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Could a bike frame be springy like an athletes prosthetic spring leg instead of rigid?

The frame would look like a bow, of a bow and arrow, open end ending at the tires.

What problems may arise that I cannot anticipate, or other engineering issues?

Is there a bike like this?

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    In MTBing, modern shocks are more than a spring, the spring rate is adjustable, and include rebound and damping controls, some adjustable on the fly. Even if a custom made frame could be done for a rider, these settings are fine tuned for each event. I cannot see how a simple non adjustable setup could be an improvement except weight, which is far less important to MTBers than suspension setup being correct.
    – mattnz
    Nov 21, 2020 at 4:12
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    As a “frame challenge” to this question, bicycle design in general incorporates some amount of frame flex. Classic touring bikes are often considered to ride harshly when unloaded, because the rider weight alone is not enough relative to the frame stiffness to get desirable dynamic properties.
    – RLH
    Nov 21, 2020 at 5:50
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    There is a fork made by an Icelandic company that carries the wheel by a number of leaf-springs.
    – Carel
    Nov 21, 2020 at 8:19
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    @carel sounds like Lauf. Want to roll that into an answer?
    – Criggie
    Nov 21, 2020 at 10:19
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    @Carel when you do, feel free to take this article by Bikerumor on Lauf's patent for a leaf spring rear suspension. bikerumor.com/2019/11/19/…
    – Weiwen Ng
    Nov 21, 2020 at 23:48

7 Answers 7

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Softride is one of the bigger names in this area. Their main bike design exchanged the top/seat tube and seat stays for a composite materials "beam" that cantilevered back to a saddle in the regular position. Originally for MTBs, they pivoted to Triathlon bikes in the mid 90s. The company stopped making frames in 2007 mostly because the design was no-longer UCI legal. The frames never conformed to the double diamond required of road bikes, but tri bikes had more lenient rules. While softride still exists, they make tailgate protectors and straps.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9e/Softride_suspension_bicycle.jpg/1920px-Softride_suspension_bicycle.jpg  By AndrewDressel - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62716747

Notice the chainstays are much more substantial and therefore heavier, to hold the rear wheel. The stub top tube is also beefy because not-only is it holding much of the rider's weight, it is levering downward also requiring strength in the fastener. As such there are much smaller weight savings than you might imagine.

Another downside is that the suspension beam is made of slightly flexible material (actual composition is unknown) but imagine that snapping and dropping the rider down. The beam should be engineered to minimise sideways flex and twisting forces, I don't know how well they succeeded.

More info https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Softride


Your idea of a flexible frame will have poor handling characteristics in a corner. If the effective wheelbase can change, then the bike will get longer and shorter which will make cornering feel weird.

While its a known technique to brake hard on the front going into a corner, to load up front-fork suspension which effectively shortens the bike for the short duration of the turn, having the frame change from long to short to long with every pedal stroke will be disconcerting to the rider.

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    I might just be ignorant, but I’ve never heard of the “use front brake to shorten wheelbase” technique before. As far as I know, good suspension resists brake dive so it can absorb bumps around the corner.
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 21, 2020 at 7:05
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    Excellent answer, exhaustive and to the point. However, I doubt that there will be any weight savings over a diamond frame: The diamond frame design is structurally as effective as it gets, pretty much any deviation from it must add more material than it removes to achieve the same stability. Nov 21, 2020 at 14:46
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The reason why flexible forks and stays are not used for suspension is geometry. With flexible forks blades or stays there is nothing that makes the left and right side of the fork flex together. Flexing one side more than other twists the wheel sideways, making it hit the fork. This is generally not wanted, and making the forks wider would just result in the entire wheel flopping around in the fork.

The successful designs in other answers have worked around this:

  • Softride has rigid forks and suspension for the seat
  • Lauf prevents twisting with tall suspended blocks held by multiple laterally stiff leaf springs
  • Trek Supercaliber actually has a pivot
  • As far as I can tell, Zertz was pure snake oil and was quickly retired.

For completeness' sake, there have been a couple of well known flexible frame designs that weren't so successful:

  • Slingshot: One description of the ride I found is "It has the unsettling quality of an expanding wheelbase with slacker angles as you compress, and then abrupt shortening and increasing twitchiness as the hinge rebounds and the cable bounce back. It's like riding an inchworm crossbred with a bucking bronco."
  • Ibis Bow: Successful as rare and expensive collectors' item, but apparently a bit scary to ride because the rear wheel can flop in any direction together with the fork and the suspension works only when sitting down.

As written in other answers, traditional double triangle frames are not completely stiff either. Traditional wheels have tendency to go potato chip shaped instead of twisting as flat disc when pushed laterally at rim, and this more or less counteracts the frame flex so that the wheel doesn't touch the fork even when the rider stands up and rocks the bike.

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Too much "spring" is not always a good thing, especially when it allows the frame to flex in directions it is not supposed to.

There is a video by Colin Furze where he makes several attempts to replace certain parts of a bike frame with steel coil springs of increasing stiffness.

Snapshot from the video

Even with the stiffest (and incredibly heavy) coils, the result was unrideable, because the flex interfered with steering and pedaling.

Warning: cycling without helmet is present in video, which I do not endorse, especially on experimental vehicles.

Jump to the 8th minute of the video to see the riding tests and how weird the thing behaves under steering, braking and hucking.

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    He has a safety tie on, what more could you ask for?
    – Swifty
    Nov 22, 2020 at 11:17
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Specialized frames around 2010 used to have “Zertz” inserts “for a compliant, but super responsive” experience. Look at the seat stay, seat post and front fork: Specialized Zertz image

I think now they are instead using flexible seat posts and a real shock with 20mm travel built into the steerer tube (called “Future Shock“).

Lauf makes forks with carbon leaf springs which purportedly have some advantages over traditional shocks:

Lauf fork

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    does anyone know how the damping is implemented in the LAUF fork? Dec 2, 2020 at 17:33
  • @CarlBerger: Apparently it doesn’t have any dedicated dampening element and just relies on the inherent dampening effect of the carbon leaf springs. Some people think they are too “bouncy”.
    – Michael
    Dec 2, 2020 at 19:59
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The hard part is that you don't just want a flexible frame and springy-ness.

  1. All bike frames do incorporate some level of flex. As soon as any structure is loaded, it deflects. In Engineering terms: if linear, it's called "Hooke's law", stating that the deflection is proportional to the applied force. In practice, that is clearly visible e.g. on a road race bike fork, while riding on a rougher road (deflections of several mm, and also for aluminium.)

  2. For suspension bikes, considerable effort goes into controlling the direction of the movement: Forks are telescopic, frames often have "4-joint" rear stays, so that the rear wheel travels along a designed curve while maintaining e.g. lateral stiffness. Otherwise the bike gets imprecise to ride. Achieving similar behavior through flexing alone is quite hard to impossible, depending on the suspension travel.

  3. Elastic flex alone is to be avoided, otherwise the bike will jump around like a rubber ball. There needs to be a damping element that is large enough to absorb the kinetic energy of the suspension ("dissipation"). Usually that's achieved through a oil/hydraulic damper, in the 1990ies there were some designs using elastomers but they didn't prevail. In theory it might be possible to achieve the damping within the frame material (carbon fiber composites are said to have dampening characteristics), but I am not sure if it is possible to realize larger suspension travels & control the good damping characteristics

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  • Unfortunately, you still can’t install knobs on your carbon frame to tune the compression and rebound damping hahaha.
    – MaplePanda
    Dec 1, 2020 at 7:14
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    Actually, I guess you could have a layered package of several individual sheets/leafs that dissipate energy through friction caused by relative movement in bending parts, and that friction might be adjustable using some sort of clamp. That said, the better approach would be designing the frame for a specific rider weight and riding style in the first place. (low travel XC bikes actually exist like that - Cannondale's SAVE "suspension" on F-Si comes to my mind) Dec 2, 2020 at 17:46
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One of the closest bikes to what you’re describing is the Trek Supercaliber. It uses a pretty scary-looking amount of seat stay flex and a small shock to achieve 60mm of travel. From reviews I’ve seen, it’s not a radical game-changer: it’s not much lighter, and losing weight was the main focus of this design. The loss in suspension performance generally isn’t worth it. It reportedly pedals really well when locked out though.

Here’s a video of the rear suspension stroke: https://m.pinkbike.com/video/505733

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  • There is a clearly visible pivot at the point where chainstays meet the seat tube. I don't see any chainstay flex in the video.
    – ojs
    Nov 22, 2020 at 10:53
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    @ojs Seat stay flex. “ It uses a pretty scary-looking amount of SEAT STAY flex...”
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 22, 2020 at 18:46
  • True, my mistake. I still don't think this is what the OP was looking for but just replacing one pair of pivots with flexible stays.
    – ojs
    Nov 22, 2020 at 20:33
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    @ojs Yea, this started off as just an example of a frame bending in the comments. Criggie encouraged me to make it an answer instead, so I did.
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 22, 2020 at 23:24
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Many bike frames incorporate some amount of springiness into their design — even though they seem stiff, they can deform enough under load to take the edge off of hits. Aluminum frames are the exception, because unlike other materials frames are made from, there is no “safe” amount of flex that doesn’t build up into fatigue, and so aluminum bikes have to be engineered to be stiffer than other bikes.

Some full-suspension mountain bikes are also engineered so that the rearmost rear suspension pivot (which only needs to rotate a few degrees on short-travel bikes) is implemented via chain- or seatstay flex, rather than a bearing. This design reportedly saves weight and increases stiffness, while simultaneously eliminating the need for maintenance there.

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    Flex stays aren’t necessarily there for comfort. The rear pivot only needs to move a few degrees, especially on short travel bikes where you most often see this design. You apparently get weight and stiffness benefits by ditching the bearings + hardware, and just designing a few degrees worth of flex into the rear triangle instead.
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 21, 2020 at 7:08
  • @MaplePanda: is your comment an expansion on my second paragraph, or are you disagreeing with some part of it?
    – RLH
    Nov 21, 2020 at 14:15
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    I am disagreeing with you for the most part. The flex in the seat- or chainstays is almost always there to facilitate rear suspension movement, not necessarily to add comfort on its own. I’m sure there’s a few bikes out there where this isn’t the case, but “flex stays” on a modern full suspension MTB refers to the suspension pivot version.
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 21, 2020 at 23:39
  • I don’t see how that contradicts anything I said. The OP essentially asked “could we implement suspension via elastic deformation of the frame instead of a sliding/pivoting linkage?” My answer was “most bike design does this to some degree, and some mtb designs go so far as to replace part of a moving linkage with flex.”
    – RLH
    Nov 22, 2020 at 0:22
  • Yea, I guess that makes sense. When I first read your answer, I took the second paragraph in context with your first (which was about frame flex for comfort).
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 22, 2020 at 1:27

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