Tech: How to Choose the Correct Road Bike Handlebar Size & Shape

Perhaps barring the saddle, no other piece of equipment can make or break your enjoyment of a long road ride more than the handlebar, yet you’re stuck with what’s spec’d on the showroom floor unless you’re building something from scratch.

Whether you’re upgrading or building your dream bike, here are a few things to consider when choosing a handlebar.

After spending a couple years riding the handlebar on the left (above) and hating most of it, I finally called up our friends at Ritchey Logic to see what they had based on my perceived preferences. I chose Ritchey simply because a) I know the guys there fairly well and b) because they have a wide range of sizes, shapes and styles to choose from. They also have a stellar reputation in my opinion, but there are a lot of brands that make very good handlebars.

The important thing is to find one that fits you, is comfortable for your hands and allows you to set up your bike’s fit properly, and we’ll show you how to do just that right after the break…

If you look at the photo at the top, you’ll notice my original handlebar’s slope dropped immediately past the top bar. That might be good for track bikes, but for mounting brake/shifter levers, it just didn’t work well for me. Here’s why:

On the left is my original bar. Once the “flat” part at on the top of the bar was adjusted more or less to my liking, I had to work with the curve of the bar to get the brake levers in a position that allowed easy resting on the hoods, which is where I spend most of my time. I also had to be able to reach the brake levers from the drops, which was hard to do with that bar. You’ll notice they stick out pretty far in front of the bar and the whole brake lever assembly is angled pretty aggressively upward.  Had I slid the lever body down the bar to put them in a flat position and easier to reach from the drops, they would have put my hands too far downward when riding on the hoods.

Enter Ritchey’s Evolution bars (WCS Carbon Evolution in this case), pictured on the right in both photos above. Notice how the bar remains level as it bends forward and continues straight for a bit before beginning it’s drop. This allows the brake lever body to be mounted such that the hoods end up level with the top of the bar, and that makes resting on the hoods easier.

It also puts me in a more upright position, which eases strain on my neck and is more comfortable for longer distances. You’ll also notice that the levers are more vertical, which makes them easier to reach from the drops.

CHOOSING HANDLEBAR WIDTH:

Most handlebar manufacturers/brands offer a range of sizes, widths and drops to accommodate various riders, but how do you know what’s right for you?

In my opinion, there’s no magic prescription based on body dimensions. The “standard” is measuring your shoulder blade width and getting the same width handlebar. some of it just needs to be what feels right…especially for the average cyclist that’s not trying to maximize aerodynamics and efficiency at the expense of comfort.

First, let’s discuss width: There are two schools of thought floating around. One says a wider bar gives you more control and leverage, just like with mountain bike handlebars, and it opens up your chest for easier breathing. The other says that a slightly narrower bar opens up your shoulders and back, which reduces muscular fatigue and tightness. It also may make you a bit more aerodynamic.

My original bar was a bit wider than 44cm, and the Ritchey that replaced it was a 42cm. At first, I was concerned, and it definitely felt different, both in handling and closing in my chest a bit (I’m more muscular than the average roadie). From a handling perspective, I quickly adapted. After all, I’m not bouncing off rocks and logs, so losing a bit of leverage wasn’t a big deal. From a comfort standpoint, I do find myself resting my hands off the outside edge of the bar a bit more and I might be using a bit more tricep muscle because I don’t lockout my arms as much when just cruising along, but I’ve gotten used to it and it feels normal now. I can’t say I’ve noticed any effect on breathing.

how to choose the right size and shape handlebar for a road bike

Ritchey Fit Logic Excerpt #1 - Description of width, reach and drop, along with sizes they offer.

Eddie O’Dea, founder of 55 Nine Performance, a training and bike fit center in Atlanta, GA, says  “The rule of thumb is your AC joint to AC joint width should match your center-to-center width on the handlebar, but like anything, that’s a ‘rule of thumb’ we use as a starting point.”(NOTE: The AC Joint is basically the outermost part of your shoulder bone, which is the part that extends outward just below the little bone bump you can see in your skin)

“Narrower could put more tension in the forearm at the elbow, which may cause a bit of fatigue there. I can’t think of any problems that may come from a wider bar.”

So, should you go narrower? Wider? Possibly, but take baby steps. If you’re suffering from tight back and neck muscles after every ride, perhaps try a narrower bar. If you feel twitchy or claustrophobic, or your arms are always tired after a ride, try a wider bar.

CHOOSING THE SHAPE OF THE TOPS

For me, I like the idea of a flatter, broader top section to create a little perch, but I have larger hands to fit my 6’2″ body. I’ve used a couple of round, alloy bars lately on some review bikes and hated them. Some of the decision on shape will come down to personal preference, but you’ll need to take hand size into consideration:

“With flat top bars, you want to take your hand size into consideration,” says O’Dea. “Bigger hands can use wider flat sections on the tops, but smaller hands should stick to smaller bars because large bars can splay the hand out. This would put more tension on the forearm, which can cause stresses similar to tennis elbow. How thick the tops are and the size of your hand should also weigh in your decision to wrap that part of the bar, as bar tape adds thickness.”

how to determine proper drop and reach for road bike handlebar fit

Ritchey Fit Logic Excerpt #2 - The difference in body position caused by just 15mm change in handlebar drop.

CHOOSING HANDLEBAR DROP AND REACH

“This is where it gets infinitely more complicated,” O’Dea continues. “It’s very dependent on the rider’s body measurements.”

“If the reach is to long, it tends to pull you off the saddle, which is a) uncomfortable and b) forces you to put more of your weight on your arms and shoulders rather than your sit bones.”

“I usually measure roughly from the point where your hands hit the bars most often to where your butt should be on the saddle.  Then, I imagine a wedge from the center of that measurement going straight up, opening to 80º and 100º, and that’s where the shoulders to fall. If the peak of your body (hands –> shoulders <– hips) falls outside of that wedge, too much weight/pressure is falling on one part of your body or the other.”

For Drop, it’s essentially the same concept. If you’re going too low, you’re going to have to either slide up on the saddle to shorten the reach, or rotate your hips forward which will put pressure on your perineum and lengthen the hamstrings, neither of which are comfortable or good for performance. Lastly, the lower the drop, the more you’ll have to lift your head to see where you’re going, which can cause neck soreness. There’s a reason most mid-priced bikes now have taller headtubes…it just puts you in a more comfortable riding position for non-racing type cycling. Having too shallow of a drop isn’t ever an issue.

It’s worth stating that this is a gross oversimplification of how to fit yourself. Ideally, you want to get your feet, legs, then hips lined up properly, then the handlebar and everything else, and you want to take into consideration the type of riding you’re doing, your fitness level and your flexibility. Assuming you have a handlebar you want to marry, you can use stem length to keep reach within proper fit guidelines for your type of riding, but that won’t do much for drop without also affecting the height of the top and hoods.

PROPER POSITIONING ON THE BIKE

“As far as bar position and rotation, take a level and make the bottom of the drops about 5º to 15º angled up toward the front of the bike,” says O’Dea. “In other words, the end of the bars pointing toward you should face down slightly, such that a marble inside the bar would roll out onto the floor.”

“For hoods, start at level, but then I work with riders to even out pressure between the corner where your thumb and pointer finger join and the meaty part at the back of the palm. Our full Wobble-Naught fit process actually fits specifically for tops, then drops and then hoods, and we help make recommendations for bar sizes and styles, too, but we can usually work with what our customers bring in.”

TRYING IT ON FOR SIZE

For this next one, we’re assuming you’re planning on upgrading to a better bar. A much better bar…something in the neighborhood of $200-plus, otherwise, unfortunately, it’s probably not worth the shop’s time (don’t take it personally, it’s business. Think about it from their position).

Cycles de Oro owner Dale Brown says the most important thing to figure out first is width, but from there, a good shop should let you bring your bike in, put it on a trainer and try out a few different bars to see what shape and style you like. Personally, I’d plan on spending about 10 to 20 minutes on each bar to get a good feel for it, but talk to your shop about what they can accommodate. Just make sure not to abuse the employees’/mechanics’ time, and assuming they having something you like, buy it from the shop…don’t go and mail order it to save $30 after all that.

THE OTHER BENEFIT: BETTER PERFORMANCE

In addition to being far more comfortable, the biggest difference between the cheap carbon bar I had and the Ritchey was the stiffness. Without something to compare it to, I didn’t realize how flexy the old one was, and not only in the drops. Grabbing the hoods or the drops on the new bar and standing up to hammer, I can feel an amazing – as in, my entire bike is more responsive amazing – difference in power transfer and stiffness. I was wasting a good bit of energy mashing the bar around before. Now, I can hold the bike steady while I push the pedals with everything I’ve got.

And if you’re upgrading from an alloy bar, you’ll notice much less hand and arm fatigue from carbon’s better vibration damping and shock absorption (although the cheap, flexier carbon bar did soak up bigger bumps better).

The downside (or upside, depending on how you look at it) is that you’ll now find other weaknesses in your bike and spec, which’ll make you want to upgrade something else. For example, if things still fill mushy up front, try a stiffer stem…even high end ones that are crazy light can exhibit more flex and twist than you think, particularly if you have some upper body strength and pull/push on the bars during climbs and sprints.

RESOURCES & NOTES:

  • You can download Ritchey’s complete Fit Logic poster here. Two of the images above were cut from it.
  • FSA (Full Speed Ahead) offers “Compact” bars that have shallower drops and narrower top section with drops that curve outward slightly as the bar curves downward, putting the drop’s edges wider than the bend at the top of the bar. They claim this helps smaller riders who have small hands and/or whose forearms typically hit the upper part of the bar when riding in the drops. They have a handlebar FAQ here.
  • Some Randonneur/Touring handlebars rise a bit from the stem clamp before curving forward to the drops, allowing a more upright position for long distance cruising.

Comments

Cor - 12/28/10 - 11:00pm

“I can’t think of any problems that may come from a wider bar”
I find wide bars stress my shoulder blades and cause a tightness and soreness right in the middle of them on rides over an hour long. Switching from a 44 to a 42 completely eliminated that problem.

In your second before/after picture, did you find that with the shifter positioned flatter on the bar it lengthened the reach to the hoods? It also looks like you dropped your stem another spacer, is this because of the bar change or some different reason?

John Harbaugh - 12/29/10 - 5:20am

Thanks, Tyler. One of the best articles I’ve seen on the subject of handlebar selection. Very timely too; I’m in the process of building a new bike, based on a Lynskey Sportive frame. Bike fit is a very complex subject, the interaction of a lot of geometry and individual physiology. You had the benefit of having a bike that was pretty well dialed in, and could focus on a specific aspect of fit that you wanted to improve.

For people who are purchasing an entirely new bike, they may want to consider initially going with less expensive alloy seat post and handlebar, then plan on upgrading to more costly components later. This will give them time to get accustomed to the new bike and make informed decisions on the final configuration. Sure, they will end up tossing some bits, but better to do it with less costly alloy parts than upwards of $500 of composites. If riders buy the top-shelf bits up front, they may be less inclined to replace them to improve the fit, and that would be a shame.

Happy New Year to you and all the folks at Bikerumor. All the best in 2011!

Tyler (Editor) - 12/29/10 - 1:05pm

Cor, it might have pushed my reach out a bit, but it hasn’t seemed to affect my comfort on the bike on long rides. I removed the spacer simply because I wanted to get into a slightly more aggressive position, but in hindsight the taller positioning of the Ritchey bars on the hoods probably counteracted that measure, which is perhaps why my positioning feels so similar, just much more comfortable for my hands.

John, glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for the feedback.

Lloyd - 01/06/13 - 12:59pm

Great article. very informative, I enjoyed reading.

berki - 01/21/13 - 6:19am

that’s what i was looking for, thank you from Turkey…

alan - 03/17/13 - 11:17am

Great article. Thanks for writing it. My bars are too wide.

Gavin - 03/31/13 - 4:53pm

Thankyou for this. We need more information like this in a world of amateur bike builders and manufacturers that may not always be able to fit to each specific rider.

Greg - 05/13/13 - 10:51pm

Great information, easy to understand

pornitswhatlwouldratherbmaking - 10/20/13 - 1:41pm

I have my evil eyes out for some 48mm Zinn bars! How flipping sweet will those be! l dont give a hoot about whats right or wrong but all l know is that want those. l only worry about steertube flex from my carbon fork with the extra leverage mixed with the stiff as F*** X4 stem.

Kat1971 - 11/30/13 - 8:34pm

Do wider Handle bars Help with climbing better??
I’ve got a 40cm on my Venge, I bought a Colnago C59 frame for climbing hills, I’m thinking of putting a 42 instead of a 40cm handle bar

Nathan S - 01/21/14 - 1:14am

Note: The shoulder not a bone. It’s a joint, and none of the bones that meet to form the shoulder are known as “the shoulder bone”. The acromiocavicular (AC) joint is a non-moving joint between the distal head of the clavicle and the proximal head of the acromion (which is part of the scapula). You can find it by sliding your finger along the clavicle and finding the gap/dip where it ends. There is a soft spot between the seam of two tightly packed bones where you can feel the ligament.

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