Handlebars are an oft overlooked upgrade - we explain why they're so important and outline what to look for when you hit the shops
There are three key touch points that connect you to your bike: pedals, saddle, and handlebars. Most cyclists invest a fair amount of time into selecting the first two with military precision – but handlebars are often forgotten.
Choosing the ideal handlebars for you can have a huge effect on your comfort and performance – they in part determine your position, and weight distribution.
Though of course movements such as cornering should come largely from shifts in body weight, your handlebars are pretty crucial too – and if they’re the weak link in the chain then upgrading them can have a noticeable effect.
The bars that come specced on a new bike are an estimate based upon the average shoulder width of the average person riding a bike in your size.
As most cyclists will protest – none of us are truly average, so tailoring the bars to suit you is a good idea. This is particularly relevant for women who have bought a unisex bike over a female specific bike – most women have narrower shoulders compared to men of the same height so will want a narrower handlebar.
Bars that are too wide can put pressure on your neck and arms, and will make riding the bike feel a bit like driving a truck.
Bars that are too narrow will make you feel cramped – but it’s worth remembering that narrower bars will bring your elbows in, having quite a significant impact upon aerodynamics.
The rule of thumb when selecting the correct handlebar width is to measure the distance between the two bony bits on your shoulders – in more scientific terms the distance between your two acromioclavicular (AC) joints.
This measurement gives you a baseline – if it’s 38cm, look for 38cm bars – and so on. However, personal preference and riding style play a role, too. If, for example, aerodynamics are important to you then perhaps opt one size down.
Some riders like the stability afforded by slightly wider bars – so you could opt to go one size up – to a 40cm bar. However, this will mean that you are having to move your arms out to reach the levers, causing your shoulder blades to collapse – which can cause discomfort.
The standard approach is to measure from the centre of the drops, but some brands measure from the outside – meaning their 40cm bar could be a 38cm in the former approach – so check what approach the manufacturer you have in mind takes.
>>> More detail: Would you benefit from narrower handlebars?
Handlebar shape and drop
When it comes to handlebar width, though you can go up or down a bit depending on preference, there is a right and a wrong answer: too narrow or too wide will cause you pain and have bike fitters all over the world wincing.
In the case of handlebar shape, it’s much more down to personal preference.
Traditionally, handlabars had a gentle round curve, which created a deep drop, putting the rider in a low position when off the hoods.
In recent years, compact handlebars have become more popular – these feature a straighter shape, which means the lower section of the drop is higher up. In the middle, are ergonomic bars – these are rounder than traditional bars, but have a flat section in the centre which is ideal for hand positioning.
Choosing the best handlebar shape for you comes down to your riding style. If you’re after fairly relaxed endurance rides, think compact.
If you want eyeballs out, nose to the bar time trial efforts and tend to hold the bars close to the bottom for the drop, think traditional.
Sitting in the middle, if you want a fair drop and tend to hold the bar right at its centre point, look for ergo bars where doing so won’t put pressure on your wrists.
Different manufacturers will shape their bars their own way, and you’ll also find adventure road bikes, gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes will sweep them out at the end to create a wider and more stable platform when riding in the drops.
The drop shape and depth will impact the reach between the handlebar and lever. However, most levers can be adjusted, so it’s best to choose a shape you like and then adjust the levers to suit you. Handlebars also have an impact upon overall reach from the saddle to bar – but again if the new bars have an effect here you can adjust your stem length to find the right fit.
One of the biggest conundrums facing cyclists upgrading their handlebars is the question of what material to choose.
Carbon handlebars drop the weight of the bike – they’re often 20 to 40 per cent lighter than their alloy brethren. The material can also be moulded to any shape – which means it can be perfectly designed to suit the ideal ergonomic fit. Plus, the carbon layup can be fine turned to create the best mix between strength, low weight and compliance. All sounds perfect?
The problem with carbon handlebars is that they’re much more expensive, and a bit more fragile. Though carbon can be very strong, if it’s damaged, it’s not always as readily apparent as it would be on an aluminium bar and could go undetected.
Not only that, carbon needs to be treated with more care in the workshop – or home workshop – it’s easier to crack if the wrong torque settings are used. Finally, aluminium bars are a lot cheaper.
>>> More detail: Should you buy carbon handlebars over aluminium
Aero road bikes are becoming increasing popular, and the handlebar set-up plays a huge role in decreasing drag.
Handlebars that improve aerodynamics will often present a smaller surface area at the front, flattening out to create a longer surface area on the top.
This means they slice through the air more efficiently, and also has the added bonus of being comfortable to hold on a long climb. Plus, aero handlebars will be designed cater for internal cable routing.
More premium versions will champion a high level of integration – the bar and stem may be one unit, and mounts for items such as cycling computers could be built in.
The bonus here is the watt saving – on the Bianchi Oltre XR4, improvements to the new bar saved 5 watts. The downside is that if you decide you want to make a change to your fit with a shorter or longer stem, you’ll need to fork out for an entire new unit.
A seemingly boring housekeeping point, which is actually quite important. Standard diameter handlebars measure 25.4mm – this refers to the centre point where the stem will attach. However, some brands are choosing to beef them up to 31.8mm for improved stiffness. This is fine, but you’ll need a stem with a matching clamp size: no one wants to arrive home with their new purchase to find they’ve not got a stem to fit.
The best handlebars
Handlebars really do come down to personal preference – so it’s best to visit a local shop and try holding a few before you make your decision. However, to give you a starting point, here a few we like.
With each set of bars is a ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Best Deal’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.
Fizik Cyrano 00 handlebar
A fairly short reach option, the Cyrano 00 is a carbon fibre construction which we found light and stiff. Our 40cm pair came in at 174g.
They’ve got a traditional, round shape – which we liked – and internal cable routing is neatly taken care of with a flat profile at the front of the tops so bar tape can be used to cover them. Fizik offer the Cyrano handlebar in three shapes: Snake, Chameleon, or Bull – with a shorter reach and drop for the less flexible bull, greatest for the flexible snake, and a middle ground for the chameleon.
They’re not cheap, however, at £269.99. They also only come in sizes 40cm to 46cm – which doesn’t offer much for smaller riders.
Ritchey WCS Carbon Streem II handlebars
Another carbon version, these Ritchey bars are all about speed and aerodynamics. We found them easy to install, and cable routing was simple enough, with wide holes for the cables to poke through and no obstructions inside. There’s space for an out front cycling computer mount, and our 40cm pair came in at 235g.
Again, there’s no size below 40cm, and these come in at £260.
Deda Superleggera Carbon Handlebar
A carbon bar that comes in at 180g in a size 42cm (size range is 42-46cm, but using an outside to outside measurement). Deda has used their HR40 carbon fibre with a new resin to create a lightweight bar.
They also use their RHM (rapid hand movement shape) which aims to make moves from bars to tops quick, and the drop comes in at 130mm with a reach of 75mm. The RRP is £239.99.
3T Ergonova Team Carbon Handlebar (also consider: 3T Ergonova Pro Aluminium Handlebar)
3T’s Ergonova is available in carbon or alloy, and the carbon version comes in at 198g (42cm) for £224.99vs 265g fore £79.99 in the alloy: the choice is yours.
Both bars have a drop of 77mm and reach of 123mm, and feature 3T’s ‘egg shaped section’ at the top of the bar – this rolls through 180 at the bar and creates an extension which places the palms on the hoods in a natural and comfortable position. The drops flare by 6°, meaning that the brake hoods are 16mm narrower than the bar.
Sizes range from 38cm to 44cm and the clamp size is 31.8mm.
Zipp Service Course SL 70 – 88 handlebars
Zipp’s Service Course SL handlebars an an aluminum option that’s seen refinement over the years to offer three different reach and drop measurements – so you can buy them in an SL-70, SL-70 Ergo, SL-80 or SL-88 guise.
Weights vary depending upon the option you choose, but all sit between 265g and 283g.
The SL7-70 offers a rounded shape, with a flattened section in the middle – and also comes in an SL-70 Ergo version with a flattened top bar. The SL-80 is more compact, with a flatter shape and shallower drop, whilst the SL-88 uses a traditional roadie shape with the greatest drop. In the case of the 70 and 80, sizes go from 36cm to 46cm, whilst the 88 comes in 40cm to 44cm.
The RRP is £82, but there are a lot of reductions out there.
Specialized Expert Alloy Shallow Bend Handlebar
Perhaps you’re looking for a new shape, and not a super swanky expensive upgrade? This option from Specialized comes it at just £45.
Specialized put a lot of research into ergonomics, even their gloves are developed with the help of Dr. Kyle Bickel, who looks at blood flow in the hands to prevent numbness and pain when riding.
The Expert Alloy handlebars have a drop of 123mm, and a reach of 75mm – they’re fairly shallow, with a round shape. They’re made from butted aluminum and have a 31.8mm clamp. The men’s and women’s versions have the same drop and reach, but men’s versions come in sizes 40cm to 44cm and the women’s 36cm to 40cm.