Best Handlebars Buying Guide
Handlebars can at first glance appear to be among the most straightforward of bike parts – shaped metal tube that do little more than ensure the bike goes in the direction you point it.
However handlebar design, dimensions and geometry play a huge part not only in determining how your bike handles, but also in how well it fits you. Designers also take advantage of materials technology to shed weight while maintaining strength and boosting comfort.
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Read on to find out more about BMX, MTB and road bars and to help you choose the type that are right for your riding style and your optimum ergonomic positioning.
MTB riser bars, where the bars sweep up at either end, have eclipsed flat bars in popularity among the majority of general trail riders who prefer a more upright riding position for control and comfort.
As with flat bars, they are generally available with standard (25.4mm) or oversized (31.8mm) clamp area diameter, and materials range from aluminium alloy (heat-treated and butted in the more expensive bars) to carbon fibre.
Which MTB riser bar is right for you?
MTB riser bars are typically available in a variety of dimensions to suit rider preference, the most important being width, rise and backsweep.
• Width: Wider bars provider greater leverage in tough trail situations, boosting confidence and control for a tradeoff of a little extra weight. The ideal width will depend on a rider’s own body, riding style and chosen discipline, but 27” (685mm) is regarded as a good all-round span for general trail riding.
Many Downhill (DH), Enduro and Freeride (FR) enthusiasts will opt for much wider bars, with some swearing by spans of 30” or more. Most bars will come with graduated cutting marks on the ends to enable them to be chopped down to size, but as this is an obviously irreversible procedure make sure you are certain of your ideal width before whipping out the hacksaw.
• Rise: Low-, mid- and high-rise bars are available, with ‘low-rise’ being in or around 3/4” (20mm) and ‘high-rise’ being 2” (50mm) or thereabouts. A little extra rise makes the steering feel more precise but too much can give a bike that too-upright ‘going to the shops’ feel.
• Backsweep: A little backsweep on the bars meanwhile provides a more comfortable position for wrists and shoulders. In the end the dimensions come largely down to a matter of personal preference, so if possible try a range of bar sizes and combinations before you find the dimensions that suit your size and style.
Most bars on the market will be designed to suit a particular type of riding, so choose accordingly. A super-strong but heavy DH bar will be overkill for most XC and trail riding, while a featherlight low-rise XC bar is asking for trouble on a hardcore bike.
MTB flat bars – have traditionally been the choice of cross-country racers who appreciate their lighter weight and the compact, stretched racing position they offer in combination with a longer stem. However flat bars have also found favour among some gravity and DH riders who appreciate the lower front end and more weight-forward attacking position that they can offer.
As with riser bars, flat bars – or ‘zero-rise’ bars – are categorised according to their diameter at the point where they are clamped to the stem, with standard bars having a 25.4mm clamp area and oversized (O/S) bars measuring 31.8mm. O/S bar-stem combos are regarded as being stiffer and more secure than standard sizes thanks to the larger surface of the clamping area, so have become first choice for all but the most weight-conscious riders.
Which MTB flat bar is right for you?
When choosing MTB flat bars you will need to take into account geometry – bar width and bend (if any) – as well as materials.
• Width: Bar width will be determined by personal preference, with flat bars tending to be slightly narrower than their riser cousins owing to the increased focus on optimum riding position over singletrack handling. Common ‘standard’ widths for flat bars are 580 or 600mm (compared to 685mm for risers) but bars will feature graduated markings on the grip ends so they can be cut down to preference.
• Bend: Bars’ bend or backsweep refers to the degree to which it sweeps back from a centre line – bars with zero bend or backsweep are perfectly straight, while a bar with5 degrees of bend will be 5 degrees angled back from the centre at each end.
• Materials: Most MTB flat bars are made from heat-treated aluminium alloy, offering a good balance of stiffness, strength and light weight for a reasonable price. Higher-end alloy bars will be butted, where the tube walls are thinner in places to shed weight, and thicker in others to boost strength.
At the upper end of the market carbon fibre flat bars offer the ultimate in light weight and strength, with the added benefit of increased vibration damping. Some carbon bars can feature internal reinforcing to accept bar ends or in the shifter clamp areas, while others have a textured finish at the stem clamp area to reduce the risk of slippage.
The classic ‘racing bike’ drop handlebars offer road riders a variety of different hand and riding positions – on the top of the bars for in-the-saddle climbing, on the hoods of the brakes for honking uphill or accelerating, or on the drops for sustained high-speed effort in a lower, more aerodynamic position.
With a correctly-fitting handlebar you can support your upper body without putting strain on your neck or shoulders, and help balance your weight for optimum handling.
The most common materials are aluminium alloy (butted and heat-treated) and carbon fibre, with an increasing trend for all-in-one carbon bar and stem systems offering the ultimate in light weight and ergonomic comfort – for riders who can afford it.
Manufacturers have also given much thought to the ergonomics of bar design, deviating from the ‘classic’ round bar shape – for example flattening the tops of the bars and reshaping the curve of the drops – to provide maximum hand and wrist comfort. Again what works for you is a matter of personal preference, so try to test-ride a few different setups.
Which road handlebar is right for you?
Road bars come in a variety of dimensions to suit rider physique and preferences, the most important being width, drop and reach.
• Width: Bars are available in widths from 36 to 44cm, with a good rule of thumb being to match bar width to the width of your shoulders.
• Drop: The drop refers is measured from the centre of the bar top to the centre of the lowest part of the grip tube. A drop of 125mm or less is considered shallow; 125 to 128mm is medium; more than that is deep. ‘Compact’ bars feature a shallower drop to ensure riders with smaller hands are comfortable in the drops and can reach the brake levers.
• Reach: This is the horizontal distance from the centre of the handlebar top to the centre of the furthest point of the bend (where the brake hoods are clamped on). Generally, a reach of less than 80mm is short; 80 to 85mm is medium; 85mm or more is considered long.
Time trial (TT) and triathlon riders typically utilize ‘aero’-style bars to draw the body forward into a tucked position, putting him or her forward over the pedals for improved power transfer, and making the rider’s profile more aerodynamic for reduced wind resistance.
As with normal road handlebars, aero bars are typically made from butted and heat-treated aluminium alloy in the low- to mid-range end of things, with carbon fibre bars dominating the higher end.
Aero bars are available as available as clip-on extensions which can be mounted on normal drop bars, or as integrated units combining tri bar, extensions and sometimes even stem.
Which road aero bar is right for you?
The correct aero bar for you will depend on the usual considerations – budget, sizing etc – but as aero bars are quite a specific bit of kit, you will also need to consider whether you want them to be temporary, semi-permanent or permanent fixtures on your bike. In most cases it’s a question of either adapting a ‘normal’ road bike for triathlons or time-trialling (in which case you will either be looking for a set of clip-on extensions or a base bar/extension combo) or upgrading your dedicated TT bike (in which case you are probably looking to move from a base bar/extension combo to an integrated setup).
• Clip-on extensions: This are the simplest type of aero bars, consisting of elbow cradles and pads and two arm rests which extend forward over the bars. These can be mounted directly to the handlebars of a normal road bike to offer an ‘aero-tuck’ option without the need for a dedicated bike or for recabling of brakes, gears etc.
• Base bar/extension combo: This consists of clip-on aero extensions, as above, but which mount on a ‘bullhorn’-type base bar as opposed to the ‘classic’ drop bar. Aero base bars are lighter than drop bars, minimize the frontal area presented to the wind (for less drag) and also allow the brake levers to be mounted slightly closer to the extensions the shift in position is less awkward when sudden braking is required (gear levers are mounted separately, on the ends of the extensions, when using aero base bars).
• Integrated aero bars: Integrated bars combine base bar, extensions (and sometimes stem) into one unit for a theoretically lighter and more aerodynamic cockpit. They are however on the expensive side and integration can mean foregoing some of the adjustability of separate units.
Whichever type of aero bar you choose, make sure it fits you correctly and features comfortable elbow pads and an ergonomic extension shape. You won’t be able to maintain the tucked position for long if you can’t get comfortable in it, so consider a professional bike fit to determine the key dimensions for your shape and riding position.
BMX handlebars have a significant effect on how your bike handles. They may look ostensibly similar, but small differences in geometry (rise, upsweep, backsweep etc – see below for more) have a big effect on how easy it is to perform moves like manuals or barspins.
The vast majority of BMX handlebars are made of 22.2mm diameter chromoly steel tubing for strength and durability, with some ‘racer-only’ bars available in lighter alloy aluminium or carbon fibre.
However most all-rounder street, jump and park riders will be looking for a light, strong and durable cro-mo bar. While stock bars may be heavy and and prone to bending, more expensive bars will be butted (where the thickness of the bar’s tubing varies along its length in order to save weight) and heat-treated (a process that strengthens and hardens the metal to improve its resistance to breaking or bending).
There are two main types of BMX bar, two-piece and four-piece.
• Two-piece: These consist of two tubes – one main tube bent in several places to form the main bar, and a thinner crossbar that is welded across the middle for strength and rigidity. This type of bar is b far the most common type on stock bikes and aftermarket.
• Four-piece: These consist of two shaped tubes positioned vertically opposite each other and joined by two crossbars. There is little (if anything) between the two types of bar in terms of functionality, strength or weight – some riders just prefer the look of the four-piece.
BMX Handlebars: In-Depth
When buying a new set of handlebars there are a number of geometry aspects to take into account, as these will affect the fit of the bars and the handling of your bike. The most important ones to consider are width, rise, upsweep and backsweep.
• Width: The width of your bars is measured from the end of one grip to the other. Wider bars are generally regarded as offering more control owing to your hands being more spaced out for greater leverage. However extremely wide bars will be harder to manoeuvre for tricks and barspins. The general advice is to base your chosen bar width on your body dimensions and specifically your shoulder width – there are a number of sizing charts available online to help you match up body and bars. A commonly-used ‘all-round’ width is 28” (this is the legal maximum for BMX racing), but bars can be sized right down to 20” for XS or junior riders, or 30” for bigger BMXers or those who favour extremely wide bars.
• Rise: Your bars’ rise is measured from the knurled area in the centre of the bottom part of your bars (where the bars clamp into the stem) up to the highest part of the bar ends. The height of your bars will affect the backward and forward leverage of your bike, with higher bars being easier to pull back into manuals or push forward into nose manuals. A common standard rise is 8”, with 8.25” or high-rise 9” bars also popular. However higher bars suffer from being more prone to slippage at the stem clamp, or to bending due to the increased leverage.
• Upsweep: The degree of upsweep describes the angle at which the grips sweep upwards from the level (e.g. the crossbar). For example, bars with three degrees of upsweep have a 3-degree angle between the centre line of the grip tubes and an imagined level line parallel to the cross bar.
• Backsweep: The degree of backsweep describes the angle at which the grips sweep backwards from the centre line of the crossbar. The amount of upsweep and backsweep on your bars is a matter of personal preference and comfort, with options ranging from zero sweep (common among flatland riders) to 2 or 3 degrees upsweep/downsweep and up to 12 degrees backsweep (there is no frontsweep).
Ensure a comfortable and correct fit for your drop handlebars with our range of spare parts.
Ensure a comfortable and correct fit for your aero handlebars with our range of spare parts including elbow pads, extension bars, shims, brake levers, clamps and more.