Monday, July 2, 2007

It's All in the Details: The Bar Scene

For cyclists, in some ways, times have never been better. Our retail outlets are brimming with bicycles and components that not too long ago would have been considered hard-to-find "specialty" items. Road, mountain, track, and cyclocross complete bikes, frames, and parts are all readily available at the LBS or online.

As a result of this bounty, there has been a commingling of componentry like never before. Mountain bike pedals on track bikes, disc brakes on 'cross bikes, flat bars on road bikes--people are using whatever wherever to suit their particular riding styles. They're disregarding intended use, so long as the component does the job.

Perhaps the most commingling has occurred with handlebars. The lines between road and offroad, track and road, and so forth, have blurred considerably. Now, I'm all for comfort, but sometimes I think this handlebar promiscuity has gone too far. Coupled with this, there's also just a general disregard for proper handlebar setup, as well as a sacrifice of functionality for the sake of style. Some of this is due to mixing and matching, some is due to ignorance, some to vanity, and some to neglect. Here are some examples:


"Flop n' Chop"

With the fixed gear explosion has come a mass butchering of handlebars that would make Stalin blush. What is this compulsion to neuter the simple road bar by cutting off the hooks and removing the means by which you can most effectively transfer power to the bike? Somewhere in the trendier neighborhoods of our nation's cities there must be vast killing fields of dismembered drops like endless expanses of severed walrus tusks. A person more enterprising than myself might find these graveyards and sell the remains to Cinelli so they can make more of those stupid Spinacis.

Excessively Chopped Straight Bars

Before the bullhorn and the riser bar, the flat mountain bike handlebar was appropriated for street use. These things are fairly wide, so it's normal on- or off-road to cut them down. It lets you pass between trees or cars, depending on where you're using them. However, truncating them so there's only a fistful of aluminum on either side of the stem is just vain affectation. Just because messengers do it doesn't make it a good idea. I won't take the time to explain the concept of leverage here, but on a bicycle it's something you want. Most of these riders will never see a real hill so it's not an issue, but on the East River crossings they look like they're trying to open a bottle of wine while holding it between their knees, or like Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" cutting new holes in the green. And forget handling--unless you want your bike to be twitchier than a chihuahua with a nerve disorder, go easy with the hacksaw.

Poor Positioning


I'm not a tremendous fan of bullhorn handlebars for street use, but it's certainly better than maiming an innocent drop bar. If you're going to go this route, just please install your lever correctly. Don't put it on with the lever tip pointing forward, so that your bike looks like a pike fish swimming with its mouth open. Also, try to keep the bars somewhat level. I know they're called bullhorns, but TT bars pointed skyward makes it look like you're riding an antelope. And if you prefer to ride with your arms straight out in front of you, perhaps you'd be more comfortable in a car gripping a steering wheel, or on a subway holding a magazine.

Risers with Quill Stems

Using risers on a street bike is better than drop bars with grips on the tops. At least the rider has come to terms with the fact that he or she will be staying in the upright position. And sure, sometimes you need a little more bar height than your steer tube would otherwise allow. But very often I see bikes with quill stems and riser bars with the stem lowered to its minimum height. Why not just use regular bars and raise the stem? There's a reason you didn't see risers much until the threadless thing took over. And yes, I realize it works just fine, but it's making five lefts to go right--like using air conditioning and the heat at the same time--and consequently inelegant.

Rotation on Drop Bars

Depending on what's comfortable and where you like your levers you might opt to rotate your bars up or down a bit. But often I see riders with their bars angled way, way down, so that the drops form the letter "U." The only explanation I can possibly come up with is that their bars are slipping a little bit each day, and it's so incremental they're just not noticing it. Either that or they just want to feel like they're holding on to two umbrella handles while they ride. And I don't even think I need to mention people who rotate their bars all the way up, so that their brake levers are on top and parallel with the ground. These people are generally riding old ten speeds along boardwalks, wearing flip-flops and pedaling with their heels, and as such are so beyond knowing (or caring) what they're doing that they're outside of the jurisdiction of this site.
(Not what you want to hold while riding.)

Bar Ends Pointing Straight Up

Your bar ends are to give you leverage and a more forward hand position should you need it. Yet for some reason every week or so I see somebody with his bar ends pointed directly skyward. These things exist for a purpose, and it's not to make your bike look like an attentive lemur. A good rule of thumb is to angle them using your stem as a guideline--unless of course you've got a vertical stem.
(Adorable--but not a guideline for proper bar setup.)

Bar Ends on Riser Bars

There are certain rules of thumb in cycling that exist for no good reason except that adherence to them means you're "in the know." And the admonition to not use bar ends on riser bars is one of those rules. Those of you who choose to disregard the rules and do whatever works best for you are certainly more enlightened than me, I will freely admit. That said, ditch the bar ends on riser bars--it looks stupid.


The Mummy

Yes, bar tape can tear, and you don't always have the time or inclination to purchase costly cork and re-tape your bars. Especially on a commuter, or at the end of a long racing season when just looking at your bike makes you want to throw up. In these cases, temporarily fixing the problem with a little electrical tape is acceptable. However, what is never acceptable is letting loose tape flutter in the breeze so that your bike looks like an old-time movie monster. Bar tape hanging off your bars is the equivalent of having toilet paper stuck to your shoe. And while I'm at it, if you don't know how to tape your bars properly, take tomorrow off, stay home, and learn.

Full Frontal Nudity

I see more and more people riding with completely bare bars these days. Please, out of decency, cover your naked, shivering bars. I don't know if people don't know how to tape them, or they just think it looks cool. But there's just nothing cool about grabbing your bars with sweaty, gloveless hands and sliding off the drops. It's like trying to handle porcelain after eating a meal of greasy spare ribs. Except the latter won't cost you your teeth.

Just Plain Overdoing It

Integrated Carbon Bar/Stems

This is one of those bad ideas manufacturers just don't seem to be able to leave alone. Pros don't even ride these things. What is the wisdom of a system that saves no weight while simultaneously preventing you from changing your stem length, stem angle, bar width, and bar angle without tossing the whole thing? In the case of the FSA Plasma, you can have the convenience of this setup for the low, low price of almost $600--which can buy you a pretty decent frame in some parts of the world. Personally I'd rather commit to a tattoo of my bar/stem setup than actually physically fix it in stone (or carbon) like these things force you to do. At least with the tattoo I can still be comfortable. (And I can cover it up with my new bar/stem setup for less money.) If these things were the norm and regular "modular" bars and stems were just coming out they'd be hailed as a brilliant innovation. They also look dated in about six months--remember the Cinelli Integralter? Neither do they.

Clip-On Aero Bars of Any Kind

Unless you are actually riding a TT and need to adapt your road bike to the purpose, please think twice before you bolt all kinds of extensions, forearm pads, beverage containers, and digital readouts on your bars. Some people seem to think they will find zen if they can attain every conceivable hand position possible. But it is never possible. Buddhists will tell you that material gain will never bring you true fulfillment, and I'm here to tell you that multiple hand positions won't bring you true cycling fulfillment. Instead, one day you'll get so frustrated you'll dispense with the aero extensions altogether and find yourself riding a recumbent. And trust me, you do not want to wind up rolling around town looking like a guy lying on the ground and trying to fight off an attacking eagle with his feet.


Anonymous said...

so this guy:
is not a pro?

The lack of a stem faceplate and wing section tops make them sick aero, and I find them nice and comfortable. granted, I'd never buy them at retail, but they're not that stupid of an idea.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree RE the aero bars. Some people (like me) randomly happen to have the nerves in our hands pretty close to the surface. I have tried every bar, bar tape, or pair of gloves I can, and nothing stops the licking-a-light-socket tingling in my hands after 10 min in the saddle. I don't use aero bars to look cool, I use aero bars because it's the only way my hands stay functional.

Unknown said...

So you're saying you ride in the aero position everywhere? Why not just buy a bike that fits?

BikeSnobNYC said...


Ha! I was wondering how long before someone called me on that. Sure, you see 'em now and again, but most of the pros still seem to go with plain old aluminum bars and stems. (Yawn.)

Anonymous 12:43 and everyone else--it's all about what works for you. Nobody else has to like it. (Lord knows I probably won't.)

Thanks for the comments, guys, they're always appreciated.

GhostRider said...

Bikesnob, you're always right on the money...until now.

I have a bone to pick with the "no bar ends with risers" category. In all your other posts, your disdain for "fashion over function" rings loud and clear. But, in this case, bar ends DO provide function over one uses bar ends on risers because that's the cool (not the smart) thing to do!

Bar ends were designed to provide an additional perch for tired, numb hands on flat bars. What is it about riser bars that negated using bar ends? I mean, there's still only one place to put your hands on a riser bar, isn't there?

I will admit that adding bar ends to a riser bar kinda looks stupid -- like a horny moose or something, but man, I'd rather look kinda dorky than have sore hands!

Jim said...

Uh oh. Now you've done it. The guys with bar ends appended to aero bars clipped on to integral bar/stem/steerer/fork/front wheel systems will be gunning for you, probably from the comfy, wide Aeron seats on their recumbent trikes.

I'd be careful, BikeSnob. If you see anybody matching that description, wearing a Sportwool "Cinzano" jersey and brandishing a frame pump, you'd best grab the bar ends on your Spinaci and TT for your life.

BikeSnobNYC said...


You are absolutely right. I tried to acknowledge in the post that my reasons for decrying it were purely superficial. I freely admit that those secure enough with themselves to be both comfortable and dorky are better men than me.


Anonymous said...

If you can't get comfortable on the old standbys you should try Moustash bars, Jones H-Bars or funky WTB Dirt Drops. They're dorky but at least they are not as dorky as bastardizing conventional setups. Put on a seersucker blouse and a floppy hat and tell'em you are Grant Peterson.

BikeSnobNYC said...


Agreed. I'm a fan of those alternatives--I fondly call those "granola bars."


meh-wee-uhn said...

That's it. I give up. You win.

Even though the grumpy, poser bike mechanic is eternally muttering under her breath about all that you addressed in this here post, I could never hope to string it all together in as nice a bloggular post as you have been able to do.

Well done.

T. Lyle said...

well...I thought of you when I saw this. Have a field day with this bad-boy...

Anonymous said...

Well... at least his seat was horizontal.

fueledbycoffee said...

This site is the best.

Anne said...

A fantastic article - thanks

Anonymous said...

grat site bike snob.

Here is another victim of the chop, and a strange interpretation of how to mount integrated leavers.

cheers, tim

Anonymous said...

Not "in the know," I guess. What's the issue w/ bar ends on risers?

I was getting a chuckle out of your column, thinking of all the non-purist mutants that have given me pause and a chuckle from time to time, until I scrolled down and found myself staring in the mirror.

I'm still scratching my chin and pondering my dereliction. Sort of like when my wife says some variation of "part of the problem is that you have to ask what the problem is."

- Bill

Anonymous said...

great post!

i took the butchering route this summer though:

and i do think i should tape them soon, so they aren't so naked.

i am definitely a fan, aethetically, of those tiny chopped straight bars... SO clean!

long live track bikes in NYC, though i don't have one myself.

Anonymous said...

WRT chopped bars, you do realize that not everyone is out to transfer 2000 watts to the pavement, right?

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Nice post

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Anonymous said...

I have no other way to contact you than publicly humiliating you in front of your audience.

I think you're a smug asshole.
I think you're upset at a crowd of youngin's and don't know how to deal with it than spending mass amounts of your personal energy aggressively belittling people for their personal actions.

Don't even write about Buddhism, you have a blog purely to shame, in your OPINION, less educated cyclists. Not to educate them.

Hence, you're a P.O.S.

You've got a problem with everything, I bet you're the guy that rides THE MOST STANDARD mountain bike through the city streets, hating cars, bikes, and dogs that can run faster than you.

Take a second, check yourself,
realize you're an asshole,
and never write about Buddhism on this page again.

sucks for you that I'm

Anonymous said...

Stay in NYC, you fucking tool

Anonymous said...

Quill stems and riser bars are rad though.

Anonymous said...

Bare drops and risers in quill stems is cool though. So ya...

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Anonymous said...

I ride bikes. I have a MTB, a Cyclocross, A vintage Road bike with bare drops and a fixie which i'm going to give the drops the chops and flip up... Just like you hate.. Which is how I stumbled on your blog. I love riding all my bikes and in the morning prior to my commute I wonder which will be the most fun on that day depending on mood, weather and where I will leave my bike.

People are experimenting and trying styles because it's human nature to try different things.

Unless you are so square of course.

Hipsters, messengers, commuters.. keep riding!


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I'd just like to say here that I put some Ergon integrated bar ends and grips onto my hybrid with riser bars and the world didn't end! Actually, makes my commute very much more comfortable. So there!

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