Friday, September 16, 2016

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.


26 comments:

  1. Interesting post, simply because it's such a humble and overlooked component. But as you rightly say, has an immense effect on the way the bike feels to the rider – as of course do all contact points. I don't think I've ever even seen cork grips, and I don't have a bike these would fit (one bike has drops, the other has bar ends – which I do use quite a bit) but I certainly like the look and the idea of natural cork under my hands.

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  2. The Rustines have a "sleekness" to their look that works quite well with the mixte, and the cork grips are more chunky, in a way that suits the Rivendell. Obviously, as an artist, you have an eye for proportions.

    That purple Viking just catches my eye every time you post a picture of it, and I can't even explain why. It must be the least fancy of your bikes, but it's the one that always has me opening the picture in another tab on my browser and looking it over. Heh, as I'm typing this, I realize that I probably say something similar every time. I'll try to keep it to myself in future appearances.


    Wolf.

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    1. Technically I think this one is the least fancy, the Viking at least has historical value - being NI-made.

      Are you also attracted to the pre-makeover photos of it? The Viking was a bike that the previous owner literally could not give away; I saved it from the dump.

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    2. Oh, I forgot about the Record. I even commented on that post.

      And, yes, I even liked the Viking with it's more, uh... well-traveled original look. (The fact that you saved it from ending up in the garbage makes the story even better.) Though I do think it looks much nicer now.
      Perhaps it is just my appreciation for something that's fit for its purpose without being ostentatious or pompous in presentation (though a little flair never hurt nobody). Of course, I'm wildly fond of old Schwinns so my taste in bikes should be considered questionable at best.


      Wolf.

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    3. Better still: The Viking was almost completely un-traveled before I happened upon it. The rust and all was from sitting outdoors for what must have been years. But there was little sign of actual use.

      Sadly there are loads of cool vintage bikes here like that. No one wants them either. There's a lovely '70s Raleigh 3-speed in a nearby village for sale for the equivalent of $40USD, in ready-to-ride condition. Sitting there for weeks now; no one's interested.

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    4. Curious that those vintage bikes are unwanted in Ireland. Or maybe it's just in your patch of rural Ireland and in Dublin they're all the rage, as they are over here in the UK. All the students and hipsters ride them.

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    5. Part of it I am sure is the hills and the distance here, in relation to perceived reliability of a vintage (as compared to new) bike. But also, it's that people tend to prefer new things. The pendulum hasn't swung in the "old is cool" direction yet.

      The bike scene *is* a bit more vintagey in Dublin, and even in Belfast. But only a bit. Nowhere near what it is in, say, London or Cambridge in GB, or NYC or Boston in the USA.

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    6. What a pity that a $40 Raleigh 3-speed will likely go un-bought.
      I find older Raleighs to be quite interesting, as well. Decent examples of older ones are very rare around me, and I only see lower-level bikes, if any.

      Wolf.

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  3. Cork grips, YUM.

    The Rustines... maybe it is the color, but they remind me of medical bandages. Cool website though. Anyone try their patch kits?

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    1. Not yet, but I'm going to get one soon to replace my almost-depleated one.

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  4. Oh. Until I read this review I had assumed VO bought the Rustines name and had the products manufactured in France especially for them. I could find no other mention of the stuff except on the VO blog. The Rustines website did not even come up when I last tried to search it. Anyway, thanks for the history and the links. I have some browsing to do and some French to brush up on.

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    1. It is possible that the French website is quite new; I do not remember seeing it earlier either.

      Certainly it was VO that made the Rustines comeback popular internationally, as I see little evidence of it being promoted by the manufacturer themselves outside of the French news (there is a cool video, if you follow the timeline on their history page to 2013, where they show the factory and discuss the brand). Either way, it is great to have this stuff available on both sides of the pond.

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  5. As is often the case with Lovely Bicycle reviews, I have learned something new here. Rivendell and cork harvesting, who knew!

    Regards,
    Phil (who might just need a set of new grips)

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  6. I've used the cork grips briefly several years ago with bar end shifters, but one of the shifters broke and I switched to non-bar end shifters so that was the end of those. You can't really use the Cork grips on a bike that you think you might make changes to; settle on set-up before you even think about installing the grips!! Lesson learned!
    I've been intrigued by the Rustines, but have not tried yet, I need to find the right bike for them first, maybe?
    It might seem antithema, but I really like some of the many obscure BMX grips that are out there now. Volume has some nice one's now and I stocked up on some years ago that where called Big Cheeze (I think?) I REALLY love those and they rotate from bike to bike. The old Mushroom grips are pretty cool too! I like BMX grips, because they range trough extreme's of thickness as well as firmness. Some are really thin & some are fat, Some are firm and some are more soft. - masmojo

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  7. The cork industry is having hard times because alternative wine closures — Stelvin (aka screwcap) and glass — have taken a lot of the market away from traditional cork.

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  8. Love the feel of cork grips...hate their fragility. They seem to fall apart with the slightest contact with brick or concrete walls or the slightest little collision with an automobile...

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    1. Or trees...It sounds like perhaps you ride like me. I've busted two sets of cork grips so I won't use them on a bike that I plan on riding singletrack with. But I will put them on the cruiser tandem I ordered and I'd use them on any upright bike.

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  9. Thanks for the Rustines link, I will now waste an hour. I have been using the plump version of Brooks Leather Washer Grips. I know they are not cheap but they are perfect for someone like me with with size XL hands.

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  10. I have reproductions of old Britannia grips on several bikes, vintage and modern. I find the shape and size are very comfortable on my hands, and I have a modestly troublesome shoulder which, I find remarkably, the better (for me) contoured grips help on longer rides. The grips are rather firm, and well suited to larger hands. They have a rather distinct look as well; obviously most cyclists who see them have no idea that they are repros of a 1930s-40s vintage grip, but I like that aspect, and it adds a bit of whimsical charm on a more modern bike that I like.

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  11. Yes, the above makes sense. When I first got my DL-1 it was an intriguing novelty. It was hard to get much use from it. Somehow I deduced the problem was the grips. Every grip was wrong. It was better with bare metal and no grips. Then I found a set of Var grips. Instantly the bike was used every day. And continues to be used every day the past twelve years.

    Var grips don't exist anymore. Hopefully the grips on the bike last a long time. If my grips should somehow be damaged I completely expect to try a whole lot of grips before finding the right one. It's my hands. If something rubs my hands the wrong way nothing makes that tolerable. When the DL-1 is right it is so good. Better quit writing and get on that bike now.




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  12. Is it really seven years since your adventures in shellac? I really enjoyed that series of posts.

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    1. Yup. Time flies when you're on a bicycle.

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  13. I'm not surprised you like those grips, Rustines make really nice things.

    I was so glad when they started making Half-Hoods for classic Mafac brake levers, there haven't been any new ones in decades and those of us who like those levers have had to use rock hard crumbly ones or do without altogether. They could have been merely "pretty good" and I would have been happy, but they are just fantastic. They look identical to the originals except they don't have the little MAFAC logo that just gets covered with bar tape anyway, and they even have the little metal mounting clip molded in. And they fit PERFECTLY. I'd never had ANY full hoods for Mafacs before they made new ones, and now a Mafac lever with Rustines full-hood is my favorite brake lever of all time. The Rustines replacement hoods for old Campy pattern levers are just as good as the Italian originals as well, and at 1/4 the cost of fragile old NOS Campy hoods.

    I hope they get around to making new hoods for some of the other old popular levers, I'll squeal and flap my little pudgy hands if they ever make new hoods for Weinmann Carrera levers.

    I'm also a fan of their patch kits, everything about the patches and glue is first rate and you can get it in a very French Tri-Color tin that fits anywhere and has room for an Ibuprofen or 2, some band-aids and the mini tweezers I like to carry around. Plus you can buy additional patches and glue without buying a whole new kit.

    VIVA RUSTINES!

    Monsieur Spindizzy



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    1. Have you seen the lavender bungee cords? Ooh-la-la.

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    2. Tweezers in the patch kit is a good idea. I will have to add that to my gear.

      I always keep one of those presta valve to schrader adapter things in all of my patch kits. I have a pump in the garage that has a schrader head on it, and it's easier to pop on the adapter than to switch around the pump head. Also, it has been found to be useful many times on group-ride assists. Weird habit of mine: Pretty much any time I visit the LBS looking for something, if they don't have what I'm after I'll buy an innertube or a couple of those adapters rather than leave empty-handed.


      Wolf.

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