People commute on many different types of bicycles; some have suspension, but the vast majority do not. Most commutes are on paved routes, which are smoother enough that suspension doesn’t help enough to justify the extra weight and cost.
However, you can get some benefits of suspension with proper tire, saddle, and grip choice.
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Suspension helps with impacts & vibration
Bicycle suspension does two main things.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is to absorb impacts. For instance, mountain bikers often plough into boulders or ride off drops. The suspension absorbs part of the impact rather than immediately transferring it straight to the rider. So, from the rider’s perspective, it takes the edge off.
The second, and more relevant to commuting, is to absorb vibrations. Most rocks and roots aren’t big enough to buck a rider off their bike. Even so, they’re fatiguing and uncomfortable to ride over at high speed. But if these rough bits are smaller than the suspension’s “travel” (the distance it can compress), then it will absorb most of them, immediately spring back, absorb the next, and so forth.
Absorbing vibration isn’t just more pleasant for the rider. It also improves traction by keeping the suspended wheel(s) in closer contact with the ground.
All this makes an enormous difference for mountain biking at high speeds. But for commuting, it’s almost always overkill. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
Suspension adds weight, cost & complexity
No matter whether you’re mountain biking, commuting, or something else altogether, the benefits of suspension aren’t free.
That’s literally true, of course, since suspension requires a lot of complex engineering.
The inside of a suspension fork or rear shock is usually filled with all sorts of springs, hydraulic circuits, valves, air reservoirs, and other tiny but critical parts. These things help control the motion of the fork/shock, make it adjustable, and let it respond differently to huge impacts versus small-magnitude vibrations.
You can simplify suspension mechanisms to reduce the price. And that’s exactly what budget models do. The problem is that without the fancy internals, they lose that smooth, dampening effect and start to feel more like pogo sticks.
There’s also a figurative cost to suspension.
Above all, it’s heavy.
The RockShox Paragon Gold SL, which is designed for hybrid bikes like many commuters use, weighs 4.1 lbs (source). That’s nearly twice as much weight, for just 2″ of suspension!
(Note that I’ve cherry-picked a lighter suspension example than most. That particular one is air-sprung, which saves at least half a pound over the coil-sprung models on most hybrids.)
It’s also worth noting that suspension forks require occasional maintenance. Internal springs, oil, damping cartridges, etc. need replacement to perform as designed. That’s not frequent—perhaps once a year to once every few years—but does add to the cost of ownership.
Finally, suspension creates a “bobbing” sensation during when you pedal hard—and especially while standing. After all, a simple spring can’t differentiate a force from the ground below versus a force from the rider above. It compresses either way. Some riders mind this and others don’t, but it’s a peculiar feeling at the very least.
Why commuters (almost) never need suspension
Suspension makes any ride objectively smoother, but it adds significant cost and weight. The vast majority of commuters just don’t encounter terrain rough enough to justify a suspension fork.
The same goes for road and gravel cyclists, tourers, leisure riders, and practically everyone else who sticks to pavement or smooth-ish dirt.
A smoother ride with tires, not suspension
Even though suspension is unnecessary and seldom available on commuter bikes, everyone still wants a smooth ride!
Does that mean we’re asking for the impossible?
Not quite. One of the best bicycle trends in recent years is the move to wider, softer tires.
Road bikes (and hybrids that take after them) have traditionally had very narrow tires: we’re talking 25 mm-28 mm, and often less for racing or serious training.
But these days, widths are creeping up to 32 mm-35 mm on sportier hybrid commuters, and often 45mm+ on more upright city bikes.
The extra air volume provides more cushioning to take the edge off bigger bumps. They’re like low-tech suspension with no significant cost or weight increase.
Furthermore, they’re safe to use with relatively low pressure. Softer tires are more compliant, meaning they can soak up more of those tiny road imperfections that the riders perceives as vibration.
All this makes for better traction, too, since there’s simply more rubber in contact with the ground at any one time.
I’ve covered tire pressure in more detail elsewhere, so have a look at that guide to learn why it matters and how to get it right.
(Of course, wide tires for road and hybrid bikes are only a novelty in the sport-dominated North American market. They’ve long been the norm on city bikes in the Netherlands, where utilitarian cycling is a typical way of life. Those bikes have lots of other features worth considering, too, which you can read up on here).
A surprising pitfall of modern bike design
As I alluded to just above, North American road and hybrid bikes have been strongly influenced by what racers prefer.
Besides tire width, that also manifests as extremely stiff handlebars and stems. Quill stems (read this if you’re unfamiliar) and narrow-diameter handlebars are basically a thing of the past on mainstream bicycles.
Today’s threadless stems and wide-diameter bars are indeed stiffer, which is great for aggressive riding.
But that stiffness also means harshness over bumpy terrain.
Apparently the subtle, fraction-of-an-inch flex in traditional stems and bars wasn’t all bad!
In fact, some manufacturers like Cannondale and Specialized have even started building tiny (1″-travel) suspension into the stems of some of their road and hybrid bikes.
That’s a clever approach, but also expensive and complex. Most bike commuters are better off with a simple, traditional design. Budget brands like Brooklyn (reviewed here) and boutique ones like Rivendell (discussed here) both offer several examples.
Two non-obvious upgrades for a smoother commute
So, you’ve maxed out your tire width, and wonder what else will smooth out your commute without suspension?
Here are two quick and affordable upgrades that work wonders for vibration dampening—and bring some other benefits, too.
Upgrade grips to help your wrists
Many bikes come with atrocious grips. You probably know the kind: paper-thin rubber that’s hard as a rock and doesn’t remotely match the contours of your hand.
The thin, hard material doesn’t do much to dampen the vibrations of a rough road. And the horribly non-ergonomic shape concentrates a lot of pressure on just a few parts of your hands.
Switching to thicker grips with an ergonomic shape will soak up subtle but fatiguing road vibrations, while distributing your weight more evenly across your hands.
The right pair depends on the style and angle of your commuter bike’s handlebars.
But most of us use straight or swept-back bars, in which case I believe the Ergon GP1 BioKork grips are the best around.
They’re expensive (check prices here). They’re also the easiest comfort improvement you’ll ever make.
Make sure you’re on the right saddle
You might think the squishiest saddle around would be the most comfortable. And you’d be right…but only for the first few minutes.
While those bulging gel-filled saddles do dampen vibrations nicely, they also start to compress soft tissue on longer rides.
The analogy I like to use is a beanbag chair: comfortable at first, but would you want to spend all day in one?
Instead, opt for one with a firm but thin layer of padding. Or, better yet, consider a traditional leather saddle.
Modern saddles are a plastic shell with a foam surface. Traditional ones have a metal outer frame with a drum-like leather exterior. You’re supported by the tension of the leather, not a hard shell, so the saddle has a subtle suspension effect that you’ll appreciate over rough roads.
They take several hours to begin to break in, but you end up with an almost custom-feeling saddle that can last decades with proper care.
The Brooks B17 (see options) is a classic, and it’s about the right width for slightly forward-leaning posture as on most hybrid bikes. The B67 (see options) is wider, for the bolt-upright posture of a traditional city bike, and even has springs to give your spine some relief.
Wrapping up: skip suspension, but get tires & touch points right
Commuter bikes seldom have suspension. Commute routes are generally not rough enough to justify the cost or weight of suspension.
Instead, look for a commuter bike with relatively wide tires. I’d consider 35mm the minimum, but wider never hurts.
It’s also important to use grips and and a saddle that support your body properly.
Most stock ones are poor and non-ergonomic, which makes bumps and vibration all the more unpleasant. Upgrading them isn’t cheap, but it is a cost-effective way to create a smoother feel.