Rubber and Cork: a Gripping Review
There are few upgrades one can make to their bicycle that will have as much bang-for-the-buck impact, as new handlebar dressing. The style and materials of this crucial accessory have the potential to transform the comfort of our bars, while its colour and finish can play a surprisingly dominant role in the overall aesthetics of our machine. All this, at what is usually a fairly reasonable price, makes experimenting with handlebar tape, wraps, and grips worth it - until, hopefully, we find our personal favourite.
For bicycles with swept-back handlebars, my favourite grips have long been the Rivendell Portuguese cork grips. Then, just over a year ago, I tried the newly re-issued Rustines French rubber grips, and it quickly became a tie. While these grips are quite different from one another, they also have some commonalities that I think will make them appealing to many of my readers. And so I present you with this review of both.
Rustines Constructeur-Style Rubber Grips
made in: France
sold by: Rustines in Europe, Velo Orange in North America
price: 16€ / $19 USD
In the Spring of 2015, there was much excitement when Velo Orange announced they'd be stocking Rustines products, including their constructeur-style rubber grips.
Now, there were some of us familiar with the Rustines brand - known for its invention of the patch kit (in 1922), and for its assortment of constructeur-era accessories. But few were aware that the company was still in business making these classic products.
That's because, until recently they weren't. Production was re-started in 2013, by the great-grandson of the original founder (you can read about the history here, in French). Today Rustines specialises in patch kits and classic bicycle accessories - including bungee-cords, rubber brake hoods, bar-end plugs, and grips (browse their French website at your own risk - you can seriously get lost in it for hours). They make it a point to manufacture their products locally.
The constructeur-style grips are available in an assortment of colours, including red, blue, black, white, yellow, and the natural rubber shown here. I chose the natural version because the grips were destined to go on a bright-lilac mixte. Any other colour would compete with the paint scheme, and the stark white would look too '80s, I thought, whereas I was going for more of a '60s vibe. The natural rubber looks "vintagey," matches any paint scheme, and - I hoped - would be fairly forgiving to being gripped with dirty hands, as is my custom (on this last point, I am pleased to report that I was correct!)
There are those whose interest in Rustine grips lies mainly in evoking a period-correct look. And they are certainly a good choice in that regard. However, to my eye the grips are very versatile - suitable for modern and vintage bikes alike. Picture them, for instance, on a Brompton. On a long-tail cargo bike. Basically on any new, or old, upright bike. Red on black. Yellow on silver. Blue on white. Are "fixies" still a thing? They would suit those as well.
These grips are also a good choice for bikes that spend lots of times outdoors - being quite durable and resistant to aging, even when the bike is left in the rain and the sun, intermittently.
But the thing that makes these tied for "my favourite grips" status is mainly their feel. And this is of course subjective, so keep that in mind, but the beauty of the feel is two-fold:
1. They have just the right amount of smoothness vs non-sliperyness to the touch. Even in the rain and even in hot sticky weather. While hard plastic grips can feel too slippery for some, and cork grips too textured, these are smooth, but stop just short of detrimental sleekness. The raised rings additionally help keep the hands in place, while being soft enough to not cause discomfort.
2. They have just the right amount of firmness vs give when squeezed. This is again, a personal thing. But I have tried other rubber grips, and they have been too soft, making my hands hurt after some time from over-squeezing. These are just the right consistency for that not to happen.
The overall girth of the grips is good for small hands, which could mean that those with very large hands might find them too narrow. Another potential dislike that immediately comes to mind is the rings - some people can't tolerate textured grips. Otherwise, unless you are allergic to rubber or simply don't like the look of these, I can hardly think of how you can go wrong for $19.
Rivendell Miesha's Portuguese Tree Cork Grips
made in: Portugal
sold by: Rivendell Bicycle Co., USA (ships worldwide)
price: $25 USD
The cork grips you'll find in most bike shops today are plentiful and cheap. These ones by Rivendell are pricier than most. This is because they are an inherently different product. While typical bicycle handlebar grips are made of pressed reconstituted cork, these are made from unprocessed, whole pieces of cork - directly from the tree - cut up into large hollow rings and glued together. Rivendell works directly with the harvester/manufacturer to design and produce these grips. There is a very detailed description of the process on their product page, with photos of the tree bark being collected and carried around by donkeys. Worth a look for the educational value alone (to to mention the donkeys).
The result is a grip that is as uniquely beautiful as the texture of each individual chunk of cork bark. In fact, sometimes I find myself staring at the texture and it's a bit distracting! But the point is, they are lovely, and more organic-looking than any other grip you are likely to find on the market. Plus they help the (apparently, struggling) Portuguese cork industry.
Some time in the last couple of years, the Rivendell grips underwent a slight redesign. Consequently, they are now a tad skinnier and longer than they used to be. And the price has dropped. As before, they remain available in two versions: "normal," and grooved/hole-punched for bar-end shifters.
With a coat of clear or amber shellack, Miesha's cork grips can be made to match any shade of brown leather saddle, which is a nice aesthetic bonus. And like Rivendell bicycles in of themselves, they are not so much vintagey as timeless, and somewhat post-modern, and difficult to place into a category. They do suit a wide variety of bikes - with the obvious exception of the racy/sporty aesthetic.
Because the grips are designed to be used with shellack, there is an element of control the owner has over both the look and the feel. The more shellack, the darker, stiffer, and smoother (aka more slippery) the grips become. The less shellack, the lighter and more textured, but also the more prone to dirt and flaking. Over the years I have developed a preference to "run" my natural cork grips with only a single coat of shellack, which is what you see here.
At this stage in the review I find myself struggling to put into words what exactly I find so appealing about these particular grips. I mean, it's something in the texture and feel, certainly. But what about the texture and feel? This is not as easy to break down into digestible, logical points as with the rubber grips covered earlier.
So I won't force it, and instead will try my best to describe the very subjective sensory reality of it - which is that, for me, these grips have a familiarity and warmth, which my hands rejoice at whenever they fall upon them. The ergonomics of the shape and width work for me, so much so that of all grips I've used I notice holding these the least. At the same time, the surface texture is ...engaging, for lack of better word, maybe even "invigorating." Why, even as I write this, I feel compelled to run outside and touch them. Better yet, to grip them, then take off on the bike. If that doesn't explain my fondness for them, I don't know what will.
Does the above make sense? Probably not. But neither does love. And over the years, my love of the Rivendell cork-tree grips has even trumped my fear of their one significant flaw, which is their fragility. In fairness, this aspect of the product is not something the manufacturer hides at all (warning even that if you crack them in the process of installing them, they are not responsible). As with all materials made of unmessed-with organic matter, this is an inherent risk. How often do they actually crack? Well, it has never happened to me and I've used a few sets of these over the years. But I've seen it on other bikes. If you're willing to risk it for $25, I am certain the Portuguese cork industry will thank you.
Being my two favourite bicycle grips on the market, I believe the Rustines rubber grips and the Rivendell cork grips are each worth considering whether you are looking to spruce up your bike, going for a classic build, or - perhaps most importantly - still hunting for that grip that feels "just perfect." One of these could be the one. And while not the absolute cheapest grips on the market, they are unlikely to bankrupt you either - making for a fairy low-risk way to inject some loveliness into your ride.