Not all handlebars are created equal, and the ones on your bike are responsible for your comfort, steering, braking, and shifting. I’ve needed to change the bars on some of my bikes to make them more comfortable for my body shape.
Drop bars have different hoods, bends, tops, drops, widths, and reach. Aero, Classic, Compact, Track,or Flared drop handlebars widely vary in material, size, and shape based on the intended use.
But what drop bar is best for you? Let’s talk about it.
Drop Handlebar Parts
- Hoods: the hoods are the part where most people hold the bars most of the time. It’s part of the handlebars where your brake levers and shifters reside.
- Bend: This is the curved section of the bar.
- Tops: The tops are the straight portion of the bars that are horizontal in front of the rider. They’re often used for climbing to give you a more upright and open position to help regulate your breathing.
- Drops: Drops are the bars’ bottom part that extends straight back toward your bicycle seat. The drops are often used for sprinting or more aerodynamic positions.
To measure the drop of your handlebar, you measure the vertical distance from the bar top to the lowest part of the bend. A shallow drop is 125mm or less. A drop of 125 to 128mm is considered medium, while a drop of more than 128mm is deep.
- Width: The width of your handlebars will coordinate with your shoulder width. Most manufacturers will measure the bars as the distance between the center of the drops.
Some will measure the difference from the outside of the top part of the bars. You’ll generally find bars from 36cm to 44 cm wide. However, track bars may be even thinner. The wider the bars, the more control you’ll have, but the less aerodynamic the bars are.
To find the best width, you may want to measure your shoulders from one socket to the other. The width of the bars should be about the same width. You can increase the width for stability or decrease it for aerodynamics, so long as the bars are still comfortable.
If you have numbness in your hands, achiness in your shoulders, or tension in your neck, you may need to check your handlebars.
- Reach: The reach is how far you have to reach past the bars to hold them at the bend. To measure the reach, you measure from the flat handlebar top to the furthest section of the bend.
A short reach is less than 80mm, a medium reach is 80 to 85 mm, and a long reach is typically 85mm or more.
Smaller riders may prefer a shorter reach.
Types of Drop Bars
Traditional or Classic Bars
Classic bars have a standard curly bar shape with deep drops to help you get in a very aggressive position.
Compact bars have a shallower drop and a shorter reach. This means there is less difference between riding positions, which may be better for people with less flexibility or who just want a more compact shape to their bars.
Aero bars are created to be more aerodynamic. These bars are flatter on the tops, rather than the traditional round, tubular shape. As a result, they may be easier to hold on the tops.
Track bars don’t have a spot for hoods since track bikes don’t need brakes or shifters. They typically have a rounder shape and deep drops to create a very aggressive and aerodynamic position. Some track bars, such as Bunch Bars, have ‘false hoods’ to create an extra hand position on your track bike.
The idea behind flared bars is to give you a wider grip for extra control. You’ll typically find flared bars on gravel bikes and sometimes CX bikes. They’ll help you control the steering better under messy, slippery, and technical roads or trails. Flares are usually measured in degrees out from the hoods.
If your bike fits you correctly, you should be able to comfortably rest your hands on the brake hoods while keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Your wrists should also be in a comfortable position, whether in the drops, on the bend, or on the tops. Finally, you should be able to shift and brake easily from the hoods and the drops.
If your bike is too big or too small, changing the handlebars won’t fix your problems. But if the rest of your bike fits correctly, changing out the handlebars could make a big difference in your comfort, control, and bike handling.
The bars should fit you, so you don’t feel strain on your neck and shoulders when you ride. It will also help balance your weight correctly on the bike for better handling.
What is the right height for handlebars?
The height of your handlebars is related to how flexible you are and what kind of riding you do. For example, for an aggressive race position, you’ll probably want the handlebars to be at least 3 inches lower than your saddle height. This helps you be more aggressive and aerodynamic to increase your speed for racing, but it isn’t comfortable for long rides.
On the other hand, if you want a comfortable, recreational position on the bike, great for bike touring or multi-day rides, you may want to position your handlebars to be about level with your saddle. Then, if you have back problems, you can go even higher if necessary.
For everything else, you’ll want to go somewhere in the middle, about an inch or two below your saddle.
If you need to raise your bars, you may be able to insert spacers between the fork and the bars to give you more lift. If you need to lower them, your bike may have spacers already built in that can be removed.
Handlebar Material: Carbon vs. Aluminum
What are handlebars made of? Typical handlebars can be made of aluminum, carbon, and even steel. Sometimes, you can even find titanium handlebars.
Aluminum and steel bars are probably the least expensive, with titanium being the most costly and carbon falling in the higher end of the middle.
Carbon handlebars are becoming increasingly popular because they are lightweight and can be molded into more aerodynamic shapes. They can also be made to house all of the cables internally, which cuts down on the aerodynamic drag of your handlebars. Another benefit of carbon bars is the vibration-dampening effect, which helps reduce hand and wrist fatigue.
Aluminum bars are much less expected but not nearly as lightweight. In addition, they can’t be molded like carbon bars, so they’re more likely to have that typical round, tubular shape. Aluminum bars are plenty sturdy enough, but they won’t have the vibration-dampening characteristics that carbon bars are known for.
Not all handlebars are available in standardized sizing. For example, the bars on my State bicycle have a slightly different tube diameter, meaning they need a specific stem. So when I changed the bars on my State bike, I also had to change the stem to make it fit.
On the other hand, Canyon Grail bikes have an innovative double-decker handlebar that was created to absorb vibration and offer additional hand positions. You’ll even be able to get a more upright position with these bars if you need it. However, it can be difficult to change the bars out if you want to switch them out to a standard gravel bar instead.
Final Thoughts on HandleBars
Since handlebars are an important touchpoint on your bike, it stands to reason that you need to make sure you are using the best bars for your body type, riding style, and comfort.