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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…

IMG-20120121-00585One 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.

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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.

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Speaking of drop, the final little piece to this sordid puzzle was making the Trek just slightly more aggressive.

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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.


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