20 February, 2008

Handlebar Basics, Part 1

We've been getting a lot of questions about handlebars lately so I thought I'd share what little I know.

Width: In recent years many riders have been fitting ever wider bars on their bikes. I did this myself and found it a mistake. Certainly on mountain bikes and CX bikes the additional leverage of wide bars makes sense, but not on low trail city and road bikes.

A well designed low trail bike should feel almost as if the steering is linked directly to your brain. The bike will hold a line through a corner with little input. It will also track straight without the need for constant attention. After all, the steering is optimized for a tired long distance rider. The bike should take care of the rider and this sort of bike has been doing exactly that for many decades.

It is the bike that is based on racing geometry that may feel better with extra wide bars. They deaden overly quick steering and improve control on a high trail design. But there is an aerodynamics and ergonomic price to be paid for that width. It's true that beginning riders can feel more comfortable on very wide bars, just look at the "cruiser' bikes at the local shop, but one soon get used to slightly narrower bars.

The same holds true for city bikes. The last thing you want is wide bars to snag on passing cars and cyclists. The city bike must be narrow and if the geometry is correct narrower bars will feel just fine.

Bar Height: There has also been a tendency to raise drop bars well above saddle height. Certainly there are people with bad backs who benefit from this, but there are many more riders who set their bar too high simply because they've read that that's the way to do it. Again, there is a price to be paid in aerodynamics. I'm not suggesting that you set the bars several inches below saddle height as the pro racers do, but most people are soon perfectly comfortable with the bars at saddle height or an inch below. And cruising along at 15-20mph you'll really feel a difference.

City bike bars can vary greatly in height, some folks want city bikes that feel like road bikes and will lower the bars to below saddle height. Others will want to sit straight up with their bars at chest height. Just remember that if you like to sit up, which makes a lot of sense in heavy traffic, get bars that sweep back; otherwise you'll feel like you're riding a chopper.

Drop: I favor shallow drop bars because most non-racers are not comfortable on the drops if they are two low. And if you can't use the drops, you might as well just cut them off and save some weight.

Ramps: Most models of Nitto road bars have fairly flat ramps; that is, when you are riding on the hoods your hands don't angle down. There is no question that this is more comfortable than racing bars with downward sloping ramps. Add wide and long brake hoods, as on modern Tektro and Campy brake levers, and you'll see a big improvement over the bars and levers we used 20 years ago.

Part 2 tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

yes!!! excellent commentary! for those who ride for more than three hours, in a headwind, carrying a load, climbing a hill/mountain, having bars above the level of the saddle is a mistake.

Lesli Larson said...

Why is it a mistake? I've ridden a 1000k under such conditions and I found bar/stem set to saddle height a very comfortable option.

Mike said...

Good to see a return to the information/culture kind of posts. The new stuff being offered by VO is great, but you've been lacking in informative kinds of posts like this one.

I hope the people commenting on your blog aren't what's stopping you!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that you expressed most of your views as your preferences rather than objective fact because that is largely what this comes down to. What works for you? The "aerodynamic price" to be paid from wider or higher bars is so small as to be laughable under most circumstances. What effect do racks, bags, bells, clothing, etc. have on aerodynamics? You mentioned that you don't like deep drops on your bars but they do a wonderful job of providing a more aerodynamic position should one desire it. Again, to each their own. If being more comfortable, more visible and better able to enjoy the view gets you onto the bike more often, then that's what matters. Bottom line, try it for yourself and stick with what works for you.

Anonymous said...

So Jan and Mark's comments about your 48 cm bars shamed you into conformity, eh?


Velo Orange said...

They were only 46mm. And I have wide shoulders ;<)

z-man said...

Amen, brother

Anonymous said...

One more thing to add: Conventional wisdom (with some science backing it up) is that wider bars open up the chest and allow easier breathing. This has been the main reason for the move from bars around 38cm to those around 42 or 44 on road bikes.

The size of the aero penalty for a high, Rivendellesque bar setup depends largely on whether one rides in packs or solo, as well as with how fast one is riding in the first place. Air resistance varies with the square of speed; there a 40% greater increase in resistance between 20 and 25 mph than there is between 15 and 20, so all things being fairly equal aero matters a lot more on a sporty rig meant to be ridden faster than on a city or touring bike. Terrain matters too, your aerodynamics matter a lot less when you're spending a lot of time climbing slowly and then descending with frequent braking than on a ride of similar length and average speed on the flats.

Anonymous said...

Typo, % above should be 30%, not 40%

-Same Anon

Anonymous said...

The 48 cm Noodles are the best thing to happen to my bikes since the Brooks saddle! I had once sworn off drop bars completely, but now I realize they were just too narrow. Of course this is more a matter of your anatomy than anything else. Based on Jan Heine's comments, I tried narrower bars on my low trail (30mm) bike, but they were just as uncomfortable as I remembered them! I find the wide bar/ low trail combo to be perfect for me. I like 'em a cm or two below the saddle. YMMV!

Anonymous said...

Interesting in that everyone seems to have opinion when it comes to things like handlebars. However as as usual it is what ever works best for the individual. Different sized bodies on different sized rigs require different fit. And it seems we occasionally like to change the way we ride. Of course the only solution to that is to have more than one bike that is set up different.

However one thing that sometimes gets over looked and you did mention it is how far back the bars return . So stem size is pretty important too. What's amazing is how just a few cm can make a big difference.

I'm just happy to see vendors now carrying many different types of bars. I have five bikes and each one has a different handle bar set up and that makes each bike a little bit different to ride.

Anonymous said...

I have found that I prefer a 46cm bar with an 80mm or shorter stem, with the bars about even with the saddle. All of my bikes are more comfortable this way, and seem to handle better as well. When I ride a bike with a long stem and/or narrow bars, it always feels very sluggish and awkward to me, as if there is far too much of my weight on the front wheel. Plus it's simply not comfortable to me. I don't doubt that some bikes/riders benefit from narrow bars, but from what I can tell my bikes are not on that list. I do agree with the handlebar height statements though. For me, if the bars are much higher than the saddle my lower back begins to ache, presumably from having more of my weight over the center of the bike.

Adam A. said...

I don't know -- I have 63 cm wide bars on my porteur city bike, and that handles just fine in traffic :-)

If you need narrow bars to fit through traffic, you're riding dangerously to begin with, and should perhaps rethink your strategy.

Ari said...

I wonder how much time riders spend arguing over stuff on the internet. In the old days we would be getting bored riding the rollers in the garage listening to Billy Joel on Cassette. Ride what works for you!
Now get out and ride.

Anonymous said...

The typical reason for wider bars in the racing peloton is that they give you _much_ more leverage for climbing (this applies mostly when out of the saddle when you're really grunting). Try it and see. Even 2cms of width makes a difference. Look at the bikes used in the climbing stages in the TdF ... you'll see what I'm talking about for sure.

- david_nj

Shouldn't make much of a difference with sport touring cycles.

James said...

Theories of handlebar design and location are always terribly autobiographical and always get you in trouble and why the fuck can't I ride a Toei to get some grilled Eel on a mountain of rice? http://france1961.nsf.jp/unagi-2.htm

Anonymous said...

regarding leverage for climbing: that's because racing bikes are high trail, right? Lots of so-called sport-touring bikes are high trail and should also benefit from extra width while climbing.
One cool thing I've noticed since I've started riding low trail is that I don't have to "muscle" the bars to keep the bike steady when climbing out of the saddle. Just having my hands gently resting on the bars is enough. I still ride wide bars for comfort, but narrow bars would be fine in terms of handling.
I think that was Chris' point: with lower trail like the VO bikes, you just pick whichever bars are comfortable, since stable handling is already designed into the frame.


Anonymous said...

ari said "I wonder how much time riders spend arguing over stuff on the internet. In the old days we would be getting bored riding the rollers in the garage listening to Billy Joel on Cassette. Ride what works for you!
Now get out and ride."
Ugh! The very thought of riding inside on rollers listening to Billy Joel sends shivers down my spine ;-)
I always find these "shut up and ride" type posts funny! This is a place for discussion, so of course that's all you're going to see. I spend MUCH more time riding (and other aspects of life) than I do reading and posting comments, as I suspect do most of you. We come here because sometimes we like to talk about bikes! Plus, it has been forums and sites like this that helped me determine "what works for me". I have no doubt that this very discussion will will result in someone getting more comfortable on the bike, and that's awesome!

Velo Orange said...

James, Don't know where you are, but it's too bloody icy here to ride for grilled eel. I'm walking for a big hot bowl of yose nabe instead!

Thanks for the yummy link.

C said...

I tried wider and higher bars and for me it turned out to be a disaster. The wider bar pinched my shoulder blades resulting in considerable discomfort. It was fine on my 'cross bike but for rides over 3 hours it was miserable.

Higher bars also proved problematic. I raised mine so they were slightly higher than my saddle in preparation for the local brevet series. Again, it wound up causing problems. I put the bars back down, about 1" below the saddle, and everything was good again.

As for bar design, I do prefer traditional rounded bends in the drops. However, on the top surfaces I've really become a big fan of the wider, flat top bars which are now in fashion. I know they make traditionalists absolutely cringe but I like them for the same reason I like a Brooks saddle: the more surface support for my weight, the less discomfort. My dream bar would be a Nitto Noodle with flattened top sections. Chris: any chance of that happening?

Anonymous said...

Different strokes for different folks. Handlebars and stems up, down, narrow, wide - the human body accommodates and adapts.

I too like information and discussion posts, much more interesting than consumerism, but people do need to make a living.

Andrew F said...

I rode my low trail Toei to work this morning with wide Albatross bars (an experiment at the moment). No eel for breakfast, but I find absolutely no problem with wide bars on a low trail bike. I also tried 44cm Noodles and found it fine. Jan obviously has a preference for narrower bars so that's what he likes. He also rides with his bars well below the saddle, something that my hands and neck cannot tolerate. Whatever works for you.

Cody Williams said...

Personally, what should be wider bars (such as 48s) have been a miss. Im 6'2" and have a wide body, but 44 road bars and 42 track drops have been good to me.

I usually run cut risers on my fixed gears. I had a pair of very narrow risers that would kill on rides over a couple of miles that included climbing. My wider risers made a ton of difference when climbing. Fixed gear climbing is a different beast when you really have to work the bike to keep climbing. This is also a very high trail bike (75 ht, 33 offset fork).

Anonymous said...

Bar height comfort depends a lot on how flexible your back and hamstrings are. For me having the stem 30-50 mm below the saddle is always more comfortable than level with the saddle. I used to ride with my stem even lower but it began giving me neck pain on all day rides. With saddle to stem distance---I agree that it needs to be within 10mm of my ideal for me to feel right on a bike.

As far as bar width--it seems like it has gotten wider along with the Q factor over the years. But, I do find it suspect given that I don't think human bodies have changed much...I never go wider than 43 or 44, and I used to ride 41 all the time. I wonder if mnt. bikes have changed the common fit advice? Wide bars and wide cranks....hummmm.

Anonymous said...

I like a fairly wide bar, but I agree that there's a lot of fuzzy math going on . . . Your lungs don't actually "open up." They just don't. Really. And more leverage isn't usually the problem on the road. On the other hand, I don't notice much aero benefit from narrower bars. Yesterday I rode a windy 72 miles with a friend. He had a city-style bike with wide butterfly bars. He is not stronger than me (it's the opposite). But yesterday he was basically riding away from me.

In the old days, the masters felt aero isn't something you do with the bike, it's something you do with your body. Still is.


Anonymous said...

I just like the fact that Chris can give his opinion without being a: preachy or b: over apologetic.

Personally, I can't stand all this ymmv crap, I mean it goes without saying, does it not?. It is his blog, ffs.

A lot of sites/blogs/posts/whatever seem to be so wishy-washy, surely Americans aren't this agreeable in person.

What's wrong with an opinion?.

P.S If you disagree with me, we can still be friends :).

Anonymous said...

Aerodynamics be damned! I broke my arm pretty badly Jan. 2007 and was riding again by April. I was not able to this with my old narrow, low set-up. A Nitto Rando with a Nitto Technomic set just below saddle height worked, and I haven't changed it on my commuter in almost a year. My commute takes me from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge and up into the uppers eighties in Manhattan. All ways windy. Uphill both ways. I just keep getting badder and badder from the workout and at least I can ride! So yeah, slick is good, but at what price when you're only going 17 or 18 mph for most of a ride? I could go back to the more aerodynamic fit I was using before, I think. My body has changed and this works now. Listen to your body to find your ideal set-up. What you lose in aero you gain in fitness.

Anonymous said...

"If you can't use the drops, you might as well just cut them off and save some weight."
Never occured to me but I might just do that!

I've been playing around with an early-70s road bike that has exceptionally narrow drop bars and I spontaneously noticed improved aerodynamics. On my everyday bike, I now try to use positions closer to the stem when riding on the tops. As a larger rider, I'd always assumed you should get proportionately larger bars. Next "real" bike I get I'm opting for relatively narrow bars.