Your Handlebars Are Too Low, Pal!

There’s no reason to buy a bike that you can’t get the bars level with or higher than the saddle, and there’s no reason to ever ride with the bars lower than that, either. It’s common wisdom that the lower the bars are, the more power you can generate. But the more power you kick out is just that, energy that’s out. Touring, casual riding, mountain biking: all of these are about not only having energy at the end of the day to deal with one last hill or an unexpected boulder field, but also being alert enough to set up camp, and then to get up the next day and do it all over again. Riding in a position that helps conserve power is whatcha want. And that means going a bit slower, but riding longer, with less or no pain. Bikes shouldn’t feel like couches, but they shouldn’t feel like inquisition torture devices either.

Of course there is more to power and efficiency than just the height of your bars. That’s just one factor. If your position is low and aggressive, and you can’t breathe properly, that’s not going to make you faster, obviously. Science types have figured out that there is an optimal angle for efficiency while pedaling. This angle is called your hip angle, because it uses your hip as the apex of the angle. It’s measured from the top of your arm bone, where it goes into your shoulder, to the top of your femur, where it enters your hip, down to the bottom bracket, which is a static measurement, a constant. This angle should be somewhere between 95 and 105 degrees.  

It’s not easy to measure without special tools, but after you have a fit a few hundred people, it’s pretty easy to get folks in the ball park without lasers and sticky dots. Mainly what you wanna do is slacken the seat angle more, as the bars get higher. You can artificially do this by adding setback to the seatpost. If your drop bars are really high, like 2″ above the saddle, you want your effective seatpost angle (I call it your saddle angle) to be between 70.5 and 71.5 degrees. That generally means a 25 to 32mm setback seatpost on a bike with a 73 degree seat angle. If you run a zero set back post on a bike with a steep seat angle, AND high bars, you will blow your hip angle numbers outta the water, and your efficiency will suffer.

Raising the bars gets them closer to you. The headtube of the bike is at an angle, usually around 69-72 degrees. When you raise your stem, it travels along that angle not just up, but back as well. So a shorter stem that also has rise to it, is going to not only get you less reach by being shorter i, but also, the additional height will also translate into reduced reach. Win win.  

Is there a point where bars can get too high? Sure, but it’s pretty high. Bars two inches above the top of the saddle do nothing negative to handling, and stems anywhere from 100mm to -60mm do nothing bad to the handling either. We’re not saying put a reverse stem on your bike (yet) but if you had to or wanted to, you could.  

What do low handlebars get you? More top end power, which can potentially mean more speed. That’s it. But tourists and non-racers should keep the watts low, to keep the energy output to a minimum. That’s how you ride longer. Don’t go thinking being in some terrible aggressive race posture is better exercise either. Hurting yourself is only a legit exercise in being foolish.

You can raise the bars 3-4 inches safely on most bikes. Exceptions include bikes with carbon steerer tubes, in which case you need a new fork, which really, you want anyway. That’s because carbon forks are sketchy at best, especially when they’re more than a few years old. Steel forks let you raise the bars safely. You can retrofit a steel fork on most carbon, Ti, aluminum and of course steel frames. Lest you think I am just trying to sell you a new fork, here’s the deal on why carbon and high bars don’t mix: Most carbon steerers are spec’d for a stem that tops out no more than 80mm (3 inches) above the headset. That’s in the manual, even on strong ones, like Enve forks. So right there, that’s a limit. They also need carbon specific stems, that don’t have sharp edges, so the carbon doesn’t get scored and crack. All of the clamping force of say, an LD style stem, is right at the bottom of the stem, and because steel is strong, it can be thin, and that thin clamping part could cut a carbon steerer, which could lead to it breaking, and that can be fatally dangerous.

We’ve converted lots of bikes to higher bars. Of them, one customer went back to lower bars, not because she wanted to, but because her riding partner thought she should. Another went back because they didn’t like the LD look. Neither went back because it didn’t work or wasn’t comfortable. Looks are a concern, but looks are also something we adapt to. Take, for instance, fashion. No one in their right mind would say that zoot suits , or parachute pants, or Jncos should make a comeback. But at one point they were totally hip. Normal is a relative concept, and whatever you see the most of becomes the new norm. When you ride high bars for a few months, you’ll start looking at low bars and think, man that looks weird AND uncomfortable.