Raising The Bar
Hidden beneath all that colourful tape, the handlebar is easy to take for granted. But thanks to new and evolving shapes and sizes, it plays an increasingly critical role in the quality of your ride. It’s time to take a fresh look at this unsung component
Handlebars are for more than holding on to – they can increase comfort and improve performance. Here we look at the key factors that make your handlebar work for you.
IImagine you buy a new road bike, and start heading out for rides. After that fresh-handlebar-tape smell wears off, you start to notice that your shoulders hurt on a long ride, or your hands go numb, or you can’t reach the brake levers from the drops quite like you want to. But the bike itself might be fine – it could just be that the handlebar is not quite cutting it.
As recently as 20 years ago, the bar played a mostly utilitarian role: It provided a place to attach brake levers, and gave you something to hold on to. But recent changes in bike design and innovations in manufacturing have led to an array of new handlebar shapes and sizes. This formerly overlooked component now plays an integral part in how we get along with our bikes, affecting everything from fit to comfort to handling.
The correct handlebar will put your hands in a position to support your upper body without putting strain on your neck and shoulders, and help balance your weight between the front and back wheels for proper handling. New shapes, like compact bends, offer improved ergonomics and control.
“There are so many more options, and people have realised they don’t have to be uncomfortable,” says Charlayne Barger, an experienced bike fitter.
What’s driving this new bloom of options? Many trend-watchers point to the advent of compact- frame geometry in the 1990s. Those frames, still popular today, have sloping top tubes that accommodate a greater range of rider heights, allowing manufacturers to produce fewer sizes. Before those developments, most frames were designed with a rider’s ideal stem and saddle position in mind. Typically, cyclists could find a good fit with only minimal changes to their stem length and saddle height. Compact frames flipped that formula 180 degrees. “Now, frames dictate what to do with the stem and seatpost,” says long-time frame-builder Tom Ritchey.
To adapt, riders have to rely on more pronounced changes to their saddle location, and especially their hand position.
As cyclists began clamouring for additional ways to fine-tune their set-up,
new materials and techniques gave component-makers more control over bar shape. Removable-faceplate stems opened up more bend options, since the bar no longer had to fit through a stem clamp. The result is a smorgasbord of choices: complex shapes, more combinations of reach and drop, better ergonomics, and larger clamp diameters that promise more stiffness. With so many options, the handlebar has become an important tool to help cyclists find an ideal riding position.
Bar shapes and sizes continue to evolve. Selecting the right one requires some trial and error, but it’s easier than you might think. Assuming your bike is the right size, your bar should let you reach the brake hoods comfortably with a slight bend at the elbow. When your hands are on the hoods or wrapped around the hook portion of the drops, your wrists should be at a comfortable angle. And you should be able to reach the brake levers easily from the hoods or drops.
Changing your bar won’t make up for a frame that doesn’t fit. But it can make your bike feel better, increasing comfort and improving control. The handlebar is one of just three points at which your body contacts your bike, so even small changes can have an outsized effect – transforming a good bike into a great one.