Getting a handle on it.
Handlebars are the primary control point between you and your bike. The type of handlebar you select for your ride will determine in no small way how your bike will behave, and how much control and comfort you will have.
Handlebars are the direct connection between a rider’s control input, and where the bike goes on the road. Choosing the wrong type of handlebar can mean the difference between winning or losing for racers, or enjoying the ride or having hands go numb for recreational riders.
Handlebars for road riding come in 2 shapes, drop bars, giving the classic down low riding position that’s been around for the last 80 years or so, and tri bars, which give the rider a very aerodynamic riding position, but affords less control over the bike. Drop bars, as they are normally called, are also sometimes called racing handlebars, to differentiate them from the flat handlebars used by more traditional bikes and mountain bikes. Drop bars are usually made from aluminium, with higher end models made from carbon fiber. Both materials behave differently when installed, so material selection is important. Manufacturers differentiate their models between low end, pro and race models, which sometimes, but not always, denotes the amount of stiffness in the bar, and weight. Bear in mind that the difference in weight between aluminium and carbon fiber handlebars can be minimal. What matters is the difference in the amount of stiffness and vibration absorption in the handlebar.
The curvature of a drop also plays a role in riding comfort and control, with many riders preferring ‘compact’ drop bars. The handlebars have a minimal ‘drop’ between the top of the handlebar, or ‘the flats’ or ‘tops’, and ‘the drop’, the riding position that puts them out of the wind while riding. For riders with smaller hands, or for lady riders, ‘short reach’ bars are produced, for the best bike fit and control. Handlebar width also plays a big role in riding comfort. The rule of thumb is that the bars should at least be as wide as your shoulders.
Handlebar tube shape is traditionally round, with some handlebars having shaped tubes at the top in the interest of presenting a lower profile to the wind. Most handlebars these days also have reliefs, cut outs or routing holes for running gear and brake cables.
Tri bars were developed for the needs of time trialers and triathletes, where an aerodynamic riding position is paramount. Tri bars are distinguished by arm extensions extending forwards, where forearms are placed to get into the ‘aero tuck’. Mechanical groupsets place the brake levers at the ends of the bar and the shifters are located on the extensions. By nature of their design, where the rider’s body position and movement is limited, tri bars are not recommended for group riding.
What matters is the difference in the amount of stiffness and vibration absorption in the handlebar’s design.