An Ode To Swoopy Bars

If you want a bar that’s ergonomic, gives you control in almost every situation (except extreme mountain biking), gives you multiple hand positions, and looks rad… read on!

Time is a memory-eraser. The progression of time clouds our link to the past. Studying the past doesn’t have to be about nostalgia, it should be about realizing that many of the problems we currently face have already been solved. Often the solutions are all but forgotten. We are not revisionists. It is dangerous to view the ideas of history in a glorified light. Revisionist thinking can be the seeds of some pretty un-rad thoughts.

We should take the lessons and ideas of the past and keep the best bits, swirl them with our leaps in technology, and make super sweet bikes. Attain new heights by standing on the shoulders of giants. Some examples of past solutions that still make sense today: Passive heating and cooling of housing, achieved by paying attention to wind patterns, air flow and sun exposure. Wool clothing. Leather shoes. Composting toilets. The list goes on. Bikes can, but often don’t, make use of this concept. Here’s a few examples of the industry failing to learn from the past: paired spoke wheels (100 year old concept, failed then and guess what? Fails now.), oval chainrings (ditto), hyper proprietary frame designs (ditto2).

Handlebars are a prime example of where we often overlook great designs in favor of what can only be described as a plethora of crappy designs. Almost every road bar currently made is lacking in some way or another, and the same is true for mountain bars. The height of the bars is awful too, but that’s explored in another article. 100 years ago riders rode steel bikes on terrible, awful terrain. Rocky, muddy, steep roads. They rode long distances with simple equipment. But they already knew what a drop bar should look like. Then we forgot until the late 1980’s. And then we forgot again for 20 more years. Now, finally!, we’re remembering what makes a good bar. The industry is marketing an old idea (drop bars with flare) as a new one. Nonetheless, adventure bars, gravel bars and dirt drop bars are an old idea that we’re super delighted to have back around.  

Here’s a quick primer on drop handlebar anatomy.

Road bars can be lumped into 3 basic categories: (brace yourself)  retro-styled-randonneuring bars (Nitto Noodle, Compass Bars), contemporary-compact-bars with short reaches and mid-depth drops, and then there’s crappy, horrible, awful (yikes, we get the point!) 80s, 90s and early 2000s bars. Rando bars are nice, if you like a ridiculously long reach, with brake levers in the next state. Rando bars actually work fine for athletic folks, who are also yoga masters, and happen to have long arms and torsos.

Contemporary compact are are the best of the lot, but they often have a few issues: ugly finish (can’t get around that sometimes), and often no flare in the drops. No flare means when you are in the drops, the tops of the bar bruise your forearms. Never had that happen you say? That’s cause you only ride in the hoods. If the tops of your bars were high, like seat level or higher, you could ride in the drops and not be gasping for breath like a goldfish that decided to check out what life was like outside the bowl.

Finally there’s those ungodly 90’s bars that had one or more terrible features: steep ramps, ugly finishes, deep drops, non ergonomic ergo bends, long reach and a real lack o’ strength.

Here’s what flare should look like:

Contemporary bars are rarely rated for anything except road use, or worse, they have no rating. EN ratings are European Union testing standards, and they are much more rigorous than the US standard. EN Ratings go something like this: city-tough, road-tough, cross-tough, mountain-tough.
Generally speaking, if you ride your bike loaded, or off road, or both, you want mountain-tough. If the part is not rated, you want it to be beefy, not light. If you pick up an unrated whateveritis and the first thing you think is, ‘dang that’s light’, put it back. It’s probably not gunna be strong enough. If someone talks about a given part as being light in advertising, just stop reading right there, before you get sucked into the meaningless vortex of thinking about bike weight.  Bikes should weigh what they need to weigh to do the thing they need to do. Touring bikes are heavy, road race bikes are light. They have different intended uses. You wouldn’t put a half ton of gravel in your Honda Fit, and you wouldn’t expect your F-150 to get 50 mpg.  
What most folks need is: a drop bar with a short reach (to sit more upright and so you can more easily squeeze on those brake levers). A flat ramp, a short drop (no reason for a deep drop, ever, unless you are a track sprinter). Decent width. Go wide!  If your bars are high, bars can be super wide with no ill effects. The wider bars will offer more control and better breathing. This is true for guys and gals and in-betweeners, etc. Flare in the drops for wrist clearance. Off road worthy strength, and while we’re at it, they should be either really overbuilt or heat treated or both, like a Nitto bar.

Here’s our idea of a good roadish bar from the side

Here’s a good roadish bar from the front

The bar pictured above would be great for road, gravel, touring, forest paths.  

Hoods should be pointed in, just a bit, for wrist comfort. Ramps should be slightly, pointed down, and the lever pointed just barely up, to form a shallow valley. The valley allows your hand to be cupped by the brake hood and bar and it’ll keep ya from feeling like your wrist is rocking forward. You’ll feel secure, and comfortable. I see lots of bikes set up with a hill at the transition, not a valley. That puts a weird bump under your hand, and puts your wrist at a bad angle.  

For off road riding, wider is better, and so is more flare. I like lots of flare, personally, but if you are on the fence, a mid flare works well, like the Ritchey Beacon Bar or Salsa Cowchipper.  Get the widest ones offered unless you are say, under 5’4”, then get the next to widest ones. Seems nuts, but when your bars are at the right height, they function more like a lever alone, than a lever plus skeletal/muscular support.

Narrow bars (as narrow or narrower than your shoulder width) come out of racing, where bars are low. Wide bars that are low put pressure between your shoulder blades and make your neck hurt. However, wide bars that are high don’t do that. What they do-do: give more leverage, more control, let you breathe better, and let you run a shorter stem with no ill effects.  

Short stems and wide bars mean slower, more predictable steering, and that’s never a bad thing. When people say such-and-such bike feels like it accelerates well, or that it’s nimble, what they usually mean is that it’s twitchy. A twitchy bike is a dangerous bike, and an energy waster. The former because stability at speed is what you want out of everything except a fighter plane. And the latter because if the bike ‘jumps’, that’s energy being wasted on trying to correct its path. Indy cars have long wheel bases, so do dragsters and racing motorcycles. Roller blades are more stable than roller skates. Longboards more stable than normal skateboards. Which one do you wanna fly down a hill on?

We are not pokey riders. When we go mountain biking, we try big boulder moves, we attack rock gardens and big logs. We ride steep sketchy downhills and elevated wooden features. But both of us ride dirt drops, and both of us ride them with the tops of the bars as high if not higher than the saddle. Why? For comfort.

Mountain bikes should be fun, and technically capable, but they shouldn’t hurt to ride, and shouldn’t exhaust you. That’s doubly true for mountain bikes you bikepack with. Sitting upright and having your hands in a good position doesn’t make you slow, it makes you smart. Having more than one hand position doesn’t make you a lame rider, it keeps neck and arm pain at bay. Having drop bars doesn’t mean you’ll go over the bars more. It does mean you’ll drop your flat bar friends on fire road descents, and on long climbs, and be fine hanging with them on tech single track, double track and of course anything with the word road in it.  

We keep a decent stock of flared drop bars in stock, and stems that compliment them. Head over to the gear section to check it out. If you have questions about which combo would be right for you, give a shout, we’re here for ya!