The type of handlebars that you choose can have a huge impact on the overall comfort and feel of your bike.
In this article, we take a look at the two most common types of handlebars, drop bar versus flat bar, to help you decide which is the right style for your riding.
Drop bars have long been the standard on road bikes whilst flat bars have traditionally been favored by commuters.
Flat Bars – They’re Always Flat, Right?
Flat bars can generally be found on bikes aimed at beginners and riders who value comfort above all else on the bike. As the name suggests, the bars are more or less completely flat, although there may be some sweep backward.
To complicate matters even further some flat bars have bar ends. These are more commonly found on touring bikes as the bar ends allow the rider to change the hand position from time to time as the miles stack up.
Drop Bars – What You Need to know
Drop bars are the standard handlebar on most road bikes, from entry-level to the pro-peloton. Drop bars are really three handlebars in one; the tops, the hoods, and the drops.
Changing your hands between these three main positions also affects the way you sit on the bike and the power you can put through the pedals. Getting down on the hoods puts your body in a more aerodynamic position for churning out the miles on flat roads.
If your cycling buddy starts to race to the next street sign, being in the drops allows you to pull on the bars and lever every extra watt through the pedals during a sprint.
Video: Sprinting In the Drops
The tops are great for climbing as they put you in a more upright position to allow your lungs to open fully and grab all the air they can get.
Drop Bars Vs. Flat Bars – Which is Better?
There are lots of ways to improve your comfort on the bike. Even the pro riders competing in the Tour de France pay close attention to comfort on the bike, otherwise, their bodies would refuse to go deep into a three-week race.
The handlebars, both the type and set-up, can have a drastic effect on comfort whilst riding. On long rides in particular, if you are not careful you can suffer from numb hands due to the constant vibrations and the position of your wrists whilst riding.
One of the best ways to alleviate this is by constantly shifting the position of your hands on the handlebars.
Your position on the bike also affects the overall comfort of your ride. If it is too aggressive, that is, your body is low and stretched, then you might need a deep massage after a long ride.
The type of handlebar you choose can help and if you don’t want to contort your body into an aggressive position then look for a handlebar that will force you to sit in a more upright position.
Drop bars give riders a wide scope for finding the right-hand position to match the terrain. On a more basic level, they also allow riders to shift hand positions to prevent numbness on a longer ride.
Unless also fitted with bar ends, flat bars don’t allow the same freedom of movement and on long rides, this will likely cause numb and uncomfortable hands.
With that said, flat bars are usually married to less aggressive frame designs in the first place and this could have a greater factor on overall comfort.
As you ride faster and faster, most of the energy you put through the pedals is lost in the battle against air resistance or drag. Every cyclist knows that this is a never-ending war that you have to make peace with.
That doesn’t mean there are not things we can do to help. Without delving into the technical world of aerodynamics, riders that can reduce their frontal area on the bike cut through the syrupy air more efficiently.
The more aggressive the position the faster you will go for the same power. For some riders, concerns about aerodynamics will barely register. If you prefer to pootle through town or like to take in the scenery on your way to the office, aerodynamics at these speeds have much less of an impact.
It is only when you start going above 15mph that most of the additional power is battling with air resistance.
This is where drop handlebars have a big advantage. Getting down into the drops pulls the body into a nice low profile position for slicing through the air and going faster for the same power output.
Riding on the hoods with the forearms as flat as possible and the elbows bent at close to right angles is also a great aero position that reduces the area of the rider trying to cut a hole through the air.
Flat bars don’t offer anywhere near the same aerodynamic benefits found on drop bars as the rider is confined to pretty much one, much more upright position for the entire ride.
Drop bars also tend to be narrower than flat bars and this also significantly reduces the frontal area of the rider and ekes out even more aerodynamic advantages. The narrower width also makes it easier to dodge and dip between cars that are snarled in a traffic jam.
To a large extent, the type of handlebar affects the handling and feel of the bike. Wide handlebars give you more leverage and ultimately more control.
Narrow bars feel more nimble, especially when you are descending down the side of a mountain.
Although great for improving aerodynamics, the narrow width of drop bars can make it difficult to achieve tight, precise turns. For most road cyclists blasting along smooth tarmac roads, this will not present any issues but for anything more technical you will feel this distinct lack of handling.
Being significantly wider, and therefore the ends being further away from the axis of rotation lends flat bars more control over drop bars. This is particularly noticeable at lower speeds.
Brake Lever Position
You need to be able to reach the brakes instantly when you need them. That should be obvious to every rider but it bears repeating but if you are not used to riding drop bars then you may be searching in vain for a brake lever that is not there.
If you have never ridden drop bars before, it can take a while to get used to the odd-looking position of the brake levers and STI shifters. It might even take you a while to figure out how to change gears at all.
When you do get used to riding drop bars, the position makes perfect sense, and braking and shifting gears become second nature.
For commuting in areas with busy, unpredictable roads the brake position on drop bars can cost riders a small amount of reaction time.
This could be the difference between crashing and nearly crashing. When riding in these conditions it is important to always have a couple of fingers looped over the brake lever and expect the unexpected.
The brake position on flat bars is much more intuitive and obvious. It is right where they have always been on every bike riders have had since they were kids.
For riding through town and mixing with traffic and pedestrians, having the brakes nearby at all times inspires much more confidence on the bike.
If you are one of those masochistic cyclists that love nothing more than dueling with gravity on a long climb then the type of handlebar you choose can be the difference between snapping up a KOM or not making it to the top.
The slower speed of climbing removes any issues with aerodynamics but you still need to think about comfort and body position on the bike.
Climbing puts a lot of aerobic stress on the body and your lungs will be gasping for every last bit of air as you try to keep the pedals ticking over. To give them the best chance, you need handlebars that will allow you to sit in an upright position to allow your lungs to expand as much as they can.
There will also be times on a long climb when you will want to get out of the saddle, either to give your ass a break or to launch an attack like Alberto Contador in his pomp. To do this you need the right handlebars.
For long climbs, drop bars give plenty of options for changing hand position to alleviate numbness and riding on the tops gives your lungs plenty of space to breathe. Drop bars tend to bring your weight forward on the bike which makes climbing just that little bit easier.
Drop bars also give you the option to grab the hoods and really swing the bike from side to side when you get out of the saddle and stomp on the pedals. This is great for setting up an attack or just for changing your position to use different muscles on a long climb.
On a long, steep climb you will wish you had drop bars. With nowhere else to move your hands you will get uncomfortable and with your weight set further back on the bike, you will really feel every pedal stroke.
Some people ride their bike to stay in shape whereas some people simply ride their bike because it is cool. We are not here to judge and only care that more and more people get in the saddle.
Different handlebars can add a different style to your bike.
Drop bars can add an old-school aesthetic to a bike and conjure up images of hard-men battling across France to be the last man standing. They add a different dimension to bikes and look great on a track-bike.
They might lack the tradition of drop bars, but done right a flat bar can give a unique look to a bike, especially if you are handy with a hacksaw.
Drops Or Flat Bars: FAQs
Can You Replace Flat Bars With Drop Bars And Vice-Versa
It can be done but you will most likely also have to replace the brake and gear levers so that they are compatible with the new bars and gears on your bike.
Are Drop Bars Good For Commuting?
A lot of riders use drop bars for commuting, mostly because they happen to use their road bikes for commuting in the first place rather than through any conscious decision.
If getting to the office fast is your priority, then drop bars will be a huge help. If you prefer comfort and control, especially in traffic, then flat bars might be the better option.
How Can I Make A Drop Bar More Comfortable
Let’s start with the materials; carbon drop bars are more comfortable than aluminum bars as they insulate more of the road vibration. On a long ride, you will be thankful for all the dampening you can get.
To get the most comfortable position, the last thing you want to do is slam your stem as low as it will go. Just because the pros do it doesn’t mean you have to and unless you are handy with a hacksaw, all those extra spacers sticking up is not a good look.
Experiment with the angle of the bars to get the most comfortable position for your riding style.
Our Final Say…
Before deciding between a flat bar or drop bars, think carefully about how you like to ride your bike. Do you like going fast and going on long, epic bike rides? Then chances are you will have more joy with drop bars.
Perhaps you prefer a slower, more sedate type of cycling that doesn’t contort your body into an unnatural position. Flat bars here fit the bill.
We might have covered the main strengths and weaknesses of each handlebar in this article to nudge you in the right direction but, like most things when it comes to cycling, it is very much a personal preference. Choose well and you will get the most out of your riding.