Why gravel bikes with flat handlebars absolutely make perfect sense
It's time to stop hating on flat bar gravel bikes and embrace all bikes and all types of riders, says James Stout
The bottom half of the cycling internet really doesn’t like change. While gravel cycling has been upending the sport for close to a decade now, it's still a guarantee that almost any review of a drop-bar bike with a tyre wider than 40mm will elicit comparisons to 1990s mountain bikes.
If I suggest you get a dropper post, I will get actual emails, with paragraphs in them, explaining why I am wrong. These emails are received from people seemingly unaware that the rest of the planet sees us all, even the ones with full suspension gravel bikes, as grown adults exercising in our underwear. Cycling seems to be fanatically devoted to maintaining the smallest possible in-group of “worthy” bike riders.
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So when Specialized released its new Diverge gravel bike with a flat bar option, the Diverge E5 Expert Evo, it validated a lot of the frequent flyers from the comment section. “It’s a rebranded hybrid”, “it’s a rigid mountain bike”, “it’s a glorified beach cruiser” etc. Whatever else the flat bar Diverge might be, it’s currently out of stock and I, for one, think it’s a great step forward.
Let’s start with the “hybrid” argument. Firstly, flat bar gravel bikes are not hybrids - the Diverge, as an example, has a longer wheelbase and a slack head angle, with a short stem - all of which aim to make its geometry more progressive than the drop bar variety, and more suited to fast, aggressive riding. Wider bars provide greater control, which is something some riders are seeking when hurtling down off-road trails.
Secondly, even if comparisons to hybrids are there, why is that such a terrible thing? Every single time I ride my gravel bike past a group of hikers, one of them will ask about my “hybrid” road bike with fat tyres. They ask because they think it’s cool as hell that I can ride a bike from my house to the trail. But “serious” cyclists don’t see the term hybrid that way.
We’ve valorized bikes often favoured by beginners as lesser than. Well, it’s time to put that to bed, and if it takes a $2,600/£2,600 flat bar gravel bike to do that, then that’s fine by me.
I’ve built flat bar bikes on gravel frames for years. For larger people, older people, people who live in areas where the pavement sucks, they’re just better bikes. And they can be better bikes for those who want to ride gnarlier terrain, too. What’s sad, is to see those people ride those bikes every day, fall in love with cycling, make the effort to pay to register for an event, get excited, line up, and then have some local mediocre masters racer snicker at their bike, because it’s got flat bars.
Soon enough, those people either give up on events, give up on cycling, or go and spend money on a “real” gravel bike that is less comfortable and practical for them.
The bike industry doesn’t help when it shames larger people with the “hybrid” tag. Take a look next time you walk into a bike shop, the hybrid bikes are never front and center, they’re up on a rack or down at the back. Having to walk away from the “cool” bikes to the grey utilitarian bikes is like coming in to buy stilettos and being told you’re more of a crocs person.
Having flat bar gravel bikes, which are simply better for a lot of people, welcomes more riders into gravel cycling instead of consigning them to bike paths and boardwalks. We should all support that, more people on bikes means better bike infrastructure, a healthier population, and more people for you to draft behind once we can safely do that again.
Are flat bar gravel bikes just crap mountain bikes, then? No, they’re not. If you’ve ridden a mountain bike made in the last few years, you’ll notice the geometry makes sending it downhill a pleasure, but entirely sucks for covering long distances on the road. Gravel bikes are supposed to be a trade-off between off-road ability and road efficiency. That doesn’t change with a drop bar, flat bar, or even an aerobar, if you really must.
Are they fancy beach cruisers? I’m not Gary Fisher, but he did officiate my friend’s wedding. I think Gary would remind us that all mountain bikes are, in fact, the grandchildren of beach cruisers. Further, I have yet to see someone on a beach cruiser draft a car to win a bike race on the internet, or hear someone on one discuss the efficiency of their chain lube. I’m all for beach cruisers.
Flat bar gravel bikes aren’t going to solve the perennial issue of cyclists being the spandex equivalent of Mean Girls, but they do represent an effort by the industry to include a wider range of people in a new segment instead of keeping it strictly limited to people with the physique of a whippet. If we could all do the same, I suspect we’d find ourselves spending less time saying mean things on the internet and more time riding with new friends and only dealing with harassment from motorists instead of each other.
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