Riding a bike with straight handlebars, for a more than a few hours, can become uncomfortable due to placing your wrists and palms in the same weight bearing position for too long. It can also make your hands go numb by affecting nerves and circulation. It’s really important for comfort and general riding pleasure to customise and adjust the three parts of the bike that your body contacts; the handlebars, the saddle and the pedals.
There are loads of great options for all three and it also adds some character to your bike but it’s not always as simple as you might think to swap over your handlebars without interfering with your break and gear leavers. Luckily there are two excellent and easy choice for those of you that don’t want to spend time and money rewiring gears and forking out for new brake systems which will be mentioned here before going onto drop bars.
Bar Ends (easy option one)
Straight handlebars are quite featureless on their own but adding bar ends, sometimes known as ‘bull bars’ can provide that much needed change of position that will prevent your hands and wrist from becoming uncomfortable.
Bar ends come in many shapes, are typically about six inches long and can be mounted to point in any direction. They can be found made from rubber, metal and plastics or a combination of materials. Some have very ergonomic, hand shaped, designs and some even mimic the shape and riding position of drop down bars.
Bar ends are by far the easiest and cheapest way to improve the handlebar set up on any bike, just be careful to make sure you have long enough handle bars to have bar ends attached whilst still leaving room for brakes, gears and a place for your hands to rest in the normal position.
Butterfly Bars (easy option two)
One of the most convenient features of butterfly bars is that they can be fitted in the place of straight, regular shaped handlebars with no additional fuss and incompatibility stemming from gear and brake set-ups. The position of the brakes and gears on butterfly bars is very similar to regular bars, and so in most cases it’s possible to buy a butterfly bar and some bar tape and transfer all of your existing break and gear hardware onto it.
With butterfly bars the position where you have access to your brakes is quite similar to a straight bar, but because the bar is much longer and loops around and back towards the bike stem there is a very small amount of play that reduces the vibrations travelling to your hands and wrists. It’s almost imperceptible but in the course of a days riding the dampening affect combined with all the other positions in which butterfly bars can be held will greatly reduce discomfort.
Butterfly bars are unsuitable for regular bar grips because regular bar grips would leave too much handlebar exposed and unusable, instead they are intented to be covered with bar tape typically made from cork, leather, many varieties of man made compounds and even cotton.
To further customise the comfort of butterfly bars it’s possible to wrap the bar tape so that it greater overlaps it’s previous turn making the finished covering of tape thicker in areas you use the most, additionally strips of tape, and even special silica inserts can be placed under the tape adding more padding and breaking up the cylindrical shape of the bar underneath.
A popular choice amongst road users drop bars provide a more aggressive and aerodynamic riding position in the drop position as well as having just enough room for your hands to have a higher resting position like a straight bar. With drop brake levers fitted, which is necessary as normal brake levers wont fit, there is also an extra position called the hood. The hood position uses the top of the brakes as a handhold and gives some use of the brakes, but for serious braking leverage you will still need to use the drop position.
Changing from a straight bar to a drop bar can be quite tricky, there are a few compatibility issues that must be first worked out.
Drop bars are designed to be used with their own style of brakes that run vertically down the bar so when upgrading from a straight bar system you will need to factor in the cost of brake levers and, in most cases, gear levers too. Although I have seen drop bars and regular gear leavers working together quite well in some strange cases. Changing the brake and gear levers will also mean changing the cable and the cable housing as they may not be long enough for the new set-up.
Drop bars, when sitting in the drop position will seem too far forward if your bike has a long handlebar stem so you may need to find a shorter stem to reduce the distance between the seat and the drop bars.
If you do decide on outfitting your bike with drop bars and drop leaves you will find that when riding in the top position (rather than leaning into the drop position) you don’t have immediate access to your brakes, this is where auxiliary levers come in handy.
Originally designed and marketed at cyclocross riders auxiliary levers, sometimes known as ‘cross’ or ‘interrupter’ levers add an extra set of brakes to your handlebars which permits breaking from the top position of riding as well as having your drop leavers for the lower position.