Get a Grip on Your Bike: Handlebars

Your handlebars are one of the most important parts of your bicycle. They represent two of only five spots where you body actually contacts your bike. Good handlebars are crucial for good control of your bike. But not all handlebars are created equal, and what kind of handlebar you use will depend a lot on your bike and your riding style. Hold on tight--there's a lot of variety out there to make sense of.

Drop handlebars on a road bike.

Drop bars are classic road bike bars. Pretty much any dedicated "road bike" will have these, and many brake and shifter levers look most elegant with drop bars because they were designed for them. They're also often found on touring and commuting bikes. They consist of a more-or-less straight section where the stem clamps on, with both ends bent forward and then down and back towards the bike in a curve. The shape and radius of the curve and the degree to which the drops are parallel varies. Sometimes the lower curve of the drop is interrupted by an straighter section, which many riders find more comfortable to hold onto that the curve--these bars are referred to as "anatomic" or "ergo" drop bars.

Drop bars are so incredibly popular because of the wide range of comfortable hand positions they support. Riders ride on the flats (resting their hands on the top part of the bars), on the hoods (of the brake/shift levers), or in the drops (gripping the curve or the ends). Brake/shift levers attach at the top of the drop curve, where riders can grab them if they're riding on the hoods or in the drops. Occasional changes in hand positions and posture lessen fatigue on long rides, and options can offer extra leverage for climbs, less wind resistance for headwinds, and so forth. Drop bars tend to be used with leaned-over riding positions. The vast majority of stock bikes (excepting cruisers) come with drop bars or flat bars.

Track bars are very similar to drop bars, but because they're not generally required to support brake levers, they often have more sweeping curves that begin closer to the stem.

Riser bars with bar ends.

Flat bars are straight, simple handlebars that generally have no rise or bend at all (though they may be slightly bent towards the rider at either end). Riser bars are similar, but they've got bends built in on either side of the stem to bring the grips upwards a few inches. Flat and riser bars are commonly found on mountain bikes, hybrids, and city or commuter bikes. They offer great power and leverage, but pretty much only one not-exactly-optimal hand position, which can get tiring. They generally accept mountain bike levers and shifters.

Riser bars can be rotated to increase or decrease the rise and bring the grips closer to the rider or further away. This bit of versatility can be very useful when fine-tuning a bike's fit.

Many fixed gear riders and messenger types like flat or riser bars because they're narrow and maneuverable, good for steering bikes through tight spots. Some even saw off the ends to make them even shorter and narrower.

The Redline 925 comes stock with bullhorn handlebars.

Bullhorn bars have a straight section on either side of the stem, then a right-angle bend towards the front, away from the bike, then an upward curve at the end. Riding with your hands on the ends of these handlebars is a lot like riding on the hoods of a drop bar. Brake levers are sometimes attached to the ends and sometimes attached to the straight part on either side of the stem.

DIY bullhorn bars are sometimes made from drop bars by flipping them upside-down and sawing off the ends just above where they begin to curve upwards. This process is referred to colloquially as a "flop 'n' chop."

The term seems to be interchangeable with pursuit bars, though handlebars with the latter designation often include bends or curves that lower the horn part, sometimes considerably, and they may lack the upward bend at either end. Track bars are also sometimes called pursuit bars.

Time trial (TT) bars or triathlon bars also resemble bullhorn or pursuit bars, though the extending part is often quite short and, again, may lack the upward bend. These are generally designed to support aerobar extensions for an ultra-aerodynamic rider position--see below.

Trekking bars are not very common in the States, but are popular in Europe, where they're used by bike tourists and others who want a lot of possible hand positions for long rides. They resemble a figure-of-eight, curving out in front on either side of the stem, then curving all the way back around so the ends come back towards each other. They're usually mounted horizontally, parallel to the ground. They're as versatile as drop bars, but many of the available hand positions keep the hands further back and a little higher than drop bars would, which many riders prefer. Because of their shape, they're also called butterfly bars.

Road bike brake levers can be attached to the curve of the bars, or mountain bike levers can be used at the straight parts.

Mustache bar. (photo from Wikipedia)

Mustache bars are sort of like trekking bars that don't curve all the way back around. They curve forward on either side of the stem and then curve backwards again, so the ends point towards the back of the bike. These bars are increasingly popular these days, especially for city bikes. They offer a variety of hand positions, but they're more elegant than trekking bars and don't bring the hands as low and as far forward as drop bars.

Upright bars go by a lot of names, many of them shared by birds: North Road, Albatross, Sparrow, Dove... These bars all have in common a slight to moderate rise, a curve forward on either side of the stem, and then and a gentle sweep towards the back of the bike. They're also wider than many other bars. They used to be found on old English 3-speeds. Classy to the max. They transform a road bike--or any bike, really--into a comfortable city or all-purpose bike with an upright posture, without sacrificing zippiness, say their fans. Upright bars can also be mounted upside-down for a different aesthetic and a more aggressive position. Downleft bars, anyone?

A whole bunch of upright handlebars on bikes in Holland.

Cruiser bars are very wide, with a gentle sweep back from the stem. The rider sits completely upright and holds on to the ends of the bars. These bars don't work too well with bikes that aren't cruisers, which tend to be heavy and slow, but awesomely comfortable and smooth to ride.

Aerobar extensions attach to drop bars or triathlon bars to provide support for a super-aerodynamic riding position. They often include lightly-padded supports for the rider's elbows and two extensions sticking out in front of the bars that the rider holds on to in a very leaned-over posture. These are great for speed on straight stretches, but not so great for riding in traffic, when you've got to be up and aware of traffic and able to maneuver easily.

Bar ends are extensions designed for mountain bike bars (i.e. flat and riser bars). They're relatively short and attach to the ends of the bars, generally pointing up and forward. They provide an extra place to grab on when you're climbing or just want a different hand position.

All these handlebar categories are by no means exclusive, of course, and there's all kinds of handlebars out there. Some are in between two of these categories, and some are far out and hors catégorie. Some are gently swooping; others are gnarled and twisted. Handlebars are also often more customizable than they appear--move the grips, add or subtract bar tape, choose different brake levers, and so forth, and you end up with a whole new handle on things.

If you're considering replacing the bars on your bike, be sure to check that the brake levers and shifters you have will work with your new bars, and make sure the bars are the diameter for your stem. You may need to make some minor or major changes to your set-up or possibly replace your levers. Your local bike shop can help you figure out what will work for you, if you need a little guidance. New handlebars can improve your bicycle's fit and take it from just okay to a dream machine that'll get you where you want to go in personal style and comfort.

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