I’ve got experience on three different styles of drop bars – your old-timer standard drop bars, ergonomic and shallow drops. They are not all created equal.
Before we get into the styles, and differences between them, I want to take a moment to impress upon everyone just how important proper sizing of the bar itself is. The idea is to choose a bar roughly as wide as your shoulders. I have the full range. The bar on my 5200 is too wide, the bar on my Venge is just right and my the bar on my SR400 is too narrow.
I can live with the 5200 being a little wide though it feels slightly “off”. Obviously the Venge’s bar being just right is perfect but the bar on the Cannondale being too narrow presents difficulties because I’m just too jammed up with my arms so close together. If you’re buying a new bike, be careful to get the right bar width. If you’re buying a used bike, chances are you’ll simply try to live with what you get. Just don’t be shy if the bar doesn’t feel right, new bars aren’t all that expensive ($20-$50 if you can install them yourself and wrap the bars).
With sizing out of the way, I want to get into the shape of the bars. Desired shape will vary from rider to rider based on any number of factors ranging from feel to what you are used to. Don’t take my final assessment as Gospel, it’s simply what I like. There is no right or wrong as to your final choice. As you can see on the Cannondale and Trek, the old style drop bar and the ergonomic version have the drops sloping toward the ground where the compact drop on the Venge levels out to the ground. The Venge’s drop is, as the name suggests, compact – there’s a lot more drop to the Trek and Cannondale’s bars. The extra drop is actually an advantage. Having more drop to the bar means one can have the bar top a little higher, thereby allowing the rider to sit a little more upright while on the hoods or with hands on the bar top. Then, when it’s time to get into the drops, you can get your head lower and out of the wind. On the other hand, I like having my bar top and hoods lower so I’m in good shape when I’m riding on the hoods as well. Also, the final curve of the compact drop, that levels the drop out with the ground, is much more comfortable for me.
For the ergonomic bar, the flat section just below the shifter handle is meant to provide one a flat portion of the bar so one can naturally rest their hands. While I understand the intent, the flat section has never been that much of a help to me. I’ve spent hundreds of hours more on the Trek with the ergo bar compared with only 75 hours on the Venge and I still vastly prefer the shallow drops.
Shallow drops, while I’m not suggesting they’re right for everyone, are not only comfortable for an experienced cyclist, they are excellent for the flexibility challenged cyclist as well for obvious reasons. In the end, the most important aspect of the drops is having your bike set up so you can ride comfortably in them for about an hour holding the proper bend in the elbows. If your elbows “lock” when you ride, you need to make some changes if you want to get into distance riding as locking anything on your body over a long period of exertion will lead to a lot of unnecessary soreness.
As with everything on a bicycle, if your plans are simply to cruise around the neighborhood for a half-hour at a time, or take a nice little four mile ride to the local market, while fit will be important, being nitpicky about every little detail isn’t as necessary. If, on the other hand, you plan to ride a bike for your daily fitness and exercise and especially if you plan on riding for extended periods of time (i.e. more than ten or fifteen miles at a pop), the importance of making sure everything fits properly cannot be overstated. The better your bike is made to fit you, the happier you will be with it.
What to do, what to do?!
The easiest way to increase your average speed without having to work for it is to lower, or “slam”, your stem – to lower your handlebar so that the drop from your saddle to the top of the handlebar increases. The day I brought my Trek home, after I had it fitted at the shop, I had a 2-1/2″ drop from the nose of my saddle to the top of my handlebar. That was my prime road bike from January 2012 through August of 2013 and went through quite the metamorphosis:
The premise is sound: Lower your stem, improve your profile into the wind and your speed will improve without having to work harder for it.
When I first brought the bike home, I knew nothing about the intricacies of cycling – all I knew was that the pro who set up my bike knew a lot more about it than I did. Still, it didn’t take long before I started tinkering with the bike’s setup – but just the stuff that I figured wouldn’t hurt too much. There were a couple of factors at work in my decision to tinker: First (and least important), I had a bit of Lance Armstrong Syndrome: When in doubt, look like Lance – that included making my setup look like his. Second, was a real desire to ride as fast as I could so I could fit in with the group I had been invited to ride with, as comfortably as possible. Finally, riding with only a 2-1/2″ drop simply felt weird – almost like I was riding my mountain bike. I felt like I was too upright.
I decided on a gradual approach to lowering my stem, figuring if I went a little bit at a time I could get used to the changes easier than if I went whole hog, all at once. That worked well and within three months I had the stem down as low as it could go. Then I picked up my Venge last August. Fortunately I didn’t have to start the process all over again – and because I bought a 56 cm frame (the Trek is a 58), I actually started out with 1/4″ more drop than the best I could do on the Trek. Toward the end of last season I started swapping spacers, lowering the bar on that bike as well:
I went into the shop last Friday and discussed the change with Matt (the pro who set me up to begin with) and he warned me about going much further because I could end up with diminishing returns… Too low and you end up throwing off the delicate balance between comfort, speed and flexibility. Now, I’m still in a position on that bike where I can comfortably reach everything while maintaining the proper arm bend, get good power to the pedals and feel excellent – in other words, at least for now, I’m heeding Matt’s warning… Not necessarily because I trust him on blind faith either – I actually know what too far is:
The Cannondale is simply too much drop for me. The interesting thing with the 6″ is that I actually can get that famed flat-back’ed position, but it’s uncomfortable as all get-out riding like that. I have to work on keeping my arms bent as my natural reflex is to ride with my arms straight to keep that balance I wrote about earlier (back to front, not side to side). And therein lies the rub – there is a such thing as too much and no amount of desire to have it the other way can change that without a lot of extra work. Six inches of drop is my diminishing return.
Now, if you’re a noob and have a desire to try this, there are a few things to consider. First is weight – I don’t have a six-pack, but I don’t have much of a gut either – maybe 1/4 – 1/2″. If you have a bit of a belly, you can’t bend around that – at the very least it’ll mess up your breathing. The gut’s gotta go first, though don’t be afraid to tinker – you never know, your stem might be too high to start as most shops trend that way for “comfort’s” sake. Second, a great deal of care should be used when removing threadless stems to move the spacers. Put everything back together too loosely or too tightly and you’ll damage your bike’s steering mechanism or worse, it could lead to a crash. Replacing everything must be done correctly (use the Bike Repair App if necessary). Finally, you have to make sure you’re not too low to ride comfortably in the drops too.
UPDATE: I wrote a second post on this subject that goes into depth, looking at the type of handlebars, the style of frame and the size of the bike in relation to slamming the stem. I also get into a decent marker to start at.