I just returned from five weeks of riding across Central Asia with TDA Global Cycling as part of their Silk Route expedition. I brought my Diamondback Haanjo Trail Carbon — the same bike I rode in South America — but as the vast majority of our route was unpaved or badly paved, I swapped out stems for the ShockStop Suspension Stem from Redshift Sports.
Full disclosure: If I would have known the condition of the roads and gravel before I left, I almost definitely would have brought a mountain bike — a lightweight hardtail would have done nicely. While it may have proved a bit slower on the smooth pavement days (those were extremely rare) it would definitely be faster and more comfortable on the rest. The cyclists in our group with front suspension forks and wider tires were the happiest (and fastest), especially on endless gravel descents and through the deep, washboard sand. Though one of the rider’s suspension gave up the ghost after the brutal conditions in Mongolia…
ShockStop is an adjustable stiffness suspension stem that smooths out the imperfections in the road or gravel surface. The subtle pivot design allows the front end of the bike to move up and down over bumps in the road while your hands follow a smoother path, cushioned by the elastomers inside the stem. Originally designed with road riding in mind, the stem offer just 1-2cm of travel so you don’t notice your bars moving up and down — it just takes the edge off any rough impacts.
The ShockStop stem does what gloves and extra bar tape can’t — it isolates your upper body from the imperfections of the road, reducing the shock and vibrations transmitted to your hands and wrists. While I occasionally got numb hands on the never-ending rough days, it was nothing compared to the problems some of the other riders were facing. Many had to tape foam on their handlebars, wear two pairs of padded gloves, or even change out their bars for super wide flat bars to try to alleviate the pain and numbness. One poor guy could barely open and close his hands.
While it’s hard to quantify the difference, I definitely felt less fatigue and achiness in my upper body, even after 9-10 hour days riding really rough gravel. And while I wasn’t able to ride or descend as fast through the chunky stuff as the riders with front suspension forks, it for sure made me quicker and more confident than if I was on a totally rigid bike.
The weight difference is minimal — 264 grams for the ShockStop stem versus 175 grams for the Diamondback stem that came with my bike. A small weight penalty for less fatigue if you plan to spend hours on your bike day after day.
The stem comes with five swappable elastomers (two already pre-installed) so you can choose the level of suspension you want. I went for an average stiffness combination based on my weight and style of handlebar.
With the suspension stem I noticed no difference in steering or handling. I regularly got out of the saddle on climbs and throughout the day just to give my backside a bit of a break — never once did the handlebars feel squishy when doing so. The only time I noticed some bounce was riding across really deep and closely spaced washboard.
All in, I can highly recommend the ShockStop Suspension Stem ($140) for anyone on a long bike tour or anyone who regularly rides gravel. Your upper body, especially your hands and wrists, will thank you. Mine is definitely staying on the Haanjo.
I would also recommend some 3.2mm bar tape from Lizard Skins. It can’t hurt to have that extra level of cushion.