It's been a while since I've posted, but I hope everyone is staying safe, and riding (or Zwifting) where appropriate.
Today's article is about narrow handlebars. This isn't a new trend, but it it is one that can be polarising. Narrow bars can both improve and hinder one's cycling efficiency. After spending the last 5 years racing, training and riding narrower bars I hope to share with you my experiences of the associated pros and cons. For context, my recommended bar width is 42cm and I've ridden bars that were 36cm, 38cm, 40cm and 42cm. In a sense I've literally tried them all.
Perhaps the most alluring benefit of narrow bars is the improved aerodynamics. The basic reasoning is that your hands are bought more in front of your knees/body. Even if you do flare your elbows out the hand position is (anecdotally) more favourable as it is narrower at the front. My experience with this is that it is quite noticeable especially if you drop 6cm in handlebar width. To me it feels as though I am getting some benefits of a TT position with road bars, and the perceived benefit was more significant than swapping shallow rims for deeper rims. Though having said that, my (road) racing performances haven't been significantly better (or worse) with narrower bars - they were just different because of the way my body responded to hard efforts, something I'll comment more about when I discuss the cons.
A benefit of narrow bars that's not often talked about is that it can also improve your handling and comfort. When riding narrow bars I found that my bikes had a greater tendency to track straight, it was easier to 'push' the bike forwards rather than rock it side to side. Apart from this, it also reduces your frontal profile which helps when moving around tight bunches. I found that these sensations resulted in me sprinting better, it was easier to move through bunches as well as hold a straight line during a maximum effort. However, holding a straight line wasn't something that came immediately, it needed some practice. If you have a natural tendency to throw your bike side to side under a maximum effort, the bike will respond differently and I found that this compromised my ability to sway the bike. However once I adjusted and stopped swaying the bike (and started sprinting 'straighter') I found that I could sprint faster and safer.
So far it sounds like narrower bars are a pretty substantial performance gain, so why aren't bikes coming standard with 36cm bars? When I initially started trying these bars, I noticed that a common misconception is that narrow bars limit your breathing ability. Some of the local coaches even said the 36cm bars were too narrow for road because of this. In my experience this is overstated, for instance one can argue that the TT position, which places the hands and elbows even closer than a 36cm or 38cm bar would is arguably one of the most efficient positions possible on a standard bike. Of course like a TT position some adaption to the position is necessary, but after this adaption I doubt that narrow bars would compromise your performance over shorter (say up to 3 hours) rides. Some of my better TT rides and Strava PRs were on 36cm bars, the 40cm+ bars couldn't really match these times.
With all of the above benefits discussed, there's one pretty big reason why my current road bikes have 40cm bars on them. While the 36cm bars were perceived to be significantly faster over shorter riders and single TT efforts I found it hard to recover from these efforts and on longer rides with these bars. I suspect that my road racing results didn't improve because much of road racing is about endurance, and I simply felt that I fatigued faster with these narrow bars. Even in shorter criterium races I found it a detriment as it was harder to recover from efforts. I suspect that the narrower stance width makes it harder to 'hold' yourself upright on the bike and so more muscles are engaged to hold your position. Basically I found that I would have a harder time making it to the final or sprint, even though my training was similar. So even though the narrower bars may be aerodynamically favourable it was harder for me to sustain and/or repeat those efforts multiple times.
In the end I settled upon 40cm bars for my road bike, I didn't notice a substantial functional/endurance difference and there was still a similar sensation of 'speed' although not to the same extent as the super narrow 36cm. In other words I found that I was still recovering and repeating efforts as much as I would have with 42cm bars and I felt less like a human parachute. I still use 36cm bars on my track bike, and keep another set of 36cm handlebars handy for road bike only/category time trials. I would recommend experimenting to find the narrowest bars that you can function with, for me that was 2-3cm narrower than my shoulder width. Having experienced a benefit of narrower handlebars I'd definitely recommend experimenting to find the narrowest size you can function with.