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How to choose the correct road bike bars

3T bars
Stu Bowers
21 Sep 2015

You hold them for practically every second you ride, so make sure you have the right shape and size of road bike handlebars.

The shape of drop handlebars hasn’t changed dramatically in decades. The curved design offers a range of holding and riding positions – tucked on the drops for speed; relaxed on the hoods for cruising; upright on the tops for climbing – but in recent years manufacturers have toyed with subtle variations on the shape, which may not be noticeable at first, but which could have a significant effect on your riding comfort and performance.

‘Look back 20 years and pretty much all bars were aluminium and the shapes were close to the same,’ says Adam Marriott, senior product manager for Easton. ‘Aluminum doesn’t like tight bends, which is part of the reason you see those larger drops with sweeping bends on traditional bars.’

Nathan Schickel, Zipp’s product manager, adds, ‘The change from threaded headsets to threadless [Aheadset] about 10-12 years ago practically caused the vertical drop from saddle to handlebar to more than double. We needed to readdress the shape of the bars to compensate and so they became shorter in reach and shallower in drop (see box overleaf). The old 100mm reach/150-180mm drop became pretty much redundant.’

Road bike handlebar shape comparison

The term ‘compact’ has been popularised for this new era of road bar shape. Morgan Lloyd, physiotherapist and education manager for London-based bike fitter Cyclefit, suggests the change has come about mainly due to the evolution of other components: ‘Traditional shaped drop bars are being phased out mainly due to the shape of the new gear and brake levers, which are designed to be set up with the lever hoods level with the top of the bar. The more traditional shape ends up creating a V-shape [into the lever hood] which can be uncomfortable.’

Compact bars have other advantages, too. Davide Ambrosini, product specialist for 3T, says, ‘The compact shape allows the rider to use the drops without such a big change in position, and also to be closer to the brake levers when in the drops. The compact drop also enables the bar to be a little bit more stiff and lighter too.’

Shaping up

Another alternative is the ‘ergo’ bar. These handlebars are shaped – sometimes slightly squared off – at the point just beneath the brake hood to allow for a more positive grip on the drops. Ambrosini says it has both positive and negative effects: ‘The ergo bar has some benefits for comfort and pressure release on the hands, but tends to force you into a precise position without giving you the opportunity to move up or down the drops.’

3T bars

Equally, the shape of the top section has also been considered for comfort as well as aero gains. A bar with a flatter profile (sometimes termed ‘wing’ or ‘aero’) can spread the pressure across the hand, compared to a standard circular bar, which can create high pressure points. Lloyd says, ‘Hand size is an important consideration. If you wear a size L or XL glove then a flatter top section might suit you, more so than someone with small hands. The size of your hands also affects how well you get on with certain shapes. Too compact [tight radius bend] and larger hands may feel cramped. The bar should also allow you to grab the brake lever when you’re on the drops, which is a concern if you have smaller hands.’

If all this has persuaded you that it might be time to experiment with a new set of bars, where should you start?

Fit for purpose

While many riders aspire to ride in the same position as the pros, with a flat back and nose pressed towards the front tyre, the reality is that few of us are capable of it. That’s why a professional bike fit is valuable for anyone considering buying a new bike, and handlebar selection is becoming a significant part of that fitting process.

Ritchie bars

‘A lot of handlebar preferences come down to personal feel,’ says Lloyd, ‘but if we are starting from scratch I would always begin by looking at shoulder width and try to match the bar to that so that the hands and wrists are directly under the shoulder joint. In this position the skeletal structure of the upper body is best able to take most of your weight. If your arms end up too wide or narrow then it can increase muscular usage and energy costs, and can fatigue you over longer rides. The discipline is also relevant – for example a sprinter or crit racer or cyclocross rider might want a slightly wider bar for more leverage.

‘Then it’s really over to assessing your flexibility,’ adds Lloyd. ‘It’s very important and should give you an idea of how much bar drop you can cope with. At the most basic level, if you can easily touch your toes, chances are a deeper drop will be fine. Those with limited flexibility should go for a much shallower drop. Also flexibility plays a part in deciding the reach – if you haven’t got good flexibility a shorter reach bar will reduce the distance from the saddle to the lever hoods.’

Try before you buy

Most of the experts Cyclist talked to agree that, apart from a small number of pros and devout traditionalists, the deep drop bar is all but dead. The compact bar is king these days. But even within the compact sector there are variations – 70mm reach, 80mm, etc – so there are still considerations.

Zipp bars

‘Bike fit measurements should always be your guide, not which bar looks nice,’ urges Lloyd. ‘Most important is knowing the distance from the nose of the saddle to back of the brake hoods, to ascertain the right bar style initially.’

Ultimately it comes down to discovering what works best for you. ‘The best way is to try to rely on your sensation and experience,’ suggests Ambrosini. ‘To narrow down the options, the opportunity to try a few bar shapes would be really beneficial,’ agrees Lloyd. ‘That’s where a good relationship with a local bike shop is worth a lot more than using the internet.’

Lastly, be sure to consider how you set it up, says Marriott: ‘The most common mistake I see is riders with their bar set up badly, usually either rotated too far forward or with levers too low on the drop. Sometimes small changes in the set up can greatly improve the comfort of any bars.’

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