Handlebars. All bikes whether mountain bikes, road bikes or singlespeed fixed-gear bikes use a trusty handlebar. There are so many types out there. Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages that can make or break your biking experience. Handlebars greatly influence the overall handling, stability and reliability of your bike, so picking the right type for your biking style is essential.
I have created an easy understandable handlebar guide to show you the essential differences between each kind of handlebar. After reading this no-nonsense guide, you can probably cite "handlebar guru" in your resume. I even took a considerable amount of time animating that gif above so that this guide really feels like the best most complete guide out there. So let's get straight to it. I bring you the ultimate guide to bicycle handlebars.
As most seasoned riders know, a lot of this goes down to personal preference, however, it is essential to understand the natural tendencies of each type of handlebar.
Comfort is defined by how it keeps your hands and body comfortable.
Versatility is defined by the different types of biking styles you can use with it.
Leverage is defined by how much power you can transfer to the pedals.
Aerodynamics is defined by how it allows you to decrease wind drag.
Control is defined how much lift and turning capability it gives you.
1. FLAT BARS
Flat handlebars are the standard type of bars for most bikes. They are characterized with being completely flat although in most cases, there is a very slight bend towards the rider. They are very popular among cross-country riders due to their versatility. You can essentially "put a lot of stuff on them" since it's just a straight bar. This simplicity also makes steering predictable and precise.
Versatile and simple - You can easily attach lights, brake levers, phone holders and other auxiliary biking equipment. It's also easier to fit different types of bar ends to provide extra hand positions and functions.
Better for climbing - Another reason flat bars are popular among cross-country riders is it makes leaning forward easier. Moving your body towards the bike bar during a climb improves leverage and shifting your weight to the front improves the tire grip on the road.
Better for tight spaces - Flat bars are typically narrow. This makes getting them through doors and corridors easier.
Lighter and cheaper - If you like carrying your bike around, every ounce of extra weight counts. A flat bar's simple shape allows it to be stronger with less material. This equally makes it cheaper to manufacture and purchase.
Less lower back load - If you have ongoing back problems, having your weight distributed evenly between the bike seat and the handlebar puts less pressure on your spine. Also make sure that your bike is properly adjusted. Check out our article on the 10 biggest biking mistakes to make sure your bike is properly balanced.
There are few other advantages of having flat handlebars, here is an interesting forum discussion about the nuances of using a flat bar for riding.
Not optimal for risky courses - Flat bars are not well suited for performing tricks and "free riding" on a bike. Riding over tough terrain and jumping over obstacles require a more upright position to give the rider more leverage for pulling the front tire.
Not good for speed - It is very hard to go into a tuck position while using flat handlebars.
2. RISER BARS
Riser bars are essentially flat bars that rise from the center clamp area. Risers are also typically wider than flat bars. These types of handlebars are commonly used in trail biking since it allows the rider to be more upright. Clint Gibbs made an informative youtube video on the advantage of a riser bars over flat bars for trail biking.
More control - A wider handlebar gives you more leverage. This make turning easier and require less energy. If you go through long winding roads with lots of debris, it's a good idea to use wide riser bars.
Better for wrists - In addition to the back sweep that gives a more comfortable grip, riser bars allow the rider to sit farther back allowing less weight to be distributed to the front. For people who have wrist problems, this will help relieve stress.
Better for trail and free riding - The wider handle bar grip and weight distribution towards the back allows the rider more control making it better for riskier courses and rough terrain.
You can give it negative rise - The higher handlebar would usually make it less suitable for climbing, but what some riders do is they flip the handle upside down to make it better suited for climbing.
More expensive - The additional rise requires more material to keep the bar strong and stable so they will be heavier and a little pricier than your typical flat bar.
heavier than flat bars - If you use bike racks to transport your bikes, every ounce of extra weight counts.
Wider handlebars - Despite giving you more control, wide handlebars make it more likely to snag tree trunks, twigs and other annoying things. This also makes bikes with riser handlebars harder to store since it will be harder to fit through doors and corridors.
Not good for climbing - With a normal set-up, riser bars are more difficult for tackling uphill rides.
Bad aerodynamics - Similar to flat bars, it is difficult to tuck while using riser resulting in bad aerodynamic capabilities when against head wind or going for high speeds.
Bullhorn handlebars are bike bars that curve up and forward. A pursuit handlebar is a slight variation to your typical bullhorn bar. A typical bullhorn simply curves forward and up. A pursuit bullhorn bar curves forward, drops down slightly and then curves back up again.
Great aerodynamics - Bullhorns are essentially flat bars that allow you to get lower when facing headwind or going at fast speeds. This makes it better than flat bars and risers for speed oriented biking such as track racing.
Best bars for climbing - Flat bars gives your body room to move forward and up when climbing hills. Bullhorn bars not only give you room, but the horns allow you to move even further up and forward when climbing giving the rider the best possible leverage when pedaling uphill.
Pursuit bars are better for speed - Pursuit bullhorns have a drop in them allowing the rider to go into an even deeper tuck than you could with a typical bullhorn which makes it better for speed and leverage.
They look badass - Not to mention, they are called bullhorns.
Not suitable for frequent tight turns - Despite the fact that bullhorns are functionally flat bars with horns, they are typically shorter than flat bars due to the spacing needed for the forward curve.This gives you less leverage when turning the handlebars. The extra front clearance also increases your chances of snagging something when going through tight paths.
4. DROP BARS
Drop bars are very popular among bike enthusiast due to it's balance of great looks and versatility. Typical drops bars have a straight middle section similar to a flat bar with each end curving downwards and towards the rider.
There are several types of drop bars defined by their reach (how far forward it curves), drop (how low the bars go) and width (how wide the bar is). Classics have a long reach and a deep drop. Compacts have a short reach and shallow drop. Ergo or Anatomic drop bars are designed to feel more comfortable for the hand by varying the shape of the drop.
Track drop bars have large radius curves that encourage the use of the "hooks" which is the preferred position of track bicycle racers. Randonneur bars have a shallow rise from the middle and the drops flare out. These are better for longer rides than other types of drop bars. Drop-in bars are essentially drop bars that curve back in to the head tube at the bottom of the drop.
Great aerodynamics - Drop bars allow the rider to tuck similar to bullhorns. If you are planning on doing a lot of track racing, investing in a good pair of drop bars is worth the time and effort.
Highly versatile - A lot of riders add a brake hood to their drop bars which functions as an added bullhorn bar for some extra hand positions. A lot of people find brake hoods more comfortable for the hand than the flat bar because it keeps your hand at a neutral position. The addition of hoods also allow drops to functions as "miniature" bullhorns which makes them better for climbs.
Better leverage for pedaling - A lot of riders feel like they can exert more power to the pedals with less effort when in a tuck position.
Good for bike enthusiasts - Flat bars are good for the typical biker who likes to just cruise and not much else. For a bike enthusiast who does general biking in the city on flat roads but occasionally wants to venture into some track type of biking, drop bars very much fit the bill.
They look cool - Even though I personally find bullhorns the most attractive looking handlebars, I occasionally cheer for the drop bar team.
Not good for frequent tight turns - Similar to bullhorn bars, drop bars are not best suited for frequent tight turns. The hand positioning on the drops means your hand will hit debris before the handlebar.
May not be good for trail biking - Although a good amount of trail bikers use drop bars, caution should be taken if you plan on using it for riding rough terrain since the position puts a lot of stress to the wrist. Riding drops on trails may exacerbate wrist problems such as ulnar never pains and carpel tunnel pain.
5. AERO BARS
Aero bars or triathlon bars are primarily used for time-trial cycling where the rider competes alone against the clock. Using two extended bars close together to grab unto with armrest pads to wrest the forearms, these bars put the rider into a narrow forward tuck position to further decrease air drag.
Superb aerodynamics - Even though the narrow tuck position can seem uncomfortable, if you are riding against the wind, descending or cycling above speeds of 27mph, assuming a more aerodynamic stance can work wonders.
Can be used to rest your hands - Some riders set up aero bars not for aerodynamics but to rest their arms and wrists called the praying mantis position.
Clip-on Aero bars - You don't have to ride exclusively with aero bars, aero kits can easily be added unto drop bars and bullhorns if you want the option to assume a very narrow tuck position. In fact this is the common way aero bars are incorporated into biking.
Can be dangerous - Aero bars put the rider at a disadvantageous position to react to unexpected turns and road obstacles. Despite being aerodynamically better, they draw the hands away from the brakes. Due to this, it is illegal in most group racing events.
Bad for climbing - The rider position when using aero bars makes it harder to apply power when pedaling, so it is not very good for climbing.
6. CRUISER BARS
These are the types of bars you want to use while riding to the candy shop. They are also known as North Road or Upright handlebars. Due to its extreme sweep, these types of bars allow the rider to control the bike while sitting completely upright.
Superb comfort - The position of the handlebars puts the wrists in the most natural position while riding.
Aesthetics - Cruiser handlebars gives your bike a very cute homely look that is very easy on the eyes. It's the type of handlebar you bring home to mom.
Suitable for baskets - The swept back design of the handlebar not only leaves room at the front, but also keeps weight balanced even if you put a basket in front and fill it with groceries.
Need more seat padding - Since the handlebars encourage a more upright position, that also means more weight will be transferred to the bike seat. Using narrow bike seats with little padding would not be kind to your butt while using cruiser bars.
Hills are your enemies - Cruiser handlebars are bad for climbing. If you see a hill while riding a cruiser, you might as well walk.
7. BUTTERFLY BARS
Also known as touring or trekking bars, These bars are designed for a wide variety of hand positions for long rides. It also provides a lot of shelf space for things you may need during long rides like mirrors, phones, maps and even bags. Here is an interesting article on "The Art of Bicycle Touring" by Neil Gunton that cites a lot of creative uses and modifications for butterfly bars.
Practical for long rides - The figure-eight handlebar virtually acts as a semi-stable shelf space to place items you may need quick access to during long rides.
Better for the wrists - The irregular shape of the bar gives plenty of different hand positions one may need during a long ride.
Better for shifters - If you use shifters, many riders declare butterfly bars as better version of flat bars because you can position the shifters right in front of your hands as illustrated here by an elated blogger.
Heavier - Since these bars have irregular curves and are generally used for utility, they are often heavier than most handlebars. The huge amount of extra weight may not be a big deal to most, but, as previously stated in this article, those who travel with their bikes using mounted bike racks, an extra few pounds count.
8. HONORABLE MENTIONS
The above are currently the most commonly used types of handlebars. If this was a typical handlebar guide we would stop right there, but since this titled "the ultimate guide" we will keep going to include all the other types of handlebars.
BMX handle bars - These handlebars are equipped to handle a lot of abuse and gives the rider a very stable base even when a lot of weight is put on the handlebars. It is the type of bar most commonly used to perform bike tricks like these.
H bars - These bars come in a variety of looped, bent and normal h-bars. These types of bars gives you even more hand positions, but makes putting brake levers and shifters a challenge.
Ape hangers - These handlebars have such a high rise that the rider has to reach up to steer the bike. Due to its ridiculous specs, there had been some intense pressure from consumer advocacy groups to outlaw these types of handlebars that they are regulated in certain jurisdictions. Despite how ridiculous it looks, I bet they make your armpits feel great.
Porteur bars - A variation of the cruiser bar.This type of bar is designed to accommodate front mounted bike racks. An article by LongLeaf shows a custom porteur bike carrying a large (but not so heavy) package.
Condorino bars - Originating from Italy during the 1950s, this handlebar has a very interesting shape that curves forward and then protrudes straight out. It oddly looks like an over-sized bottle opener.
Whatton bars - These handlebars are used with Penny-farthing bikes. They are designed in such a way that riding a penny-farthing isn't a total suicide by allowing the rider to land feet first in case they need to bail.
Mustache handlebars - These interestingly named bars are essentially drop bars with very little drop.
Recumbent handlebars - These are handlebars often used with recumbent bikes.
Biking is an efficient, cost-effective and healthy way to go from point A to to point B. It is also an expression of individuality because biking styles often reflect the personality of the rider i.e. laid-back people would prefer cruiser handlebars while a hyperactive person like me would prefer a handlebar that can offer a lot of differing biking styles.
Using a bicycle handle that makes you feel like you are one with your bike not only in terms of handling and performance, but also feels like an extension of yourself, is essential. In this road bike handlebar review I hope I have helped you find the perfect handlebar. Not only that, I hope the information contained in this guide enables you to enrich your overall biking experience.