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5 Steps for Choosing the Perfect Bike Handlebars

June 16, 2020

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5 Steps for Choosing the Perfect Bike Handlebars

Think about it—your body touches your bicycle in only three places: your seat, feet, and handlebars. 

As a result, because they have a substantial impact on your comfort, leverage, stability, and overall performance, outfitting your bike with a new pair of handlebars can be one of the best—or worst—upgrades you make. 

The problem? Rarely can you test a new pair of handlebars before handing over your money, since most of us buy our cycling accessories online.  

The good news? With the help of bicycle fit specialists, physiologists, and biomechanics professionals, we’ve whittled the handlebar selection process down to five quick-and-easy steps. Furthermore, you’ll also have the information you need to tweak your setup as your needs and preferences become clearer. 

Step 1. Choose Your Handlebar Style 

Bike handlebars come in a dizzying array of styles, including mountain bike (MTB), road, gravel, and comfort, depending on your setup. Then, there are the sub-classifications and combinations, such as cruiser, aero, bullhorns, butterfly, and mustache, to name just a few. 

Above, you’ll find some of the more popular bicycle handlebar types available: 1) Salsa Rustler MTB 2) Surly Moloko Comfort/Touring 3) Sunlite Elson Touring 4) Vision Metreon Aero 5) Fenix Beach Cruiser 6) Soma Sparrow Townie 7) Fyxation Bullhorns 8) Performance High Risers 9) Specialized Short Reach Road

With this said, cyclists are mixing traditionally distinct categories like never before. Handlebar-wise, this means that we might attach road bars to mountain bikes, flat bars to fixed gear bikes, and cruiser bars to road bikes. It’s an anything goes, no-one-right-way mentality that’s fueling a great deal of progression in the industry. 

When it comes to choosing an ideal pair of handlebars, though, there remain some boundaries you’ll want to work within. Specifically, according to Gina Poertner, CHES, endurance cyclist, and owner of Life Balance Sports & Wellness in Kansas City, Kansas, it’s all about achieving an optimal balance between mobility and stability. 

“You want the best of both of those things,” Gina says. “Choosing the correct equipment increases your safety, allows for optimal performance, and helps you avoid injury.” 

In other words, putting track-oriented, deep-drop bars on your downhill, full-suspension bike might represent the epitome of uniqueness. Doing so would also reposition your body—and alter your bike’s geometry and handling characteristics—so that you could drastically decrease your comfort and increase your chances of injury. 

Outside of this broad guideline, Gina explains that “as with anything related to bicycle components and bike fitting, an individual’s anatomy and physiology play significant roles in determining proper [handlebar] equipment and optimal positioning.”

Let’s talk more about this aspect next. 

Step 2: Choose Your Handlebar Width 

The stock handlebars that come with most bikes are generically sized based on the average rider’s specifications for that frame dimension (e.g., small, medium, large, etc.).  

However, if you don’t fall within these averages and ride with handlebars that aren’t properly sized for your body type, this might not just impact responsiveness and steering. It could also increase your chances of experiencing arm, neck, and back discomfort, and might even lead to long-term nerve damage, in a worst-case scenario. 

Gina explains that to find your baseline drop bar width, in general, “you can measure the distance between your acromioclavicular joints (AC joints) [on your shoulders].” 

Measuring the distance between the acromioclavicular (AC) joints on your shoulders provides a good starting point for determining your ideal bike handlebar width.

Traditional Drop Handlebar Width 

When it comes to traditional road drops, Gina says that your hands should be at least shoulder-width apart when placed on top of your brake hoods to maintain reasonable control of the bike and avoid discomfort.  

Chris Balser, the owner of Bicycle Fit Guru in Minneapolis, Minnesota, adds that this guideline helps ensure that you don’t “compromise neutral hand position.” If your hands splay outwards (wrists sit inside the hoods), he says, your handlebars are too wide. On the other hand, if your wrists sit on the outside of the hoods (splay inwards), then your handlebars are too narrow.  

In addition to measuring the distance between your AC joints to determine ideal handlebar width, if you have one available, Chris recommends pedaling a stationary bike while sitting on the saddle, and approaching the bars with your eyes closed. “Without visual cues, the nervous system will select the most natural hand-to-hand distance,” he explains. We’ll return to this topic shortly. 

From there, Chris notes that you can select and fine-tune your handlebar’s rotation, reach, and width to help “ensure that your hands are not driving into the hoods or resting on the curve of the handlebar.” 

Gina explains that ideal drop handlebar width isn’t set in stone, though, and that you can go as much as 4 cm wider than shoulder-width (measured center-to-center or outside-to-outside on the brake hoods) and still maintain an optimal balance of mobility and stability for most riders. 

“The variance depends on the type of riding and physiological factors for that individual,” she explains. “Taller riders may need to go wider if it feels more stable. Roadies wanting a good aero tuck in the drops might drop down [another] 1-2 cm.”

However, Gina warns, “against going any narrower than that for drop bars. Bars that are too wide or too narrow diminish the control of the steering, and can also lead to discomfort and wasted energy.”   

With this in mind, Chris points out that in some instances, such as professional track racers, cyclists may choose to go ultra-narrow (e.g., 36cm) for minimal wind resistance. 

A drop bike’s handlebar width is measured center-to-center between the tops of the brake hoods.

Gravel & Cyclocross Handlebar Width 

Although they’re still technically drop bars, Chris explains that “width is typically wider for cyclocross and gravel handlebars, though this varies based on personal preference.” They “are also typically wider than road because this is said to improve handling and leverage when climbing at max effort,” he explains. 

Pro Tip: However, Chris emphasizes that this “isn’t always true,” in his experience, “a rider’s personal preference, variability in riding history, style, and spine shape impact optimal width selection.” 

MTB/Off-Road Handlebars 

When it comes to mountain bike and other non-drop, off-road handlebars, proper width is critical for maintaining safe control at high speeds.  

“Hands should be placed wider than shoulder-width for stability and control,” Gina says, “which is generally wider than with drop bars.” Depending on whether you ride rough downhill, flowy singletrack, or cross-country, though, you might need your hands placed wider in some applications than in others. 

“A good starting point is to do some push-ups with your feet together,” she recommends. “See where your hands are? That’s how your body naturally supports itself. That’s what you’re looking for in handlebar width to give you the most comfort and control.” 

However, you need to be cautious about going too wide with your handlebars, since you’ll “risk losing strength and place your shoulder joints in a vulnerable position.” 

If you’re looking for a middle-ground starting point, Chris says that in his experience, “the ‘sweet spot’ (fitting mostly people in the Midwest, where the trails are twisty and tight, and there are few hills and technical features) is between 720mm and 740mm.”

If you’re still in doubt, Gina recommends opting for wider MTB bars, installing them on your bike, and seeing where you naturally grasp. If you find out that they’re too long and “the extra length is significant,” she says, “you can always cut the bars down to size.” 

Compared to drop handlebars, mountain bike and many other off-road models measure their width between bar ends.

Step 3: Choose Your Handlebar Reach, Drop, Rise, Flare, Sweep, and Diameter 

Before diving in, let’s quickly define these key terms. As you’ll see, not all of them applies to every handlebar type: 

  • Reach – For drop handlebars only, Chris tells us this is the “distance from the middle of the bar at the stem, and the location for mounting brakes and shifters.” 
  • Drop – ‘Drop’ relates to the vertical “distance from the top of the bar to the drops, as measured from the bar top to the center of the lowest part of the bend. Or, in some rare cases, from the center of the top to the center of the bar’s bottom,” Chris says. 125mm or less is a shallow drop, whereas 125-128mm represents a medium drop, and any more than that would be considered a deep drop. 
A bicycle handlebar’s drop and reach measurements.
  • Flare – The amount of outward slope from the top portion of your handlebars to the bar ends in the drop section, which is measured in degrees. Most road handlebars have a small flare (or none at all), whereas some gravel-oriented bars like the Salsa Cowchippers feature a 24-degree flare. 
  • Rise – If your mountain bike’s handlebars move upward as measured from the center of the handlebars to the ends, they’re known as ‘riser’ bars. Most mountain bike bars range between 0mm and 40mm of rise. 
  • Sweep – The angles (upsweep and backsweep) at which your handlebars bend up and back from the stem. Together with the rise, these two measurements are the most significant when determining a handlebar’s shape.
A bicycle handlebar’s ride, upsweep, and backsweep measurements.
  • Diameter – Most modern bicycle handlebars, whether mountain, road, gravel, or anything in between, measure 25.4mm or 31.8mm in diameter. Chris explains that a 35.0mm handlebar diameter is “a recent trend [among] mountain bikes and a few high-end road bike manufacturers.” In his experience, “it makes stem changes very difficult, due to lack of support for that diameter.” Regardless of your handlebar size, you’ll need a stem with a matching clamp diameter. 

With these definitions in mind, Chris says that he determines “bar selection based on the combination of these variables.”   

“Keep in mind that without professional assistance, finding your ideal measurements like the drop, rise, flare, sweep, and differential can take some trial and error on your part. Don’t necessarily expect to get it perfect right out of the gate.” 
 

Gina Poertner, CHES

“Once the width is determined,” Gina adds, “it’s time to decide on the shape and style of the drops.” And while these factors primarily involve a unique combination of personal preferences, she and Chris recommend: 

  • Riders with smaller hands will likely want to go with a compact drop and gradual curve leading to the hoods for better access to the brakes and shifters, without significant pressure on the lateral aspect of their wrists and hands. 
  • Some bars have a straight section that interrupts the drop’s curve, providing different shifter mounting positions, and therefore varying hand positions. Similarly, “a drop that extends 3-5cm behind the bar top with a gradual bend accommodates a broad range of hand types and allows riders to stand, climb, or sprint, without hitting the bar top with their forearms,” Chris outlines. 
  • If you experience frequent hand pain when riding the tops of your bars, Chris recommends models with a 3-5cm flat top to provide “increased surface area distribution, which reduces hand discomfort.” 
  • For gravel and adventure riders, a drop that flares outward is an excellent choice for greater stability on loose terrain. “This is also so that a rider can spend prolonged periods riding the drops, without having the shifters interfere with hand placement,” Chris explains. 

Pro tip: Do you need help determining handlebar reach at home? Chris outlines that you can start by placing your bike in a trainer, climbing aboard, and pedaling while sitting upright. Close your eyes, and slowly lower your hands toward the bar. As you do so, “note where your hands begin to drop rapidly, and where they land relative to the hoods or grips,” he says. 

You’ll need to adjust the distance of your reach so that your hands land gently when lowering them onto your handlebars, about “1cm before the hoods, or with your eyes closed on the grips.” (Chris emphasizes that “this 1cm rule is based on the observation that reach is slightly longer outside, than when on a trainer.”) 

If your reach isn’t optimized (along with your saddle height and saddle setback), Chris points out that sitting too far from your bars will lead to finger-touching and landing, while sitting too close, or too far forward, leads to “driving too hard into the grips and hoods,” and accompanying “hand pressure.”  

4. Choose Your Handlebar Material 

We asked Gina and Chris: When it comes to different handlebar materials, how can cyclists make an easy distinction between which one they should buy? 

“In my opinion, aluminum is superior to carbon for handlebar selection,” Chris says. “The cost is approximately 70% less than carbon, the weight is nearly identical, and while carbon has better damping characteristics, good bar tape is as important as bar material.” 

Along these lines, Chris explains that he prefers “a quality cork tape over gel, because the [latter] compresses and wears faster at high-pressure areas, which removes the gel where it is needed most.” 

Pro Tip: When testing new tape, Chris recommends “driving the point of your thumb into the handlebar” to check its dampening. If it hurts the bone, try a different tape. 

Like all of the measurements we discussed in the previous section, Gina explains that “no matter what material the bike is made of, handlebar material comes down to rider choice.” Still, there are some meaningful differences between materials, since “each has a distinct feel and response to the riding surface.”

For example, “carbon fiber and aluminum have a much stiffer modulus of elasticity,” Chris says, compared to titanium and steel, which flex. 

Some riders will prefer stiffness over elasticity, and vice-versa, Gina tells us, so it will primarily come down to your individual choices. 

Price-wise, carbon fiber is typically much more expensive than alloy. And while carbon fiber is very strong, it “should be checked regularly for chips or cracks, since a cracked [CF] bar is a dangerous bar” that could fail unexpectedly and spectacularly, according to Gina. 

Pro Tip: To help further prevent cracking and optimally maintain your expensive carbon fiber handlebars, Gina says you should “be sure to use a properly-calibrated torque wrench during installation.” 

Bicycle handlebars are available in a wide range of materials, including aluminum, carbon fiber, steel, and titanium.

5. Avoid These Common Handlebar Buying Mistakes 

In Chris’s experience, the most common mistakes riders make when choosing an aftermarket pair of bike handlebars are “buying an integrated bar/stem, buying handlebars because they look cool, and buying a pair solely because they were on sale.”  

“Buying a bar based on how it looks is not smart,” he emphasizes.  

Gina explains that the most common mistake she sees when buying aftermarket bicycle handlebars is choosing “suboptimal width.”  

“Typically, it’s because they got a great deal on a set of carbon bars,” she explains, “and they think that a couple of centimeters’ difference, either way, will be OK. Then, they call me for a bike fitting because they are in pain, or feel that something’s otherwise off.”

“They learn the hard way that staying within their own body’s optimal range is crucial for comfort and control,” she adds. 

The second-most common mistake that Gina sees is choosing the wrong diameter. “The bar’s center diameter and stem clamp must be compatible, so make sure you check both components before purchasing either one,” she advises. 

Need help choosing the right pair of bicycle handlebars? This handy infographic can help you avoid the most common buying mistakes, according to professionals. Feel free to download and share (with attribution). ©TreadBikely

What’s the Bottom Line About Choosing Bike Handlebars? 

Seemingly, there is an infinite number of choices you’ll have to make when buying a pair of aftermarket bicycle handlebars. Based on what we learned from Gina Poertner and Chris Balser, it mainly comes down to selecting the following:

  • Handlebar style based on your bike’s design and your preferred riding style. 
  • Proper handlebar width, which helps maximize your control and enjoyment, and minimizes your chances of injuries. 
  • Measurements like reach, drop, rise, flare, sweep, diameter, and differential. Pro Tip: Keep in mind that without professional assistance, finding these ideal measurements can take some trial and error on your part. Don’t necessarily expect to get it perfect right out of the gate. 
  • Avoid common mistakes like choosing a setup that doesn’t allow for an optimal adjustment (such as an integrated stem and handlebar combo), buying based solely on price, and selecting the wrong handlebar width and diameter.

Do you have additional recommendations for choosing a pair of bike handlebars? What’s your experience with the shopping process? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below! 

Derek has more than two decades of experience as a cyclist, and is the founder of TreadBikely. He currently travels full-time with his family via RV, enjoying the country's best biking destinations. A secular Buddhist, Derek frequently explores the intersection of cycling, mindfulness, and compassion in his writing. #rolloutblissout
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