Some time back in the trailblazing mountain bike days (circa Ned Overend / John Tomac), it was decided that the best hand position for piloting your Schwinn down a slope was with the palms facing towards the ground.
Since then, aside from the adoption of ‘riser’ bars (initially on downhill, then more widely accepted on trail bikes), this same bar design and therefore hand position essentially has not changed.
For a period in the late ’80’s, bar ends became fashionable, gaining traction due to their comfortable forearm position and increased leverage on the bars when climbing. Some adventurous manufacturers such as Scott incorporated the bar end into their handlebar design, however all of these variations have essentially ended up in landfill due to their awkwardness (hooking on trees) and placing the riders hands away from the controls.
Perhaps the traditional flat / riser bar shape allows the safest and most accurate position for your hands to be when riding off road, or it may just be due to tradition and market pressure that designs haven’t changed… However what is clear, is that the hand and forearm position for mountain biking is extremely ergonomically unsound, placing the rider at risk of neck and shoulder pain, forearm muscle and tendon stress, and most significantly hand numbness with possible loss of strength (‘Handlebar palsy’).
We are sure that the bike design boffins have laboured long and hard on alternative designs, and have come back to what us currently industry standard each time. So rather than suggest alternative bar shapes, here are some simple adjustments you can make to your current bars to minimize the risk of upper limb issues.
1. Roll the bars towards the rider, allowing for level grips. Note: the more rise and sweep the bar has, the more the bar is going to curve towards the rider. On some bars, this solution may not work (refer to suggestion 4 below);
2. Install foam grips, allowing more soft grip between the alloy or carbon bar and the sensitive structures of the hands;
3. Ride in the Specialized Grail glove. By consulting a hand surgeon, Specialized have recognised that traditional glove design padding the outside of the hand actually makes hand numbness worse. Instead, their padding is in the centre of the palm, dissipating load across the entire hand:
4. Install a bar with no rise, and minimal (0 to 6 degree) sweep. Excellent options are available from Pro, 3T and Thomson. This will demand a more aggressive position, with the grips being lower on the bike in relation to the stem, however the up side is that you will be able to grip the bars and feel your fingers (and screw open a beer bottle after your ride).
If all else fails, perhaps consider cyclocross?