Different Types of Handlebars: A Primer
If you're new to biking, it's easy to overlook the importance of handlebars. In this post, we'll go over all the different types of handlebars available to you, and help you figure out which might be right for you.
As we discuss each type of handlebar, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind:
- Each type of handlebar is used for a specific purpose. The type of biking you're interested in—racing, mountain biking, commuting, etc.—will play a large part in the type of handlebar you're looking for. For example, drop bars—the kind of handlebars you see on racing bikes, like the ones in the Tour de France—allow you to lean forward and travel at incredibly high speeds, whereas flat-bar handlebars—the kind you'd see on mountain bikes, which are basically just straights pole with grips—give you more control when turning, which allows you to go off-road and over rough trails.
- Different types of handlebars change the way you sit on a bike. We just took a look at drop bars vs. flat bars, so let's stick with that. Drop bars will put you in an "aggressive" stance, with your head and shoulders crouched forward, and that's good for speed over asphalt roads; flat bars will give you a more "upright" position, with your shoulders back and your bum more squarely in the saddle (seat), which is good posture for navigating rugged trails and rocky paths. Your posture on a bike determines the type of riding you can do.
- Each kind of handlebar has its pros and cons. Drop bars allow for speed (good for racing), but they limit cyclists' view of the world around them (bad for off-roading); flat bars don't allow cyclists to go as fast (bad for racing), but they allow cyclists to see their entire environment (good for off-roading).
We'll talk about all these aspects—special functions, pros and cons, and so on—in each of the sections below.
Drop Bars: Usually Seen on Road Bikes
These are one of the most recognizable types of of handlebars. They're most commonly seen on road bikes, and they look like this:
As you can see, drop bars have a funky, three-dimension shape, and that allows them to be "multiple handlebars in one." Their shape allows you to grasp the handlebar using four different hand positions:
- You can grasp "the tops" (this is the highest part of the handlebar);
- You can hold the corners (this is where the handlebars curve forward, away from you);
- You can grasp the "hoods" (this is surface on the top of the brakes); or
- You can cycle "in the drops" (which is the lowest part of the handlebars).
Each hand position is more aggressive than the last—that is, each hand position brings you forward and closer to the front wheel—and each hand position allows you to go faster. That ability to grasp drop bars at multiple different locations makes them a GREAT option for cyclists in races: when you're "in the drops"—that is, when you've got your hands on the lowest part of the drop bars—you're at your most aerodynamic, and you'll be able to push the pedals more efficiently than you would be from a more upright position.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a helpful YouTube video is worth much more than that. Here is an excellent—and most importantly, brief—video that describes each of the hand positions drop bar cyclists use:
They don't discuss riding on the corners in the video, but you get the idea.
So, drop bars are great for racing, and many people use them for all types of road cycling—they're good for longer bikes rides, and they're a popular choice among bicycle commuters. That said, there are plenty of folks who don't like drop bars. The aggressive posture can be uncomfortable, they can be difficult to turn, and the aggressive stance—even on the tops—can limit your ability to see the world around you.
Flat Bars: Common on Mountain Bikes
If drop bars are a little fancy, flat bars are a lot simpler. They're also easier to describe: they are a flat bar with grips on both ends. Not difficult to envision, but if you need a little help, they look like this:
Sometimes, there's a slight angle in them, and they're not 100% flat. But most of the time they're still referred to as flat bars.
Flat-bars are great for a couple of reasons:
- They're a fantastic option for mountain bikes. Flat bars keep your hands in a position that give you more control as you navigate rugged terrain, and the width of the bars give you more control over turns. Traditionally, these were mostly used by cross-country mountain bike racers, but in recent years, downhill mountain bikers have started using them as well.
- Flat bars promote a more upright riding stance, and that's great for more relaxed cycling. Flat bars are really common on hybrid bikes, fixies, and they're even available on some road bikes (known as flat bar road bikes).
- They're great for squeaking through narrow spaces. If you're an urban cyclist and you find yourself squeezing through narrow spaces—between the back of a Mac truck and a parked car is a really common occurrence—having a set of wide handlebars is going to get you stuck. Narrow flat bars are a great option if you're going to be cycling through narrow spaces.
- They offer a lot of space to attach add-ons, like safety lights, bicycle computers, cell phone mounts, speaker mounts, and so on. That sounds like a small deal, but if you use your bike to commute or do errands around town, that handlebar real estate is a pretty excellent.
There are some drawbacks to flat bars:
- Your hands and wrists can get tired and achy on flat bar handlebars, because you've only got one position to use. You can, however, add supplemental equipment (like bar ends) if you want more hand positions to use.
- They're not fantastic for going fast. Flat bars won't allow you to take an aerodynamic posture, and you can't really get an aggressive posture using them. Keep in mind, though, that's not what they're made for.
Flat bars are related to...
Riser Bars: Great for Hybrids and Comfort Bikes
Riser bars are an incredibly popular option, all you'll see them on all types of mountain bikes, many hybrids, comfort bikes, and so on. They look like this...
Here's another example. The cyclist on the right has a very common type of riser handlebar:
Just like flat bars, risers force you to use a single hand position, and they keep the palms of your hands facing the ground (a hand position that will help you absorb the shocks of rough roads or trails), and they'll ensure that your hands are a significant distance from each other (which allows you to turn quickly and effectively).
Risers bars create a nice, upright position—again, not great for speed, but great for off-roading and all-purpose urban cycling. They may create some soreness in the hands and wrists and forearms, but they're still a great option for just about everything except road racing.
Riser bars—just like flat bars—come in a variety of widths, and if you're a mountain biker, width can make a big difference.
Cruiser Bars, aka Upright Bars
Of all the different types of handlebars, these are, perhaps, the most comfortable handlebars you'll find: they're wide, they sweep back towards your body, and the handles—instead of pointing outward, like riser bars and flat bars—point backwards. They're very pleasant to ride, and they feel like you're steering a bus. They look like this:
They're not made for high-performance bikes—you'd never use them on a mountain bike or hybrid bike or road bike—and they're really difficult to use when pedaling uphill, but they're great for comfort bikes: because they the handlebars stretch so far back, you're able to sit completely upright and pedal around. Couple these with a cushioned saddle with some springs, and you've got a very comfy ride.
Aero Bars: Very Aggressive
When most people hear the term "handlebars," the thing of something that goes from side-to-side, perpendicular to the cyclist. Aero bars are kind of the opposite of that: they travel outward and forward, in front of the cyclist. You can see a cyclist grasping them in front of the bicycle here:
Aero bars are long, narrow handlebars that allow you to assume a very aggressive position, and one that is as aerodynamic as possible, so that you can achieve a speed that is as fast as possible. They're very common in time trial races, where cyclists are trying to "beat the clock."
Aero bars will allow you to slice through the wind and speed like a bullet, but they can be very dangerous—because of your tucked posture, it can be very difficult to turn or navigate past obstacles on the road—and because of that added danger, bikes with aero bars are usually dis-allowed in multiple-cyclist races (which is why they're commonly use in time trials, where cyclists are usually cycling alone).
Bullhorn Handlebars: Gorgeous
Bullhorns were once only found on track bikes (the kind of bikes used in races on velodromes) or time trial bikes, but now they're pretty common—if you ride around town for a while, you'll probably see a bunch of them. They look pretty baller, and they get their name because they look like the horns of a bull:
So if you're not on a velodrome and you're not in a time trial, why would you want to use them?
Basically, they offer the biggest advantage of drop bars—that is, multiple hand positions—but they allow you a sliiiiightly more upright stance, so that you can see the traffic and pedestrians around you (and that's why they've become popular among urban cyclists). They're like drop bars, in that they give you the ability to lean forward and get lower into an aggressive tuck and travel at faster speeds, but they're also great for hills—they allow you to pedal more efficiently while in the saddle, while also allowing you to aggressively pedal uphill while out of the saddle.
Bull horns are one of those topics that cyclists love to argue about—some people love them, others don't see the big deal. We love them, though—drop bars are a must for a race event where there's no one else on the road, but for riding around town—where there are cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists—having a full range of vision can be important. Bullhorns are a nice compromise between more upright bikes that don't allow you to travel as quickly (like hybrids) and aggressive bikes that limit your field of vision.
By the way—we mentioned "Pursuit" earlier. "Pursuit" is pretty crazy; "Team Pursuit" is absolutely insane:
Butterfly Bars, aka Touring Bars or Trekking Bars
Yet another animal-named handlebar, these actually do have a butterfly shape, in that they're symmetrical and they look like wings. Like drop bars and bullhorn bars, the big advantage of butterfly handlebars is that they allow you to utilize a range of hand positions. That makes them FANTASTIC for long voyages, because:
- Long voyages will present a wide variety of terrain (e.g., rolling hills, steep inclines, long and endless plains, etc.), and you'll need to get into a number of different cycling postures to meet each type of terrain; and
- Over a long cycling trip, your hands and wrists and forearms and shoulders are eventually going to be in agonizing pain, and having the ability to switch up your handlebar positions, and systematically give your various muscle groups a rest, is an absolute must.
They're also long, and that means they provide you with a lot of real estate to utilize add-ons, like smart phones, computers, mirrors, flashlights, etc.
They can get a little heavy, and that's a negative, but if you're on a long trip, they're worth it. If you ever get involved with bicycle touring, you'll probably see some folks with butterfly handlebars on their rides.
These are a much-less common type of handlebar, but they're handlebars, so our list would be incomplete without them. These are handlebars that, when viewed from the top, have a mustache shape.
They’re essentially drop bars, that don't drop too much. Their shape will allow you to change hand positions, but they offer fewer hand positions than traditional drop bars or bullhorns.
These are a little more rare—you won't see as many of them as you'll see drop bars or flat bars or bullhorns or riser bars or upright bars—but they definitely have people who love them. If you're interested in mustache handlebars, here is a fantastic article about their shape, how to use them, and their advantages and disadvantages.
You know what? Once you get drop bars and riser bars out of the way, it's not too hard to write an article about bicycle handlebars. Bullhorns look like bull horns, butterfly bars are in the shape of butterflies, and BMX bars—you guessed it—are the handlebars we put on BMX bars.
These are smaller and manufactured to be very, very strong. BMX bikes are used for some pretty gnarly events, from racing to street stunts, and BMX handlebars are built to endure some abuse.
You won't see these on a lot of bikes that aren't BMXs.
Some Advice About Handlebars
So, you've got options! There are a LOT of different types of bicycle handlebars you can choose from, and the longer you're into cycling, the more you'll meet people who remove the handlebars their bikes came with and replace them with something different. Eventually you may try that yourself. Obviously there are some instances where you'll want to stick with "the norm"—if you're in a road race, you'll want to stick with the drop handlebars—but you will find a LOT of people who personalize their rides and use the handlebars they want to use.
Our advice is to find out what's most comfortable for you. We've spoken with a number of people who *want* to make drop bars work for them, but don't like them for whatever reason (you don't like the aggressive stance; can't see traffic, etc.). Don't be afraid to customize your bicycle so that it fits your desires. Find what works for you, and customize your ride accordingly. Try not to let the "It's got to be a certain way" mentality that sometimes accompanies cycling. Find what works for you.
That's it for handlebars. Happy cycling, amigos!