Handlebar tape is wrapped around racing-style ‘drop’ handlebars for grip and comfort, and will wear over time requiring eventual replacement.
For many riders the type and quality of their handlebar tape may be little more than an afterthought. However, as the bars represent one of the bike’s main contact points – along with saddle and pedals – the level of cushioning and shock absorption offered by your bar tape can have a big role to play in the overall comfort of your ride. Meanwhile the type of material used in its construction will also determine other characteristics – including wet-weather grip, moisture absorption and durability – so when the time comes to replace your old bar tape it’s worth investing the time in little research about the different types that are on the market, and what they can offer.
Read on for more information about handlebar tape materials, thickness and installation.
Handlebar tape can differ in a number of ways, the primary ones being the material used in its construction and the thickness of that material. Traditionally, racing cyclists preferred a thinner, low-profile bar tape offering a ‘direct feel’ the sensation of being in contact with the road, for sharper handling and whipcrack responses in a crit race or sprint to the line. However the rise in popularity of sportive-type leisure cycling has seen thicker, more cushioned tapes take over, as non-competitive riders appreciate the extra bit of comfort and ability to absorb road buzz, which lessens the likelihood of discomfort over long rides.
• Materials: Traditionally bar tapes were made of natural materials such as cork or perforated leather, with the former offering good shock and moisture absorption and the latter a classy, stylish aesthetic and, fans say, unparalleled comfort after an initial ‘wearing in’ period. However today most bar tapes are made from a lightweight and durable synthetic outer material in combination with a foam or gel core for cushioning. Man-made materials such as polyurethane, synthetic nylon or silicone are strong, lightweight and durable and can be made with a ‘tacky’ texture that aids grip in wet or dry conditions and contributes to a positive feel under the hand. Material finishes may vary from product to product with some option for a retro-style smooth perforated surface, others a ‘microfibre’ fabric feel for added comfort and still others using raised textured surfaces in the style of tyre treads, for ultimate grip in poor conditions.
• Colour: Bar tape is available in a myriad of colours so you can carefully coordinate your bike according to your own tastes and/or the prevailing fashions of the season. However it’s worth pointing out that lighter colours will be quicker to loose their looks as they become stained with sweat and grime, so while that radiant white tape may look super slick when freshly wrapped, a couple of wet centuries may make you wish you had gone for the plain Jane black. The choice, as with everything, is yours.
• Thickness: Your tape’s thickness will contribute to how well your bars absorb road buzz. As already stated, racers may prefer a thinner, low-profile tape (1.5mm-1.8mm thickness) for a ‘direct’ road feel, while leisure and sportive riders tackling a variety of road surfaces typically opt for tape of 2mm-2.5mm in thickness. Extra-thick tape (3mm and more) may come into its own for special applications such as Paris-Roubaix surfaces or gravel bikes. Meanwhile personal ergonomics may also come into play – riders with smaller hands, for example, may find that thinner tapes offers an improved cockpit feel and fit, and vice-versa for those with big paws.
Once you have decided upon and purchased your chosen handlebar tape, of course the next thing to consider is fitting it. Wrapping your bars, far from being a dark art, is actually a pretty easy and satisfying job, and there are a host of YouTube tutorials and other online resources available to take you through it.
Here’s the basics:
1. Remove all traces of your old and tatty bar tape and any finishing tape. Clean your bars thoroughly, getting rid of any old traces of adhesives (use solvents if necessary, but in the case of carbon bars make sure they are compatible). Make sure your brake and gear cables, if routed under the bar tape, are snugly secured with electrician’s tape.
2. You will need to purchase your bar tape, which will come with two lengths of tape, a roll of finishing tape and two bar end plugs. As well as this you will need some electrician’s tape and a sharp knife or scalpel.
3. The method of adhesion will vary from bar tape to bar tape. Some will used a narrow adhesive strip on the back, which can be wrapped and replaced a number of times (you may need to lift and re-wrap the tape as you go, so it can’t be superglue-sticky). Others have no adhesive strip, assuming that a tight and properly-laid wrap is enough to hold them in place (if you wish, you could also pre-wrap the bars with a base layer of double-sided electrician’s tape, with normal electrician’s tape wrapped sticky-side-up).
4. Starting at the bottom of the bars, leave a 10mm overlap past the end and begin wrapping (when you are finished, you will stuff the overlapping material into the bar end and push in the bar plug, securing the whole thing). Because cyclists tend to pull back on their hands when riding on the tops, it’s a good idea to wrap the tape so that it is ‘self tightening’, i.e. rotate inwards from the top. This means wrapping the right bar counter-clockwise (from the rider’s point of view) and the left bar clockwise.
5. When wrapping, try to achieve a nice even overlap (overlapping around half of the tape width but ideally tighter at the top of the bars as this is where riders spend most of their time). Avoid stretching the tape, but use light pressure to get a snug wrap while maintaining even spacing.
6. When wrapping you will need to get around the brake housing – with thin tape you can take off the housing, wrap under and replace, but thicker tape makes this unworkable. Some handlebar tapes will include little extra sections of tape to cover up any exposed bar left after you have passed the housing once, but most experts recommend going back in a ‘figure 8’ pattern to do this. The easiest way to do this properly is to check out a video tutorial online, and watch an experienced mechanic do it.
7. Once the wrap is completed, cut to fit using the scalpel and secure with your finishing tape or electrical tape (many experts recommend the latter as being more adhesive) for a nice clean finish, wrap and cut your finishing tape so that the join sits unseen under the bars. Also, you should wrap both bars before securing, so you can get ensure that the wrapping is the same length on both sides.
8. Finally, stuff the overlapping tap at the start of the wrap into your bar ends push in your end caps (secure with a drop of adhesive if you wish) and you’re done!
Leather bar tape
Classic perforated leather – beloved by retro enthusiasts but heavy
Cork bar tape
Natural cork long favoured for comfort and moisture absorption but brittle and not the best in terms of durability. More modern versions feature gel backing or blend with synthetic materials for improved strength and cushioning.
Synthetic bar tape
Polyurethane, silicone, synthetic nylon or other material – can be single-layer or feature a ‘sandwich’ construction with foam/gel core.
Thinner tape for a direct road feel and pin-sharp handling – the racer’s choice.
Extra-thick tape (2.5-3.5mm)
Thicker tape for rough, demanding conditions or riders with extra big hands.