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As the riding season winds down, it's a prime time to prep your bike for winter storage while considering maintenance -- and potential handlebar changes! Exploring the differences between flat bars, drop bars, and alternative handlebars can significantly impact comfort and performance, but transitioning between these styles requires careful consideration, and isn't exactly as simple as it may seem.
If you’re a seasonal rider, we’re just about at the time of year where you might be getting ready to stow your bike away for the winter. This also means that it’s a great time to do cleaning and maintenance on your ride to ensure it’s ready to hit the road as soon as winter is over. It’s also a great time to do things you’ve been putting off, like putting some time into changing over components. One small change that can make a world of difference when you’re riding is swapping out your bars! Handlebars have a ton of different configurations, styles and sizes, and you’ll have to make sure they’re the right choice for you. Bike handlebars are more than just a means to steer your ride; they can significantly impact your cycling experience and overall comfort. We hope we can help you signal the end of winter with your hands firmly gripping the handlebars, your posture aligned, with a newfound sense of ease.
Bars are an easy way to make a huge change to your ride quality with just one component. Swapping out your flat handlebars for alt bars might be the bike fit game-changer you've been looking for. With any of these changes, you can enhance your comfort, improve performance and prevent discomfort in the first place. Of course, going from flat to drop, or drop to flat, are often a whole can of worms on their own. This change often comes with major changes in components and compatibility across shifting and braking, and can lead to entire drivetrain changes.
Flat bars are the bars you typically see on hybrid bikes, city bikes, and mountain bikes. The name might be a bit misleading, as “flat” bars as a category include riser bars, swoopy bars, cruiser bars, flat bars, H-bars… and any sort of bars that are not drop bars. An example of a classic flat bar would be the Bassi Bobby handlebar, a great riser is the Velo Orange Klunker bar, and a swoopy bar would be the Surly Open Bar. With flat bars, the grip area is going to be 22.2 mm in diameter. You will also see variation in clamp size on flat bars, with modern stems offering a clamp area of 31.8 mm, but there are other stems with 25.4 mm clamp areas, and 22.2 mm clamp area on older mountain bikes and BMX bikes. Generally, you can expect to see 22.2 mm grip areas combined with 31.8mm clamp areas on newer bikes or 25.4 clamps on older bikes.
The sizing on the grip area and clamp area is important for parts compatibility reasons, but it’s also important for accessory compatibility. With things that live on your bars, like cycling computers, bells, and lights, it’s important to ensure there is space for them to be there!
Drop bars are the type of bars you would expect to see on any road bikes, or gravel bikes. They have a flat top section and drop down towards the ends of the bars, giving you a variety of different hand positions. This is super beneficial for road and gravel rides, as these riders tend to be on the bike for longer. Having the ability to move your hands around on the bars and change up how you’re gripping the bars means you’re better able to maintain ergonomic positioning, and thus extend the length of your ride! The grip area on these bars is usually 23.8 or 24 mm. Similar to the flat bars, modern clamp areas are 31.8 mm, but there are also older road bikes with 25.4 or 26 mm. Much like flat bars, there are also going to be a variety of different clamp sizes, but these are the most common ones you’ll see. With both, the best way to know for sure is to measure with a caliper! Generally, you can expect a 23.8/24mm grip area and 31.8mm stem clamp area on a newer bike, or 25.4/26mm clamp area on an older bike. A classic drop bar would be something like the Salsa Cowbell or Salsa Cowchipper, but there are also ergonomic handlebars such as the Ritchey Venturemax and Ritchey Classic.
When converting your flat bars to drop bars, or the inverse, converting your drop bars to flat bars, you might think of it as being a simple swap, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. The shifters, the brakes, and all the mounting areas might surprise you. The first point of incompatibility: The shifters themselves. Modern drop bars often feature “brifters”, or STI shifters – combined braking and shifting. Older road bikes will have brakes that live on the top of the bars, at the point where the drop begins. These brakes might have just one area to pull in order to brake, and might also have fun and funky brakes with more than one pull area. Flat bars, meanwhile, will have either long pull or short pull brake levers. These have a pretty standard appearance! Changing over these things opens up a whole can of worms with factors like cable and housing length becoming an issue – you might have to increase or decrease the length of the cables and housing, which is definitely a lot more work. You could also face compatibility issues with your derailleur. This could mean something as significant as changing both the derailleur and the cassette if the number of speeds is incompatible! There are a ton of major factors, so getting guidance from an expert is very important when selecting your bars.
If you’re looking at a bar swap, you’re also going to have to consider whether you like cycling with handlebar grips or with bar tape. There are different grip offerings for different reasons, from the standard rubber cylinders to the sensible ergonomic grips, like the ones offered by Ergon. Grips will only work with flat bars, however. For drop bars, you will need to use bar tape. Wrapping your bars with grip tape does require a bit of getting used to, and will take a bit of practice and patience if you’ve never done it before, but can be a super fun way to personalize your bike! There are also ways to make it more ergonomic and comfortable, such as adding gel pads underneath the bar tape for extra cushion!
With bars, it’s not just about big changes, either. Even small adjustments can lead to big improvements in your cycling experience. Whether this is in the angle, width, or flare in your bars, millimeters of difference can have a huge impact. With flat bars, the biggest impact in ridefeel comes from the combination of rise – how far above the stem the bars go – and sweep – how far back the ends of the bars go. With drop bars, there are a few more factors! You also have to consider things like drop, width, and flare. Drop refers to how far down the lower part of the drop bars come, the distance from the tops to the drops! The width of the bars measures the space between the center of one brake hood to the center of the other brake hood. Lastly, the flare refers to the difference between the widest part of the drops and the narrowest part of the hoods. Many drop bars are pretty much vertical, but there are some that also have quite a dramatic flare! Drop bars can also have a bit of rise on them too, such as the Surly Truck Stop Riser Drop Bar!
There is also an entire subcategory of handlebars within the flat bar category that require their own special callout here: Alt bars. Alternative bars are handlebars that function in much the same way as flat bars when it comes to diameter, clamping, grips, and accessories, but have unique and different characteristics that place them in their own separate category. These include trekking style bars, butterfly bars, H-bars, and others! First are butterfly bars, sometimes also called trekking bars. These bars attach and function in much the same way as other flat bars do, but have rounded design, allowing you the versatility of hand positions that you’ll see on drop bars. There are different mounting options with these, and are a fun way to change up your riding style without changing too much of the hardware. H-bars, or Jones bars, are very similar too. They are much like a swoopy bar with additional options for attaching stuff. They’re a very popular option for making a bike more touring-friendly. This is also the case with the Velo Orange Crazy Bars. They are much like regular riser bars, but have an additional extension to the front of them that allows riders to place their hands in a similar position to what you might have on the hoods when you’re riding a drop bar bike. There are many other variations and alternative bar choices, but these are just a few ways that people have changed up what “flat bar” means, and given their ride a whole different feel!
The handlebars you choose can transform your riding experience. Whether it's the versatility of drop bars or the unique characteristics of alternative handlebars, each choice influences comfort and performance. Remember, the shift between handlebar styles involves complexities, so seeking expert guidance is crucial. As you bid farewell to your bike for the winter, consider swapping your handlebars, and giving yourself a chance to try something new! New bars could be just the thing to change your ride for the better and enhance your ride. We have got a video explaining all of these ideas in great detail and some examples of the bars mentioned above up on our YouTube page. Be sure to check it out to learn more! You can also check out whatbars.com to look at the differences between different bars, their shapes, and their sizes. We hope this article was of use to you! Thanks for reading!