Savvy bicyclists fully understand the importance of the right handlebars — and their impact on comfort and performance while cycling. That said, have you ever wondered, why are road bike handlebars curved?
Handlebars for road bikes are curved to provide riders with options to relieve pressure on body parts, especially the hands, during long or strenuous rides. Cyclists can choose from at least three different points on road-bike handlebars, depending on how they feel and the type of road, slope or terrain they face.
Road-bike cycling is for long hauls, and as such, riders must deal with pressure and pain points in body parts aside from the constantly churning legs. While the legs pedal away, hands holding the steering bars can get tired, as well as the wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders and various parts of the back.
There are reasons handlebars look different on various types of bikes. They are installed to serve a purpose beyond merely being a device used to steer. Here’s a closer look.
The Curved Handlebars of Road Bikes
Most everyone is familiar with the rather unusual, overly curved shape of the steering bars for road bikes, or bicycles people once simply called 10-speeds, 15-speeds, etc. (today that can go up to 27-speeds). From the bike’s center stem, the ends of road bike handlebars first curve forward and then downward, like a ram’s horns. Eventually, the ends curve back toward the rider.
Officially they are known as drop handlebars, invented in the 1920s and attached to many bicycles over the decades into the end of the 20th Century. Around then, with the gaining popularity of bicycles other than 10-speeds, such as mountain bikes, kids’ motocross bicycles and triathlon-ready rides, manufacturers began tinkering with handlebar design and implementation.
Drop handlebars are designed mostly for performance, e.g. speed, with a nod to hand, wrist and arm comfort as noted above. These handlebars provide a number of advantages:
- Arm, wrist and hand comfort. As road bicyclists progress on rides, depending on how their extremities feel and the particular part of the course they are on, they can choose to grip drop handlebars at the straight bar at top near the stem; or drop down to hold the very ends underneath. There’s even a middle option, to hold the bending furthest away point in the front. (See below).
- Three hand positions. Classic drop handlebars for speed have three positions for the hands, each with a purpose. These are called reach, drop and width. Reach is simply reaching forward to hold the straight horizontal near the center (before the curving begins). Holding the handlebars at their forward-most point is a drop position, good for pulling and leverage and also to have brake handles close by. The drop position is holding the handlebars at their ends, or lowest point, helping with leverage for very strong pedaling pushes.
- Improved aerodynamics. Drop handlebars give riders the option to grip the lower portion of these bars when most needed, such as to really bear down and pedal, or to crunch lower to reduce how much of the body is exposed to wind and reduce drag. The lower drop position on these handlebars are best for going really fast downhill.
- Further options. More casual riders might loosen drop handlebars at the stem and rotate them so the very ends point upward, allowing a rider to remain more upright than the usual race positioning. This adjustment also allows easy access to the braking handles without having to lean too far forward, preferred by some for urban riding situations where braking is needed more frequently.
Drop handlebars also come in variations, such as the track style which flares outward at the very ends, called “hooks,” to emphasize wide hand placement for attacking.
Goals of Handlebar Design
Riders choose the type of handlebar on a bicycle usually for a balance of two or more desires, such as for speed and comfort. But there can be more to consider, such as:
- To provide leverage when needed, depending on the type of road, slope or terrain, to steer and control the bicycle.
- To serve as a platform to mount gear and brake levers to the rider’s comfort.
- To position hands to the most beneficial position possible for the rider’s comfort or for the particular route section to come.
- For more involved riding such as for touring or racing, riders want handlebars that allow them to most easily slip into aerodynamic positions (e.g. get low).
- Allow changed hand, arm and body positioning to prevent fatigue or discomfort.
- Mountain bikers may prefer handlebars that best help get through rough terrain, especially to control the front tire in case lifts are needed.
- Mountain bikers and bicycle motocross (BMX) riders also may prefer handlebars designed for strength, in case of crashes.
- Some riders depend on the purpose of rides may prefer the lightest-weight handlebars, such as those made of carbon fiber. While super strong, handlebars made with these high-tech materials can be expensive.
Other Types of Bicycle Handlebars
- Typical mountain bike handlebars are a dead-straight rod perpendicular at the stem to the bike’s frame. This allows for the hands to be more spread apart to assist with balance and maneuvering over rugged terrain, as well as to situate the rider more upright in case pulling is needed to lift the front tire over obstacles. Sometimes what are called bar ends are added to offer an option for tired hands, and to help with dismounting.
- The bullhorn handlebars, sometimes called pursuit handlebars, have ends that curve forward and up — with the end result resembling a bull’s horns. The forward-facing “horns” provide an option for attack-pedaling, and are favored by racing bicyclists as they allow a rider to really lean forward for leverage while still maintaining control.
- The riser handlebar basically is the flat bar of mountain bikes, only with the end sections, further away from the center clamp, rising an inch or more to allow more hand positioning and let the rider remain more comfortably upright if desired.
- BMX handlebars resemble those on motorcycles. They are similar to the riser handlebar, except with a more dramatic difference in height between the flat center portion and the ends. They also have a thin bar (cross brace) connecting the angled ends to provide added stability and strength.
- Tourist or “Townie” handlebars are the classic long-handled steering bars that sweep in a long loop back to the rider. This is the handlebar for leisurely cruising, especially along beach paths.
Question: Do longer or very wide handlebars improve rides?
Answer: No. You want your arms to be at shoulders’ width, relatively close to the body. Having them out wider is actually worse for leverage in bicycling. You don’t have to perfectly align with the shoulders, but certainly have the hands no more than 2 or 3 inches either way, inside or outside the shoulder line.
Q.: Some handlebar coverings wear out over time in places of high use. Are there handlebar tapes that are more durable than others?
A.: Look for the term “polyurethane” when looking for handlebar tapes; this material is long lasting and also cushions the hands. Composite rubber tape is another option, though rubber does not do well with moisture especially if out in rains. Cork tape can be very comfortable, but not long-lasting.