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Image credit: Zoon Cronje

Have your shoulder width measured from outer to outer, using the boney extrusion as a point of reference. This will give you a good idea of where to start when selecting the right width of handlebar. Using this measurement you can now determine what width of handlebar will work best for you as well as the type of position you are trying to achieve relative to the terrain you are riding.

Mountain bike handlebars

When it comes to mountain bike handlebars, wider is better. They offer you more control, easier breathing and better positioning for balance. This makes you more stable and slower to fatigue. However, handlebars that are too wide can also leave you feeling over stretched or unbalanced on the front of the bike, therefore it is important to have your handle bar width measured relative to your shoulder width if you are unsure where to begin. It is also worth considering the terrain you’re riding. Those who ride more ‘open’ trails at higher speeds are much more likely to benefit from a wider bar. Whereas slow-speed single track terrain will require a narrower handlebar, as it can get tiring weaving a wide bar through tightly spaced trees. So think about the environments you will be riding before going as wide as possible.

When it comes to fitting a wide bar, the first thing to understand is that bar width is closely linked to stem length. So as you add bar width you should also reduce stem length. A more ‘balanced’ position on the bike should be the aim when referring to mountain bike setup, therefore, handlebar height should also be considered when looking at a riders’ overall position on the bike. If you have ever had that daunting feeling of your handlebars lifting slightly as if you are going to ‘wheelie’ the front of the bike on those very steep up-hill sections, you are more than likely too high on the front end of the bike, which will cause your weight to be very much towards the back of the bike which will make the front end feel very ‘light’.

Another similar cause of this ‘unbalanced’ feeling could also be due running the incorrect shock pressure, especially on dual suspension mountain bikes. This topic will be discussed more in depth in coming articles.

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Image credit: Zoon Cronje

Road handlebars

Shoulder width will also be the determining factor when choosing the correct width of bar for your road bike. The most common handle bar widths you will find are; 400mm, 420mm and 440mm. Selecting a handlebar that is too narrow for you may result in the bike feeling ‘twitchy’ or unbalanced on fast downhill sections and corners, whereas a bar that is too wide may give the feeling of falling forward and excessive use of the neck and shoulder muscles to support the upper body would be the case.

Lever position and shape of bar
When purchasing and fitting handle bars for your road bike the width will be a relatively simple choice to make compared to the decision made on the shape of bar, and should be given some serious thought when making this choice.

If you are a more flexible rider looking for an aggressive racing position on the front end, then the handlebar shape you should consider would be a bar with a longer reach on the tops of the bars (approximately 85mm) to position the brake levers further and the stretch torso out, and a lower handle bar drop (approximately 140mm) to achieve a bent elbow position in the drops.

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Image credit: Zoon Cronje

A rider that is less flexible would require a handlebar shape that is slightly shorter on the reach (approximately 80mm) to achieve a closer, more upright position on the hoods. Onto the drops of the handlebars the rider looking to make this position more manageable and comfortable should look to a shallower drop of handlebar (approximately 130mm).

Usually if the brake lever position is incorrect in relation to the handle bar, you will have a feeling of stretching or reaching for the brakes and gears, and experience instability when in a standing or climbing position on the bike. Making use of the drops of the handlebar will also be a very difficult position to achieve or at least maintain for extended periods of time. Therefore it is important to position the handlebar and brake levers in such a way to achieve many different options on the handlebar and free movement of the hands.

Carbon vs Aluminum

When faced with this decision, a common believe is that the choice will be made purely based on weight. Although this is a major factor and should be considered when trying to shave off those extra few grams, the biggest differentiating factor can be put down to shock absorption and vibration dampening. Carbon will absorb those small vibrations caused by a rough road or bumpy off road section. Therefore, as a major contact point on the bike, a carbon handlebar upgrade should always be considered to make the ride that much more enjoyable!