I've heard all kinds of stories about the ‘right’ handle bars. Reflecting on the bicycles I had, and looking at the models of bicycles that were and are in the years, I’ve come to a conclusion that handle bars are a matter of fashion. However I do think that there are certain kind of handle bars that are the right handle bars.
So, what is the right handle bar?
This is a matter of which criteria I want to use in judging the right handle bars. Leaving aside aspects on construction and materials, there are several criteria that one should consider when choosing the right handle bar.
The width of the handle bars is related to the style of riding and to the performance one want to get out of the bicycle. Road bikers like to have narrow handle bars, because that way the closer position of the hands places the whole body (especially chest) into a more aerodynamic position. So if one wants faster riding, that is the choice. Narrow handle bars are also useful in traffic jams. Since I sometimes ride between vehicles and I manage to get my self in a sandwich between two buses, the narrow bar certainly helps me to get out of there alive. I also feel that I am more agile with a narrow bar than a wide one.
Wide bars have a different positive aspect. The wider the bar is, the more ones lungs are opened. That means that one can breed more air with a wider handle bar. A friend of mine (Meche) also suggests that with a wider bar one can have better hand movement to suspend vibrations or heavy shocks. However I do not fully agree with it, since I find it much more natural movement when my hands are distanced on chest width. As if I am making push-ups.
Now, this last version of chest width is probably the most basic. By putting your hands somewhat straight in front, you can check if the width of the bar is suitable for you. The idea is that this is the most natural position of the hands and that it should be utilised in choosing the ‘right’ handle bars. I personally think that this is the best width for me. I had a bike with 660mm wide (riser) bars, because it came like that. I toured with the 660 for 2 years, and after 2 years and 3 months I got angry and went out and changed it for a 560mm (flat) bar. After that, I felt as the bike is totally different, more agile, easier to control, and most importantly more suitable for me.
Perhaps it should be said that I think that the most important aspect in this choice is habit. If one is accustomed to have a wide bar, then getting a narrow bar might not be the right thing. I started riding a bike when chest width bars were popular, so I got used to that feeling. Now the wide bars are popular, but it seems I can not adapt to them.
There are a number of different forms of handle bars. And each has its own good and bad sides. It could be said that the form serves the function. Like riser bars are for mountain bicycle riding (though BMX also has very big riser bars), moustache is for leisure and urban bicycle riding, droop bars are for road and cross, touring for touring, and flat, ugh, they are (for mountain bicycle riding) just dull, but I find them most appropriate for me.
This form and function pairing comes from the possibility that each handle bar form gives. Some, like the touring and drop bars, give possibility for easy changing of the body and hands position. While others, like the flat or riser bars give only one option for a position of hands and body. Again, like in the case of the width, comes down to finding a suitable position.
I started out as a mountain bicycle rider, and I came to prefer flat bars over riser. Though, when I was younger I preferred riser, since it looked more strong and powerful. I like now flat bars because of two reasons. First is the slightly lower, bent position that I get when riding, that is higher than with drop bars, and lower than riser or moustache. It is so because, in a case of the same stem, there is extra distance that I get for my arms (I have fairly long arms). This position gives me added agility when riding, yet it is high enough for me to enjoy the scenery. The second issue is the practicality of the flat bar. With almost all other bars, especially riser and moustache, there is a lot of bar space that is lost due to the curves. You may ask what does space got to do with bicycle riding. Well, with bicycle touring it does, since I do have a lot of gadgets lined up on that bar, and I need every millimetre of that bar so I do not end up asking for a too wide bar or bar extensions. Yes, I have been considering those massive touring bars that have two parallel bars, but I did not find them appropriate for my style of riding.
The touring bars offer the possibility to easily switch from bent position to an upright position. This may come in handy on a very long tour when you need to change positions of in order to avoid pain, or simply to better enjoy the scenery. In a sense, the same goes for the drop bars, since they too are designed so to allow changing of position. However, I see that the drop bars provide opportunity from changing between very low and not so low position. And I do not like too low position, because my focus transfers more onto the road, than to the scenery.
The opportunity of changing positions from lower to higher means that you have an option to transfer the weight that is placed onto your hands. This is one of the key things that make your hands go numb or even hurt while riding. So if you seem that you can never find a solution to that bad feeling in the hands on a long distance tours, then touring or drop bars are the solution for you (perhaps), as long as you remember to change position, constantly.
If you are into comfort, then you might want to look into the moustache handle bars. They provide a curve that fits better the natural position of the hand. I do prefer this style for my city bicycle, since it also gives a sense of easiness, perhaps psychological only, but it does. However I do not like this form for my touring bicycle since there is a danger I may hit my knees on the handle bars in some fast movement. I do hit them when cycling in the city, but not that often, and I figure if it hurts too much, I can just not cycle or go to a bar. To avoid this damage, I would need a Dutch style city bicycle with very high handle bar stem, quite above the knees. But as I said, this is not the body position I’m looking for in touring.
On the other hand, people have different preferences on the form of the handle bars. Which to my opinion it is more related to the style of bicycle riding than to anything else. So when you choose your handle bars, think of your style of riding, think of what have you been accustomed to so far, and then go out and test one option.
Today the bicycle technology has gone so far ahead that whatever your desires or needs are, there will be available solution and affordable. I remember that I did not like the drop bars when I was a kid because that implied that the gear shifter would be on the down tube of the frame of the bicycle. The idea that I would have to move my hands so much was simply not appealing. I wanted to have full control at the reach of my fingers. Thus, I ended up with a riser bar, and later with a flat bar. It was some time later that integrated levers with brakes and gear shifters become widely available.
So do try out several bars, explore until you find out what fits you best. Perhaps there could be some anatomical or medical issue that you need to meet, regardless of your ideal desires. The ‘right’ handle bar is the handle bar that you are going to like.
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Acknowledgements to the contribution in preparing this article go to Miroslav Mircheski – Meche and Goce Ristovski – Chapa.