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The "Comfort" of Narrow Handlebars13.06.2020

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.

Narrow bars are common on track bikes

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.

Crit racing on narrow bars, rider in the foreground has 'standard' width handlebars while I'm in the background with narrower bars. Notice how my arms come inwards instead of straight.

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.

Another photo of the hand position. It looks like my elbows are pointing outwards but that's more due to my forearms pointing inwards

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.

Comments

  1. Jim in Colorado says:

    You stated “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”. That is the opposite of what is accepted logic about bar width — wider bars slow down steering (the bar has to move farther for a given unit of movement by the wheel), narrower bars speed up steering and make a bike twitchier. Your statement seems quite curious.

  2. Jim in Colorado says:

    Having wider bars should slow down steering and increase stability and ability to go in a straight line. Curious that you are saying the opposite.

    I have been experiencing speed wobble and am paying a shop to lower the step and swap from 42cm to 44cm bars. I participate in competitive group rides and races, care about results, and don’t want a “parachute” effect. On the other hand, going over 40mph causes significant anxiety because of possible speed wobble. Pretty much every ride I do has a descent that exceeds 40mph. My expectation is that wider bars will reduce the likelihood of speed wobble through slowing down the steering. Feedback welcome, I dropped my bike off last night, they may not have started on it yet.

    • istigatrice says:

      Hey Jim,

      I think both are true, in the sense that I feel that wider bars tend to be easier to ‘rock’ side to side than narrower bars, so in a sprint with narrower bars you tend to rock the bike less and hence sprint straighter.

      But in terms of steering input, the idea that you move a narrower bar less for the same steering (so you have less fine control over the steering) is pretty widely accepted (e.g. this is why MTB have really wide bars and short stems, to allow for finer control).

      I would say speed wobbles are more due to bike fit, weight distribution and geometry – so in case the wider bars don’t solve your problems maybe try a larger frame size? It’s not a topic I understand in full detail so take that with a pinch of salt.

  3. supercardplayer says:

    there are a lot of benefits to being narrow less reach more areo .

  4. Patrick says:

    Interesting article. I’m an advocate of narrow bars, especially if you ride in fast groups or race.

    A couple of years ago I went from 44cm ergonovas (measure 43, I think) to 38cm Bontrager aero bars (measured 39), and the perceived difference in speed far outweighed any frame, wheel, or component change I’ve made in pursuit of aero gains. I don’t have access to a wind tunnel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if created a 20-30+ watt difference.

    Like you, I also noticed the narrower profile helps make moving around in the bunch a little easier. I would also say it quickened the handling of my bike a little bit too. The feel of sprinting is a bit different but I can’t say it’s better or worse.

    Unlike you, however, I can’t identify with your experience of being more fatigued from using the narrower bars. I find it pretty interesting though. Do you do any strength training? I strength train year around (usually once per week), so perhaps that has made the difference with me.

    All in all, I would say I adapted pretty quickly to the bars and think the performance gains have far outweighed any potential negatives.

    Unfortunately, I was taken out in a bad race crash last year, broke my bike, and had to revert to a backup bike. This bike has 42cm circa 2018 Cervelo aero bars and they feel like parachutes to me.

    I can’t wait to go back to narrow bars, which will be soon because I just ordered a pair of 38cm 3T Aeroflux bars.

    So yeah, I’m a fan of narrow bars and tell (preach) to all my racing buddies about the advantages of narrow bars, but most are resistant. Well, all except one — he rides 36cm bars. He also has PhD in aerodynamics and has worked in NASCAR, so I guess I wouldn’t expect anything less.

    I’ve told (preached) to all my racer friends but they seem to be pretty resistant to change.

    • istigatrice says:

      Hey Patrick,

      Thanks for sharing! I do strength training year round too. It’s not so much the ‘strength’ but the ‘endurance’ that’s the issue for me, so I think doing more conditioning training would help but these days I’m rarely racing, so just keep the narrow bars for the track bike. That said I’m still using relatively narrow bars (38-40 c-c) rather than super narrow (36 c-c). I think for endurance style riding one needs to find a balance, but for out and out speed super narrow is the way to go!

  5. Blink Too Fast says:

    Just to post the opposite viewpoint….

    My shoulders are 42cm. I feel cramped on the hoods on anything less than 44cm.

    On the drops I feel cramped on anything that isn’t flared. On-One Midge, Salsa Cowbell, and Salsa Cowchipper are wonderful for long rides. There’s a long downhill with a speed camera near where I live. Flared bars flash up at 36-39mph. Non-flared bars at 38-41mph. But the flared are so much more comfortable (for me) that it makes the difference between a longer ride being torture or enjoyable.

    Literally, sitting here right now and putting my hands infront of me, clenched parallel, tenses up my whole torso. Rotating the bottom of my fists out by a few degrees out relaxes my torso.

    • istigatrice says:

      Thanks for sharing, agree that on longer/easier rides it’s not as comfortable to go narrower. You need to be pushing hard enough so that some weight is taken off the hands (and have a bike fit/core strength that allows for that). Definitely not for everyone!

  6. sin77 says:

    My shoulder width are in between sizes at 39.5cm. I have tried both 40cm and 38cm dropbars but mainly holding the top and the hoods, with only 1 to 5 percent of mileage on the drop.

    I started at 42cm and definitely found it too big and harder to reach the hoods as i need to lean much forward. So naturally i switched to a 40cm. Bike fitter told me i could choose either 38 or 40. The next one i took up 38 and somewhat felt it was comfortable for my lower back because i can sit more upright. If i need to go aero, i could bend my elbows to keep low or simply hold the drops instead. In terms of aerodynamics, i do feel a tad faster. But my fatigue level around the shoulders and elbows can be felt after a couple of hours. If going for endurance ride, i will prefer 40cm.

    Having said that, i have been changing dropbars often. Always switching between 40 and 38. Right now i feel very comfortable with 40 but i recently found a good deal for a brand new 38cm bar. So I’m back to 38 soon.

  7. Narrowbars says:

    Been running 32s from hupp on my commuter for the past two years or so. Pedalling standing was weird for a ride or two but it feels perfectly normal now. Funny how even 36s feel like riding a parachute now.

    About the breathing: if you can breathe with hands on the tops…

    • istigatrice says:

      Those 32s must be fun for ducking in around traffic!

      Definitely you shouldn’t have too many issues breathing with the narrower bars, but I do think it does require more ‘strength/energy’ to hold yourself on the bike which might negatively effect your ability to recover. I know most of your weight is on your feet when you’re riding, but over a few hours I do seem to notice it!

  8. wheelsONfire says:

    Tried 40cm, i think it’s restricting my ability to breathe.
    I use 42cm, but i started at 44cm.

  9. Mike Bufalino says:

    Great article – thanks. I am currently wrestling with what the ‘right’ handlebar width is for me, and want to get it spot on as I am seriously considering some integrated options which are north of £500…so will not be able to afford to have several of them laying about.

    I measured my shoulder width between the ‘boney’ bits that stick up and was surprised to see they were 36cm. Until now I have been riding a 42cm width bar, which is clearly too big, albeit I hadn’t really noticed any issues. That said, I had innately turned my levers in slightly (and upon measuring them, the hoods are 40cm centre to centre).

    On this basis, I am leaning toward a 40cm width integrated barstem (Black Inc is the current favourite) however I genuinely don’t know if I should be looking at 38cm instead (going on the maxim of shoulder width + 2cm = bar width).

    I would be really interested in your view.

    Many thanks
    Mike

    • istigatrice says:

      Hey Mike,

      I’d say try some alloy bars to get your fit dialled first, and/or go see a well respected bike fitter. No point having the nicest bike/bars if you don’t function well on it.

  10. anhk says:

    Try an inwardly closed lever like the Evenepoel uses.
    I tried it and I think it’s cope with both aerodynamic and manageable.
    Ease of braking is not as bad as it looks.

    • istigatrice says:

      Have a closer look at the shifters on my bike – they’re angled inwards too 😉 If I’m TTing I’ll grab the ‘top’ of the shifter which is about 32cm wide 🙂

  11. bill says:

    What models have you found in 36 and 38?
    Thanks –
    Bill

    • istigatrice says:

      Hey Bill,

      My favourites are Deda RHM Zero100, Zero1 or Zero2 range in 38cm (outside to outside) so just shy of 36cm (centre to centre).

      You can also get NOS Zipp service course SL-70 and SL-80 in 36cm (centre to centre) as well as Pro PLT in 36cm. I think Nitto also make a narrow bar but they don’t have a ‘modern’ drop shape like the Deda bars. I think they’ve discontinued the 36cm in recent years though.

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