Behind bars

One set of handlebars is much like another, right? Not so. Finding the right bars will transform your ride.

You spend a good portion of your riding time staring right at them, but you probably don’t pay your handlebars much attention. Well, there’s more to drop bars than meets the eye. Aside from the obvious role of letting you steer the bike, handlebars are a key contact point with regards to fit and comfort.

Assuming that any bar will do the former, it’s the latter points that should form the basis of your search criteria if you’re considering splashing out on a new set. Even if you’re generally happy with the handlebars that came with your bike, by the time you’ve read this, you may find that a new set of bars is added to your cycling wish list.

‘The wrong handlebars can cause just as much discomfort as the wrong saddle,’ says bike-fitting expert Julian Wall of CycleFit in London. ‘That means they have the potential to ruin your enjoyment of your bike.’

Size matters

Before we get into the nuances of shape and design, let’s first tackle basic sizing issues. Handlebars, just like shoes and helmets, come in different sizes to suit the individual. The size is most commonly measured across the drops, from centre to centre, but beware a pitfall – some manufacturers measure from outside to outside so the sizing is not necessarily comparable from one brand to another. It’s a two-second job with a tape measure to check the width for yourself. Then you know what you’re getting.

So what’s the right size for you? Suffice to say the bars best suited to a 6ft 4in ex-rugby player wouldn’t be a great help to a petite female. His boots probably wouldn’t fit her either. So the rule of thumb most bike fitters will use is based on shoulder-width. Ben Hallam, head of the Cycling Lab at Bespoke Performance, a London-based fitting service, suggests handlebars should be ‘the same width from centre to centre as your shoulder-width from the outside of one acromion [bony part of the shoulder] to the other.’ This is a widely accepted method, but that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions.



Unlike helmets or shoes, handlebar width can be open to a degree of personal preference too. For example if a wider bar gives you more confidence due to the increased steering leverage, it’s perfectly valid to factor that in before you buy. Cyclo-cross riders commonly go up a bar width (or two) for the extra control this provides. On the flipside, an aero-obsessed rider might opt for a narrower set, to reduce frontal area. In some instances, then, it’s a matter personal choice, but the most important thing to know is simply that the choice exists.

‘It’s amazing how many people don’t factor in bar width into their bike set-up,’ says Julian Wall at CycleFit.

And although at a glance drop handlebars all look alike, take a closer peek and you’ll notice some marked differences. A gradual metamorphosis over the past two decades has resulted in modern versions being altogether more user-friendly, not to mention stylish.

Hallam says, ‘Traditional or “classic” shaped bars had a long reach and a deep drop. Many bars have moved towards a more compact shape [shorter reach and shallower drop]. Very exaggerated, so-called “ergonomic” shapes were popular in the late 90s to mid-noughties. However, many bars are reverting to a rounder-shaped drop as the aggressive flattened sections of the ergonomic bars tended to lock you into one grip position in the drops and so offer less variance of position.’

Sleight of hand

The whole point of a drop handlebar is to offer the rider a variety of hand – and ultimately body – positions. You have the option to ride with hands on the top section, the lever hoods, tight in the drops, or slightly more relaxed in the rear-most part of the drops. Of course there are minor variations in between too. For most riders it’s the hoods where their hands will spend the majority of the time, so it’s vital to focus most of the attention on getting this part of the ‘fit’ right.

We’ll come back to that later. To make the drop part of the bar a viable alternative, a less extreme change in body position seems to be the preferred option to avoid a visit to the chiropractor. Hallam reminds us why racers often prefer the deeper, more traditional bar shapes, saying, ‘For racing you can set your levers position higher and more relaxed to rest in the middle of the bunch while still having a low, racing drops position for attacking and sprinting.’

For most cyclists, having the option to ride with your nose pressed to the front tyre is not so high on the agenda. If you’re finding the drops an almost redundant position on your bike then a different, more compact-shaped bar could be the solution.

Todd Carver, founder of Retül and a globally-respected fitting guru, says, ‘Handlebar shape options have dramatically increased the fit effectiveness of a bicycle by offering ergonomic solutions for each and every type of rider. The new handlebar shapes offer more comfort by improving the ergonomics of the three main contact points: tops, hoods and drops. Flat tops with a short reach and shallow drops help riders achieve comfort in all three positions, where old bars rarely offered comfort in more than one.’

So does that mean we should all be riding compact bars? Carver goes on to say, ‘In the fit world, we’re still trying to draw correlations between rider type and desired bar shape in an effort to place the right bar under each rider from the get go. And although we do not have a direct protocol yet, we are beginning to see a trend in that most riders are moving away from traditional round shapes with long/low reach/drop towards more compact measurements with variable radius shaping. Most riders we fit, professionals and amateurs alike, prefer the new bar shapes compared to the old.’

Hallam concurs, saying, ‘Compact shaped bars are particularly good for riders who have reduced flexibility, because it creates a drops position that is easier to reach and you are therefore able to ride in it for longer.’

Tom Ritchey, legendary US frame-builder and founder of Ritchey Design, says, ‘Years back, Greg LeMond had everyone riding very deep drop bars, but that was just the trend. Now many new riders are older in age, and the shorter reach and drop of a compact bar is a better fit for riders lacking the flexibility of a pro racer.’ He also points out, however, that this new trend does not necessarily spell the end of the more traditional bar shape. ‘We still find our more traditional Classic and Logic II bends are in demand, so those will not go away anytime soon.’

Ritchey also raises another interesting point by stating, ‘Carbon bars allow for tighter bends and more compact shapes which were harder to achieve at an acceptable weight in aluminum.’ That’s also clearly a factor in the design of the many aero-shaped or so-called ‘wing bars’ on the market – the Zipp Vuka Sprint being the most obvious example – whereby these shapes would simply not have been viable in alloy. Which brings us nicely on to another question often raised regarding handlebars – carbon or alloy?



What are you made of?

Once you’ve decided on the width and shape to best suit your riding style, the final choice is whether to opt for alloy or carbon. With handlebars, even more than with other components, it’s been the subject of much debate. One obvious issue is cost. Carbon has a much higher price tag and can push bar prices up to over $300, but we’re going to put that aside and focus on the material properties that make the differences.

Sometimes it’s simply preference based. Pro racer Rob Partridge of Team NetApp-Endura says, ‘I prefer alloy bars. They tend to be light enough but I always find them a lot stiffer than carbon, especially when pulling on the bars in a sprint.’ We’re aware that other pros opt for alloy versions over carbon, but this is not necessarily anything to do with scare-mongering over the robustness of carbon. More often than not, it’s to help their bike make the UCI weight limit (at present, pro bikes cannot be lighter than 6.8kg).

We’ve already heard from Ritchey that carbon allows more specific shapes to be created, so we asked him what he rides. ‘Carbon bars,’ he says. ‘The strength and reliability is there, and carbon is a unique material that allows far more complex hand-fitting shapes, which is what I’m looking for.’



It’s pertinent to focus on the point Ritchey makes about the strength and reliability of carbon. It has become perhaps the most hotly-debated issue surrounding handlebars, and riders will often claim it’s the reason they opt for an alloy bar instead. So again, we put it to Ritchey whether there’s anything to be concerned about with carbon bars.

‘Carbon is definitely not more likely to break than aluminum,’ he says. ‘Both materials have their pluses and minuses. Aluminum is more prone to fatigue failure, and also subject to corrosion issues that can lead to problems further down the road. Carbon has a virtually infinite fatigue life under normal use.’

Adam Marriott, product manager for Easton Cycling, adds, ‘In fatigue testing carbon bars can outperform alloy by more than double. We rarely test to failure on carbon bars because they can outperform the industry standard by five times.’

Ritchey continues, ‘The real issue people experience with carbon products is that carbon does not like being over-tightened [at the junction with the stem], and also carbon does not always show signs of damage from a crash unless closely inspected. This allows riders to keep using a damaged product that might suddenly fail some time later.’

Rudy Bouwmeester of Shimano Europe, owner of PRO bars, agrees, saying, ‘The main reasons for choosing carbon over alloy is weight, stiffness and appearance. If mounted and used correctly, both are completely safe. However, with incorrect mounting the risks with carbon bars are higher than with alloy.’

The good news is, from all of Ritchey’s years of making carbon bars, seatposts and forks, he claims he’s ‘observed very few failures of this type. But there will always be riders who have seen or experienced a carbon failure who prefer to ride aluminum.’ The message is: take care of your carbon bars and watch the bolt-tightening torques of the stem and you have nothing to fear.

Get the set-up right

Setting up your bars is equally as important as having chosen the right set in the first place. The chances are you’ll spend most of your time riding on the hoods, so the positioning of the levers is paramount to your comfort. Different bar shapes will tend to alter the transition onto the levers.

Hallam says, ‘Compact bars should be set with a flat transition from the tops and round the corners into the lever hood.’ This basically means the hoods should be positioned in line with the tops of the bars. But he also points out, ‘If you set traditional bars up this way, the drop position is compromised, so they need to be set with the drops horizontal to the ground.’ Either way, the best case is to try to align your lever hoods so that they offer a relaxed position for your hands and wrists. Hallam sums this up by saying, ‘Levers need to be set so that the wrist is in a neutral “handshake” position.’

To conclude, if you change the bars on your bike, your ride buddies may not notice. But you certainly will.