Like all contact points on a road bike, choosing the right handlebars is an important part of getting a good fit. Nothing gets in the way of a good, fast ride more than being uncomfortable and nothing can cause discomfort like ill-fitting bars. As someone who has gone through more than a few road bars in his time, I think I have something useful to offer.
The very best way to find out which bars are right for you is to get a professional bike fit. I say the same every time because it’s true. Only an expert who can view you and your bike dispassionately can give you a real sense of what will work and what will not. However, not everyone wants a fit, so here is what you need to know.
How to choose a road handlebar
There are three elements of any road handlebar that you need to consider above price and looks. They are width, shape and drop. All influence how comfortable you will be and will make or break your experience while on the bike. Material and looks are secondary to these.
In order of priority, reach is most important as it has the most influence on how comfortable you are on the bike and how quickly fatigue sets in. Then comes width and finally, drop.
Road bars come in various widths from 360mm up to around 460mm. Broadly speaking, the width of the bar should match the width of your shoulders. This is a very rough guide and will work for some but not for others.
A narrow bar makes you more aero, but can close down the chest. It also opens up the upper back and shoulders. If you suffer from aching shoulders, neck or upper back, a narrower handlebar could make life easier. However, depending on your physiology, can make breathing more laboured. This won’t be true for everyone of course, so the usual rules apply. Try a given width and see how you go.
Wider bars open up the chest, making breathing easier. They can also make the bike easier to control. However, they are less aero and close down the shoulders and upper back. They might work if you find you have to fight harder than you should to fill your lungs with oxygen.
There are generally three shapes to a road bar, compact, ergonomic and classic. The compact shape has a short reach and a shallow drop. Ergonomic has a bend in the drop almost like a handle which works for those who ride low a lot. Classic are the classic rounded bars like Eddy Merckx et al used to use.
Reach is how far forward a bar will take you when using it and drop is how far down you go when riding the drops. These are important. Too long a reach can bring you out of your comfortable saddle position and causes you to put more weight on your arms. Too short a reach and you’re sitting more upright. A different length stem can help with managing reach.
Drop will bring your upper body down into more of an aero position. If you race, this is the optimum. If you don’t race, it isn’t always the most sustainable position to adopt. If you’re flexible, you should be fine but if you’re not so flexible, you have to watch the drop. Drop causes the hips to rotate forward which isn’t always the most comfortable way to ride.
Compact bars keep the reach and drop minimal, which is ideal for those riders who aren’t very flexible or who don’t ride on the drops very much. Ergonomic bars have a straighter part to the drop for a more comfortable fit in the hand. If you ride a lot in the drops, these could be for you.
The classic bar is the all-rounder, literally. They are the middle of the road bar with standard drop, profile and reach.
Getting the right size road bar
There’s a lot to think about when choosing a set of road bars. Much will be measuring, researching, trialling and erroring. Only once you know what size, shape and type of bar you’re most comfortable with is it worth investing in a good set of bars.
As with saddle and pedal choice, give it a week or two or a couple of hundred kilometres after making a change before making your mind up. Your body takes time to adapt and its only once those adaptations are made that you find out whether something works or not.