Is your road handlebar right for you?
‘Just like pedals, bikes should come without handlebars’
Road bikes are commonly sold without pedals. In addition to keeping the price down, bike manufacturers know that cyclists are picky when it comes to choosing pedal systems. But why are we so fussy about one contact point, and so often just ignore other such crucial points? With this, it is of my opinion that road bikes should also be sold without handlebars.
Regardless of whether your bike is entry-level, premium or fully custom, it is the five contact points between you and your ride that provide comfort, efficiency, and ensure you avoid injury.
Your bars are more than just a place to hang your gear and brake levers (though this role is, of course, essential). They’re also instrumental in determining bike stability and handling characteristics. Additionally, a well-adjusted handlebar-hood arrangement will allow for hours of comfortable riding.
However, get the position wrong and you’ll likely suffer neck, shoulder and lower back pain, not to mention running the risk of handlebar palsy (numbness of the two smallest fingers due to compression or traction of the ulnar nerve as it passes across the wrist into the hand, with or without hand muscle weakness).
We recommend you consider the following when it comes to setting up the front end of your bike.
Too much fuss is made about the importance of shoulder width when choosing bar width.
In practice, I can’t recall a rider suffering undue shoulder tension from riding a bar too wide. In fact I have many narrow-shouldered clients successfully riding 730mm handlebars on their mountain bikes, happily dropping off ledges with additional confidence due to the stability offered by having a wide platform under their hands.
The same applies on the road, where a broad bar offers stability and confidence to an inexperienced rider, regardless of their size or shoulder width. I (and my team) regularly install wider bars for riders who have presented with shoulder tension, neck pain, jaw pain or hand fatigue from the ‘death grip’ they have due to riding narrow and nervous bars. This is perhaps most notable on many women’s bikes, which come stock with narrow handlebars to suit narrow shouldered riders.
It’s taken a while, but bicycle (and parts) manufacturers are tumbling to the fact that the bulk of bike sales are in ‘our’ demographic (early forties professionals), as opposed to elite bike racers. Until a handful of years ago, most bikes catered to the racing fraternity via low head tubes combined with a bar and stem combination offering extreme aerodynamics for riding in the drops.
In most cases there were no considerations to comfort when riding out of the drops. This all changed when FSA and 3T offered up the Omega and Ergonova respectively, triggering a trend of short-shoulder, shallow drop (or ‘compact’) bars on new bikes.
This more ergonomically considered hardware, especially when paired with conservative ‘endurance’ bike geometry, allows even the most dedicated office worker to be comfortable on weekend rides when on the hoods.
It also means you can actually reach the drops position without your knees clipping your chin, which is an absolutely critical position allowing ideal leverage on the brake levers when descending.
However even with the most ergonomic of bar shapes it’s not a given that you’ll have a comfortable front end. Correct bike-fit focusing on a bar position which suits you is crucial.
When given the choice, opt for compact bars with a longer stem (rather than a shorter stem with a long-shouldered bar). This allows easy access to the controls when riding on the tops, as well as improved bike handling, a good torso posture, and easy access to the brake levers when riding in the drops.
In addition to the FSA Oemga and 3T Ergonova models listed above, I like working with the Zipp SL80 SSC, and the Pro PLT. Alternatively, look for a model in the vicinity of 125mm drop with 70-80mm reach.
If you’re new to road cycling, start with a bar that’s wider than your shoulders, then aim to get narrower as your skills improve (although best leave the 36cm bars to pro rider Adam Hansen).
Position your hoods so that there is a continuous, level surface from the bar shoulder onto the hood. Have the bars rolled so the bar shoulder / hood surface is a degree or two up from horizontal. This allows a good platform for the hand and considers the arm and wrist angle when reaching for the controls.
Bar tape has a huge impact on hand pressure and fatigue. We recommend cork or other easy to grip tape, and gel inserts to absorb road vibration.
When it comes to bar selection, it’s best to avoid anything too fancy. Full carbon integrated bar-stem units may get the conversation started at the coffee shop, but they are a bike fitter’s nightmare. Anything too aerodynamic tends to neglect ergonomics, and the tight curves of internal cable routing create hassles for mechanics and poor shifting for the rider. It’s best to express your individuality with zany shoe covers or socks, not with the bike parts that impact on your safety and comfort.
This article was written for bikeradar.com by The Body Mechanic – bikefitters in Sydney