. Yeah, we know--it sounds a bit hypocritical at first. But we know a couple riders who do it and see the reason why. In that way, you can have the good cushioning effect of silicone and cork while keeping the weaved texture and robustness of your cloth tape. Your cloth handlebar tape will protect the more sensitive tape underneath. Whenever The Gripper is dirty, you can throw it in the washer and re wrap it on top again.

Third, you can combine a cloth handlebar tape with other after-market solutions. One option is gel inserts that you stick to the tops and drops before wrapping your tape on top of it. Check out your LBS; we are confident they will have some stock option or will be able to procure it. 

These are great options to fine-tune your cockpit comfort, regardless of whether upcycling or after-market. Using these with a cloth handlebar tape combines the best of many worlds: longevity, comfort, sturdiness, and a distinct look and feel. Instead of buying a new tape every year, you can keep that peace of mind knowing that what you purchased will not fill a landfill any time soon.


Why we don't offer a cushioned version (for now)

The cushioning topic was a critical aspect early on because we anticipated the pushback from riders who have been oozed in by the cycling industry. We prioritized the reusability aspect over comfort in line with our values, partly because we knew about all those other methods to achieve a cushioning effect. Luckily, the development of a cushioned version is not off the timeline forever. Developing such a tape that fulfils all our other standards will take some time and more financial investment. We won't suffice by simply gluing a piece of EVA foam to the back of our tape, like some of our competitors do.

Our vision is to develop a future-proof handlebar tape system that performs well and is friendly to our planet. Like at the beginning of our journey, we opt-in for the "hike a bike section" even though it will be more challenging.

Ride On!

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That is one way. Weaving with rubber is not as easy as the tension determines the thickness and there are some trade offs to it if it becomes too think. However we are nerding into it as much as we can. Let’s see what it will be


Why don’t you use the same or similar raw material source for your tape and see if you can make cushioned inserts with it ?


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