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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Setting Up the Cockpit of a Road Bike; Handlebar Angle, Hood Angle, and Drop – and the Pain Getting It Wrong Can Lead To: Part 3 The Handlebar

So, in this series I’ve looked at the hoods and the stem. Today we’ll look at the handlebar. If you’ve got one of those new-fangled stem and bar combo’s, you’re pretty much stuck unless you buy another stem/bar combo, or you buy a handlebar and stem separately (if you even can with the fork you’ve got).

Let’s assume we’re talking about a standard setup, though. The stem is one piece and the bar is the other. The handlebar can be almost as versatile as the stem. There are several distinct styles of drop handlebars for road bikes. We’ve got standard drops, round bars, aero bars (where the bar top is foil-shaped), shallow drops, ergonomic drops (the drop with a hump where the hands go when riding in the drops), and we can get all of those in either carbon fiber or aluminum alloy. The different measurements we have to be cognizant of are “width”, “reach”, and “drop”. Width standards are typically 42 cm for a male and 40 cm for a female, but there are variances depending on the size of the person involved. Typically, the width is gleaned from measuring the pointy parts of the shoulder bones in the back. There have been innovations of late, though. The industry is currently trending to bars that aren’t near as wide as the usual drop bars we’re used to for aerodynamic considerations. For this post, we’ll concentrate on standard bars and leave you with enough to make an educated decision on whether or not you want the aero-aero drop bar.

Let’s begin.

From experience, I can tell you without doubt, not wide enough is better than too wide when it comes to your drop bars. I was measured as a 42 but rode a 44 for a time on my first road bike (because I didn’t know any better). I bought a new bike in 2013 that had a 42 cm standard drop bar on it and I immediately loved it. In fact, when I upgraded the handlebar on the new bike to the fantastic S-Works carbon bar in the first three photos above, I put the old handlebar on my old bike. The wider bar forced my arms out at an awkward angle that made riding less comfortable. Just two centimeters’ difference was a vast improvement in “feel”.

Next, we’ve got reach and drop. The S-Works drop on my Specialized is a 125 mm drop with an 80 mm reach. The bar on my Trek has a 123 mm drop and a 93 mm reach. Ideally, we want to incorporate the length of the stem in with the reach to get to the drops. I didn’t on my Trek because I really didn’t know any better at the time, though, and it really hasn’t mattered much. It gets a little “stretchy” in the drops, but it’s livable. And it’s especially livable because the bar looks freakin’ fantastic.

Now, here’s the biggest question I get when we start talking handlebars. The one everyone wants to know before they drop $300 for a freaking handlebar: Can you tell a difference between alloy and carbon fiber?

Yes you can. It dampens road chatter a little bit and makes for a more comfortable upper body at the end of the long miles. That’s the wrong question to ask, though. The right question is this: Is that improved comfort and 50 to 100 fewer grams worth an extra $200? Not even a little bit. Nope. I’m just as happy with the alloy bar on the Trek. If I’m all that concerned with road chatter, all I need to do is spend an extra $10 on some decent bar tape. In reality, I ride just as many long miles on the Trek and find no need to upgrade that bar. If you’ve got the money, and for the Venge I absolutely did… es muy bueno.

In the end, now that I’ve got a better understanding of how everything in the cockpit fits together, the reach of the handlebar will directly work with the length of the stem, and too much reach is a bad thing.

To put a bow on this post, let’s talk about drop a little bit:

VR-CF: Variable Radius-Compact Flare

123 mm seems to be a fairly standard “shallow” drop across the Trek and Specialized lines. There exist much shallower bars, however. I can’t stand anything less than 123 (the 125 mm Tarmac bend for my Aerofly I bar and the 123 drop for my Trek bar is great for getting low to cut through the wind. I had a shallow drop (103 mm) bar on my gravel bike and I absolutely hated it, even on the gravel bike. When I upgraded that bar, I immediately swapped out the bar on the gravel bike. What I don’t like about the shallower drop bars is the feeling that, even though I’m down in the drops, I still feel my body catching wind. In order to get under that, I have to bend my arms so much it becomes a bore and slightly uncomfortable. The drops are not meant for someone to spend the whole day in. They’re meant for turns up front (of a group or pace-line) or headwinds.

To tie everything in, the cockpit doesn’t have, at least not that I’ve found, a set “you have to have this here, and that there, and this has to be this high (or low)” set of measurements. It’s more about “feel”. I want the most comfortable place to put my hands to be on the hoods. I want for the bar top to be a place to set my hands while I’m sitting up, spinning up a hill, or just a place to move my hands to change things up a bit before moving back to the hoods. I want the drops there so I can get as low as possible into the wind, but I want to be able to spend an hour in the drops if needed. The stem, handlebar, and spacers are meant to get everything in a comfortable position. With too much reach in the bar or too much drop in the stem, I might feel more comfortable with my hands on the bar tops. This is a massive red flag that I’ve done something wrong and need to correct it immediately if not sooner. The bar top is a great place for a break. It’s horrible if I have to hit the brakes, though.

If we follow a simple order of things, we need to remember this:

  1. Comfort
  2. Fast
  3. Cool

You can’t be cool or fast if you’re not comfortable.