THERE ARE MORE OPTIONS THAN EVER FOR CUSTOMIZING YOUR COCKPIT.
The secret to staying fresher, more comfortable, and more in control on your road bike might be literally right in front of you. Your handlebar has a profound effect on your riding enjoyment and ability, and an explosion of newer shapes and sizes in the past 10 years means there are more options than ever to fit your bike perfectly to you.
The correct bike handlebar shape and fit provides a riding position that supports your upper body without putting strain on your neck and shoulders, and balances your weight between the front and back wheels for proper handling. Newer shapes with riser tops, like the FSA K-Wing or Specialized Hover, or the double-top bar on Canyon’s Grail gravel bike, can offer higher positions without rise stems or added headset spacers.
“There are so many more options, and people have realized they don’t have to be uncomfortable,” says Charlayne Barger, a longtime bike fitter and mechanic in Phoenix.
The boom began with the advent of compact bike frames in the late 1990s. Those frames, still popular today, have sloping top tubes that accommodate a greater range of rider heights, allowing manufacturers to produce fewer sizes. Before, most frames were designed with a rider’s ideal stem and saddle position in mind. Cyclists could typically find a good fit with only minimal changes to their stem length and saddle height.
Compact frames flipped that formula around. “Now, frames dictate what to do with the stem and seatpost,” says pioneering frame builder Tom Ritchey. To fit the smaller range of frame sizes, riders needed a greater variety of handlebars and stems to get the right position.
As cyclists began clamoring for additional ways to fine-tune their setup, new materials and manufacturing techniques gave component makers more control over bar shape. Removable-faceplate stems opened up more bend options, since the bar no longer had to fit through a stem clamp. Computer-aided design produced more ergonomic shapes, and advanced manufacturing techniques made them technically possible.
The result is a smorgasbord of choices, with more combinations of reach and drop, and better ergonomics. With so many options, the handlebar has become an important tool to help cyclists find an ideal riding position. We recommend working with an experienced bike fitter to find the right choice for you. A fitter can guide you to the right bar the first time, reducing the chance of a pricey mistake.
Recent innovations in handlebar design include Canyon’s doubletop bar on its Grail gravel bike.
Assuming your bike is the right size, your bar should let you comfortably reach the brake hoods with a slight bend at the elbow. When your hands are on the hoods or wrapped around the hook portion of the drops, your wrists should be at a comfortable angle. And you should be able to easily reach the brake levers from the hoods or drops.
Changing your bar won’t fix a frame that doesn’t fit. But it can make your bike feel better, increasing comfort and improving control. The handlebar is one of just three points at which your body contacts your bike, so even small changes can have an outsized effect—transforming a good bike into a great one.
Bend: The curved section of the bar.
Drop: The vertical distance from the center of the bar top to the center of the deepest part of the bend. A drop of 125mm or less is considered shallow; 125-128mm is medium; more than that is deep.
Drops: Straight portion of the bar that extends back toward the rider.
Hooks: Section of the drop just below the brake-lever clamp that is used during descending and cornering.
Ramp: The segment that transitions from the top to the hooks. It is sometimes measured by the steepness of the angle to the point where brake hoods are installed.
Reach: Horizontal distance from the center of the handlebar top to the center of the furthest extension of the bend, where brake hoods are mounted. A reach of less than 80mm is short; 80-85mm is medium; 85mm or more is considered long.
Width: Most companies measure a bar’s width between the center of each drop. Common sizes are 38, 40, 42, and 44cm.
Choosing a Handlebar
1) Prioritize reach. You spend most of your time with your hands on the hoods, so that’s the most important position to get right. Reach is a combination of stem length and the handlebar’s dimensions. If you ride a small-size bike or have small hands, start with a short-reach bar. Again, it’s key to work with a fitter to get the right shape and dimensions for you.
2) To find the right width, grab the drops and have a friend or shop employee eyeball you from the front. Your arms should extend straight forward. For multi-surface riding, you may want a slightly wider stance for more control in technical terrain.
3) To choose shape, find one that lets you easily curl the tips of your index and middle fingers around the brake levers while in the hooks, the forward position of the drops
4) Unless you require a super-light bar or unique shape, consider an aluminum model. Carbon options can offer better vibration damping, but cost two or three times more.
5) Some models—like Trek’s Madone, the Specialized Venge ViAS, and Canyon’s Grail—use proprietary handlebar and stem combinations. You may be able to find different sizes of these bars, but in most cases these systems are fully integrated so you can’t swap to another brand of handlebar.
Tips for Improving Performance
Reach: A longer reach can increase your leverage on the handlebar for more responsive bike handling (although too much can make steering feel too responsive, and put too much weight on the front wheel). While total cockpit reach includes your stem length, increasing just the bar reach changes the distance to the drops and hoods without changing the position of the bar top relative to the saddle.
Width: Hand placement can alter how quickly your bike responds to steering input. A narrow stance is more aerodynamic, but reduces your leverage and can lead to shaky steering. A wider grip improves stability, but too wide can focus stress on your shoulders and neck. If you’re switching to a significantly wider bar, consider adjusting the bar reach and/or stem length to keep your position from getting too stretched out.
Shape: The bend of your drops affects your grip on the bar, as well as your body position. A deep drop will put you in an aero stance, but too much drop can make it hard to keep your head up.
A Brief History of the Road Bike Handlebar
By Kip Mikler and Joe Lindsey
1890s: American racing legend Major Taylor uses a drop bar and an innovative adjustable stem to achieve a lower, more aggressive riding position.
1920s: Steel bars with deep-radius drops prevail.
Mid-1950s: Ambrosio becomes the first major manufacturer to develop an aluminum drop bar.
1963: Cinelli produces the Mod 64, the first widely adopted aluminum drop bar.
Early 1970s: Turin Tube Technology (later 3T) develops the Competizione bar. One version has flat tops and deep, round drops that will become known as the “Merckx bend,” after legendary Belgian rider Eddy Merckx.
1986: Modolo creates the Anatomic bar, with drops that have six bends and several flat sections.
1989: Greg LeMond uses Scott’s clip-on Aerobar in the unforgettable final-day time trial at the Tour de France and wins the overall race by eight seconds, the closest in history.
1990: To accommodate Shimano’s STI shifters, which incorporate brake levers, bars like ITM’s Super Italia Pro feature longer ramps.
1999: The Deda Elementi Newton is one of the first bars with an oversize, 31.8mm clamp diameter.
2004: Italian Paolo Bettini wins Olympic gold while riding the Deda Spectrum carbon fiber bar.
2005: Compact-frame geometry results in a trend toward shallow (compact) drop bends, like the one used on FSA’s Omega.
2011: Deda Elementi again pushes the boundaries, introducing its TrentaCinque 35mm drop bar clamp standard. A few companies (including Deda) still make bars in the size, but 31.8mm remains the road standard. However, 35mm has become widely adopted for mountain bikes.
2015: Specialized and Trek both introduce aero road bikes with integrated handlebars that cannot be replaced with those of other brands.
2018: Canyon’s Grail comes with an eye-catching doubletop design, sparking memes comparing it to biplanes and multi-blade razors on social media.