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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…
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.
I’ve got a post about tire pressure that’s been sitting in my Draft folder for something like four years. Four years. Folks, I’m not afraid of much, but I’m scared to hit the publish button on that post… because tire pressure is a personal thing. It’s incredibly subjective and depends on everything from rider preference to frame and rim material to saddle/heinie comparability, to chamois choice. And anyone who rides seriously will have an opinion about tire pressure – and the angrier the person, the more right they are and the dumber you are for having your opinion.
That said, there is general wisdom to pass along without inflaming the hemorrhoids. Too much. Such as:
- Heavier riders use greater pressure. This doesn’t need to get silly, though. I’m 175 pounds and I roll 115 psi in 23mm tires, 111 psi in 24mm, and 105 to 107 psi in 25’s.
- Lighter riders don’t need all of that tire pressure to avoid pinch flats.
- The balance is; little enough to smooth out the roads, but enough you don’t pinch flat whenever you hit a pothole – or, if you go tubeless, little enough to smooth out the road, but enough you don’t crack your rims on potholes.
- You can use tire pressure to tune your bike in so the ride feels a little more buttery.
That last bullet point is where the cheddar’s at. I’ve got this down to a science on the Trek. With the alloy wheels on the bike, if I go to 114 psi with 24’s, I can feel every bump on my keister. Drop three psi off that and the bike is heaven. With the carbon fiber wheelset and 25mm tires on either my Venge or the 5200, it’s a little less of an imperative to get the pressure exactly right because the wheels do some of the heavy lifting and take a some sting out of the road. Still, I like 105 to 107 psi in the 25’s on the carbon fiber wheels.
Now, as mentioned above, there’s a delicate balance to be maintained here. Too little pressure and you’ll pinch flat every time you hit a decent bump and it’ll feel like you’re trying to ride through mud, and as you can see in the photo above, we’ve got some bumps to worry about and nobody likes riding through mud… err… on slicks… on a road bike. Also, part of that equation is to balance your tire pressure with your weight as well.
The next time you’ve got some solo miles planned, take some time and a handy, dandy hand pump and play with the tire pressure a little bit as you ride. Add a little, drop a little, drop a little more… hit a few bumps to make sure “a little more” wasn’t actually “too much”… Tune your bike in to the road with your tire pressure so you’ve got the perfect balance between fast and smooth.
You won’t regret it.
I’ve got approximately 40,000 miles on this bike:
I’ve ridden it, almost exclusively with aluminum wheels, for upwards of eight years. It was only recently I decided to fit my good wheels to the rain bike for DALMAC. It’s a long story, but I thought I couldn’t get 25mm tires and 23mm (wide) rims to work with the frame clearance I had on the old 5200. 25’s on my alloy wheels rub the chain stays – there’s no clearance. With the wider carbon fiber rims, though, I was mistaken. The extra width of the rim changes the profile of the tire, therefore allowing 3-mm each side of the tire betwixt the chain stays – enough space.
I did need new brakes, though. The old calipers wouldn’t take the wider rim, so I picked up a set of 2019 Shimano 105 calipers for the ’99 frame. I fitted the new wheels just a week before the big tour – just enough time to give them a roll to make sure everything was good…
I rode the new setup for a week before the big tour, then for the 377 mile weekend.
First, I was riding Specialized Turbo Pro 24mm tires pumped to 112 psi on the aluminum wheels. I’ve got 25mm Serfas Prototype tires on the carbon wheels and I pump those up to 107 psi (lately). There might be a little bit of difference in suppleness between the Specialized and Serfas tires, but it wouldn’t be much and the edge would absolutely go to the Specialized tires, if a difference exists.
With that out of the way, carbon fiber wheels are exactly what you’d think. They’re faster and they improve ride characteristics.
Staying with subjective data, because I don’t have a testing facility other than open roads, my legs and my heinie, understanding and quantifying the improved ride quality is fairly simple. If you’ve ridden a bike with an aluminum frame and another with a carbon fiber frame, you don’t need a $40,000,000 testing facility to know that the carbon fiber frame, all things being equal, will be a more comfortable ride that the aluminum frame. Well, the same improvements in feel apply to carbon fiber wheels.
While some people want to make this into rocket science, I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. There’s certainly room for completely geeking out over testing data, but all one really needs is to ride one a lot, then switch to the other. You’ll feel the difference immediately.
So, while I would owe some improvement to the 1mm difference in tires and the extra five psi, the difference would be minimal at best. The interesting twist happened when I swapped wheels back on returning from DALMAC. All of a sudden I could feel every bump in the road riding the 5200. I’ve found that when ride quality is improved, for whatever reason, the benefit slowly fades to the background as time goes by. This happened on my tour. So it was a pretty big shock going back to the alloy wheels. I just might have to try lowering the pressure in those tires a little bit. The difference between wheelsets was surprising.
Simply put, if you can afford a set of carbon fiber wheels, they’re worth it. The aerodynamic improvement, even of a 38-mm rim over, say, a 23-mm, is well documented and make the wheels easier to keep up to speed (above, say 20-mph). The ride quality improvements are equally impressive, if not more so.
To wrap this up, carbon fiber wheels won’t give you an edge. They won’t make you faster. They won’t take you from a B Group rider to an A. They make fast a little easier. If you want to jump groups, you’ll need a heaping helping of “want to” before you start worrying about which wheels you’ll buy. On the other hand, there’s no question, a set of carbon wheels sure takes some sting out of the road.
The Best Tires I’ve Found for Ican, Superteam and Other Tight Wheelsets (Carbon Fiber or Rolf Alloy)
Folks, I’ve tested a few tires on my carbon fiber Ican wheels. I started with Michelin Pro 4’s (I love the feel of those tires), but they were extremely tight to get the final eight inches of bead over the rim. I ended up having to resort to a Kool Stop tire jack (I’ve carried one in my back pocket to this day, just in case). Even once the tires were broken in, a tire jack was necessary with the Michelins. Then I switched to Serfas Prototypes that I’m testing courtesy of the local shop – those, once broken in, work without a tire jack. That, however, does no one any good because they’re prototypes. Meanwhile, however, I loved the Ican wheelset so much, I bought a set for my wife and I started her on Specialized Turbo Pro tires (26-mm).
Again, the first time the Specialized tires are installed, I like to use the tire jack. Once they’re broken in, though, they’re perfectly fine going on and don’t require special tools. I just worked on my wife’s and installed the tire easily by hand just yesterday.
For those not in the know, finding a tire that isn’t impossible to install on a tight-fitting rim a very big deal. There are rims out there that make you wonder what they were thinking they’re so hard to get tires over for everyone but seasoned shop pros.
So there you have it, folks. Specialized Turbo Pro tires (or the S-Works Turbo) play nice with tight rims. I can’t say they’ll work with everything, but they work great with our Ican wheelsets, and those are exceedingly tough.
Specialized Turbo Pro:
I Paid $2,000 for a Freakin’ Bike with No Kickstand?! Why Your Bike Doesn’t Come with One… And Why You Don’t Need One Anyway.
First, for the noobs that happen on this post, no, you’re not entirely nuts to think it’s crazy a bike shouldn’t have a kickstand as much as they cost. I know. I actually had one put on my first adult mountain bike – until it was pointed out how dangerous it was to mountain bike with a kickstand on the bike… then I couldn’t get it off the bike fast enough. So, if you’re miffed your bike doesn’t have a kickstand, consider a few things, first. Carbon fiber bikes don’t have a kickstand because you can’t install a kickstand in the traditional manner because the bike is carbon fiber. You can’t put that kind of leverage on the frame that isn’t designed for it without risking it cracking, especially bolting a metal kickstand onto a, for the lack of a better word, plastic bike. That’s simply a no-no. In fact, you’re not even supposed to use the old style trunk racks that suspend the bike from the top tube with a carbon fiber bike… you use one that supports the bike from the wheels. For aluminum road bikes, they don’t have the clearance to attach a kickstand in the traditional manner anymore, and as I covered earlier, it’s dangerous on a mountain bike when you ride on rough terrain.
And to tell the truth, the cool kids just don’t have kickstands anymore. We don’t need them, with a little innovation.
Try these options instead:
Our bikes are actually resting on the curb simply by leveraging the crank arm against the drivetrain, by way of the pedal. This only works on the drivetrain side of the bike with the pedal you’ll rest the bike on to the back of the bike. Don’t try it on the non-drivetrain side. Your bike will fall over. Also, be very weary of trying this with a bunch of people milling about. Almost invariably, some knucklehead will get too close and knock your steed over. If you don’t have a curb, place your helmet on the ground and leverage the pedal against the top of your melon protector. Seriously, it works.
Next up is the plain old lean against a post method:
For this innovative method of propping a bike up, the frame never touches said post. The saddle leans against the post, then you bring the pedal around (spin the crank backwards) to leverage it against the post. This is a solid way to lean your bike without contact to the paint. It’s quite solid and only uses the tires and two tiny contact points.
In a pinch and for photos, you’ve got the old “stick in the mud” method:
Without question, extreme care should be used when propping one’s bike up this way. It is most definitely NOT stable. One tiny gust of wind and your bike could topple. Great for photos, though. Especially side profile:
Next, we’ll go with the two-point lean:
In this case I used the saddle and my front tire. Because the bike is faced downhill, I chose the front wheel because I could turn it into the fence, making it so the bike can’t roll down – it’s wedged against the fence. The right brake hood would have worked as well, on level ground, though. If I wanted to turn the bike around, I’d have used the saddle and rear wheel as the leverage points.
Along the same line is the three-point lean. This works against a wall. Rear tire, saddle, front tire (the front wheel is turned in, toward the wall). This is exceptionally stable:
The three points in this photo are, handlebar, saddle, rear tire.
Then we go into another “photogenic” method of leaning the bike, the handlebar lean:
It should go without saying, this isn’t very stable but it’s good for a quick photo. If I’m around people, especially the normal public or someone who doesn’t treat their bike as well as I treat mine, I always go with the two or three-point lean. I’ve got too much invested in my bikes to leave the opportunity for a stupid person to be stupid around my ride.
For those really pressed, we don’t need anything to lean our bikes against…
Wedge the wheel between the car tire and the wheel well. It’ll stay upright easy enough. Just don’t get back in your car while your bike is set this way. The last thing you need is to forget it’s there and drive off. Don’t chuckle too hard, either. It happens.
Finally, this is for those who have a riding buddy, a favorite of mine when there’s simply nothing to lean your bike against:
Lean two against each other. Just make sure you’re not frame to frame… I’ve got my two touching shifter hood to seat post above. Get the balance right and that is surprisingly stable. This one is excellent at big, supported rides when they run out of rack space or trees to lean your bike against at rest stops.
So, my friends, don’t worry about why your bike doesn’t come with a kickstand. You don’t need one anyway. And who would want the extra weight?!
Technically, two weeks from, today we’ll be finishing up with dinner on day three, look toward the final 72 miles. I’m stoked for this year’s tour, in fact, I can hardly contain myself. For the last four years, I could never really relax on the ride. I was always waiting for the call that something went horribly wrong with my company and I’d have to rush back. It was miserable. I couldn’t get away. Until this year… so, finally, I get to do this ride free from the mental torture I put myself through (for no good reason). I’m looking forward to just being in the moment with my friends.
I just finished getting the Trek ready to go. Notice the wheels:
I made room for the carbon fiber wheels by picking up a new set of 105 brakes, brand new BR-R7000 Shimano 105 brake calipers, they’re fantastic:
Now the bike is completely blacked out… and as an added bonus, it stops A LOT better.
Now, technically all of this happened just in the nick of time. The idea for the Trek was to leave the alloy wheels on it, then swap them out for my good wheels for the tours I take it on, Midwest, our up north road trip, DALMAC, but while cleaning the alloy wheels up after the new calipers went on, I found a hairline crack at one of the spoke holes in the rear wheel. Eventually that wheel would have failed. For the time being it’s holding its true, but the hoop will have to be replaced.
Before yesterday, the Trek would have been sidelined till I could get a new rim. Instead, I just swapped out the brake pads, slid on the good wheels from the Venge, and I’m ready for today’s Assenmacher 100 and DALMAC in a week-and-a-half.
I never thought I’d be able to get that old 5200 to where it is today. She’s come a looooooooooong way from the good old days.
Now, if I had a dollar for every time I wrote here that the Trek was finally done, I’d have… um, carry the one… ten bucks. The point is, I’m there. Again. So I’m not going to write the words again. I’ll just say I’m excited for where the bike is. Again.
For me, it started as a shop loner and has been transformed into a personalized work of mechanical art. Lance never had it as good as mine is today when he won the TdF on his. To me, that’s kinda neat.
My friends, there once was a time I thought a lightweight race saddle was going to be a relatively hard saddle that had to be put up with, rather than enjoyed, over a long haul.
I had a beautiful Selle Italia 110 gram saddle on the Trek, then on the Venge, that was close to fantastic but it was in the realm of the hard saddle that had to be put up with when the mileage bounced over 50. It was nice enough, and was a huge weight improvement over my 274 gram Specialized Romin saddle that goes on the Venge. It was an even bigger advantage over the $25 mountain bike saddle I had on the Trek, though that mountain bike saddle was comfy.
The Selle Italia started out on the Trek at the beginning of the year, then went over to the Venge when I decided I wanted to get all weight weenie to see how light I could make it. I loved it on the Trek, early in the season. It wasn’t great on the Venge, though. I just couldn’t get comfortable in it on the longer rides. As I put more miles on my butt throughout the season, I became less and less fond of the saddle on the Venge so I switched it back to the Trek. That magic I’d felt early in the season was gone. With 4,000 miles on my hind end, what was once fairly wonderful became a bit like riding on barbed wire after a metric century. The saddle had to go – I’m not paid to ride and I’m not putting up with an ultra light saddle just so I can say my Venge weighs 15-1/4 pounds instead of 15-1/2. Better, it’s the difference between 18 and 18-1/2 pounds on the Trek. Folks, 18 pounds is 18 pounds, and I need something I can be comfortable in on the long haul rides, because that’s what the Trek is for.
On a fluke I happened on a sale on the Bontrager/Trek website. They had the Montrose Pro on overstock sale, $100 off. I paid $120 for mine – a fantastic deal for a high-end saddle.
The profile is almost a perfect match to the Specialized Romin on the Venge that I absolutely love. A little less rise on the nose, but otherwise, a spot-on match.
After the storm, the clouds parted and the sun shone…
After a couple of test rides I took the saddle and my Trek up north on a road trip with two of my best cycling friends. 77 miles on day one, 67 on day two. The saddle is my new favorite. It’s a fantastic balance of bounce and padding – and my 5200 needs a little help in that regard. It’s a pretty stiff ride for a carbon fiber frame and fork.
There’s about 50 grams difference between the Montrose and that previously mentioned Selle Italia saddle, and it all went into padding in the perfect places, and no more than absolutely necessary.
I am not all that flexible (I’m no spring chicken) and I ride an aggressive setup, so having the right saddle, that allows my hips to rotate a little so I can get low enough, is a requirement. That’s exactly what the Montrose’s profile does.
I’ve always wanted the 5200 to be just a little more comfortable than my Venge so I’d ride the Trek more… and I’ve always felt that was impossible. The Specialized is fourteen years newer so the technological ride advances are huge. Not only do they make today’s bikes light and aero, with a little manipulation of the lay-up, they can make today’s frames stiff where it’s needed for power transfer, but compliant where that’s needed for ride quality. Not to mention, the Trek will only fit a 24mm tire while the Trek will easily fit a 26… more volume in the tire means a better ride.
The Trek has one thing going for it over the Venge; the Trek is just a touch more vertically compliant than my Venge. Vertically compliant means I’m not quite as low-slung on the Trek. Add the Montrose Pro to the mix, with 24mm wide tires, and what was once thought of as impossible is now a reality. My 5200 is slightly more comfortable.
The Montrose Pro is a fantastic saddle and decently light at around 160 grams. It’s an all-day saddle that, once properly set, keeps me comfortable for hours. I am perfectly pleased with it and can’t recommend it highly enough.