If you spend over 30 minutes in the saddle, you want to make sure that your ride is comfortable. One of the best ways to optimize comfort is by choosing the right type of handlebar. Flat and dropped handlebars are the most commonly available, so let’s see which one is the better type for you.
Drop bars give you more hand positions, which results in superior palm comfort and they offer an aerodynamic advantage over flat bars, while flat bars are easier to handle and maneuver with for beginners and give a more comfortable, upright riding position.
The aerodynamic drag is not significant enough to make you faster if you ride slower than 15-16 mph (25 km/h); in that case drop bars won’t help you go faster. For the average commuter, a drop bar doesn’t translate into faster riding speeds. Drop bars also have the advantage of offering various hand positions. Being able to grab the handlebar in a variety of ways helps to alleviate pain in the hand on longer rides. (The most versatile bikes with drop bars are gravel bikes. For some they can be excellent commuters.)
Flat bars are generally more upright and thus offer a more comfortable riding position than drop bars. This is their main advantage over drop bars. Their major disadvantage is that without adding bar extensions they only offer one hand position, which can become uncomfortable on longer rides. They’re considered better suited for the majority of commuters, however.
If you want to make your flat handlebar more comfortable check out the Ergon GP5 handlebar extensions ($70 on REI). They give you two additional hand positions while still maintaining, and even enhancing the ride comfort of sitting upright.
But now, let’s dive into more detail and consider the pros and cons of flat bars and drop bars.
Pros of drop bar for commuting
Multiple hand positions
Drop bars are designed to offer you at least three different hand positions when riding your bike. You can ride on the bars, on the hoods, or in the drops. When riding on the hoods and in the drops your arms and hands are in their most natural position. The fact that you can change among them can offer relief to your hands on longer rides.
Aerodynamic advantage in headwind and at high speeds
Aerodynamic drag becomes a significant factor when you ride at 15.5 mph or faster. Riding on the hoods or in the drops means that your body will catch less wind and you can ride at the same speed with less effort or that the same effort will result in going faster. It is a great advantage for commuters who have long straight stretches on their commute where they can save energy and valuable time.
Narrower than most flat handlebars
Another advantage of drop bars is that they’re typically around 100-200 mm narrower than flat bars. This can be quite significant when passing through tighter spaces, such as cars in a traffic jam. Just when you need that inch or two between the rearview mirrors of two cars, you will be thankful.
You can fairly easily shift your body weight to the front which makes climbing hills easier. The brake hoods function as a firm grip that allow to shift your body weight even more to the front and you can also get leverage from them to push through the pedals with even more power. In a forward leaning position you have additional leverage for pedalling.
Even though this is a question of personal preference only, a bike with drop handlebars just looks good. It is like going to work in a sports car. You can further customize the unique looks of your drop bar with a range of custom handlebar tapes.
Cons of drop bars for commuting (and how you can overcome it)
Brake lever position
In city traffic your ride is constantly interrupted by traffic lights, pedestrians crossing, getting up and down curbs, crossing tram or train tracks, cobble stones, potholes etc. In these scenarios you always need to reach for the brakes. Most drop bars have the brake levers mounted on the hoods, which some don’t even notice, others find it a minor annoyance, and some find really annoying.
What to do about it: I have seen bikes with brake levers on the flat part of the bar, which is a possible solution, but not a very practical one if you have a road bike and you use it for weekend rides. Also, modifying a high end road bike is a little bit of a butchery. Dual brake levers or brake lever extensions for drop bars are a much better solution, though still impractical/impossible on high end road bikes.
Harder and more expensive to repair
Most bikes with drop bars have the cabling covered by the bar tape. When things go wrong and the cable needs fixing/replacing, it will involve some extra time and cost.
Less control than flat bars when going slow
Because of the narrow width and the more stretched out position, some extra weight falls on your hands, and it is trickier to maneuver bikes with drop bars when going slow. It is ok to slow down and stop occasionally, but it becomes quite uncomfortable if there is a lot of maneuvering involved in your commute.
Less room for accessories
A narrower bar also means less room to mount accessories, such as bike computer, lights, bell, phone mount etc. It’s not a deal breaker, but it can be annoying not to be able to mount everything you need at your fingertips during the ride.
What to do about it: If you run out of space on your handlebar you can buy a dedicated computer bike mount, which only takes up a single space, but allows you to mount your front light on it also.
Less comfortable to ride in work clothes
If you intend to ride in casual or formal clothes without changing into cycling gear you will find drop bars uncomfortable, because you’re leaning further ahead. Even a flat bar isn’t ideal for this kind of commute, but it’s a little better. Riser bars and cruiser handlebars are much more suitable.
Can be hard to keep an eye on traffic
When riding a bike with a drop bar you are sitting most upright when riding on the bars. This is as close as it will get to riding a flat bar. Even in this position most drop bars require you to lean more forward and stretch a little further ahead when riding than flat bar bikes. It can be quite strenuous on your neck to keep an eye on traffic and obstacles, because you need to keep your head in an unnatural position.
What to do about it: You can raise your handle bar by installing some headset spacers or by using a riser bar stem. This will put you in a more upright, and therefore more comfortable position so you don’t have to tilt your head too much. You will lose some of the aerodynamic advantage, but you will still be able to avail of the multiple hand positions.
Pros of flat bars for commuting
Best control and maneuverability
Having a wider grip on the handle bar allows for more control. This is very noticeable when going slow. Maneuverability is the reason why MTBs have wide, flat bars, because they need maximum maneuverability in very technical terrain in all conditions and all speeds.
More upright position
Most flat handlebars are higher than drop bars, which means that you are sitting more upright in the saddle. There is more weight on your rear end and less weight on your hands. All of this means that your overall riding comfort is greater.
Brake levers easy to reach
Brake levers are located right at your fingertips, and you don’t need to change hand position to reach it. It is great for riding in city traffic.
Easier and less expensive to repair
All cables are exposed, so in case of a cable replacement or any repair you can do it directly without having to take off and re-mounting the bar tape.
Better suited for less confident riders getting into commuting
Because of the greater control, more comfortable position, better visibility flat bars are generally better suited for less confident riders and first time bike commuters.
Plenty of room for accessories
More room on the handle bar means that more accessories can be mounted on them.
Cons of flat bars for commuting (and how you can overcome it)
Only one hand position
This is the biggest limitation that people complain about and for a good reason. Having only one hand position means that you can’t switch from one to another when your hand gets tired. My ride is 10 miles (16 km) each way and I used to get numb hands on my flat bar road bike after about 6-7 miles. I installed some bar ends on my bike and I no longer have the issue.
What to do about it: Luckily for flat bar riders there is a host of different bar extensions they can use that will allow them more hand positions. This is almost essential on longer commutes and longer rides. You can even add drop bar extensions to your flat bar!
Width may be an issue in tight spaces
Since flat bars are usually wider than drop bars, fitting through tight spaces can be an issue. I have scraped off the ends of the hand grips of my bike on more than one occasion, and I’ve managed to hit my own car’s rear view mirror trying to pass between the parked car and our house.
What to do about it: If you need to weave through heavy traffic and tight spaces, you can cut off a few inches from either side of your handle bar. Keep in mind though that you will lose some mounting space and having a narrower grip means that you will sacrifice control. The main thing is to strike a good balance. If you decide to go down this route it is best to cut a smaller piece than you think may be necessary, and cut some more if needed.
Less aerodynamic riding position when going fast
You can’t get as low on a flat bar as on a drop bar. Going really fast or facing strong headwind you will feel a difference. How significant the difference is really depends on the wind speed or your speed. Over 15.5 mph it becomes quite noticeable, and over 20 mph the difference is very significant. There’s a 5 km stretch along the Danube on my commute, which is a wind tunnel in the city, and sometimes I have to pedal really hard to reach even a moderate speed.
What kind of commuting is a drop bar preferable for?
Drop bar is best suited for long distance commuters who have long straight stretches on their way to work where they can feel the advantage of being in a more aero position and want to avail of several hand positions. A commuter bike with drop bars doesn’t necessarily have to be a road bike. Touring bikes, cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes all offer drop bars, but their geometry is slightly more relaxed, which means that you don’t need to lean too much forward to reach the handle bar. Gravel bikes also offer mounting points for racks and fenders, which are very welcome additions to bike commuters.
To sum it, choose a drop bar if:
- You prefer riding faster and/or you may face strong headwinds
- Your commute has long straight stretches on paved roads
- You don’t need to have your hands on the brakes constantly
- You’re OK with getting changed into sports/cycling clothes
If you choose a drop bar, there are some further details you need to consider, because there is a variety of drop bar options. Their comfort is mainly determined by three factors: reach, drop and width.
Width is how far the drops are from each other. Reach is how far out the drop curves. Drop determines by how much the lowest part of the drop is from the top bar. You can find a good detailed explanation of these aspects in the following video.
What kind of commuting is a flat bar preferable for?
Bikes with flat bars are best suited for those who are looking for some extra comfort and greater control over the bike. If your scapular muscles are easily strained but you don’t want to opt for a riser bar, then flat bars could be a good option. Just like drop bars exist on more than one type of bike, flat bars also come on a variety of bikes. Some are designed with a more aggressive geometry (e.g. flat bar road bikes) for greater speed, albeit falling behind their drop bar counterparts at fast speeds. If you want to nimbly weave through city traffic then a flat bar is a better option.
- You want to sit in a more upright position
- You want more control over your bike
- You need to keep your hands on the brakes often
Other good handlebar options for commuters
Drop bars and flat bars are not the only handlebar types you should consider for commuting. There are plenty of other options available if you’re getting started. If you’re still undecided and you want to find out about more handlebar types, you should read this other article I wrote about various handlebar types that can be useful for commuting.
If you’re only getting started with bike commuting, it’s better to start commuting before making a commitment without knowing what you need exactly. If you have an older bike or you can get your hands on a loaner bike for a few weeks you will quickly learn what type of bar best suits your needs. When you find the right balance of speed and comfort you will truly enjoy your commutes.
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.