01 March, 2018

Building a Bike From the Frame Up - Brake Lever Selection

by Igor

In this installment of the "Building a Bike From the Frame Up" series, we'll introduce and discuss the differences and subtleties between brake levers designed for drop, flat, bullhorn, and alt handlebars. First, let's get some terminology and specifications out of the way:

  • Drop Handlebar - The most common type of handlebar for road riding, touring, and randonneuring, typically allowing a more aerodynamic riding position than upright city-style bars. Lots of hand positions.
  • Bullhorn Handlebar - A very common handlebar style for time trial bikes. They put you in a very aerodynamic position and usually have clip-on aero bars. These got very popular during the fixie boom of the '00s. 
  • Flat/Riser/City/Mountain Handlebar - A common style of handlebar on city and mountain bikes. 
  • Alt-Bar - This style does not really fit into a particular category. They may have non-traditional shapes or dimensions.
  • Brake Lever Clamp Diameter (also known as Grip Area) - The outside diameter where your brake levers clamp.
    • 23.8mm - Drop, bullhorn, and some city handlebars
    • 22.2mm - City and mountain handlebars
Drop Bar Levers

The most traditional style of brake lever for drop handlebars is called Non-Aero. The cable exits the brake lever body out of the top and makes a wide arc around the stem and handlebar before the first cable guide or brake stop. While this style has fallen out of mainstream favor for the "aero" alternative, purists, collectors, and tourers often prefer the non-aero variant for simplicity, ease of maintenance, and aesthetics.

Up through the mid-1980's there were several companies making non-aero offerings, each with their own styling, following, and price point: Mafac, Campagnolo, Shimano, Universal, Modolo, Dia-Compe, Weinmann, just to name a few.

Personally, I think the differences between the non-aero manufacturers (with the exception of Mafac) aren't significant. They pretty much all look and function very similarly. Mafac's shape was different - much more square and chunky body - often preferred for randonneur-style bikes.

Traditionally-speaking, Campanolo and similar brake levers are often paired with deep drops and sloping ramps.


Mafac levers are best paired with traditional randonneur style bars where the ramps are long and parallel with the ground. 

In the mid 80s, levers with the housing routed underneath the handlebar tape, dubbed "aero", were becoming more mainstream. While Dia-Compe was likely the first company to release a consumer aero brake lever, Shimano did have the Dura-Ace AX brake lever with aero routing in the early 80s.

I actually find the evolution of the aero brake lever fascinating. At first, they were basically re-drilled non-aero bodies (same bottom cable entry and all), but over time cable entry changed to the more modern forward entry and body lever shapes were under experimentation. My favorite is Modolo's aptly named Kronos series. Check out the beautifully smooth line from the ramps to the brake hood and continuing to the lever.

If you're one for bar-end or downtube shifters or no shifters, your selection for aero levers is plentiful. The Tektro RL340s are popular for their shape and quick release cable tension button. If you want fancy, the Campy Record levers are sublime. 

With the introduction of integrated shifters, sometimes called "brifters" (the less this word is used the better), aero levers and subsequently handlebars have become more ergonomic for long times in the saddle. Handlebar ramps and brake hoods are typically parallel with the ground and feature gradual transitions. Pictured below is our Course Handlebar with Shimano integrated shifters.

For cross racers and city riders, Interruptor Brake Levers are very popular. These brakes are installed inline with aero levers and allows for braking to occur from the tops of the handlebars. They push housing rather than pull cable, so they function a bit differently than the main lever.

These should not be confused with "suicide levers" that were used on non-aero brake levers. These extensions were notorious for poor brake performance and flexible materials. 

Guidonnet Levers were often seen on French cyclotouring bikes. Mounted on either side of the stem, they allowed for plenty of room for a large handlebar bag in addition to easy lever access from the ramps and tops. The downside is that you can't reach the levers from the drops. We used to sell Dia-Compe's version of these way back when, but everyone who wanted a set got one.
Bullhorn handlebars are still used on triathlon and time trials bikes for their aerodynamics and simple shape. The most typical brake lever setup are inverse levers. They are inserted into the end of the handlebar and expand, similar to how bar-ends are installed.

Riders would often put aero levers on the ends of their bars, too.


City and Mountain Bars

Typical city and mountain bars use a 22.2mm outer diameter grip area, which means pretty much any city or mountain brake lever will work. The Tektro FL750 brake levers are extremely popular for their similarities to vintage CLB city levers.

We offer several of our city handlebars and subsequently brake levers in a 23.8mm grip area so that road-style components such as bar-end shifters and inverse levers can be used.

The important part of city and mountain brake levers is to select a lever that is compatible with your brake's cable pull requirements: Regular or Linear. Regular pull is what you would use for caliper, cantilever, centerpull, and any "road" style brake. Linear is what you would need for Shimano's V-brake or any other linear pull brake, most commonly seen on mountain bikes.

These pull ratios are not interchangeable. If you use regular pull levers on a linear brake, the lever will not be able to pull enough cable before the lever bottoms out. Vice-versa, you will need to pull the lever significantly harder to stop. Both of these scenarios should be avoided.

Our Grand Cru Brake Levers are my favorites. Not only are they compatible with 23.8mm and 22.2mm handlebars with included shims, they're also available in both regular and linear pull.

Guidonnet levers were also very popular on Belleville Bars for the same reasons as above. As an added bonus, they match the curve of the bars.

If you're using a 23.8mm handlebar, you can also use inverse levers like these by Dia-Compe or Tektro. By moving the brake lever to the end of the bar, you're afforded more room on the handlebars for grips and shifters and frankly, I like how they look.


Ok, things are about to get weird. Alt-bars are alternative bars. They don't really fall into drop bars or flat bar categories, and often have non-traditional shapes.

Our Crazy Bars are a perfect example. The grip area that sweeps back is 22.2mm, but the forward extensions use a 23.8mm grip area. This allows riders to mount bar-ends or even road shifters up front. Part of the fun of alt-bars is the wacky setups people make with their controls.

Trekking/Butterfly Bars are the original alt-bar. While they have a 22.2mm grip area, brake levers can be placed almost anywhere to suit the rider's preference. There's no wrong way to set them up!

Previous installments of the "Building a Bike from the Frame Up" series:


Tony Hunt said...

I dunno, I've found suicide levers really helpful on my fixie. Really helps to have access to brakes in any bar position when in the city

Anonymous said...

What's the timetable for restocking "klunker" bars??

VeloOrange said...


They'll be in our next container, around April.


thorir vidar said...

With, say your Crazy Bars (or bullhorn), would it be possible to have bar end shifters like in your photo AND inverse brake levers? I mean, do such parts even exist?

VeloOrange said...

@thorir vidar,

I haven't heard of any shifter/brake lever combos that exist like that. What you could do is have flipped non-aero levers on the extensions and inverse levers inside the horns!


bsimon said...

I kindof miss the Guidonnet levers I'd installed on a set of moustache bars. They matched the bar bend reasonably well, left more of the bar open for hand positions, and offered more access to the brakes from those positions.

Anonymous said...

Anyone ever seen guidonnet levers modified to work as interrupter levers? I read somewhere that it can be/has been done. Those combined with aero levers would be the ultimate brake-from-any-position drop bar setup, especially useful in the city.

Sure said...

Nice post and pictures. Do you remember Greg Lemond on the CRI final in Paris, Tour 1988?
Many people said that he won because of the triathlon handle.

Anonymous said...

What do you recommend for drop bars, bar end shifters and linear pull brakes such as mountain disc brakes?

Anonymous said...

There is significant comment on the Compass Bicycle blog (search "brake") in an article on braking. The two types of road brakes, i.e., cable exposed and aero, require two different types of hand positions for heavy braking. The position you prefer may influence your choice of brake. There are many other comments on braking in the article, including which lever for the front brakes.

VeloOrange said...


Two options for linear pull brakes and drop bars: 1) Tektro RL520 linear pull drop bar levers or 2) a "Travel Agent" to change cable pull. I haven't used the latter before, so I can't comment on how it works.


Unknown said...

Great to see one of my old bikes turn up on this thread. I agree with Tony up there. Suicide levers are handy for speed modulation on the tops, if not the outright ability to stop. For me, they evoke a bygone era of slightly sketchy 10-speed 'racers' that I miss dearly!