Why are there different shaped bike handlebars? We all love cruiser handlebars on retro bikes for the sheer beauty of them. That beautiful upward curve so you can sit up straight and view the world around you…but whats the deal? Is the shape important? Would a different handlebar help you?
To steer. Your hands are in charge of moving the handlebar so that the front wheel of your bike goes in the direction that you want to go and not into that pothole or over the riverbank. So follow this connection down. Your handlebar is connected to your handlebar stem. That stem goes into the steering tube which your front forks fit into from below and your front wheel is attached to your front fork. Therefore when you move your handlebars your front wheel moves too.
These are the design goals for bike handlebars.
- General – meaning all bike handlebars have these goals. Steering, proper position of your hands and a platform for you to mount all kinds of important things…see Bike Part Terminology and Bike Gear Terminology.
- Road Bikes – what you would normally find on road bikes are drop bars. These are designed so that the rider can maintain a “tuck” position (out of the wind) to be aerodynamic. It also allows for multiple hand placement options (when on the bike for a long time this lessens rider fatigue/stress on certain parts of your body).
Features – the main thing to be aware of with drop bars is width variation. They range from 34cm to 50cm and you want to have a pair that are approximately the width of your shoulders. The second thing to think about is placement of brake levers and gears. Although you have three standard hand placement options and variations between those three positions, it is the full drop position (as in photo) that allows you to easily use the brake levers and gears . If you are new to road riding (and not that confident in the full drop position yet) or using your bike a lot for around town trips you may find that having a second pair of brake levers on the top bar is a good move. Although the basic shape is the same there are some variations in curves on the market so be aware of this. Next time you’re in a bike shop have a look at the road bike handlebar range.
Why use them? – it’s all about speed and being able to get into a position where your body can work really powerfully for long periods of time. When you get into a tuck position you decrease wind drag so partnered up with skinny tyres, a light frame and possibly aero or tri bars you can seriously hum along, which is an awesome feeling. You can also consider putting drop bars on a commuter/urban/touring bike as they offer a range of hand positions and therefore changes in body position. The whole point of these handlebars is to get down into the bottom drop position so if you can’t reach this position because of flexibility issues or don’t want to be there – there is no point having drop bars. You also need to be able to look up and see the road ahead which is all about neck movement and related to the height your handlebars are placed at. If your drops are too low you won’t be able to stay down there with ease…
Mountain Bikes – will either have flat bars or risers. For this type of bike it’s more about the terrain you may ride so the handlebars give greater stability and the bars are also stronger.
Features – quite simply flat bars give you more stability because they are wider and your body position is more upright (compared to drop bars). Risers will have anywhere from a 15 to 50mm rise from the centre to where your hands are placed giving a more natural feeling to your grip as the bars rise to meet your hands.
Why use them? – In terms of function these bars give you greater steering ability and control for manoeuvring over obstacles and turning tight corners. The majority of new mountain bikes will have a riser handlebar.
- Cruiser Bikes – these types of bikes used for urban adventures like shopping, getting to work and weekend outings generally feature a North Road or cruiser handlebar style that will have a lot of rise and curve.
Why use them? These handlebars give you the ability to sit up straight with your centre of gravity right over the seat. People love this position as you can keep your neck and back straight easily while maintaining a great sense of control over the bike.
But what are your goals?
A couple of the main determining factors when considering a bike handlebar style is how you like to be positioned when on the bike and the type of riding you do most often. Have a look through the photos below to familiarise yourself with how your body position changes with different handlebars, remembering that you need to maintain an “A” body position. Yes the “A” will look slightly different with different hand positions but its still an “A” (See Chi Riding – Tip One, if the “A” position is new to you or, horror, you can’t remember what it is!)
Right so hopefully that helped and you’re getting a feel for what might suit you. We want you to be in the best possible position for your body so you can get the most enjoyment possible out of your riding – no numb hands, sore shoulders, achy wrists, neck or back. No inefficiency please! Just lots of comfort and easily maintained positioning.
For all bike handlebars it goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway – make sure you can reach your brake levers and gears with little to no effort/movement. See Bike Part – Terminology for placement tips and watch out for this story, ‘Where are my brake levers?’ For detailed info on brake lever placement.
I hope you enjoyed your journey through bike handlebar shapes. Perhaps I’ve inspired you to try out a new style?
Thanks for reading. Used together our stories and resources support you to achieve and develop as a rider.
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