If you've ever been on a road bike you know that not all handlebars are created equally and some small adjustments can make a world of difference to how you feel out on the road. If you've landed here, maybe you're thinking about making a change or wondering how wide your next bar should be? Or perhaps it's winter and you're just tired of Netflix. Regardless, when it comes to optimizing your position and set up on the bike, the devil is often in the details.
Along with your saddle and pedals, your handlebar serves as one of the three major contact points so it's worth giving some thought to. Yes, its primary role is for pointing your bike where you want to go, but it's much more than just a steering wheel for your bike.
In this blog, we'll delve into the nitty-gritty of road bike handlebars, offering a comprehensive guide on choosing the right size and shape, and give you our two cents on why it matters. But first, let's get familiar with some of the terms that you'll see on the product pages.
Tops: We like to to think of this as the mountain bike part of the bar, but that's just us. This is the straight section of the bar connected to the stem.
Ramp: The section that transitions from the tops to the hooks is occasionally gauged by the sharpness of the incline leading to the location where the brake hoods are mounted.
Hooks: Portion of the handlebar immediately below the clamp for the brake/shift lever, utilized while going downhill and maneuvering through turns or when you just want to look badass.
Drops: Straight portion of the bar that extends back toward the rider (below the hooks). Settle in here for a better aero position on the bike.
Drop: The measurement from the midpoint of the bar's upper surface to the midpoint of deepest part of the drops. Generally a drop of 125-128mm is typical and anything less or more is considered shallow or deep, respectively.
Reach: Horizontal distance from the center of the handlebar tops to the center of the furthest extension of the hooks, where the brake hoods are fastened. These typically range from 70-85mm.
Width: Most companies measure a bar’s width between the center of each drop. Sizes typically range from 38 to 44cm, but with the advent of gravel specific bikes, wider options are becoming more popular and manufacturers are introducing more flared designs.
We'll spend most of our time discussing handlebar sizing considerations of your road or gravel bike so that you can achieve a comfortable and sustainable position. The size and shape of your drop bars can significantly impact your riding comfort and control. A well-fitted handlebar provides a supportive riding position, reducing strain on your neck and shoulders, and contributes to balancing your weight between the front and back wheels in optimizing your centre of gravity.
For a comfortable ride, the handlebar (along with stem and overall bike fit) should contribute to a comfortable reach to the brake hoods with a slight elbow bend. When your hands are on the hoods or wrapped around the hook portion of the drops, your wrists should be at a comfortable angle. You should also be able to easily reach the brake levers regardless of where your hands are gripping the bar.
We would be remiss not to mention, that there are performance gains to be had from optimizing your handlebar. Your drop bar plays a pivotal role in determining your frontal area, which directly impacts your aerodynamics—a crucial factor for competitive cyclists and performance-oriented riders. Take a look at some of the bars used by pro riders on the world stage and you'll see some very narrow bars (Tadej Pogacar uses a 36 centimeter handlebar, which is a size that can be difficult to find from the major manufacturers. He also has turned his levers inwards, which won't be the case anymore after the UCI has banned extreme hood positioning.). When looking for speed upgrades, most riders flock to wheels and lighter weight components (with good reason), but the handlebar can offer significant gains as well. That said, it's also important to open the chest for breathing so there are tradeoffs and finding an appropriate handlebar width is critical.
The ideal width of road bike handlebars, for us every day cyclists, is typically based on optimizing comfort for long rides. You're going to get fitter and faster if you're actually able and want to ride the bike so recognize that you'll be in that same posture for some extended periods of time before deciding to go full aero. Since road bikes are engineered for very light steering, there's no necessity for broader handlebars to improve maneuverability. At the same time, and despite our comments above, the slight aerodynamic edge provided by narrower handlebars does not compensate for the reduced comfort unless you're truly at the pointy edge of the field.
For most people, ensuring your arms are in the most comfortable position is as simple as ensuring they are extended straight ahead, parallel to your body. To achieve this posture, road bike handlebar width should correspond to the breadth of your shoulders. The common mistake we see is measuring from the outside of your arms, which incorporates soft tissue like muscle and fat (we know, it's all muscle!). Shoulder width should be determined by measuring the broadest bony part of your shoulders. i.e. Measure the outer most part of the bony extrusion. As mentioned in the jargon section, the width of the handlebar is typically centre to centre, but verify how to measure handlebar width for your chosen manufacturer or shop before choosing your bar.
We believe shoulder width is still the best place to start your handlebar width journey, but it's not the be all and end all. Consider the following pros of going with a more narrow or wider setup.
Narrow handlebars are commonly associated with improved aerodynamics. By reducing your frontal area, they can reduce wind resistance and potentially increase speed. They also allow for tighter maneuverability, beneficial when riding in a crowded peloton or navigating through tight city streets.
On the other end of the spectrum, wide handlebars offer greater stability and control, making them the go-to choice for inexperienced riders or those venturing onto mixed or rough surfaces. They can also alleviate tension and discomfort in the shoulders, neck, and hands, especially for riders who tend to lock their elbows when riding. Particularly in the triathlon world, the ever narrowing handlebar eventually gave way to a middle ground as the importance of opening the chest to allow oxygen in will also have a significant impact on performance.
Handlebar shape can significantly influence your comfort and control on the bike and the bike world has been kind in recent years to develop bars that are more suitable for us more average riders. Classic designs featured long reach and deep drops to help achieve very aggressive riding positions, but for many this meant discomfort and general avoidance of venturing off of the hoods even when pushing hard.
More recently most modern consumer oriented bikes - think endurance road bikes - are spec'd with what are known as compact road bike handlebars, which feature shorter reach and shallower drops. Simply put, these bars are less aggressive and more accessible for those that want the benefit of a different hand position, a little bit of aerodynamic gain, and the general feeling of riding like a pro without the painful neck that often comes with it.
And finally, more and more companies are trying to create bars with some ergonomic benefit and shapes that support a more natural hand position. Let's face it, most of us get enough weird wrist action from our mouse clicks and smart phone surfing, we don't need it on the bike as well. Most recently, we're seeing more flared bars coming to market. This seems to be largely geared towards the gravel market, but even traditional road bikes are seeing modest flare. What is it? The flared design has a wider stance on the drops than at the hoods to provide greater maneuverability and to open up the chest.
So which shape of bar is right for you? For most some form of compact bar with anatomical enhancement is going to be your best bet. And yes, we know that 80% of the aerodynamic drag comes from the rider not the bike, but don't be too concerned as simply bending your arms more will generally achieve something very similar. You'll still be able to take that big pull up to the city limit sign without loss of respect from your riding brethren.
We're always advocates of turning to a proper bike fit, which is why we've partnered with MyVeloFit for fitting customers on our bikes, and the handlebar is a key part of getting yourself dialed in. That said, if you've already got your position mostly dialed in, there are some good rules of thumb to consider when doing your final set up.
As mentioned, for most people compact road bars are the best option for hand position and general positioning when in the hooks or drops. We don't advocate for using the handlebar to extend the length of the bike. This is more easily achieved with stem length as you don't risk compromising your hand position and ability to apply sufficient braking modulation.
It is important to align your hoods to create an even, flat extension from the shoulder of the bar to the hoods. You want the transition to the hood to be slightly angled upwards - maybe a degree or two from being horizontal. This positioning offers a stable base for your hands and places your wrists in a much more comfortable position when you need to access the levers.
If you're experiencing discomfort from your road bike handlebars, don't forget about handlebar tape which, like everything else, comes in a wide variety of qualities and thicknesses. You'd be surprised what an extra millimeter or two of thickness can do for your overall level of fatigue, particularly as you start to wilt under the strain of your efforts. Gloves also work, but most of us at NOMAD prefer some days sans gloves in the hot summer months.
If you happen to be going for an integrated road handlebar - think stem and bar in one solid piece of carbon - give some thought to your fit upfront. Making changes to integrated systems can be difficult due to the need to re-wire (or re-hose) the bike. Note we aren't saying don't do it - integrated set ups look fantastic and will save a few watts, just give it some thought first.
You've made it this far and you're wondering - should I splurge for the cool new carbon road handlebar bar or opt for trusty old aluminum? As always, it depends! When comparing carbon and aluminum road bike handlebars, there are several factors to consider such as weight, stiffness, comfort, durability, and cost:
Carbon road bike handlebars are generally lighter than aluminum ones, which can be beneficial for cyclists looking to reduce the overall weight of their bike for easier climbing and acceleration. The weight saved by going to carbon is generally in the range of 20-40%, which isn't nothing if you're scraping every last gram out of your fast new ride. But, remember that even aluminum bars are measured in grams - typically, somewhere around 300, so switching to a carbon handlebar might shave about 100 grams.
Carbon can be engineered to be stiff in certain directions and compliant in others. This means carbon handlebars can provide a good balance of stiffness (for efficient power transfer during sprints) and vibration damping (for comfort). That said, some larger or stronger riders might prefer the no-flex feeling of a strong aluminum bar. Afterall, despite the fact we hope to have convinced you of the importance of handlebar selection, it is still your steering wheel.
Due to carbon fiber's ability to absorb vibrations, carbon handlebars often offer a more comfortable ride, especially over long distances or rough terrain, compared to aluminum bars.
Aluminum handlebars are known for their durability and strength. While carbon handlebars are also strong, they can be more susceptible to damage from impact, which can lead to catastrophic failure if not noticed. While fairly rare, it does happen, and it's prudent to give your bar a look every once in a while, but particularly after a crash (keep the rubber side down, please!). If you do crash, we recommend unwrapping your carbon handlebar to examine it properly before riding with it again...a lot of crashes result in a need to replace your bar tape, so take a look while you're under the hood.
One of the biggest advantages of carbon fibre bars (and frames for that matter) is the ability to create a wide variety of shapes and designs. Those cool looking integrated cockpits that we introduced above are made possible by carbon molds and would be next to impossible to create with aluminum. If you want the ultimate aerodynamic handlebar/stem package, you'll likely want to go with carbon.
Aluminum road handlebars will win this part of the competition every time. It's just less expensive to produce an aluminum bar. Nevertheless, if you're upgrading your bike or building your dream machine, carbon has an appeal that is hard to resist. It's not critical from a performance aspect, but you do spend a whole lot of time looking at it!
In summary, we believe the best road bike handlebars are carbon because they are lighter and can offer better vibration damping for comfort even though they come at a higher cost and can be less durable in the event of a crash. Aluminum handlebars are heavier, more durable, and less expensive, but they can transmit more road vibrations to your hands. The choice between the two materials depends on your priorities, budget, and type of riding you do. If you just want to get from point A to point B, a solid aluminum handlebar is all you need.
Choosing the right road handlebar width and shape isn't going to make or break your riding experience, but it's worth paying attention to and an oft forgotten part of the bike buying experience. Whether you're a weekend warrior, a casual rider, or a competitive cyclist, a solid grip and overall comfort are important, particularly when you've logged a long day in the saddle and your level of ego depletion becomes... let's say... borderline debilitating.
As always, if you're not sure what type of handlebar is right for you, reach out to us and we'll be happy to assist you in finding the perfect set up. Happy riding!