This installment of Fit Friday comes to us from Jason Wolf, TruFit Specialist at our Roseville store. Fit Friday is a series in which we discuss common issues of fit that bicyclists deal with. Every rider just as every rider’s body is unique, and time spent with a trained fitter is the single best upgrade you can make to your riding. If you have pain or discomfort, or just want to ride better, longer, more comfortably, or faster, talk to one of our fit specialists.
Continuing on our theme of contact points, handlebars are one of only three places your body actually connects to the bike, which means they are a key part of your ride experience. This week we’ll touch on some of the basic aspects of handlebars and how differences in shape, design, size, materials and even the bar tape can greatly affect your comfort on the bike.
Road handlebars are designed to give the rider multiple hand positions to facilitate comfort over long rides of varying speed, effort and terrain. Riders typically grasp the handlebars in three unique spots: 1) On the “tops” (the portion closest to the rider) which results in an upright position typically used for climbing or cruising; 2) On the brake “hoods” (the rubber boots covering the brake shifters) where riders spend the majority of time because it is comfortable, provides a confident perch and easy access to both the shifters and brakes; and 3) In the “drops” (the curved lower section) used when riders are under heavy effort or trying to stay low and aero.
So what should you look for when choosing a road handlebar? Much of this comes down to your shoulder width, desired riding style and which brake/shift levers you will use.
On the tops
Traditionally, bars were circular tubes of aluminum but with advances in forming aluminum and carbon fiber, many have evolved to include flat or winged sections on the tops. This flat section will increase hand comfort, because the surface area will reduce pressure. Specialized also has a nifty little product called Bar Shapers that can be used on traditional circular bars to give them additional surface area to increase comfort and support.
On the hoods
The hoods should provide a comfortable perch for your hands. They should be adjusted separately from the handlebar to achieve a smooth transition from the bar to the shifters. While it’s possible to get a decent position for the hoods on most handlebars, there are some handlebar shapes that will work better with specific shift/brake levers and vice-versa.
In the drops
Drop is the distance from the riding position on the top to the bottom of the bar. The appropriate amount of drop for each rider depends on flexibility, range of motion and riding style. Endurance riders gravitate toward shallow drop bars, so the change from the upper to lower position is less extreme. Some riders prefer a deeper drop, so that they can have a higher position on the tops for climbing or cruising, and still get into a low position in the drops when it’s “go time.” The shape of the drops also plays a large role in comfort. A smooth curve allows you to move your hands anywhere along the drops, while many ergonomic (“ergo”) or anatomic shapes have sharp bends designed to put your hands in one or two specific spots. The traditional round shape with its long flat tail section is great for riders who prefer to spend more time in the drops.
As a side note, we sometimes hear people say that the depth and shape of the drops don’t matter to them because they never use them. The three primary positions on a bar (tops, hoods and drops) allow you to adjust for different terrain and conditions. If adjusted properly, the drops should be your preferred position for descending, drafting, and battling into a headwind. If you aren’t using all the positions on your handlebar, your bike may not be set up properly for you.
Other considerations in handlebar selection
There are additional factors beyond shape to consider in when choosing a handlebar: Width, reach, material and bar coverings also play an important role in creating a comfortable ride.
- Width —The proper width bar will put your brake/shift levers in line with the outside of your shoulders. This allows you to support the weight of your upper body with the least amount of stress on your back and shoulders. Think about it like this, if you were asked to do push-ups, where would you place your hands? Putting your hands below your shoulders gives you the most mechanical advantage, and this is how you should choose your handlebar as well.
- Reach — The reach is the distance from the bar center to the shifter. The reach of different handlebar models can vary by as much as 2 cm. And that 2 cm may be the difference of riding comfortably with your hands on the shifters, versus straining to reach them.
- Material — Many manufacturers offer carbon and aluminum alloy versions of the same handlebars. Alloy bars are likely to be stiffer and weigh a bit more, while their carbon counterparts will offer a lighter weight with a bit more flex built in to damp vibrations and smooth out road imperfections.
The final step: Cover up
Once you’ve found the perfect handlebar, it’s time for a fresh set of bar tape. Tape is an inexpensive way to add additional comfort. Some brands come in different thicknesses so you can dial the feel for your preference. Lizard Skins DSP bar tape has a great feel even when wet; we also like the highly squishy Roubaix tape. You might even consider a little extra vibration damping by adding some gel padding under the tape.