Choosing the right handlebar width
How wide is too wide
As mountain bikers, we take pride in our bikes and swear by parts that have treated us well in the past. Everything on our bikes—from the style of pedals to our favorite saddles—builds a relationship between us and our rigs, but there is one part many riders overlook. Yes, we are talking about handlebars, and to be more specific, we’re talking about the width of those bars. It’s no secret that handlebars have been growing wider over the last five years or so. This trend is largely a product of changes in bike geometry. Bikes today are built with shorter chainstays and longer top tubes that demand wider handlebars and shorter stems to bring out the best handling. These changes have made bikes more stable and responsive than in the past. The law of diminishing returns, however, says that there’s a limit to how wide you can go and still benefit. We set out to find that limit and help you choose the right bar width for your bike.
Almost every rider understands the importance of finding the correct saddle height and placing his or her controls in a comfortable position, but many riders leave their handlebars the way they came stock. This doesn’t necessarily mean your handlebars are the wrong size for you, but keep in mind, many bike manufacturers use the same handlebar width across their entire size lineup. Imagine two riders—one who makes his living as an NBA player and one who moonlights as a jockey. Now, put them on the same bike with their appropriate-sized frame and the same handlebar width. It would be a pretty good guess to say one of those riders isn’t experiencing the same level of comfort and control as the other rider. The larger rider is likely to fit a wider 760- or 780-millimeter bar, while the smaller rider would probably fit more naturally on a 720- or 740-millimeter bar.
However, this is far from a hard-and- fast rule. Terrain has a major influence on a rider’s preferred handlebar width. The taller rider may be forced to use a smaller bar if he’s slaloming trees that barely allow enough clearance for the bar ends. It’s easier to give up a little leverage if it means you’re not smashing your knuckles into trees on every turn. By contrast, a desert rider with a smaller stature will have no issues blasting the trails with the widest bars he or she feels comfortable with. A rider’s style can also influence his or her choice of handlebar width. Choosing a wider bar will offer more leverage over rough terrain on descents, as well as more leverage over the bike during slower cadence climbing. Narrower bars will put the rider in a forward-leaning, aerodynamic position that allows the rider to spin at a higher cadence more efficiently, but will sacrifice stability going downhill. It’s important to keep in mind that these changes in bar widths will also result in changing your reach on the bike. A change in reach can affect body-weight distribution as well as overall bike fit. To remedy this, we recommend shortening your stem around 10 millimeters for every 20 millimeters of bar width gained—and vice versa. The feeling you’ll get from a perfect bike fit is second to none, and will not only increase your confidence but will also increase your bike’s stability, handling and attitude on the trail. Finding the perfect bar width can be hard, so here are a few helpful tips.
• If your current bars are too narrow, there is no safe way to add length. Sorry. The only way to fix this problem is to buy new handlebars.
• Using 800-millimeter handlebars is a great way to experiment. After every couple of rides, cut them in 10-millimeter increments until you’re satisfied.
• While experimenting with handlebar widths, buy used or inexpensive aluminum bars so you don’t run the risk of ruining a carbon bar.
• Try the tape-measure method. Go into a natural push-up position and measure the distance between the outside sides of your right and left hands. This may require a conversion from inches to millimeters. Google will be your friend on that one.
• Keep in mind the trails you ride and what obstacles you may face, such as narrowly spaced trees. This may cause you to run a narrower handlebar than preferred. Your intact knuckles will thank you.
• Never assume your bike came stock with handlebars that fit you perfectly. In many cases, bikes come with wider bars than necessary to satisfy riders on larger frames. If you’re riding a small or extra- small frame, take a second look at your handlebar width.
• Your stem and handlebars work together. Sometimes it will be necessary to replace your stem if you make a drastic change to your handlebar width.