Getting a Handle on Handlebars

By Brad Quartuccio

Handlebars are available in a practically infinite number of varieties to suit certain applications and rider preferences. Beyond the obvious choices between drop and flat bars are a myriad of other shapes and forms, and within each a number of variations and measurements that define the subtleties of shape and component compatibility.

Bar choice can have huge effect on comfort and bike control, and experimentation is key to finding what works for you. Generally speaking, wider bars will lend more control over the bike, help you develop more power when climbing and help to open up your chest for better breathing. This comes at the expense of aerodynamics, and for a given build there is definitely a too-wide point where they are all around uncomfortable. In the same respect, bars that sit higher can help alleviate hand, wrist and neck pain while a lower position lends an aerodynamic advantage and can help to engage muscle groups in the lower back, and maintain steering control up very steep hills. For long distance riding and touring, bars that offer multiple hand positions can be a godsend to keep your upper body loose.

When it comes down to it, the real deciding factor is comfort and control. A comfortable bike will see more frequent use and longer distance trips than one that makes your back ache or hands go numb.

Component Compatibility
There are two important measurements that determine stem, brake and shift lever compatibility—grip diameter and stem clamp diameter.

Grip Diameter – This is the size of the bar where the grip, brake and shift levers mount.

22.2mm – Mountain bike bars measure 22.2mm, as do mountain brake and shift levers along with any accessories meant for flat bars.

23.8mm – Road bike bars measure 23.8mm, along with road brake/shift levers and most in-line cyclocross levers.

These numbers usually only come into play when experimenting with some of the more uncommon bar choices like moustache, dirt drop or cruiser bars that may be available in either diameter to accommodate different component choices. Otherwise, with rare exception, flat and riser bars accept mountain componentry and drop bars accept road components.