The Noob’s Guide to Cycling; Everything You Need to Know About Bar Tape. Everything from What to How.
This is the longest running series on my blog. I’ve been writing “Noob’s Guide” posts for eight years now… and I’ve never put together a comprehensive post on bar tape. Well, I’ve been through enough of the stuff, it’s time.
Here’s what you need to know: The old paper thin ribbon bar tape looks old-school and cool, but there’s zero cushion to it and it’s not great in the rain. In fact, it’s real bad in the rain. It’s also very hard to make look good – you really have to know what you’re doing. Skip it. The cork stuff is great, because it’s pretty cheap ($5 to $20) and it’s got good cushion to it. This is what you learn on, because at just $5 a pop, you can afford to make a few mistakes. It’s not great in the rain, but it’ll do:
Then there’s the fake leather, high-end bar tapes that run anywhere between $20 and $50. The good stuff lasts forever and provides excellent cushion on the handlebars and is typically good in the rain. Specialized S-Wrap and Bontrager Grippytack or Velvetack are great examples. The S-Wrap tape on my Venge is the original tape that came on the bike (2013). I kid you not, it still looks fantastic. Other favorites are sold under the Fi’zi:k and Lizard Skins brands.
Original 2013 top left to 2020 bottom right
I just recently put Bontrager Velvetack bar tape on my 5200 and it’s beautiful. I bought the two-tone red under black (obviously) tape thinking getting the dots to line up right might be a problem, but they actually helped me keep the lines right and tight. It’s got nice grip with plenty of cushion and the velvet characteristic is just beautiful. Well worth a little extra money, but best applied after you’ve got some experience with cork. It’s unforgiving, and you’ve really gotta concentrate to get it right.
Then there’s real leather. Folks, I won’t kid you, leather is the cat’s ass. Not exactly ideal in poor weather because it leaves a little to desire in grip when wet, but when your bar is properly wrapped, nothing looks as good as a tight, leather wrap job (unless you’re an insufferable hippie, it which case; leather bad, blah, blah, blah… unless you’re a native American or Inuit, in which case, leather back to good, blah, blah, blah – oh, it’s tiring). Genuine leather bar tape will run you $40 to $150 and you better be a good bar wrapper to mess with leather. I paid $70 for mine, on sale, and I loved it for years (though the lack of cushion got old as I did):
My friends, bar tape can add to your bike’s personality, or simply do its job. There’s only one hard and fast rule to rely on for whether or not to go with color, and there are a few guidelines that can help. Typically speaking, racers like to go with a white bar tape. Miserable with dirt and grime, it’s ostentatious when kept meticulously clean and even a little cool when slightly dirty, showing use, but don’t let that get out of hand. Usually around 60+% of the pro peloton will have white bar tape. Don’t forget, they also have team mechanics to keep their rigs clean and looking fantastic. Black is the standard go-to for the everyday cyclist who wants their ride to look presentable at all times – it also hides chain lube stains very well. Ahem. Colored bar tape is tricky. If it’s too loud… well, generally speaking, you don’t want to draw attention to the cockpit of the bike – it’s the frame that you want to draw the eye, actually. Still, if done correctly, a little color isn’t a bad thing.
What you want to watch out for is the yellow bike with green bar tape, or worse, this:
With the exception of the white (above), which they did a poor job on by the way, but is an acceptable color, don’t do it – unless you’re one person: Mario Cipollini. He’s the only person on the planet who could pull off that bar tape and you ain’t him…
and not even he would do that to a bike anyway! Yes, he actually did. Nowadays, there are zero cases where that handlebar tape is applied to a bike in which someone other than the person who applied it would say, “Well, I stand corrected, that’s a nice looking wrap job, there.” Typically, after the courteous and perfunctory, “Wow, nice bike”, what the other person is thinking, is “What the f*** were you thinking?!”
Now, let’s get to the “how” of wrapping bars. Thank God for Bontrager. They provide simple, language free instructions.
Special tips to ensure your tape job looks fantastic when you’re done.
Some special things to note; look at how they start the bar tape at the bar ends. Each side starts opposite, inside of the bar to outside, away from the bike. This ensures the tape is wrapped so it tightens on itself as you naturally grip the handlebar. Start outside in and you’ll pull it loose over time. Keep the tape tight throughout the whole wrap – not tight enough to stretch or deform the tape, but tight. Notice, also, the cut line at the end. The cut is important to a good, clean finish of your wrap job, you cut toward the stem. Obviously, the opposite side will mirror the diagram. Now, for the bar-end plug, you want to fold in the overlapping bits of tape so the end is clean (see that photo of my leather bar tape with the wood bar-end plug above). Following those guidelines, what’s most important is keeping the overlap the same all the way around the bar – this will be hardest at the part of the bar immediately behind the shift/brake lever. You really have to watch what you’re doing there. Before you cut anything, make sure the “reach” part of the drop bar is wrapped correctly. Start at the bar end and look at each wrap to make sure you don’t have any single wraps unevenly spaced. It’ll be a costly mistake to cut your tape, only to find an ugly gap you missed behind your shift lever. I know this, because I’ve done it. Then you have to unravel the bar tape, fix the gap(s), then hope you’ve got enough tape to make everything else look right once you get to the end point near the stem. Another good tip is to use a piece of cut-off bar tape as a spacer at your stem.
Now, you can perform a figure 8 around the shift lever hood, if you prefer, but you’ll normally get a piece of extra tape you can use in lieu of the figure 8 that can be a little tricky to get right (see fig. 3 above). I prefer the method Bontrager shows. Just make sure you cover enough of the clamp strip – you have to be very tight around the shifter clamp – that it looks right.
Finally, if you want to get a little tricky, you can wrap your bar without using electrical tape by the stem. To do this, you simply start your wrap at the bar top and work your way down to the bar end. You’ll want to use a tape that has an adhesive back, though. The problem with this method is you have to make sure your wrap is tight, or you’ll pull the tape apart whilst riding, just because of how you grip the drops… gravity will work against you over time. On the other hand, it does look really cool to skip the electrical tape:
Finally, let’s get into weight. Believe it or not, there’s some weight to be saved in going with the cork bar tape. Specialized isn’t good enough to give weights for their bar tapes, but Bontrager is. Their cork tape comes in at a paltry 72 grams, while their Grippytack comes in at 99 and the Velvetack is 124 grams. The best part? The lighter cork tape is ten bucks cheaper. In the rarest instance ever in cycling, the cheaper product is lighter! If you absolutely, positively have to save a tenth of a pound (and ten bucks), go with the cork tape. For me, comfort and style are worth one swig out of a water bottle, but that’s just me.
So there you have it, just about everything you really need to know about bar tape.