Bike handlebars for commuting. Which is the best?


Numb hands, tingling feeling in the fingers, tense shoulders, hurting wrist or back pain can be all signs of using the wrong type handlebar. When you start digging a bit deeper to see your options you realize that there is a huge variety of handlebars on the market. Which one is best for bike commuting? Is there a “best one” at all? Trying to answer this question, considering all the different types of handlebars seems overwhelming. At least that’s what I felt when I was in the market for one. In this post I am going to share with you what I found.

What is the best handlebar for bike commuting?

The best handlebar is comfortable and safe and fits your personal preferences. It allows you to have your hands and arms relaxed. It also allows you to ride your bike in the most favorable position while commuting. The best position will depend mainly on the length and the terrain of the commute. The handlebars are safe if they allow you good maneuvering on your commute. Your personal preferences, experience, body composition will influence your choice a great deal. Considering comfort, safety and your personal preferences will teach you which one fits you best. 

There are two basic parameters that will determine what a handlebar is best suited for, namely the width and the form.  These determine the position, the aerodynamics and the weight distribution of the rider. 

Width

There is a wide range of handlebars you can find from 250 mm (10 inches) to 850 mm (35 inches). In general, there are a few key points you should keep in mind when it comes to handlebar width.

The width of the handlebar determines how well you can maneuver your bike and how sensible the bike will be when making turns. If you have a very wide handlebar you have maximum control over your bike in terms of steering maneuvering 

Wider handlebars provide a better weight distribution because your body weight is more evenly spread out on three points of contact with the bike. 

A downside of wide handlebars is that it can be problematic to fit through tight spaces. It is quite easy to hit a rearview mirror with the handlebar when inattentively weaving through traffic. 

In order to make a sharp turn with a wide handlebars you need to perform a larger range of motion because its end points are further out from the stem compared to a narrow handlebar. which is very responsive, but more difficult to steer with precision.

Moving a really narrow handlebar even just a bit can result in a sharp turn. Precise maneuvering with narrow handlebars can be a challenge, but once you get the hang of it passing among cars or in narrow spaces is easier.

The form

Handlebars come in all sorts of forms: raised, dropped, flat, etc. Some forms allow you to lean forward more some less. The more you lean forward the more pressure you put on your wrist and elbow. 

In an aggressive forward leaning position (like on a road bike) you put more strain on the core muscles and the spine. When riding a riser bar you sit in a more upright position which will spare your wrist and back too. Your butt might hurt after a long ride but you will definitely sit in a more comfortable position.

The form will also determine the way you hold your hands and arms and will influence the handling of the shifters and brakes. Certain handlebars allow for more than one grip and you can hold them in several different ways. On particularly long commutes this can be an advantage because you can change your grip and relax your hands. 

From an aerodynamic perspective the lower you lean forward the lesser air drag you will experience. This becomes really noticeable when you exceed 15.5 mph (25 km/h). If you go slower, the advantage isn’t significant enough to make a noticeable difference. 

Flat bars

They are the standard type of bars on hybrid bikes and mountain bikes. Most of the bikes come with these completely flat bars (although some may have a slight upward sweep). 

Pros

  • It’s a wider type of handlebar and it gives pretty precise steering and good maneuvering at slower speed
  • There is plenty of room on it to mount phone holders, lights and other gadgets
  • Easy to fit bar ends to have additional positions for your hands
  • It is easy to shift your body weight on the bike. When climbing hills you can shift your body weight to the front to have additional leverage and grip. So for commutes in hilly areas this is an advantage. 

Cons

  • Although it’s considered a sporty handlebar, it is not the most efficient from an aerodynamic viewpoint, because it’s hard to go into a forward leaning position without losing leverage on the pedals.
  • Due to their width it can be tricky to maneuver among cars in tight spaces.
  • Without bar ends you can have your hand only in one position. Among the 5 types this bar exerts the greatest pressure on the wrists and elbows. 

What type of commute are flat bars good for?

If you commute with a moderate pace in a mainly flat area with some hills and you like to have all your gadgets on the handlebar, this is a good choice.

Riser Bars

As their name implies riser bars rise above the stem from the center clamp. The amount of rise varies from bike to bike. Generally they are wider than flat bars. They rise upward also toward the rider. 

Pros

  • In addition to the upward rise the bars often have a back sweep that allows the rider to sit in an even more upright position. That gives stress relief for the lower back and the wrists
  • For a beginner it can be a good choice to start with as it is comfortable and allows plenty of control over the steering
  • Because you sit in an upright position there is a smaller lower back load and therefore a lower risk of back pain.

Cons

  • Riser bars tend to be heavier and also more expensive than the flat ones.
  • There is less room for accessories as certain sections of the bars are bent. 
  • Riser bars are wide and therefore it is harder to pass among cars and in tight spaces. 
  • It is harder to go uphill with riser bars because it is more difficult to shift your body weight to the front to gain leverage for pedaling.
  • Riser bars are not optimized for aerodynamics. Going fast or riding in a heavy head wind is noticeably more difficult than on drop bars.

What type of commute are riser bars good for?

If you commute with a relatively low speed and want to feel comfortable then this could be an excellent choice. If your commute in a hilly urban area having to maneuver a lot in tight spaces this might not be your best handlebar type for you. 

Cruiser Bars

Cruiser bars are either attached to a high stem or have a quite high rise. They also have a sharp swept back form. In some cases the bar ends point in the direction of the rider. Even among cruiser bars there is a wide variety such as chopper style or Dutch-style handlebars just to name two. The difference is in the rise of the bar and the degree of back sweep. 

Pros

  • These handlebars are really comfortable and allow the rider to sit in a totally upright position.
  • You can achieve pretty precise steering because of its width.
  • Because of its form there is plenty of space on the bars to mount a basket.
  • They are so comfortable that you can commute even with a suit.

Cons

  • Cruiser bars have poor aerodynamics. Your upper body catches all the wind
  • Climbing up steep hills with this type of handlebars is very challenging
  • Due to its form it can be really problematic to mount gadgets, light, etc on
  • Maneuvering in tight spaces can be problematic 

What type of commute are cruiser bars good for?

The cruiser handlebar is recommended for urban commuters for short comfortable rides in flat areas is. Important note: As the rider is seated in a totally upright position all his body weight will press the saddle. It is good to have a wider saddle to avoid butt pain.

Bullhorn

Bullhorn handlebars curve up and forward. They are commonly used for fixed gear bikes. It was first used in track racing as it provides excellent aerodynamics.

Pros

  • They have excellent aerodynamics because grabbing the horns you can lean forward perfectly. The so called “pursuit” bullhorn bars even have a drop in them so that you can lean forward even more. 
  • You can put your body weight completely to the front which makes them perfect for climbing steep hills.
  • They tend to be narrower than flat bars. Because of their narrowness they are good for passing among cars in tight spaces.
  • There’s more than one hand position, allowing you to relax your hands when they get tired
  • Just to say that your bike has bullhorn bars sounds exciting. Not only that, but they also look really cool giving your bike a unique aggressive look.

Cons

  • Due to the forward leaning position and the narrowness of the bar steering might feel a bit difficult. The widest bullhorn bars are about 500 mm wide.
  • The brakes can be mounted either right where the bar is clamped to the stem or to the end of the horns. Your brakes and shifters are in a somewhat awkward position.

What type of commute are bullhorn bars good for?

Having a bullhorn bar could be a good choice if your commute is particularly long and hilly. This bar might not have the best maneuvering capabilities and takes some time to get used to it but can be used well for urban commuting. Commuting with bullhorn on rough roads can cause back and wrist pains as your body weight is distributed more to the front. 

Drop bars

Drop bars are designed for long rides on good quality roads that have diverse terrain. They are narrow width between 36 and 42 cm. They have a straight central part attached to the stem and the ends curve forward and then backwards toward the rider in a lower position. These are found on road bikes, cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes.

Pros

  • They offer multiple hand positions. You can ride on the bars, on the hoods and in the drops.
  • When riding on the hoods and in the drops your hands and arms are in the most natural position, which is really favorable for long rides.
  • It has excellent aerodynamics. Riding in the drops your body is in a perfectly forward leaning position and therefore your body will catch little wind.
  • Ride on the hoods can allow you to lean forward even more which helps you to climb steep hills.
  • Drop bars look very sporty

Cons

  • Due to their narrowness precise maneuvering is difficult with drop bars
  • Your body weight is distributed more to the front, which can cause wrist and back pains, and it makes maneuvering in tight spaces somewhat difficult
  • There’s not much space for accessories because of their narrowness
  • You can only use the brakes when riding on the hoods or in the drops

What type of commute are drop bars good for?

Drop bars can be excellent for those who like to go really fast and don’t have to maneuver a lot. It requires strong core muscles to keep your body in a forward leaning position. Your body weight is distributed more to the front although you can shift it backwards by holding the flat part of the bar. 

Not all drop bars are created equal. When choosing a drop bar beware of the three main parameters that determine their ergonomics: width, reach and drop. You can find a comprehensive explanation of these parameters in the following video.

Which handlebar should you choose?

In order to find out which of these is best for you, you need to know exactly what your commute looks like so you can strike a good balance between speed and comfort. For shorter city commutes choose a more relaxed type of bar such as a cruiser or a riser bar. For medium length commutes, choose a flat bar or riser bar with a slight rise. For long commutes choose a bullhorn or a drop bar. These are only rules of thumb, of course. Once you try several types, you may prefer one over the rest so much that you have your mind made up. The important thing is to get out there and ride your bike as much as you can.

My favorite bike commuting products

Here are some of the products I love using for bike commuting. They make riding so much more fun and enjoyable.

Ergon GP5 Bar End Grips: These are super comfortable, ergonomic grips that offer me two extra hand positions on my flat bar bicycle. They also offer a much more comfortable grip that helps distribute my weight on the handlebar better.

Bar end mirrors: If you ride much among cars then a bar end mirror can make riding much safer. You don’t have to turn around every single time to check on the traffic coming from behind.

Bike lights from Cateye. This is essential year round. I recommend going for a more powerful light than just a to-be-seen light. I like the 800 lumen ones from Cateye because they are affordable, portable and still give out plenty of light so I can see where I’m going even in pitch dark. The battery lasts for a long time too, and it’s USB rechargeable.

Bike rack. This bike rack from Dirza is great because I can put it on almost any bicycle regardless whether they have mounting points for racks or not. I can leave it on my bike for commuting or take it off for weekend rides or whenever I don’t need a rack.

If you want to check out my full list of recommended products, you visit my recommended gear page.

Happy riding!!

Bike Commuter Hero

When it comes to Cycling to Work, SAM IS THE MAN because he doesn't just talk the talk, but he also walks the walk - or rides the ride, to be more precise... Come, pedal with me and be a HERO!

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