Bike Handlebars 101

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Handlebars 101

A metal tube with grips and brakes attached, bolted onto the frame of your bike. What could be more simple than a set of handlebars?

Believe it or not, the number of different handlebars available on the market today is skyrocketing. You can now buy hundreds of models of handlebars, all with designs and features to get more performance for a certain type of riding.

In general, more expensive models use the latest and greatest materials and technologies -- like carbon fiber -- to achieve higher performance, lighter weight and more strength. Luckily, there are great budget handlebars available as well that won’t set you back much money and perform just fine. Midrange and low-price handlebars are typically made of high-strength aluminum.

Before you buy a bike or a new set of handlebars, it is important to know something about the different types of bars out there. Types of handlebars typically fall along a continuum from most to least aerodynamic.

Generally, this has an inverse relationship with comfort - the more efficient the handlebar position, the less comfortable you are going to be. But fortunately, handlebar design has improved greatly over the last ten or twenty years, and many bars are now not only more comfortable than ever, but offer a variety of different grip positions so a weary rider can mix it up.

Let’s dive into the different types of handlebars and explore the pros and cons of different designs.

Drop Bars

The most common type of handlebar on bicycles that are optimized for speed (like road bikes) is the drop handlebar. We’ve all seen this style: the flat top bar that extends to either side of

the bike and then curls forward, down and back toward the rider.

There are several variations of the Drop-style handlebar, including the randonneur bar, which features wider bars and a less severe drop to increase comfort over long rides, and track bars, which don’t have brake levers and are designed for single-speed bikes racing on tracks. These are sometimes seen on fixed-gear bicycles.

Pros:

Using the drop bars in tucked position reduces wind drag
Provides multiple options for hand and body position
Good leverage for sprints and climbs
Cons:

In general, slightly less steering control due to narrow width
Limited space for mounting cycle computers, headlights, etc.
Can be difficult for small hands to reach brakes on some models

Aerobars

Sometimes on the road, a bicycle will zip past you with a rider tucked forward, elbows together in an aerodynamic position. Most likely these riders are using aerobars, also know as triathalon bars.

These specialized handlebars bolt onto existing handlebars and provide a narrow platform protruding over the front wheel. Riders looking to shave seconds from their individual time trials often use these bars by resting their elbows and forearms on this platform as they ride.

Pros:

Very aerodynamic position
Cons:

Narrower platform means less steering control
No quick access to brakes or shift levers (some models integrate secondary brake and shifting levers into the aerobar)
Not allowed in road races where cyclists draft one another
Less useful for sprints and hills, where power and leverage is more important than aerodynamics.

Bullhorn Bars

Also known as pursuit bars, bullhorn bars extend to either side of the bike, then turn forward and curve slightly upward. This style of handlebar was originally used in track racing and is now common on single-speed and fixed gear bicycles. Pursuit bars are often mounted along with aerobars on racing and time trial bicycles.

Pros:

Multiple options for hand and body positions
Easy access to lever brakes (if present)
Lightweight
Cons:

In general, slightly less steering control due to narrow width
Limited space for mounting cycle computers, headlights, etc.

Flat Bars

The simplest type of handlebar is the flat bar. This style is straight, sometimes slightly curved, and is common on single speed and fixed-gear bicycles. A variation is the riser handlebar, which is commonly used on mountain bikes. Riser bars extend slightly upwards and toward the rear of the bicycle, which keeps a rider’s weight in a better position for steep downhill riding.

Pros:

Ample space for mounting headlights, computers, and other cycling accessories
Low cost
Simple versions are lightweight
Wider bar gives enhanced steering control on rough terrain
Enhanced riding position for downhill cycling
Moderate leverage for sprints and climbs
Cons:

Only one hand position (bar ends can be attached to provide additional options)
Mountain bike versions can be heavy

Butterfly Bars

While they are more common outside the US, some long-distance riders in this country use butterfly bars, which are designed for touring. Shaped like a broken figure-eight, butterfly bars offer a multitude of different hand positions, which is critical when riding all day for weeks or months at a time.

Pros:

Many options for hand and body position
Comfortable for a variety of terrain types
Cons:

Heavy

Upright Bars

Most bikes designed for cruising around town or casual rides are outfitted with upright bars. These handlebars swoop up and towards the rear of the bike, and allow the rider to sit in a comfortable, relaxed, upright position. This handlebar style is among the oldest still in use and can be installed upside down for a more retro-aggressive look.

One variation is the porteur-type bar, which includes a wide open space at the front center of the bar to allow mounting of a basket or rack in this location.

Pros:

Comfortable, upright position
Easy to reach brakes
Cons:

Little leverage; climbing hills or sprinting is difficult
Can be heavy
Not ergonomic for long rides

BMX Bars

Those people who enjoy flying through the air at the local park are most likely using BMX bars for their BMX or other trick bikes. These handlebars are designed to be small, low, heavy duty, and allow the rider to transfer weight backward and forward at will.

Pros:

Heavy duty and strong
Easy weight transfer forward and backward
Best option for trick-riding
Cons:

Not comfortable for distance riding
Heavy
Only one hand position

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