There are different styles of handlebars to choose from. One common question bike riders often ask is: which handlebars are the best?
The basics of handlebars
The more your body is inclined over the handlebars, the greater the downward pressure on the bars, through your hands. The amount of pressure can vary depending on the type of bike you ride.
When riding a road bike, the pressure you exert on the bars is typically constant, as your riding position rarely changes. Road bikes come equipped with drop bars; the benefit of this is the variety of hand positions you can have, which over long distances makes a lot of difference to your comfort level. Variation in hand position effectively alleviates undue pressure on your hands and wrists.
On a mountain bike, typically fitted with flat handlebars or possibly a riser bar, you have fewer options for effective hand positions. The difference is that on a mountain bike you typically ride in an upright position, unlike on a road bike. So, there is less pressure exerted on the handlebars through your wrists and hands. There is less need for optional hand positions. Although, if you like, you can fit bar ends or extensions to offer a greater variety of hand positions.
The majority of road bikes come fitted with dropped bars. And mountain bikes typically come with flat handlebars. But there are various other options for bars you can fit on your bike. If you’re a regular commuter, you might opt for riser bars for greater comfort. Riders in cyclocross tend to prefer dropped bars. And triathletes generally prefer using an aero-bar. Which one is best? The simple answer is it depends on you, the bike you ride, and what you use your bike for (commuting, sport, exercise, etc.).
To better understand some of the differences, let’s look at probably the most common scenario: should you use drop bars or straight bars for commuting?
Dropped bars vs straight bars for commuting
I commute to the office daily on my bike. So, I estimate that I spend around an hour and a half each day on my bike when commuting. While commuting, I want both speed and a reasonable degree of comfort during my journey. Finding the right balance can be tricky. I’ve experimented with flat handlebars and dropped bars over the years. So, here are my thoughts on when to use dropped bars and when to use straight bars.
You can’t just say that one type of bar is better than the other for all scenarios. You need to look at your riding circumstance, and yourself as a rider, to decide which will suit you best.
Drop bars are more aerodynamic
The aerodynamic design of drop bars means that you can go faster once you get above 25 km/h when riding. At slower speeds the drag factor is negligible. So drop bars for commuting won’t usually give you any speed advantage. But drop bars do offer you a greater variety of hand positions while riding. Varying your grip position while riding will help alleviate any undue stress on your wrists and hands over longer commutes.
Flat bars are more comfortable
When you use flat or straight bars, you ride in a more upright position, which is more comfortable for commuting than the position you ride in when using drop bars. This is the main benefit that flat or straight bars offer. The main drawback is the lack of hand positioning, unless, of course, you add bar extensions. Overall, most commuters prefer flat or straight bars.
Drop bars for commuting: the pros
- Variety of hand positions: the design of drop bars offers you the choice of three different positions for your hands: hands on the top of the bars, hands resting on the brake hoods, or hands on the drop section of the bars. Most people find that resting their hands on the brake hoods or gripping the drop section puts them in a very natural riding position. The main benefit is the choice of position you have, which can make longer commutes more comfortable.
- Aerodynamics: drop bars offer an advantage when riding at high speed or in a headwind. The aerodynamic drag factor has a significant effect at speeds above 25 km/h. When riding with your hands on the brake hoods or the drop sections, your body doesn’t present as much resistance to airflow. So, you can ride faster, or at the same speed but using less effort. If your regular commuting route includes nice long stretches of road, you’ll save both time and energy, even if it’s only minimal.
- Narrower profile than most straight bars: Drop bars have, on average, a narrower profile than straight bars, by about 100-200 mm. You’ll benefit from this when traversing narrow streets or weaving in and out of traffic. It can make the difference between crashing into a driver’s door-side mirror when trying to pass, or not.
- Hill climbing: when going up hills, it’s easy to change the position of your body so that you’re more over the front wheel. This redistribution of body weight makes cycling uphill much easier. You can get a good grip on the brake hoods, and get greater leverage which transfers to better power transfer to the pedals.
Drop bars for commuting: the cons
- Position of brake levers: riding in an urban setting is nearly always punctuated by stop-go traffic, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed bumps, cobblestones, holes, and possibly even tram lines or other need-to-be-avoided obstacles. You’ll likely need to brake often during a commute. The positioning of the brakes on drop bars can be an annoyance for some riders when they need to continually use them while commuting. Others, however, don’t seem to mind. One solution is to mount the brake levers in an alternative position; possibly on the flat portion of the handlebars. It’s a good solution for commuting, but if you use the same bike for longer rides, for example, on weekends, this might not be such a great idea. Another solution is to fit dual brake levers on your drop bars for greater convenience.
- Less control at slow speeds: due to the narrower profile of drop bars, there is greater pressure exerted on your hands. This makes it slightly more difficult to maneuver your bike at slow speeds, which is often the case in heavy traffic. But it should only be a problem if you need to do a lot of slow-speed maneuvering while commuting.
- Less space for accessories: The narrower profile of drop bars means you’ll be somewhat limited as to what additional items you can mount on your handlebars; for example, phone, lights, a trip computer, etc. For some riders, it might not be a big deal, but for others, it can be an irritation not to have everything they want within easy reach. One solution to this problem is a multi-purpose mount which takes up minimal space but allows you to mount, for example, a trip computer and light on the same mount.
- Harder to monitor traffic: remember that we’re talking about commuting, so being aware of traffic around you in an urban scenario is essential. This is slightly more difficult to do when using drop bars. The riding position naturally inclines your body over the bars more than when using flat or straight bars. It means that you need to keep tilting your head up to see what’s going on around you. Some riders find this uncomfortable on longer commutes, as it can strain the neck muscles. The solution: raise your drop bars by inserting a spacer in the headset. Or, install a riser bar, which will be more comfortable although you’ll sacrifice some of the aerodynamic benefits of regular drop bars.
When it comes to commuting, I would prioritize comfort over anything else, especially if your commute is a long one each day. At the end of a long day, being comfortable while riding will put a bigger smile on your face than shaving a few minutes of your commute time because of the better aerodynamics of drop bars.