Thursday, May 16, 2013

No handles barred!

As part of my Bike Month extravaganza, I'm going to be doing a series on the things every new bike commuter should know about bikes and things of that nature. Saddles, pedals, tires, clothing, and so on.

Once you have a bike, you quickly learn that the bits you genuinely care about are what we call the "contact points" - the parts you touch.  You only really touch a bike at three points - hands, butt, feet.  Today's topic is handlebars, and their friends, bar tape and grips.

When it comes to handlebars your choices are bordering on infinite.  Every permutation of width, rise, angle, and any other dimension you can possibly imagine.  There's absolutely no way for me to cover it all, so we're going to focus on the major types of bars usually used in commuting, how you can set them up, and then the things that you should consider when staring at a hundred different choices on the internet or in a shop.

Flat Bars

Here in the US of A, to anyone who isn't at least somewhat into bicycles, these are the standard.  You know 'em.  These things:

Yes, I dragged out all the flat bar bikes for this picture.

Now, in my humble opinion that for any kind of road riding you may want to do, these are probably the worst bars in common usage.  The biggest reason for my opinion on this is ergonomics.  If you hold your hands at your sides, they naturally tend to fall parallel to your line of travel - in order to grip flat bars (which are also often called risers) you turn your hands 90 degrees inwards, and the rotation extends all the way through your shoulders.  Additionally, there aren't any alternate places to grab the bars so you can move around, locking you into a single position that wasn't terribly ergonomic in the first place.  Over time this position can cause neck pain and shoulder tension.

That all being said, the reason they're immensely popular among mountain bikers is LEVERAGE.  You can really horse a bike around with flat bars - add to that the ability to chop them down quite narrow.  These make them really popular with the bike messenger-inspired fixed gear set (it helps that these bikes are not typically ridden for huge amounts of time in one stretch).  For short rides, they lend a whip-like, quick-moving action to the bike you can't achieve with any other bar type.

Drop Bars

Drop bars, to newbies are intimidating looking.  So many curves!  What are the bull-horn bits for?  Oh god, I have to lean forward to brake?

Relax, my friends.  Drop bars are awesome.  The basic idea behind drop bars is OPTIONS.  You can hold your hands rotated on the flats, bend over and stretch out in the drops (that's the curved part), or relax with your hands on the ramps or hoods (the tops of the brake levers).  For the most part, you'll hang out on the hoods - it's ergonomic, it's the natural place to be.

The limitations of these handlebars are largely positioning preferences, and where they land in relation to your saddle height-wise.  If your have drops a couple inches lower than the saddle - congratulations, my friend, you are a performance cyclist.  If you have them about level, you're still efficient, but you have several choices at any given time for hand placement depending on the current terrain.  However, if you do prefer to sit up more, or like to cycle off-road these may not be the best handlebar for the task (cyclocrossers, however, would argue the point).

Town Bars

The only reason I call them "Town Bars" is because I don't have a better name for them - this encompasses many, MANY permutations and styles.  Moustache, Albatross/North Road, Porteur.....the list goes on.  That being said, I would define a "Town Bar" as a handlebar with moderate drop all the way to significant rise where the portion intended to be gripped extends back towards the rider.  Which is a really convoluted way of explaining this:

For medium-length rides (around 30 miles or less) and navigating traffic, this is my preference.  One of the biggest reasons I quite like these bars is simple visibility - sitting up, it's easier for drivers to see you and identify you as a cyclist and a person.  Similarly, when sitting up it's vastly easier to check over your shoulder before changing lanes, among other traffic-cycling necessities related to your ability to see what's going on.  

However, depending on the handlebar in this category they can be limited to a single handlebar position in a similar manner to flat bars - there's only one place to grab on.  The moustache bars on my Surly are somewhat of a hybrid between drop and flat bars, allowing a variety of hand positions, most of which are on a fairly level plane.  The braking position, however, is extremely similar to the powerful braking position setup of flat bars.  While this hybrid between leverage and comfort is possible, it required quite a bit of shopping around.  

Now, I know in outlining these, I've missed a lot.  I've missed butterfly bars, also known as trekking bars.  I've ignored new ergonomic city offerings by American manufacturers getting their commuter game on.  I haven't even touched bullhorns or flop-and-chop bullhorns made out of drop bars.  I haven't gone into too much detail on the fact that in fact some flat bars have some rise and a bit of backwards tilt for ergonomic reasons.  I realize that.  But that said, as you look at the choices in front of you, you should look at the things they have in common, then decide which differences dictate your preference.  For instance, a town bar shares many principles with a drop bar in terms of an ergonomic hand position - the disagreement is whether it's better to be forward or behind the head tube in terms of hand position. Some town bars are basically flat bars in terms of the actual hand position, they just sit up more.  The only thing you can really do is try out different styles and continue making adjustments until you're happy.

However, handlebars aren't what most people actually touch.  They're the structure beneath what you touch. When it comes to a tactile surface you've got two choices, bar tape or grips.

Bar Tape

Bar tape is the usual choice for any handlebar that takes a road-bike brake lever.  That is, drop bars, trekking bars, and moustache bars for the most part.  Bar tape comes in just about every material you could want - leather, fake leather, cork, fake cork, cotton cloth, and incredibly scientific synthetics with excellent cushion and minimal weight.  Thick, cushiony, or low profile.  All in any color you could care to coordinate with your bike.

That's all one bike.  The beauty of bar tape is that you can change it!  So go nuts.  Express yourself.


Grips are the standard on any bike where your hand position is set.  Flat bars and most town bars use grips and believe me - there ain't nothin' wrong with that.  Similar to bar tape, this is like picking out a favorite pair of shoes.  They're not expensive, so experiment!  Maybe you like Ourys, or Ergons, or any other brand you like.  

The only thing I can tell you is whatever came on your bike from the shop is probably crappy and worth changing out to something that makes your hands happy.  A quick explanation.  When you manufacture a bike, you're doing your level best to hit a price point because most people look at the price tag for a halfway decent bike and their hair falls out.  To hit price points consumers will pay, you've got to go cheap on some things and for bikes, that's the contact points.  So for the majority of even-vaguely serious cyclists, these are the first parts to get swapped for something a little more personalized.

So there you have it.  Handlebars.  As always, let me know if you have any corrections, comments, or queries in the comments!

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