Handlebars are one of the most important parts of the bicycle, as they are the part that interfaces with your hands and allows you to steer. They also provide a convenient location to mount brakes, shifters, and accessories such as cycling computers or front lights for riding at night.
Road bikes are generally optimized for speed, which is why most use a drop handlebar (often called 'road bars'). 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.
Choosing the right drop bar is generally pretty straightforward; however, there are some important things you should know before you go ahead and make a purchase. This guide will go over some of those basic points, so you are prepared to make the right decision.
Why a drop handlebar?
Drop handlebars were developed to facilitate aerodynamic riding positions while also allowing for more relaxed positions if the rider desires them.
On a typical drop handlebar, you can have your hands on the drop-portion (lower section) of the bar for maximum aerodynamic speed while maintaining minimal access to braking and shifting, on the top of the flat portion of the bar for maximum comfort and a more upright position, or on the brake hoods for a good balance between the two and the easiest access to braking and shifting.
Classic racing-style road handlebars use a neutral geometry to allow a wide variety of comfortable riding styles. The variety of hand positions available make long rides more comfortable with drop handlebars, since the rider can move around. Drop handlebars also provide excellent leverage for sprinting and climbing hills when the rider is likely to stand up and hold on to the brake hoods to achieve maximum pushing power from the legs.
Drop bar variations
There are several other variations of the drop-style handlebar, including the Randonneur Bar, which features a wider bar and a less severe drop to increase comfort over long rides. These bars are commonly used for long-distance, casual rides such as Audax events that are common in Europe.
Another form is 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, as well, and may have little or no handlebar tape.
Choosing the right handlebar
Generally, you want to find a handlebar that is comfortable for your hands. Most riders prefer a round cross section on the bar, which allows the hand to gently wrap around the bar. Drop handlebars with flat top bars are also available, and are preferred by some people -- especially those with larger hands.
One important consideration to look at when choosing the handlebar is the angle and spacing on the brake levers. Riders with smaller hands, or those who spend lots of time in the drop position, will want to make sure that they can easily reach the brake levers from various positions on the bar. Women especially tend to need smaller handlebar models to remain comfortable while being able to brake.
The width of your handlebar is a more subjective choice. Some riders prefer a wider handlebar, and claim that it opens up their chest and allows them to breathe more easily.
Others prefer a narrower handlebar and assert that this makes for more comfortable geometry for the shoulders and upper back. Narrower bars may be more tiring on your arms, so if you tend to feel tired or sore there at the end of your ride you may want to try something wider.
We recommend that you try a variety of handlebar widths and choose the size that feels best.
Installing a handlebar
The process of installing a handlebar is generally quite straightforward and involves simply tightening a few bolts on the head-tube of the bike to hold it in place. However, you want to make sure that you get the angle of the handlebars right. In general, the bottom drop portion of the bars should be just past flat, just slightly angled down towards the ground. This provides optimal riding position.
After the handlebar is attached, you will need to install the brake hoods, brake levers, and shifting mechanism for your bike. This process is beyond the scope of this article, but will be covered in a future tutorial. The final process in preparing your new handlebars for the road is to wrap them with tape.
Pricing and features
There is a range of drop handlebar designs on the market, and the cost depens on the features and materials used.
Carbon fiber and other advanced materials like Kevlar are used in high-end drop handlebars to add stiffness. The difference is most noticeable when standing up to mash on the pedals; carbon bars provide much better power transfer in such circumstances. These high-end drop bars minimize weight, generally have advanced features such as internal cable routing, and can cost more than $400. These bars are well-suited for professionals and serious racers.
Decent basic drop bars start around $20-$40 and use various alloys. These don't transfer power as well as the expensive bars and add a bit more weight, but they are more than sufficient for the average weekend rider or commuter.