Co-Motion Bars
August 27, 2015 6:19 pm

Bike riders tend to think of bike fit as either improving performance or improving comfort. They seem to think that performance and comfort are at odds with each other, that you are going to have to choose one or the other or at least a compromise between the two, however I do not believe this to be entirely true. To find out why, read on.

Attention: All torque specifications should be followed when adjusting a bicycle. Buy a torque wrench and use it!

In my many years of bike fitting experience, I have seen rider’s back angles brought down by shortening a stem, complaints of too low a riding position solved without necessarily needing to raise handlebars, and riders comfortably using the drop section of their bars after swearing they would never be able to do so without feeling pain.

Below is a technique for fitting handlebars that I have used for years that has successfully alleviated back pain, sore hands, and numb fingers as well improving controllability of the bike. A few particularly bad “bar” related puns snuck their way in too.

Proper Road Handlebar Positioning

Handlebar position is key to a comfortable bicycle fit, however I am surprised at how often I see bars adjusted so poorly, the mistakes can been seen from a distance, even without the rider sitting on the bike. The old method for adjusting lever position on a drop bar was to place the bar on a flat surface and then attach the levers so that the bottom of the lever just touched the flat surface as well.

Handlebar rolled up to to high.

Bar rolled up to compensate for lever being too low.

Drop handlebars have gone through several changes over the years. Where the bottom of the lever sits never really was a good way to decide where to attach the levers other than it guarantees they will be level with each other. This often leads to another mistake in adjustment, rolling the bar upwards so that the levers are at the angle the rider really wants them to be. While this does fix one of the  problems, it is not a complete solution and creates other problems as well.

Raising The Bar

The right lever has been adjusted too low.

Right lever adjusted too low.

One of the first adjustments I usually make on a drop bar is to rotate the bar down so the end of the drop is closer to being level to the ground. It should still angle up a bit, but only by a few degrees. The rider should test the drop position to find the angle that is most comfortable for them. This often has the effect of making the rider nervous and a bit skeptical about the fit process since they don’t use the drops that much or at all,  however:

  1. They do not use the drops because of their uncomfortable fit and will use them more often once the problems have been corrected.
  2. The order of the fit process is not based on importance of each hand position. It is done in this order to avoid messing up adjustments later on.

Once the optimum drop angle is established, the levers can now be adjusted up on the handlebar, rather than rolling the bar up to achieve the proper angle. The levers should angle up at least slightly, but again, it should be rider preference that determines the exact angle. You can experiment by raising only one lever and let the rider compare the comfort between the two. If the levers have to be moved a significant amount then un-taping the bars will be necessary.  There is a side effect to raising the levers this way that should be noted. The levers will move back slightly as they are raised. I’ve found that on most fits, this is a beneficial side effect as the rider needed a little shorter reach as well.

Bars are adjusted properly.

Bars in acceptable position.

With this part of the fit done, you can now take stem length into consideration. The rider may still need a shorter or longer stem to be as comfortable as possible. Some riders will require a stem that also brings the bar up.

What’s Yer Angle?

So why is all of this so important? What is the importance with rolling the bar downward like this? With the bar rolled up, the drop is much further forward and also at an angle that makes it difficult and painful for the rider to use. It also shifts the riders weight forward on the bike. Now if you have participated in any of programs teaching safe cycling, you will probably have been told to use the drops on long steep descents. Riding in the drops should provide a more secure hand hold and better braking leverage. Keep in mind that descent will also shift your weight forward. As with all vehicles, center of gravity plays an important role in handling. Too far forward from the center of gravity makes the bike harder to control and reduces effective braking. Experienced riders will shift their weight back on a bike to gain more braking or better control, however this is not possible from the drops if the drops are rolled up and forwards.

Drop handlebars have tape covering most of their length for a reason. The rider is supposed to use the full length of taped handlebar to provide a variety of hand positions which change back angle and pressure points on the hands. This is not just for performance, but for comfort. On a long ride it is important to vary your riding position to maintain comfort.

Get Down and Boogie

Most riders that have an uncomfortable fit seem to have the same complaint. They are “too low.” No matter what the problem is, the interpretation is always the same. If the stem is to long, they are too low. If the bar angles are wrong, they are too low. If the bar is too low, well yeah, in that case…

My philosophy on handlebar height is that the bar should be “as low as possible”, however my definition of this is not low enough to cause discomfort. I do not like to immediately raise a handlebar until all the other problems have been solved since:

  1. A higher handlebar position creates more pressure on the saddle. It’s no wonder that cyclists with a recreational fit tend to complain more about saddle discomfort.
  2. A higher handlebar will tend to cause more aerodynamic drag, making the bike harder to move forward with zero benefit, assuming that no comfort is lost by lowering the bar further.

Riders with pre-existing conditions that make it impossible to be comfortable do need to be fitted with a raised handlebar. I suppose the rule still applies to them since the bar may be as low as is comfortable, however, it’s best to err on the side of caution in these situations. With an extremely raised comfort fit, more attention to saddle selection will be needed.

Imagine a bike fit that feels more upright and yet makes you more aerodynamic. This is what you will most likely achieve if you fit the handlebar correctly on your road bike, so you’ll really be able to “get  down and boogie.”

That’s a Wrap

Over several years of bike fitting, I’ve regularly seen riders who have tried to deal with some of their riding issues by just adding another roll of padded tape. This has worked for a few riders, however this usually results in the riders fingers not reaching quite all the way around the bar, which feels less secure, causing the rider to grab the bar with more force and leading to more hand numbness. This is especially the case with riders who have smaller hands. I don’t want to dismiss extra tape as something that should never be experimented with,  but you want to keep this side effect in mind and as is the case with the movies, “That’s a Wrap” comes at the end. Don’t double wrap your bars until you have dealt with all the other fit issues.

Passing (on) The Bar – Handlebar Safety

Carbon bars do no bend, they crack, usually on the inside where you can not see the damage. If you crash using carbon bars and there is any doubt as to whether they took any of the impact, they need to be replaced. They may or may not be more flexible at the site of damage… Doesn’t matter.  Replace them!

Proper way to measure bars.

Proper handlebar width measurements.

Aluminum bars do bend. If the handlebar does not show signs of bending then it should be safe for continued use. You can check the bar for any bending by measuring the distance between the two ends. Drop bars come in different widths. They are either measured center to center or outside edge to outside edge. Verify how the bar is measured and what size it is and discontinue use if your bar no longer matches it’s proper measurement. To measure bars that have a center to center measurement, use either left of bar end to left of bar end or right of bar end to right of bar end.

A failed handlebar will almost always cause an accident much more serious than the one that weakened the bar in the first place. A term has been coined for replacing handlebars and forks that have been involved with an accident but appear to be undamaged, “Cheap Insurance.”

You should consider changing your handlebar even if it never has been crashed when it becomes too old to really trust your safety to. I have seen older heavier handlebars eventually fail. It’s pretty rare for this to happen, but believe me, you do not want to be the one using a bar that this happens to. If you are riding an old steel frame from the ’80s or 90’s with a 27.0 or 26.8 clamp diameter aluminum bar, you are definitely in this category.

Newer handlebars have switched to a 31.8 clamp design, which could warrant a stem upgrade as well. Not a bad thing, considering that stem failures have been known to happen as well. The move to 31.8 came about as a result of lightweight carbon bars. With the narrower bar diameter, there simply was not enough contact area between the bar and stem to guarantee the bar would not slip during use without high clamping forces bordering on cracking the bar. The 31.8 clamp design not only solves this issue, but it provides greater durability where the stem meets handlebar.

If you have an older handlebar with one of the narrower clamp diameters, you not only gain security from a lighter, stronger and newer bar, you also benefit from a better selection of handlebar shapes that will help with the fit process described above. Today, the most commonly used bar shape is the shallow drop, or compact bar. This bar’s drop has less distance between it and the top of the bar. Many riders are finding that this works better, allowing the drop to be used longer comfortably. The sharp curve towards the top of the bar places the levers in a position that provides a flat plateau for the hands which also tends to be more comfortable than traditional designs.

Changes to the drop bar design mean that you will not only be gaining peace of mind, but additional comfort as well.

Bar None

The bar adjustments I describe above are by no means a complete bicycle fit. For a complete fit, frame size, saddle positioning, bar width, and cleat positioning all need to be taken into account. When fitting someone to a bike it important to remember:

  1. The rider is not the bike.
  2. The rider should feel like they are part of the bike.

When a rider tells you they feel like they are too low, it doesn’t necessarily mean the bars are too low. It could be an entirely different adjustment that is pulling the rider down or it could be that the rider can not properly support their weight on their arms. Keep this in mind when trying to find the solution.

When a rider sits on a properly fit bike, it should fit like a finely tailored suit. Hands should naturally drop onto the hoods. If a rider unconsciously slides their hands back away from the hoods, they are letting you know that they are stretching too far, even if they tell you everything feels okay.

Whether you are fitting yourself or another rider to a bike, you should continue with the fit until your position feels as natural and comfortable as possible. ?

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This post was written by Tom


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