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Daily Archives: December 15, 2018

The Noob’s Guide to Road Cycling; More than You Probably Need to Know About Handlebars

Ah, the humble drop handlebar. For most noobs, we don’t give what comes on the bike a second thought. We just roll. That’s what I did when I brought home my Trek, my first real road bike, all those years ago… actually, it wasn’t all that many, but it sounds good. Moving on…

It wasn’t until I bought my Specialized Venge a couple years later; a perfectly fitted, 56cm frame with the proper stem length that optimized reach, the standard bend drop bar, and most important, a bar of the proper width, that I began to understand there was more to the humble handlebar than met my inexperienced eye. I won’t even get into that crazy ergonomic bend in the photo above… though I will say, that’s how the bike came from the shop – technically, the bar should be rotated forward so the bottom of the drop is just shy of parallel to the ground. I didn’t find this out until long after I swapped the old bar out for the original bar from the Venge when I upgraded the bar on that bike to something a little more, um, carbon fiber and a lot more aero (and sexy, baby).

The Trek looks a lot different today, and I’m a lot happier with the negative 17° stem and how the bars are rolled forward to match the angle of the new stem:

There are technically two correct planes for the typical drop bar, the top of the bar follows the plane created by the stem (as in both photos above with the black bars), or with the line created by the hoods/drop bottom parallel to the ground. Both are technically correct. What is entirely not good is something like this:


If your bike looks anything like that, you’re doing something wrong. Take that bike to the shop and have it fitted – you’ll ride a lot happier. In terms of the bike above, a whole new bike is needed. You can tell by the length of the seat post sticking out of the frame that the bike is about two or three sizes too big for the person riding it.

So let’s get into this; Width first.

To start, the original bar that came on the Trek had a width of 44cm. The Venge bar was the standard 42cm (for males of the species, while females are usually 40cm), you have to have some exceptionally broad shoulders to require a 44. The extra two centimeters, never mind that they were uncomfortable over long distances, meant my hands were wider than my shoulders, technically increasing the frontal exposure to the wind. Okay, now add in that they were uncomfortable because they were too wide and the original bar had to go. Now, the measurement that pertains to handlebar width is taken from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, so I have no idea what it is, I just know the owner of our local shop held up a tape measure to my back and said, “Yep, you need a 42”, and that was about it. I have a funny feeling there’s a 42cm in that measurement of my back, though.

Anyway, when I brought the Venge home, my first ride felt foreign and vastly better with the proper bar width on the bike.  The improvement was so great, there was no way I was going to stick with the original bar that came on the Trek.

Next up is Drop

Modern drop bars, even those in the pro peloton, are evolving to a shallow drop. Take a look at my 5200 (with the original handlebar from my Venge) and Diverge gravel bike side-by-side and you’ll see the difference right away:

I’ll cut to the chase, the drop on the Trek’s bar is 16.5 cm. The drop on the Diverge is only 14.5. The end result is, I’m able to ride a little (slightly) lower on the Trek – and this is by design… I wanted to sit a little more upright on the gravel bike so seeing potholes was a little easier.

More interesting still is the Venge with the aero handlebar next to the Diverge:

If there’s a difference at all in the drop, it’s millimeters. The difference is the Venge has a race geometry (lower front end) next to the Diverge. With the lower front end on the Venge, I don’t need as much drop on the bar to get low. Now, if you look really close, you’ll notice that the bottom of the Trek’s handlebar is significantly lower than the Venge, going by the garage door indentations. That’s a fly in the ointment. I gave up some drop on the Venge so I could have the Aerofly handlebar on it. I’ll cop to it, the aero bar looks awesome on the aero bike. Fortunately, the compact race geometry of the Venge makes up for the little bit of drop lost to the Trek. Again, getting technical, the drop at the bar ends doesn’t matter, though, because you’re not going to ride with your hands way down there anyway – too far from the brakes.

And that leads us into Reach

The handlebar’s reach is an important number – that’s the number from the center of the bar top to the center of the bar right behind the shift/brake lever. Now look at the Venge and Diverge photos again (same with the Trek and Diverge, btw). The reach on the Venge’s Aerofly bar is vastly greater (80mm compared to 70). Here’s why the reach is so important: When you’re riding in the drops, especially in a group, your hands aren’t on the bottom of the drops, they should be directly behind the brake levers, maybe a touch lower, so you can actually reach the brakes. It’s the reach combined with the drop that helps the cyclist ride lower, thereby improving aerodynamics. The key to reach is that if it’s too great, you’ll be uncomfortable and stretching for the drops which will pull you forward on the saddle. To compensate, you’ll ride with your hands farther down, and away from the brakes. This is no bueno. The important thing to know here, if you don’t like getting down into the drops, look at the stem first, and the handlebar second (it’s vastly easier to replace a stem than the handlebar). If I rode that gravel bike any more seriously than I currently do, I’d swap the bar out for a standard Tarmac bend bar (like the one on the Trek). I’ve already got the right stem on the Diverge, so the next step would be to change the bar to add some reach when I’m in the drops.

Handlebar Material; Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum Alloy

To keep the difference in material explanation simple, there is a difference in ride dampening characteristics between carbon fiber and alloy bars, but it’s not much (though it is noticeable). A good cushioning bar tape will usually negate any difference in material. Also, the weight difference isn’t all that great, either. The Aerofly bar on the Venge weighs exactly the same as the alloy bar on the Trek. Carbon fiber bars and stems tend to be over-engineered because the material is being used in a manner that doesn’t suit its characteristics.  Also, the aero bar top adds an extra 35-ish grams of weight as well.  In fact, going by stems, the lightest stems on the market aren’t carbon fiber. They’re carbon fiber wrapped aluminum. The FSA stem on the Venge is something like 60 grams lighter than a typical carbon fiber stem that would cost $100 more. That’s only a shade more than a tenth of a pound, but it’s more than nothing.  The point is, if you’re looking to shed weight from the bike, look elsewhere.  On the other hand, if it’s just gotta be carbon fiber, knock yourself out (I did).

The wrap up

To wrap this up, there’s more than meets the hands to handlebars. They’re not just a one-size-fits-all proposition. While they don’t require a lot of thought, some helps. Choose wisely and enjoy the ride.