A while back, I wrote about upgrading the handlebar on my Trek 5200 to upgrade my gravel bike. I like to call that a win-win.
I completed the bar switch on the gravel bike after a couple of years of consternation over whether or not to even bother. The difference in going from a compact drop bar to a standard (Tarmac bend) drop was exactly what I needed, though… The extra reach (a full inch, or 2.5 cm) stretched me out which made the bike much more enjoyable to ride, and a little less “twitchy” on rough roads.
The cycling world decided a while ago that gravel/touring/adventure bikes would get either compact drop bars or those crazy, flared out (hideous) touring bars. Compact is the short way of saying shallow drop, short reach.
I liked my Specialized Diverge A1 Sport when I brought it home, but I hated the bar. After setting the bike up how I thought it should be set up – a 10 mm shorter stem, so I’d sit up a little straighter to see potholes a little better, I found myself hunching to ride in the drops because they were too close to my knees. My elbows got in the way, too. It wasn’t horrible, but when you’ve already got two road bikes that fit you like a $80 pair of Rapha cycling gloves, even a little bit “off” feels like a lot.
The reach on the bar that came on the gravel bike sucked, and the drop wasn’t much better. I didn’t mess with it though, because, truth be told, I really don’t ride the bike all that much and I didn’t know if I wanted to put the money into a new bar.
This year I decided I’d do something about it, finally.
Rather than mess with a specialty bar, I kept the same stem (again, 10 mm short – it’s a 100 mm stem, so I’m slightly more upright for pothole avoidance) but put the standard Specialized Tarmac Bend handlebar on it that came off of my 5200. This gave me a full inch (25-ish mm) more reach for riding on the hoods and in the drops.
The whole change, including bar tape, took less than an hour.
I took the bike out a while back and decided to try for a dirt segment that I held sixth place in. I knocked a minute off my previous best time on that segment; 9:42 down to 8:38 for the 2.92 mile stretch and 4th place on the segment. A little bit of stretch was the difference between 18-1/2-mph and 20-1/2, both hard efforts.
The Delicate Balance between properly stretched and too stretched…
There exists a delicate balance when it comes to cockpit stretch. At first, it’s going to be about what you’re used to. My wife rides a Specialized Alias, a road bike setup with aerobars, and the geometry of a triathlon bike. For that bike, the seat post angle is a lot more upright than that of a standard road bike. This is done to get one’s elbows comfortably down to the aerobars and it engages the quads more in the pedal stroke, saving the hamstrings for running. The steep seat tube angle also makes for a tight cockpit. I’ve ridden my wife’s bike a few times to locate creaks and ticks and I don’t know how she rides like that, but she loves the bike. What I’m getting at is, even if your setup is a little off, you’ll tend to get used to what you’ve got.
However, when you’ve got a road bike setup, there are little tells that you might have a problem.
If you’re more comfortable riding in the drops than with your hands on the hoods, you’ve got problems. The goal for the drops is to be able to ride in them for an hour, not all day. That’s likely going to be too little stretch (or possibly a handlebar that’s too high). You ride down in the drops for that extra reach because it stretches you out and helps you to breathe. In the case of my gravel bike, because I already had two perfect-fitting road bikes, I could feel a massive difference in how I felt on the gravel bike. If you’re not that fortunate, a decent bike fitter will see that your handlebar is too close immediately, where you might not “feel it”.
I have always recommend getting a bike fit to the rider by a professional because being a little tight in the cockpit is hard to tell by feel for a newer riders, and as I wrote above, just an additional reach of an inch can mean great increases in speed. If you want to tinker with the setup after that, by all means, have at it. Get the pro fit done first, though.
On the other hand, if you find yourself riding with your hands on the bar top rather than on the hoods “because it’s simply more comfortable, you’ve got too much reach. On modern road bikes, this simply means you need a different stem. If that stretch is just a little too much (not enough to keep you on the bar top), you can also add a 5 mm spacer below the stem to bring the drop up a bit.
Two different bikes, almost the same setup. The two bikes are actually a lot closer today after some tinkering on the Trek (left).