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Guide To Commuter Bike Handlebars

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Do you have a commuting bike with uncomfortable handlebars? Perhaps you’re choosing a bike from new and wonder what handlebars would be best.

There are various types of handlebars to choose from. Each is usually fitted to a certain type of bike, but it’s always possible to alter or upgrade what you have.

This article tells you all you need to know about commuter bike handlebars. It could transform your ride!

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Why Handlebars Are Important For Your Commute To Work

Why should you care what handlebars you have on your commuting bike?

As well as the geometry of a bike frame, the “contact points” of a bike are of prime importance to your riding comfort and safety. Those contact points include the saddle, the pedals, and the handlebar.

The handlebar—its shape, size, and position—makes a huge difference to the way it handles and the way your body responds to it. So, let’s look at some handlebar properties and what effect they’d have on your bike commute.

Handlebar Height

Handlebar height is influenced by the design of the handlebar as well as the height and angle of the handlebar stem. The stem is the part that joins the handlebar to the steerer tube of your bike, which in turn moves the front forks and wheel.

Some handlebars rise above the height of the stem, which enables you to adopt a more upright riding position. And that places less strain on your back, shoulders, and neck.

Spacers placed beneath the handlebar stem make the handlebar higher. Road cyclists often remove all these spacers (known as “slamming the stem”) to get lower and faster.

In general, a lower handlebar is desirable mainly for performance gains, which only a minority of commuters are likely to care about.

You can use a stem riser on handlebars to increase their height. That creates a more upright riding position and is useful for people with back problems.

Handlebar Width

A handlebar’s width can vary radically, ranging from 26cm to 84cm. The former might belong on a track bike and the latter an MTB.

What effect does handlebar width have?

A narrow handlebar is more aerodynamic. There’s that to consider if fast commutes are your thing or you simply enjoy speed. The same is true on any bike because you’re reducing your frontal area rather than acting as a sail.

Narrower handlebars also have a smaller turning circle than wider ones. Thus, you can theoretically do a 180° turn in a more confined space. However, a wider handlebar gives you more leverage over steering, making it physically less demanding.

As comfort and control over the bike are common on a bike-commuter’s wants list, you can deduce that moderately wide handlebars are often desirable. They make handling feel less “twitchy” and demanding than a narrow handlebar.

The route of your commute might influence your handlebar choice, too. If there’s a lot of intricate turning involved, a wider handlebar will suit. Conversely, narrower bars allow you to pass through tighter gaps.

Handlebar Shapes

There are various shapes of handlebar to choose from. The shape of the handlebar isn’t just an aesthetic consideration. It has a bearing on things like comfort and speed.

A handlebar that has bends and curves in it, like a drop handlebar or a “butterfly” bar, enables different hand positions. Why would you want that? The ability to change hand positions may be useful on long commutes, as it alleviates hand or wrist pains.

The way your wrists hang loose by your side gives away their natural angle. (A similar principle applies to feet.) Any handlebar that preserves that angle, like one that sweeps back towards the rider, will offer unparalleled wrist comfort.

As you may have guessed by now, a “go-fast” shape is one that allows the rider to get low and aerodynamic.

Flat Bar Handlebars Explained

Like it sounds, a flat handlebar is one with no bends or curves, little rise and minimal back-sweep towards the rider. It’s commonly found on MTBs

What We Like

  • Adaptable – straightforward shape allows easy attachment of accessories.
  • Control – usually wide enough to allow easy, precise control over steering.
  • Comfort – higher than some handlebars (e.g., drop bars), allowing a more upright, comfortable riding position.
  • Brakes – brakes are always within easy reach.

What We Don’t Like

  • Hands – your hands remain in the same position all the time, so its harder to shake off numbness or pain.
  • Non-aero – flat bars keep you fairly upright and broaden your frontal area, which will slow you down versus other handlebars.

Unlike some styles of handlebar, you have ample space to fix commuting accessories to a flat bar. These might include a front light, bar ends, a bike computer and a camera. Bar ends offer a way to alleviate any wrist or hand pain you may experience.

Because flat bars are typically 200-300mm wider than drop bars, they’re a good choice for the less confident commuter who wants assured handling. Control of the bike is easy, and you don’t have to switch hand positions to stop.

To counteract the aero disadvantage a little, you can always go for a narrower flat bar. Some of them measure less than 600mm across.

A Flat Handlebar We Like

CHECK PRICE AT JENSON USA

The Race Face Next Flat Handlebar is a 720 mm bar with a 1/4″ rise and an 8° back-sweep. Its carbon construction soaks up vibration from the trail or road. This is ideal for a commuting 29er.

Video: Drop Bar To Flat Bar Conversion

Drop Handlebars Explained

Drop handlebars are typically found on road bikes, touring bikes or gravel bikes.

What We Like

  • Speed – drop handlebars increase your speed on a bike by placing you in a more aerodynamic position.
  • Hand Positions – there are three hand positions to choose from on drop handlebars.
  • Distance – many will find drop bars more comfortable over long distances.
  • Tight Spaces – drop handlebars are ideal for passing through narrow gaps.

What We Don’t Like

  • Brakes – brakes are often not accessible without changing hand position.
  • Control – narrower bars are less easy to control and harder work than wider ones.
  • Maintenance – changing cables is relatively complicated.

Drop handlebars are quicker and more efficient over longer distances than other bars. Much of this is to do with their more aerodynamic shape and the ability of the rider to lay down more power in a forward position.

That forward riding position is also, for many people, more comfortable over long distances than an upright one. It creates balance between the three contact points of the bike, so your weight is no longer primarily supported by the saddle.

A trained cyclist offloads some of the burden placed on the saddle and handlebar by pressing down harder on the pedals. He or she will also develop a stronger core, relying less on the handlebar to bear their forward weight.

For novice cyclists or those out of practice, the above explains why drop handlebars are initially uncomfortable on the hands and wrists. There’s a tendency to lean all of one’s weight forward instead of lightly gripping the bar with elbows bent.

Drop Handlebars We Like

CHECK PRICE AT JENSON USA

When looking for a commuting drop handlebar, a compact design with a shallow reach and short drop appeals to many. The Specialized Comp Short Reach Handlebar is ideal. This allows easy transition between different hand positions and faster access to brakes.

Video: Compact vs Standard Drop Bars

Riser Handlebars Explained

Riser handlebars are another MTB-born bar that can also be fitted to hybrid bikes. They are similar to flat handlebars in width and back-sweep but have more rise.

What We Like

  • Rise – riser bars rise above the handlebar stem and give you a more upright riding position for greater commuting comfort.
  • Descents – a higher position on the bike moderates speed on steep descents.
  • Flex – a riser bar will usually have more flex, which increases comfort.

What We Don’t Like

  • Traction – a more upright rider position forfeits traction at the front.
  • Non-aero – a riser bar is extremely non-aerodynamic, which slows you down.

Aside from all the known pros and cons, some cyclists prefer the look of a riser bar over a flat MTB bar. The height combined with a typical back-sweep of 7° to 9° makes for a natural wrist position.

There are many other perks that apply to riser bars and flat bars alike. Cable maintenance is easier, brakes are easy to reach, and there’s plenty of room for accessories.

The control and comfort this handlebar affords makes it ideal for newbie bike commuters who might be lacking in confidence.

Riser Handlebars We Like

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

A stellar example of a riser bar is the Sunlite MTB/City Steel Handlebar. This offers a generous 5” of rise, so it’ll help relieve pain in your back, shoulders, hands and wrists. Install it on an MTB, hybrid or urban bike.

Bullhorn Handlebars Explained

Bullhorn handlebars are essentially a flat handlebar, but with a horn at each side that curves up and forward. You’ll often see them on “fixies”.

What We Like

  • Speed – bullhorn handlebars allow the rider to stretch out low on the bike, so they have an aerodynamic benefit.
  • Climbing – the forward riding position is advantageous for climbing hills.
  • Positions – bullhorn bars offer a wider choice of hand positions than flat bars.

What We Don’t Like

  • Gears & brakes – it’s impractical to fit road-bike STI levers to bullhorn bars.
  • Leverage – less width than a flat bar makes turning harder and less precise.

Bullhorn handlebars have an aesthetic appeal for some riders, either for their minimalism or aggressive look—you choose! They’re aggressive to ride, too, particularly if you fix them to the end of a long handlebar stem to achieve a lower position.

The STI levers you see on most road bikes aren’t practical on bullhorn bars. You’d install something like Shimano Metrea gear shifters/brake levers instead. The brake-shifters typically used on TT bars are another option, as are down-tube gear shifters.

If you like these bars, be prepared for accusations of hipsterism! Of course, you don’t have to care what others think.

Bullhorn Handlebars We Like

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

The 40cm width of the Origin8 Bullhorn Handlebar will suit many riders, being akin to a medium-width drop bar. The 19.2mm inner diameter accommodates most bar-end levers, too. The bar is made from 6061-T6 aluminum, favored for its strength to weight ratio in bike parts.

Butterfly (Trekking) Handlebars Explained

The butterfly handlebar, or trekking handlebar, is so named for the wing-like shape that protrudes from the front of the bike. They’re often found on touring bikes.

What We Like

  • Positions – no other handlebar gives you as much freedom in your hand position.
  • Upright – promotes a more upright riding position than drop bars.
  • Leverage – easy to exert leverage when climbing hills or moving off.
  • Accessories – lots of space for bike accessories.

What We Don’t Like

  • Weight – more handlebar material equals more weight.

Butterfly handlebars are an option you might consider for long commutes. They’re not an uncommon bar for commuters. Switching to one from drop handlebars is more problematic than from a flat bar, as you’ll need to change shifters.

Many users of butterfly handlebars love the cheap and convenient click shifters that are so easily accessible. You can install them right in front of your hands, so there’s no need to reach to the front of the bar for them.

Butterfly handlebars vary significantly in their design. Some are pan flat, while others have a large amount of vertical rise. Some users invert the position to suit their needs. You always have the option of angling the handlebar up, as with other bars.

Butterfly Handlebars We Like

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

For a bar with rise, the Upanbike Aluminum Butterfly Handlebar is an affordable option. Again, this is made from 6061-T6 aluminum alloy to keep things as light and strong as possible. The bar is 620mm wide, so it’s comparable in that sense to many flat bars.

Swept-Back Handlebars Explained

The ultimate handlebar for a comfortable wrist position is one with a lot of back-sweep. In other words, the bar reaches back to meet the rider’s hands. You’ll see these handlebars on city/urban bikes, cruisers, hybrids, and even MTBs.

What We Like

  • Comfort – the handlebar shape allows a natural wrist position.
  • Traditional – a retro look for extra appeal.
  • Upright – the shape enables an upright riding position.

What We Don’t Like

  • Slower – your upright posture will catch the wind and make you slower.
  • Climbing – your weight over the back wheel makes hill climbing less efficient.

Swept-back handlebars will always offer comfort for your wrists and back over normal commuting distances, but they’re not all equal.

Sportier versions of swept-back bars will negate some of their inherent speed loss. You’ll be able to lean forward slightly and grip a different area of the bar.

For most commuters, comfort and stability trump speed, which may not be a consideration at all in many cases. The swept-back bar is ideal for commutes of a few miles on mostly flat terrain.

Swept-back Handlebars We Like

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

For optimal comfort on your commute, the Sunlite Elson Roadster Touring Handlebar is ideal. It has a little bit of rise as well as ample back-sweep, so you’ll keep an upright posture and place no strain on your wrists.

Commuter Bars: FAQs

Below are questions that commonly arise when pondering commuter bike handlebars.

Are There Incompatibilities To Be Aware Of When Changing Handlebars?

The main sticking point when switching from one handlebar style to another usually involves the type of brake levers and gear shifters you can use on the new bar. As well, the shape and width of the handlebar may force you to replace cables.

How Do I Know What The Right Handlebar Width Is For Me?

The general consensus is that shorter riders require narrower bars than tall ones, though this usually assumes a proportional shoulder width. With drop handlebars, a rule of thumb is to match the bar width to your shoulder width.

Can I Put Drop Bars On A Flat-Bar Bike?

It’s possible to put drop bars on a flat-bar bike and visa versa. Bear in mind that a bike’s frame geometry dictates its purpose and capability to some extent, so a change of handlebar only goes so far in transforming it.

Read more: Drop bars Vs. Flat bars

Bar Wars: Winners

Let’s recap on some of the handlebars mentioned above.

Flat handlebars are great for comfort and control. The Race Face Next Flat Handlebar enhances comfort more than most by reducing road or trail vibrations.

Drop handlebars are the go-to choice for fast commutes. The Specialized Comp Short Reach Handlebar has a compact design that makes it easier to switch hand positions and reach the brakes.

Consider the Sunlite MTB/City Steel Handlebar if you want a handlebar that places you in a comfy upright position.

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Bike Push - Mark W
Mark W
I’m a cycling enthusiast, and the founder and chief editor of Bike Push. If I’m not working on this website, then I’m out on the bike clocking up the miles. I want to help others get the most out of cycling.

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