If you look at a mountain bike, it’s pretty easy to tell when it has shock absorbers. All you have to do is press down on the bike, and the suspension will absorb the force. But, if you look at a road bike, it’s a different story. And that raises an interesting question:
Do road bikes have suspension?
Most road bikes do not have shocks like mountain bikes do. However, many road bikes do have more subtle suspension systems, which use carbon fiber or decouplers to absorb impacts. For example, over 80% of Trek road bikes priced under $3,000 have suspension systems of some kind.
As you can probably tell, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But fear not! I’m a bike nerd and I want to make this easy for you. So, in the rest of this article, we’re going to cover all the bases so that you can understand whether road bike suspension is a big deal (or not) for you.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Why Don’t Most Road Bikes Have Shocks?
Road bikes typically don’t have shocks because shocks add weight and allow motion that can make the bike more difficult to control precisely at high speeds. That’s why most road bikes use other forms of suspension, like carbon fiber materials and more subtle mechanical suspension.
To illustrate this point, let’s imagine two scenarios. One where shocks are great, and one where they’re not.
Scenario 1: Whistler Bike Park (Shocks Good)
Let’s imagine you’ve decided to take a trip to Whistler Bike Park, which is a famous mountain biking attraction in Canada. At Whistler you’ll find a variety of hilly, bumpy, dirt and gravel terrain. It’s a mountain biker’s playground.
The bumpy and unpaved terrain at Whistler makes a quality mountain bike with serious shock absorbers essential. If you tried riding the trails there with a road bike, your joints (and your bike) would be in serious trouble. Not recommended.
But, now let’s take a look at scenario number two.
Scenario 2: The Great American Rail Trail (Shocks Not Good)
Now let’s imagine you’ve decided to ride a section of the Great American Rail Trail. If you’re not already familiar with rail trails, they are essentially just former train tracks that have been converted into PAVED bicycle and pedestrian trails.
On a rail trail, you can ride for miles without hitting any significant bumps, and without ever venturing into dirt or gravel roads. And if you are riding at a fast pace, then precise control over your bike becomes more and more important (e.g. for tight turns, or dodging pedestrians).
When you consider the weight of shocks and the up-and-down “bounce” that they allow in the handle bars, most road cyclists will choose a bike without shocks and with more subtle suspension (or none at all).
Now that we’ve covered WHY road bikes usually use more subtle suspension systems (i.e. not shocks), let’s talk about the types of suspension that are available for road bikes today.
What Kind of Suspension Can Road Bikes Have?
If you are in the market for a new road bike, you’ll find that there are 4 main types of suspension available to you. At a high-level, those are as follows:
- Carbon fiber
- Mechanical suspension
- Frame design
- Shocks (yes, these exist, they’re just less common)
Let’s tackle each of these below:
Premium road bikes often use carbon fiber in the frames, or in just one component (e.g. the fork, seatpost, etc.).
What you may not have known, is that using carbon fiber is a built-in form of suspension.
Here’s why: carbon fiber is slightly “flexible”, and even though you won’t see it move, it is able to absorb some of the impact from bumps in the road.
In fact, using carbon fiber is probably the most common form of suspension used in today’s road bikes.
For example, it’s very common for consumer road bikes in the $1k price range to have carbon fiber forks to reduce the strain on the rider’s arms, like Trek’s Domane AL 2. You can double down on this effect by getting a bike with an entirely carbon frame, which is great if you can afford it.
Mechanical Suspension (Decouplers)
In the last few years, there have been some new developments aimed at improving road bike suspension, without the sacrifices of using “shocks”.
One example of this is Trek’s IsoSpeed suspension system, which improves shock absorption by “decoupling” the seatpost or handlebars from the bike’s frame.
I know that sounds confusing, but here’s a 1-minute video that makes it easy to understand:
As you can see, the IsoSpeed system is basically just detaching the seat and handlebars from the bike frame, in order to give it a little more “compliance” (i.e. shock absorption), but in a more subdued way than mountain bike shocks.
About 7 years ago, I bought a bike that claimed to have a frame that improved shock absorption, simply due to the design / shape.
It was a great bike from a reputable brand, and I’d probably still be riding it today if it hadn’t been stolen (that’s a story for another time).
But, to be honest, the shape of the frame was very similar to most other road bikes on the market and in my (anecdotal) experience, I don’t think the frame absorbed shock any better than other road bikes I’ve used.
So, if you are considering a bike that claims to have shock absorption built into the frame, make sure you understand why. It could be legit, just take a little time to understand if it will make a noticeable difference in the riding that you do.
Shocks (Front, Back, and Seatpost, and Handlebar)
Okay, now let’s talk about shocks.
Yes, you can definitely buy road bikes that have full-on shocks built-in.
In fact, I rode cross country (California to Florida) on a road bike with a seatpost shock absorber. And my brother rode that same route on a bike with a shock absorber under the handlebars.
You can also find road bikes that have a back shock absorber. So basically, if you really want it, you can probably find a road bike with a shock absorber just about anywhere you want it.
But, do you really want suspension like this on your road bike? We’ve briefly covered some of the pros / cons above, but now let’s dig a little deeper.
Pros / Cons of Shocks on Road Bikes
Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of using shocks on road bikes. Note that we’re focusing on shock absorbers here, and not on the other forms of suspension we discussed above.
1. Comfort / Reduced Fatigue
The main benefit of suspension systems for road bikes are increased comfort and reduced body fatigue from the impacts of the road. Shocks definitely can help with this.
2. Increased Ground Contact (Safety & Speed in Rough Terrain)
Because shocks allow a bike to flex and move with the terrain, this increases the amount of contact that your wheels will have with the ground.
This increased ground contact can provide more traction, making your ride safer and faster.
As you can imagine, this is generally a more significant consideration for rough terrain, where you are riding over lots of bumps and gaps. This is a big reason why mountain bikes benefit from shocks, but this can also be useful if you are taking your road bike over really challenging terrain (although that’s probably not the best idea).
On the other hand, the downsides of shocks for road bikes include the following:
Shock absorbers can be heavy, and every little bit counts when you’re riding a road bike that is optimized to be lightweight and fast.
Shock absorbers can also make your bike more expensive, especially if you’re considering getting one as an add-on.
Shock absorbers also have moving parts, and as you know, any time you have moving parts, more maintenance will be required. I experienced that first-hand with my former road bike, which had a seatpost shock absorber.
4. Reduced Control
Finally, as we mentioned earlier in this article, the up-and-down motion that a shock absorber allows, can reduce your ability to precisely control the movements of your bike. If you’re riding slow in a safe area then it might not be a big deal, but if you’re riding fast in a crowded area then it’s important to have super precise control over your bike.
Now let’s drive all this information home with a brief summary.
Do You Need Suspension for a Road Bike?
Most cyclists do not need shock absorbers for their road bikes. However, more subtle forms of suspension, like carbon fiber components, or decouplers like Trek’s IsoSpeed suspension system, could be a good way to make riding more comfortable without sacrificing too much in other areas.