Ask a Mechanic: Sizing Road Handlebars

Lucas wants to know: How do I find the right road handlebar? And what determines where you put the levers on the bar?

Selecting the correct handlebar can make a huge difference in the comfort and quality of your ride every time you get on your bike.  There are a ton of different options to choose from when it comes to road handlebars.  You’ll have to choose between carbon or aluminum, internal or external cable routing, bar width, and the shape of the drop.  These are all things you’ll need to consider, and a lot of it will eventually come down to what feels best to each individual, and what fits in your budget.

Let’s start by determining the width of the handlebar you should be looking at.  The most traditional and easiest way to determine the correct width is to hold the bar up to your shoulders with the ends touching the body.  The ends of the bar should reach to the outside of the shoulder, but not be so wide that the ends go past the shoulder.  You can also use a measuring tape to measure across from the boney protrusions on each clavicle (the conoid tubercle) and add 2cm.  This will ensure that you are reaching straight out to the hoods and not having to cant your wrist to the inside or outside in order to reach them.  Handlebars come in size increments of 2cm, so if you measure to an odd number I recommend choosing the size 1cm up from the measurement you got.  The most common sizes range from 40-44cm, again in increments of 2cm.  There are narrower and wider handlebars but they are harder to find.  It should be noted that some bars flare out in the drops and are a little wider at that point than they are where the levers would be mounted.  If this is the case you’ll want to match your shoulder width with the measurement of the width at the hoods and not in the drop.

Once you have determined the width of bar you will be using the next most significant thing to consider is the reach and drop of the handlebar.  The reach refers to the distance typically measured from the center of the top to the center of the furthest point out on the bar where it bends into the drop.  This is an important measurement to take into account because a longer or shorter reach than the handlebar you are currently using will change the way the bike fits.  Another thing to consider is the drop in the bar.  The drop refers to the measurement typically taken from the center of the top to the center of the end of the bar at the bottom of the drops.  A shallow drop is good for the riders who may be a little less flexible, or someone with smaller hands who may need the controls a little closer when in the drops.  When it comes to the shape of the drops, personal preference and individual experience are your best guides.

The last thing to address is where to put the control levers on the bar itself.  This too often comes down to personal preference, but I usually try to set the levers to have a slight upward angle to the perches, or level perches at the lowest.  I find that this keeps riders from falling down the front of the bars and putting to much pressure on their hands.  Setting the levers in that position also helps to eliminate a valley in between the hood and the handlebar, and keeps the transition from the top of the bar smooth as you reach for the hoods of the levers.

Like I said before, much of choosing a bar is based on personal preference and resources. Shape and dimensions often come down to what feels best as you ride, while the choice of materials is determined by what fits into your budget.  Try and get your hands on a few different bars, or if possible, ride a friend’s bike to feel the difference the handlebar can make.  Once you find a handlebar that works for you, your cycling experience will certainly be improved, and you may eliminate some aches and pains you may have had in the past.