The Noob’s Guide Cycling; The Humble Drop Handlebar – All You Need to Know, Starting with “It’s Anything But”…
Nowadays, the humble drop handlebar is anything but humble…
One of the uglier handlebars to ever come on a bike… Never mind the saddle (!). And the entertainment center (!). Thankfully, my home, and that Trek, are much improved since 2011.
The humble handlebar can make or break the feel of a road bike. While most people will buy a bike, set it and forget it, some of us go to great lengths to understand how something as simple as a saddle, stem, crank, or a handlebar can effect how a bike fits.
In addition to the crazy monstrosity (handlebar) above, we’ve got standard drop bars, shallow drop bars, compact drop bars, track drop bars, ergonomic drop bars… you could go nuts trying to keep all of them straight. The important thing is to figure out what you like and stick with it. I hated the bar that came on my Trek. I’m sure it was supposed to be cool back in ’99, but I ended up swapping that bar out immediately after I upgraded my Specialized to a sexier, carbon fiber bar. That upgrade was important – that was the point I started paying attention to how a handlebar was shaped because I absolutely loved the bar that came with my Venge while hating the Trek’s original bar.
Enter stage left, the term “drop” (the distance from the top of the bar top to the drop) and stage right, “reach” (the distance from the bar top out to the bend). And, just to clarify, typically when we’re talking about handlebar measurements, we’re looking at the “center of the tube”, not the front or back edge. Anyway, I loved the handlebar that came on my Venge, so when I thought about buying the aero carbon fiber S-Works upgrade, I looked at the reach and drop first. The reach was perfect but the drop was 5mm shallow. It was little enough I could live with it, especially considering the steep drop from the saddle to the handlebar. At that point, 5mm really isn’t much. I went through the same process when I upgraded the Trek’s bar so I could put its old bar on my gravel bike…
New bar on the left, old on the right….
While some put stock in the “drop”, I’m more concerned with “reach”, personally. I don’t ride with my hands down at the ends of the drops. When in the drops, I ride with my hands just below the hoods, where I can easily grab the brakes or shift – I ride with my hands out on the reach.
The reach is what stretches you out – the more stretch, the better I breathe – though too much of a good thing would be bad.
So, when I brought home my gravel bike and tried to set it up like my road bikes, I was a little stymied by why I felt so scrunched in the cockpit. I designed some of that in by ordering a shorter stem (by 10mm) so I would sit more upright. This would aid in pothole avoidance. However, the reach on the bar, or lack thereof, made the bike less than enjoyable too ride – I was too tight in the cockpit.
This is a couple of iterations ago… I just used this photo to match the background which highlights the contrast between the two drop bars.
It doesn’t take much to see the difference between the compact drop on the Specialized and the regular drop on the Trek. The difference in reach is a full inch (25-ish mm).
What does all of that hoohah translate out to in how the bike fits? From the nose of the saddle on the Specialized to the edge of the hood (where it curves up) is a full two inches less that of the Trek. I lost 10 mm to a shorter stem, 15 mm on geometry differences, and another 25-1/2 mm for the compact handlebar that came on my gravel bike.
Now that I’ve got the bar that once resided on the Trek on my gravel bike, I’ve changed that 2″ shortfall to a more reasonable 1″ – and I’ve got a little more drop to boot.
Speaking of drop, the final little piece to this sordid puzzle was making the Trek just slightly more aggressive.
If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll notice the bar doesn’t follow the plane of the stem, the bar rises slightly up from that plane. This brought the hoods up, say 3/4″ (2 cm) higher that they’d have been if the bar followed the plane of the stem. Well, with the new handlebar I decided I’d try to give it the whole enchilada and see how I’d do. I rotated the bar forward so it followed the level of the stem.
Well, it’s definitely aggressive, but I was more than a little nervous after my first test on the trainer. I felt like I might be too low. That was, until I took the bike outside. The first thing I noticed was how much it felt like my Specialized. The two are almost identical in terms of saddle position and drop to the bar from the saddle. After a five mile break-in period, the Trek felt like it should have been set up that way from day one.
Equally important is the width of the handlebar. Drops come in 40 cm, 42 cm, and 44 cm. I’m a fairly big fella and I prefer a 42. The original bar on the Trek was a 44 and it was too wide. I eventually got used to it, but when I brought my Venge home with a 42 on it, I was ruined forever. Women typically go with a 40 (or 42 if they have very wide shoulders). Men with exceptionally wide shoulders, or who want a little more steering control, go with the 44’s.
With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the difference between carbon fiber and alloy handlebars. In order of importance, as carbon fiber goes, first is the frame, second is wheels, third is seat post, and fourth would be handlebar. However, what is important is a carbon fiber handlebar will take some sting out of the road. It’ll also look sexier. It’s doubtful it’ll be lighter than an alloy bar, though. A decent alloy bar will be just as light as a carbon fiber bar – and about a third the cost. If you’re worried about feeling too much road vibration, go with a bar tape with a little padding to it. In all, I’ve only got one carbon fiber bar on my good bike, and I bought it because it’s sexy. That’s a period at the end of that last sentence. If you don’t want it, you don’t need it.
To put a cherry on top of this post, just remember that you’re not limited to the bar that came on your bike – or more important, on a second bike. If you don’t like it, it’s likely you can find something you will.
We rolled last evening at 5:30 after a fun, easy 4-1/2 mile warmup. It was gloomy, breezy, cloudy and cold. But it wasn’t wet. With only eight of us and more B’s than A’s, I was expecting a tough ride.
As we rolled out of the parking lot in a single pace-line, I had an inkling form that I might be the weak link in the chain. I don’t like being that guy… and I’d brought the Trek with the hope bringing the rain bike would hold off any rain. The Venge sat home in the bike room.
I shoved those thoughts behind a bookshelf in the back of my mind. No time for thinking like that.
We were into the wind and up around 22-mph, less than a mile in, and a smile stretched across my face. I set up my Trek to be more aggressive with the new handlebar and I was more than a little nervous about how I’d do with some extra reach and dropped hoods. It was unsettling testing the setup on the trainer, but my worries proved to be much ado about nothing. I was low enough, even on the hoods, that I was in the slipstream of the guy in front of me and the bike was perfectly comfortable.
The A guys were taking mile-long pulls up front while us B guys were a bit more than a half-mile. I took three or four turns before The Watt King took the front with a tailwind we’d enjoy all the way home. It was Todd, Jonathan, then me… with everyone else stacked up behind. Todd put the hammer down, but not outrageously. With the exception of the hills, he was quite smooth keeping the pace between 25 & 27-mph with about a 9-mph tailwind. He hammered the hills and my tongue was dangling precariously close to my spokes after each one.
I figured he’d take a few miles as Todd loves the work but he never came off the front. He pulled at that pace, checking every thirty seconds or so to make sure the group was together, all the way home. Nine miles… and he had enough left in the tank to lead out for the sprint, which crossed the City Limits line at north of 30-mph.
He remarked as we were loading the bikes after the ride that he’d thought of dropping to the back but decided against it and hoped nobody minded that he took the entire pull home. Dave chuckled and said that any one of us could have gone around him if we really wanted to take a turn that bad, that he had the notion to do it but thought better of it. I joked that I’d have lasted approximately 18 seconds and was quite content in the draft.
It was a bit of a bummer how few showed up, but with misting drizzle almost everywhere but where we were riding, it wasn’t too surprising. I can say I was glad I showed up – we didn’t even touch a damp road the whole 4-1/2-mile warmup through the 23-mile main ride and the mile cooldown. And the fall colors were fully on display and absolutely beautiful. I wish I’d have been able to take a photo or six, but at the speeds we were pushing, there’s just no way.
That’ll be a ride I’ll be fondly remembering as daylight savings time comes to an end and we’re forced indoors to the trainers. It’s been a helluva year for Tuesday nights. I’m glad to have been a part of it.
We have an exceptional group of cyclists and I consider myself fortunate to be included.
Dog will hunt!
61,000+ miles on a bicycle. Almost 2-1/2 times around the earth. Some, a very rare few, have the time to do that in a year. It took me eight wonderful years.
For me, there truly is no better way to see the countryside than from the saddle of a bike.
I have more appreciation for the planet we live on that I ever thought possible, simply from riding its roads, almost always with friends. The sights and smells, the colors… the water.
For years, while I was struggling to get my cycling legs I was too busy pushing the pedals to look around. Back then it was all about the speed and getting faster. Now that I’ve managed to get as fast as I want to be and know how to strategically use “active recovery days”, cycling has become a lot more enjoyable.
I’ve gone up hills that had me as slow as two miles an hour, and I’ve raced down them at better than 56-mph. I’ve seen majestic color changes just before trees shed their leaves, and Lake Michigan, far below awesome cliffs. I’ve spent fantastic time with my wife and friends creating memories that’ll last a lifetime, long after we’ve traded our road bikes in for trikes… or walking shoes.
The best thing I’ve gotten out of cycling was learning how to have fun. Not stodgy “adult” fun, sitting on a couch watching a football game. Kid fun. The kind that makes me feel young again. You can’t fight time any more than you can gravity, but fun makes it slow down just enough that I can look around and think, “My God, I’m a fortunate guy.”
As I get older and my elder family members began passing on, it’s really sunk in how blessed I am to be able to look forward to another day on the right side of the grass, pumping air. I’ve come to understand just how rare true happiness and contentment is – and how important it is to fill each moment with as much good as I can stand.
I’ve learned just how good it is to be me. And that’s enough to keep me on the path, because I don’t want to mess it up.
A radio personality here in Michigan likes to start his broadcast off every day by saying, “Each day is a gift”.
Recently I’ve been on a kick, really enjoying the day for what it is – and with everything that’s been going on lately, that hasn’t been easy. One of my favorite Uncle’s died last week, my wife’s stepmom’s brother was diagnosed with ALS, and we had another tragedy to deal with that makes the other two pale in comparison – and I won’t be able to write about that for at least a year, if ever. We told our daughters, after protecting them all week, about that one and they were devastated. My youngest spent the whole weekend in some stage of tears.
Recovery was never touted as being easy by the old-timers when I first walked in the door. Nobody says it gets easier. It gets better. And it did get better because I got better. On the other hand, I always remember, on a daily basis, exactly what can happen if I decide to pick up a drink. I can have my misery back any time I want it.
Sadly, I see people choose the misery on a regular basis. It’s heartbreaking, what can happen – and how quickly we slide down the scale. There’s no fighting gravity, though.
The only chance I have to feel that today really is a gift is to stay on the path. And so I shall.
Trigger (heh) warning: Don’t take this post too seriously. It’s meant to make you laugh – and I’m sufficiently ironic and self-deprecating enough that if it angers you, well, it’s you. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve gone off on a good tangent, and if you knew the week I’ve had, you know I need to go off on a good tangent (sorry, friends, I just can’t get into all of it on this page – it’s not you, there are reasons). You have been trigger (heh) warned.
Talking about bikes with some people is a bit like dancing with a cocky partner. If you’re too nervous, invariably you’re going to step on their toe(s). It’s a given. And that cocky partner will seize the opportunity to smack you down. On the other hand, if you’re sufficiently equipped and confident in the ability you do possess, you just might muddle through to get a compliment at the end. Friends, I speak from experience. I think I may have crippled a square dancing partner or two, though just momentarily, before I got my groove on – as they say – as a young lad.
Such is the dance.
I wrote about my new Trek 5200 handlebar upgrade yesterday, and after reading it again, I realized I’d employed a literary technique so impressive, it required its own post. I wrote an update on that post, and this post is the in-depth explanation of that update. Don’t worry, we’ve got some rain to let dry up this morning before we ride. I’ve got the time. If you do, take a moment. Hopefully, this’ll give you a little chuckle.
We’ve all dealt with the snooty bike snob. The person who knows everything about bikes, and isn’t shy about that knowledge, or the inference to your lack thereof. They can be far more intimidating that the megalomaniac dancer mentioned above… and I’m here to help.
In the case of my Specialized drop bar on my Trek bike, in my last post, I preemptively sufficiently out-snootied a person who might think to leave a snooty comment about not mixing parts on branded bikes – for instance, I believe one of the Ten Commandments of Cycling is, “Thou Shalt Not Put Competing Brand Parts on One’s Bicycle”. Err something like that. Did you notice in that post? Here’s the line:
I’ve been okay with this because I love the drop, reach, and curve of the bar.
The fact I like the “reach, drop and curve of the bar” preemptively out-snooties a snooty comment. That one line says to a bike snob, without actually saying it, “I have enough miles on that particular drop bar, and I’ve ridden enough other drops, to know that I prefer the Specialized bar. See? It’s great and subtle. I didn’t overdo it, either. I also kept some powder dry, as they say – and I did this on purpose. The next step in this little, sordid, handlebar Hambo, would be for a snooty cyclist to take the bait and leave a comment about how loving the drop is no justification, that reaches and drops can be fairly matched from brand to brand. Now, you’d think old mister snotty, there, would have a point – but because this is about bikes, specifically road bikes, I’d actually done my research before putting a Specialized bar on my Trek bike – because I’m sufficiently snooty enough to know you don’t mix parts on bikes… unless you’re sufficiently snooty enough yourself to pull that $#!+ off with your vast array of knowledge due to extensive research on drop handlebars.
And I am that guy.
The next step in the handlebar Hakken is to have the ability to really up the ante – because if someone is willing to break through preemptive snootiness, chances are, you’ve got a winner on your hands. You’ve gotta have something in your bag to let them know you know your stuff equal to or beyond their knowledge. The trick here is to be just enough of an @$$hole to end the conversation, without going overboard and causing your tormentor to do some research of their own – because at that point, you’ll be signing yourself up for a battle you just don’t have the time to deal with.
In my case I’d go with, “I know, there are Bontrager drop bars that come close to the Specialized Tarmac bend, within a couple of millimeters on the reach and a few on the drop, but that Tarmac bend just suits how the Trek fits me. For me, it just works. It’s the reach, drop and the bend that puts it over the top.”
See what I did there? I was able to take it a step further without beating the assailant to a bloody pulp. Sufficiently one-upped, but I didn’t want to take it too far. The ability to go with the “Tarmac bend”, again, shows I’ve done my homework and I’m not just throwing parts at bikes. It says, “I’m with you, bro.” Which is nice. But not too nice, because anyone willing to persist after all of that is a little iffy. Not impossible to be friendly with, but definitely inching up on the line.
I’ve done this dance before and the next step can get a little messy.
You’ve sufficiently acquitted yourself and properly explained your choice at that point. Any fair minded cyclist would allow you your dalliance of mixing parts after the second well thought out explanation. And I mean any reasonable cyclist. Every once in a while, though, you’re going to run into a super-snob. You’re dealing with the ultra cycling snob who actually wears a cape with an U-C-S emblazoned on it. I’ve dealt with this one a time or twelve in the several years I’ve been writing about cycling and recovery. This person isn’t worth being friends with, or friendly to… but, because we are friendly and decent people, we don’t have to make this bloody. Whatever their next comment is, no matter how over-the-top, it’s time for the end. “Well, I appreciate your opinion and your strict adherence to the Velominati’s rules, but I’m happy with my choice. I’ll take that you don’t approve under advisement and treat it with the care and concern it deserves.”
Which would be the equivalent of crumpling it up and tossing it in the circular file. If that doesn’t work, and I’ve been up against this a few times, it’s time to ignore the person. I’ve said all I’m going to say on it. I’ve gone above and beyond to establish my bona fides. I need go no further.
And that about says it. Mostly.
Eddy Merckx was awesome, on that we can (or, at least, should) agree. I don’t much agree with his “don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades” quote though.
I prefer doing both.
Will upgrades make one faster? No, they will not. They will make fast easier. I ought to know… I upgrade everything on my road bikes. New saddles, new cranks, new drivetrains, new stems, new chainrings, new brakes, new handlebars… I like to say the only original parts on my Trek 5200 are the frame, fork and chainring bolts. My search for cycling perfection has been ongoing and endless. I’m real close, though. I think I said I was done more than once, but I was mistaken.
That’s the same bike.
Again, same bike, though this one’s quite a bit more obvious.
What you can’t see in each of those sets of photos is the 3 pounds knocked off each bike. Original “out of the box” weight on the Specialized was 18.8 pounds. Today it’s a little less than 15.8. The Trek was well over 21 pounds. It’s 18.5 now and I wasn’t even trying to shed a lot of weight from that bike.
The Trek got the wheels, handlebar and drivetrain from the Venge when I upgraded the Venge’s wheels, handlebar and drivetrain.
This latest issue required an upgrade was the handlebar on my gravel bike. It’s got one of those goofy “compact” drop bars on it. The reach is a full inch (25.4 mm) shorter that a standard drop bar, and the drop is at least 10 or 15 mm less. I’ve never liked the bar on that bike and I’m quite tired of the shortened reach. I feel just a little cramped – not enough to keep me from riding the bike, or even enjoying it, but enough it’s always on my mind when I ride.
Now, remember, we have to follow the pattern here; upgrade the better bike to upgrade the backup bike. In this case, the Trek 5200 is the better bike, even though it’s 20-years-old, and the Specialized Diverge is the backup, or gravel bike. If you were following earlier, the Trek got the handlebar from the Specialized Venge upgrade… in other words, the Trek has a Specialized bar on it. I’ve been okay with this because I love the drop, reach, and curve of the bar*. But it’s still a Specialized bar on a Trek 5200. Technically, we can’t have that; I think the purists get their chamois in a wad over mixing parts like that (at least my buddy, Mike does).
It just so happens that I’ve looking for a Bontrager handlebar for about a year now and the perfect handlebar was recently marked down from $99 to $40. A Race Lite Aero Drop Bar:
While it’s not a carbon fiber handlebar, alloy is more than acceptable for the 5200. To help justify this, at least in my melon, the shifting on the Trek has been touchy ever since I put the 10 speed drivetrain on the bike, so I was hoping the internally routed cables would smooth out the sharper bends in the cable housing and improve shifting slightly. It was never bad, per se, the shifting, it was just “touchy”. The barrel adjuster had to be just right for flawless shifting. There’s supposed to be a little wiggle room in there.
Well, Wednesday was the day. After 24 gravel miles with my buddy, Chuck, and some pizza for supper, I showered up and took to reworking all of the cables and installing the new bar. I had about 2-1/2 hours into the endeavor before the final bolts were tightened.
So there she is, with a shiny, new cockpit. The frontal area of the 5200 is cleaner for the effort, and I’ve now got a proper Bontrager handlebar on the rain bike…
Which leaves the bar that came off the Trek for my gravel bike… which just happens to be a Specialized. Friends, every once in a while things work out in the universe. Err somethin’. And as a nice little cherry on top, at least so far, it appears the shifting on the Trek is improved for the effort.
So, how tough/easy is running the cables and housings for an internally routed handlebar? Oh, my friends, there was cussing involved. On more than one occasion. And a hack to get the housings to poke out the hole at the back of the bar (use the short end of a 1mm Allen wrench to hook the hole of the cable housing, push the housing with the other hand and pull up on the Allen wrench to lift the housing out of the hole)… then the front brake housing was too short because of how the cable traveled, by about an inch (25mm) so I had to cut and re-run another. The rear brake housing was too long for the same reason, so that had to be cut (not re-run)… Then the rear shifter housing appeared to be too long so I cut it down, only to find that it was too long because I didn’t leave enough to get to the shifter – so I cut it, then had to cut and re-run another when it wouldn’t reach properly. Basically, it was a laugh a minute.
And it was entirely worth it.
This weekend we’ve got quite a bit of rain on the horizon so the Diverge will get its new bar during the deluge.
And would you look at that… only a month after I say the Trek is done, I’ve gone and completed another project for it. My wife might very well be a saint.
UPDATE: * This little tidbit will get its own post, and it’ll be a funny one. If someone notices that you’ve got mixed parts on your bike and is snooty enough to say something about it, you want to have a sufficiently snooty response – preferably a response that ups the snooty factor just a little bit. My point about liking the reach, drop and curve of the Specialized bar preemptively upped the snooty factor. There’s more, though. That’ll be in the new post.
I knew I only had time for a short ride last night. It’s getting darker a lot earlier, now, and work was a wreck. My car battery died overnight and I had to jump it with a plug in jumper before I left in the morning. Then it died again at the office… and just before I had to head out to a meeting. I’d been ready to leave early, but jumping it with another vehicle didn’t work so I had to take a company truck. I put a laborer to tracking a battery down for me but he called to let me know nobody had the right battery for my car within a hundred mile radius.
At that point I just chuckled. This has been a week, my friends. Let me tell you.
I arrived at my meeting a little late (I’d texted the superintendent that I wouldn’t be there quite on time), and the superintendent shook my hand and apologized for his boss having called me in – we weren’t on the list of companies that needed to be there. We had a fifteen second conversation and sent me on my way. Rather than waste the trip, I walked the job, talked to a couple of my guys, then headed back to the office. I determined, during the drive back, that my day was getting better. Now.
Before picking up a Subway Chicken Cesar wrap for lunch (oh, good God, that’s a nice way to start the turnaround), I decided to swing by a Murray’s auto parts store less than a mile from the office. Sure enough, they had exactly the right battery. I bought it, took it back, watched a YouTube video while I ate my wrap and had the thing changed and my car running 20 minutes later. Of course, it wasn’t a straight forward battery change. The computer sits atop the battery, a cowling has to be removed, and the bar that holds the battery and computer in place had to be moved. I wanted to make sure I got it right. The first time. My Equinox fired up without hesitation.
The rest of the work day was peachy. So, there I was at home, trying to figure out what I wanted to ride. I’d just put a new cockpit on the Trek 5200 (more on that piece of awesomeness later), but I wanted off the pavement. Gravel bike or mountain bike? Mountain bike.
I wanted a good excuse to take it easy.
I prepped and rolled out. A quarter-mile from my house and I was on dirt. Heading up the first hill, not a half-mile in, I could smell the distinct, wonderful, sweet smell of freshly turned earth. A farmer was tilling his field for the winter. I breathed deep, taking in the aroma… I was going out fairly easy but watched my average climb from 10-mph to 13, to 14… then I thought, well, maybe I should hold 15. The 15-mph average came and went. 15.5 then… well, maybe 16… I was starting to work at it. I was up around 18-mph to keep the average climbing and I thought, you know, you’ve only got ten miles, why not give it maximum effort to see if you can hold 16.5 for the ten.
And that’s roughly where I really got on it. I think I was five miles in, maybe four.
I was hunched over a little to try to keep from acting like a giant sail atop my Rockhopper 29’er, and hammering the pedals with all I had. That 16.5 average turned to 16.7 and that’s when I started thinking about 17. My grip on the handlebar tightened and I put the hammer down. I was gritting my teeth and slobbering just a little bit with the effort. 16.8… I was at 8.8 miles and I had a hill coming up that I normally take around 13-14-mph on the mountain bike. I knew if I didn’t hammer that hill, my average would suffer for it. I bared down and took it at 17, just dropping below as I crested the hill. I laid the power down again and used a slight downhill grade to catch my breath. I was at 20-ish mph when 16.9 flashed on the Garmin. 9.5 miles in and I had another hill coming up. 21-mph… and it was starting to get a little ugly. I hadn’t worked like that since February on a trainer – maybe not even then. I kept after it, north of 20-mph. 16.9 stayed on my Garmin for what felt like forever. I was sure that was it, but then at 9.8 miles, just two tenths to go, it ticked over to 17.0.
I hit the pause/stop button just after 10.0 miles. 17.0-mph average. Max effort.
I saved the ride and reset my Garmin for the mile-long cool down home. I wiped my face and sat up. I had a smile stretched across my face all the way home….
Life is good.