All bicycles, regardless of the type of bike or style of riding, have the same three contact points: the pedals, the seat, and the handlebars.
We are going to take a deep dive into one of these contact points: the handlebars.
Bike handlebars come in an overwhelming variety of sizes and shapes, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on your style of riding. There is a lot of overlap concerning which bars work well for each style of riding, so, while they all have their intended uses, there is a certain level of personal preference that comes into play when selecting which handlebars to put on your bike.
In this guide I’ll help you decide which style and size handlebar would suit you. Changing your handlebars can have a big impact on your ride experience, so I encourage you to try a couple of different styles.
Hey, it may even open a whole new style of riding for you!
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How Do You Choose Bike Handlebars?
Selecting the right set of bike handlebars starts with considering the type of riding that you want to do, as certain handlebars are excellently suited for certain types of riding.
There is also a level of preference and style that comes into play when selecting handlebars, as well. After all, our bikes are extensions of ourselves, so we want something that works well and looks good, too.
Once you’ve decided the style handlebar that suits you, you need to select the appropriate size handlebar.
Handlebars are offered in a variety of widths, diameters, and materials. While this may seem like a challenge to sift through at first, handlebar size is determined largely by your body size and your goals for your riding.
We will go into greater depth later concerning proper sizing of handlebars, but don’t be overwhelmed by the variety of offerings. The variability in available sizes serves to provide you with the most comfortable ride position possible by offering the option that best fits your body dimensions.
Types of Bike Handlebars
Flat handlebars are one of the most common types of handlebars, and for a few good reasons. As the name suggests, these handlebars are almost completely flat with a slight bend towards the rider.
This design provides the rider with excellent control of their bike, and they are very intuitive for new riders. They provide good leverage when sprinting on a flat or leaning into a climb, as well.
Due to their exceptional versatility and ease of use, these can be found on all sorts of bikes, including mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, commuter bikes, and even some road bikes. I’ve seen quite a few cyclists even swap out their drop bars for a flat bar because they are just so fun and easy to use!
Riser bars are essentially the same design as flat bars, but they also feature a rise from the center clamp towards the hands. This puts the hands in a slightly higher position and puts the rider in a more upright riding position.
Riser bars have an added level of comfort over flat bars due to the upright position. They also put less strain on the wrists, since more of the riders weight is placed on the seat.
Similar to flat bars, riser bars are typically wide and provide predictable control over the bike.
It is worth noting that riser bars do not provide quite as much leverage as flat bars when climbing or sprinting. However, they are still a common choice for trail bikers, commuters, and hybrid bikers due to the added comfort and control.
Dropbars are an iconic handlebar that has been used since the first bikes were invented over one hundred years ago. They have always been a popular choice by cyclists due to their iconic look and versatility.
Dropbars have a flat section by the clamp (the tops), curve away from the rider to where the shifters/brakes are mounted (the hoods), and then curve down and back towards the rider (the drops). This design provides multiple hand positions, allowing the rider to keep their hands and wrists comfortable, or change position for optimal performance depending on where they’re riding.
Dropbar Design Factors
There are so many types of dropbars that we could dedicate a whole article to breaking them down. For now, let’s just break down the factors that classify dropbars: reach (how far forward the drop curves), drop (how low the drop curves), and width (the width of the bar).
These three design factors create many variations of the dropbar, providing comfort for every rider, and performance suited to their riding style.
And don’t think dropbars are only appropriate for road bikes! There are dropbars that suit road racers, casual commuters, and off-road adventure riders.
Lael Wilcox and many other ultra-endurance bikepackers now commonly select dropbars for their cross-country mountain bikes, because the dropbar is such a versatile, comfortable option for all types of riding.
Bullhorns have a flat section by the clamp, then curve forwards and up away from the rider. These quite literally resemble a bull’s horns and function as the tops and the hoods of a drop bar, minus the drop.
Most commonly seen on commuters, single-speeds, and fixed-gears, these provide good leverage and speed and have a certain style aspect that make them very appealing.
During my college days, I was drawn to their unique style and commuted on a fixed-gear bike with bullhorns. Their performance felt like my road bike dropbars, but they felt even more stylish rolling around campus!
There is a variation of bullhorns known as “pursuit bars” that feature the same design with an added drop outside of the clamp. These put the rider in a more aerodynamic position and improve leverage and speed.
It is worth noting that bullhorns and pursuit bars are typically not permitted in a velodrome. If you are interested in track racing, you will need to select dropbars for your race bike, as they pose less of a safety concern for the riders around you when racing in such tight spaces.
Aero bars, also known as TT-bars or tri-bars, are designed specifically for time-trial cycling. This type of racing is when riders individually race against the clock, making aerodynamics an important consideration for the rider. These bars are often illegal in group racing events.
Aerobars have two parallel bars that extend away from the rider. They provide armrest pads, a place to grab onto with the hands, and are typically very close together towards the center of the bike.
Putting the rider in an aerodynamic riding position, aero bars are great for reducing wind resistance and wind fatigue on flatter sections of road. They also provide a comfortable rest position for the wrists when rides extend over many hours.
The downfall of aerobars is that they keep your hands away from the brakes (and sometimes the shifters) and put the rider in a difficult steering position. This lack of immediate control makes it difficult for riders to respond to unexpected turns or obstacles, making them inherently more dangerous. Aero bars also do not offer good leverage for climbing or sprinting.
Cruiser bars offer the ultimate level of comfort and style. They feature a large sweep up and towards the rider, giving the rider great control over the bike and putting them in a comfortable, upright position.
Cruiser bars have a cool, comfortable style. They put the rider in a relaxed position and look great for cruising around town or heading towards the beach on the weekend.
Cruiser bars are only found on cruiser bikes, but they do provide excellent comfort and aesthetics. If you’re looking for a relaxed cruise around town, we’d recommend cruiser bars and a cruiser bike. But be wary of those hills! While cruisers are very comfortable, they don’t offer much leverage for pushing up even the slightest of slopes.
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Butterfly bars are, as the name suggests, shaped to look like a butterfly. They provide numerous hand positions for long rides and offer plenty of space for mounting additional gear like phones, bells, mirrors or bags.
Butterfly bars are used for trekking and touring due to their versatility for mounting items and multiple hand positions. These are practical for long days on the bike and provide good wrist relief due to all the possible hand positions.
The largest downside to butterfly bars is that they are heavy. All that utility comes at the cost of weight, but this may not be a concern if they are being used for touring or trekking bikes, which tend to be heavier builds anyway.
H bars come in many shape variations, but they all resemble essentially the same shape: the letter H. H bars serve a similar purpose as butterfly bars, providing many hand positions and mount locations for accessories, but they do tend to be a bit lighter than butterfly bars.
H bars have a slight sweep towards the rider that places them in a comfortable position and is ergonomic for the wrists. H bars are a good choice for riders who are interested in trekking/touring or bikepacking but prefer an alternative to drop bars.
BMX bars are used almost exclusively on BMX bikes and are built to handle a lot of abuse. They have an upwards sweep that puts the rider in an upright stance, despite the small size of a BMX bike.
BMX bars also have an additional horizontal bar that adds to the rigidity and durability of the bars. These bars are designed to put the rider in an athletic position, allowing them to effectively perform jumps and tricks, while providing the necessary durability to handle the beating they will take. To see how much abuse they are built to withstand, check out this impressive BMX video.
How to Choose the Perfect Handlebar
Every style of handlebar is offered in a variety of widths to best fit the physique of the rider. While there is some personal preference in selecting the width of your bars, shoulder width is also an important factor.
As a rule of thumb, a rider with broad shoulders will need a wider handlebar than a rider with narrow shoulders. This applies for multiple styles of handlebars, including flat bars on mountain bikes and drop bars on road bikes.
Wider handlebars provide a more stable feel for technical off-road riding, making them a popular choice for mountain bikers and gravel bikers. Narrow handlebars are more aerodynamic and fit into tighter spaces, making them a good choice for road cyclists and commuter bikes.
The most common material for handlebars is aluminum alloy, but they are also made in steel, carbon fiber, and titanium. The benefit of aluminum handlebars is that they are exceptionally durable, while still being lightweight.
They are also an affordable option and offer great value for the price tag!
Carbon fiber handlebars are gaining more popularity on higher-end bikes, due to their impressively lightweight design. However, carbon fiber bars are less durable when it comes to nicks and scratches, and, if they fail, it is a more catastrophic failure than the failure of an aluminum bar.
And keep in mind, they also come at a much higher price tag, so they do not present as much value for casual riders as they do for racers.
Comfort is one of the most important factors for selecting handlebars and is where personal preference comes into play. While one rider may prefer a narrow dropbar and feel comfortable with a long reach, you may find that you like something wider and more stable, with a slight rise to the bar.
This is why there is no cut-and-dry, universal selection guide for handlebars. Riders need to evaluate their own riding style and try out some different options to determine what feels like a comfortable extension of themselves.
Each handlebar has dozens of variations. Some feature an up-sweep or a back-sweep, putting the rider in a more upright position than a simple flat bar.
Handlebars also feature a rise at the clamp for the same reason, even various dropbars feature a rise to keep the rider more upright. Whether or not you choose to be in a more upright position comes down to what feels best for you: this is entirely a personal preference.
FAQ about Handlebars
Do drop bars make you faster?
Drop bars do not automatically make you faster. However, they do provide excellent leverage and put the rider in an athletic position, allowing them to deliver plenty of power to the bike.
This may help you climb a hill or sprint faster, but they will not automatically make you faster.
Why are some bike handlebars curved?
Handlebars often curve to improve ergonomics for the rider. Bars that curve towards the rider allow the rider to be in a more upright ride position and reduce strain on their wrists.
Curved bars provide predictable, reliable control in a comfortable position.
What does pull back mean on handlebars?
Pull back refers to the linear distance between the mounting position of the handlebars and the ends of the grips.
To measure pull back, you can tape a string to the end of each of your grips. Then, take a tape measure and measure the distance between the handlebar clamp and the center of the piece of string. This distance is your handlebar’s pull back.
Are wider handlebars better?
Wider handlebars are better in certain situations, but not in every situation.
Wider handlebars are popular with mountain bikers and gravel bikers who ride off-road a lot, because they provide more control on challenging terrain. However, there are times when narrow handlebars are better. For instance, commuter bikes often utilize narrower handlebars, which is useful for fitting in small spaces and not clipping an obstacle with your handlebar.
If you do a lot of off-road riding, wider handlebars are a good choice for the added control and stability. If you do a lot of road riding or commuting, you may find narrow, or shoulder-width, handlebars to be a better option.
Should my bike seat be higher than my handlebars?
Depending on what type of bike you ride, your bike seat may be higher than your handlebars, but it certainly does not need to be.
If you ride a race-inspired road bike or a cross country mountain bike, you may find that your seat is noticeably higher than your handlebars, and that it’s actually quite comfortable that way. This does put you in an athletic position and allows you to efficiently deliver power to your bike.
However, if you ride a hybrid bike or a cruiser bike, your seat will be noticeably lower than your handlebars, and it should be. Even some mountain bikes and road bikes that have a slacker (more upright) geometry will also result in your bike seat being lower than your handlebars. This ultimately comes down to your preference and style of riding.
The bike handlebar offerings on the market can seem overwhelming at first glance, but there are great options that suit every riding style and each person’s unique style.
Your bike should feel like an extension of yourself. It should feel natural and comfortable to control, inspiring you to want to get out and ride more often. Finding the perfect set of handlebars is an important step in loving the way your bike feels and the way you feel riding it.
So, try out a few different styles and dial in the feel of your bike.
Mitchell Turk is outdoors enthusiast with a lifelong passion for bicycling. He previously worked at his local bike shop before entering the world of engineering, and he may even enjoy geeking out over bike tech more than riding his bike!
Originally a roadie, Mitch dabbled in mountain biking for a couple years and then jumped on the gravel bike bandwagon. He now spends his free time seeking out gravel rides and weekend-long excursions. His ideal outing combines biking, hiking, and climbing for a whole-mountain adventure.