HOW TO PICK THE PERFECT HANDLEBAR FOR YOUR MOUTAIN BIKE

All about bends, rises and materials

With so many different handlebars available in an endless world of specs from different brands, using one option over another with a few small number of tweaks can dramatically change how a rider experiences rolling on trails. We’ll go over the basics, touch upon top athletes’ choices and some of our top picks on the market.

 

MATERIALS

Most handlebars are made from either aluminum or carbon, and every manufacturer designs them with an intent of how they will be used. In short, handlebars intended for cross-country use can have different wall thicknesses than those designed for downhill riding. While weight savings is an element of why a rider might choose carbon handlebars it is also for the compliance/damping characteristics that can be experienced. This is not as common of a trait with alloy handlebars as it is with carbon. The rigidity of handlebars all comes down to the pattern and layup. The carbon material is precisely placed to bring strength, weight savings and added compliance to a ride. However, carbon will cost more to manufacture, and, over time, carbon handlebars are usually less durable when it comes to dents and scrapes.

On the opposite side, most alloy handlebars are exceptionally durable. In the example of a hard crash on a rock garden, alloy might bend and get some cosmetic scratches. Although we’ve seen lots of highly durable carbon options, if there is the start of a crack on the handlebars, it’s best to replace them to avoid a disastrous parts failure. Although there are strong carbon bars with plenty of compliance for comfort, some riders prefer the extra strength and stiffness of alloy. Not only that, but alloy will also be kinder to your budget than a more expensive carbon-produced product. Each use of the different materials has its strengths and weaknesses. If cutting down weight is your goal, you’ll likely run carbon handlebars. If strength and having the stiffest handlebar possible is a goal, then an alloy option is your go-to. At the end of the day, most of these pros and cons on materials really come down to the type of riding and trails you like to traverse.

 

RISE AND SWEEP

Subtle and important, yet not the most talked-about spec of handlebars is the rise and sweep. These measurements are essentially what defines the contour of your handlebars. Just like all of our categories covered, there are a plethora of different choices with different rise and sweep designs. The rise of the handlebars is the vertical rise measured from the center of the bar to the bar end. Mountain bike handlebars will typically range from a 0mm to a 50mm rise. Who would want more rise? Extra rise is beneficial for extremely steep terrain as it helps riders place more of their weight over the back of the bike. Going to a lower number or lower rise bar will help keep weight over the front of the bike. This is precisely why most cross-country and all-mountain riders will usually have a lower rise for the soundest position during steep climbs.

The sweep affects the ends of the handlebar and has two measurements that come into play—upsweep and backsweep. The angle of upsweep shows how much the bars are angled upward from the clamping area, and the angle of backsweep reveals how sharply the bars are angled back. Generally, the upsweep for a mountain bike handlebar is about 5 degrees. Most commonly the backsweep for mountain bike handlebars will range from 7 to 10, with 8 degrees stationed as a standard.

The different handlebar sweeps available are ultimately a comfort measurement for a rider to consider. With more backsweep, a rider’s upper body is placed rearward into a different hand position than with a flatter bar. What works for you might not always work for others in this designated handlebar measurement. Ultimately, comfort is what’s key here for the upsweep and backsweep. Altering these numbers can feel strange at first, but there is no real rule as to what is best. Our best advice is to check your current handlebars and keep those numbers to compare if looking to try something different.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, John Tomac’s equipment choices carried a lot of weight. He was widely recognized as the best mountain biker in the world.

WIDTH

The most talked-about subject matter for handlebars is the width. Similar to the other criteria, there is no hard line drawn on what handlebar width is the best as it will vary differently for everyone and the type of riding they do. So what width is a good starting point? We like to break it down with a combination of body height, rider style, and the type of landscape they are looking to take on. A shorter and stocky rider will likely want a slightly narrower handlebar than someone who might be tall and slender. If thinking of bike categories, a cross-country racer often runs a narrower (700–740mm) width than a weekend trail or downhill bike rider who would likely go wider (740–820mm). Wider handlebars can help provide stability, but there is a limit. A narrower handlebar will likely have twitchier handling characteristics but also will place a rider into a better position for endurance or lengthy trial time. Another reason to opt for a narrower width is if you ride in an area with tight trails and trees.

Standing 6’3”, Greg Minnaar runs his bars at 800mm (31.5 inches) wide, and he’s won four Downhill World Championship titles, including this one at Val di Sole in 2021.
Photo by Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

It may seem overwhelming but once you consider these talking points it will then take a little trial and error to figure out what prefer. We recommend starting a touch wide and then cutting down the handlebars after three to four rides to dial in what feels most comfortable. Remember, when it comes to cutting down your handlebars, there is really only one rule to follow: measure twice and cut once! At the moment, we find the most common handlebar width to be right at 780mm wide for the average full-suspension trail bike rider. Now, most modern handlebars will have an option that starts at 800mm or 780mm wide. Keeping things in mind for the rider, there will often be guidelines to cut down handlebars in 5/10mm increments on each side.

World champion Nino Schurter’s bar setup might look unusual, but it clearly works for him.

CLAMP DIAMETER

The last main factor to consider is the clamp diameter. Once briefly popular with road racers, the oversized 35mm clamp diameter has begun to take over the classic 31.8mm choice in mountain biking handlebars. Given the qualities of a thicker and wider area for material, a 35mm handlebar and stem clamp can increase stiffness and durability. Just like carbon versus alloy, stiffness isn’t always the right answer. Compliance can and is as important for the best trail riding experience. Tons of variables come into play when really discerning, “One is better than the other.” The reluctance for moving to 35mm handlebars is that it requires a stem change as well, and the last thing the bike industry needs is a new “standard” for anything!

Clamp diameters of 35mm may add stiffness and durability to bars, but the 31.8mm option might offer more comfort.

It’s not unheard of to see 35mm diameter handlebars be lighter than their 31.8mm sibling while retaining the same resilience. Full circle, it is possible that two handlebars could be the same weight yet one is stiffer than the other. In the end, these variables are what make the brands’ products different. All manufacturers have their own approach that comes into play with new mountain bike standards. Even as this is being typed, the landscape is changing, but brands will always explore options to meet specific performance requirements for whatever the intended discipline.

PRO RIDER SETTINGS

Rider: Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, UCI Elite Women’s XCO world champion

Brand/model of handlebar: BMC

Material: Carbon

Intended use: Cross-country

Clamp diameter: 31.8mm

Width: 700mm

Rise: 0mm

Backsweep: 5°

Upsweep: 5°

Bike: BMC Fourstroke

Hannah Bergemann, slopestyle and freerider

“I chose my bar settings based primarily on my style of riding. I chose a higher rise bar (35mm) in addition to spacers under the stem for a taller feeling cockpit. I prefer the body positioning with taller bars while riding steep, technical trails, as well as hitting jumps. I also cut my bars to 760mm, which is comfortable for my wingspan, and ensures I have the most control over the bike—and I’m not too far forward from having my hands spaced too far apart for my shoulder width.”

Brand/model of handlebar: Tenet Bodem C V2

Material: Carbon

Intended use: Trail, DH, freeride, dirt jumping

Clamp diameter: 35mm

Width: 760mm

Rise: 35mm

Backsweep: 9°

Upsweep: 5°

Bike: Transition Patrol

 

Andrew Lespy, 2021 BC Bike Race winner

“For bar width, I like having something that offers me enough width for control on gnarly trails, but not so wide that I am worried about maneuvering through a WC start or tight trails. I am loving the Race Face 35mm bar that is super stiff but also super light. I chose the flat bar for my Ibis Exie race bike to get the front end a bit lower with a bit of backsweep for comfort for my wrists.”

Brand/model of handlebar: Race Face Next SL

Material: UD carbon

Intended use: XC/trail

Clamp diameter: 35mm

Width: 740mm

Rise: 10mm

Backsweep: 8°

Upsweep: 5°

Bike: Ibis Exie

 

Amy Morrison, America’s top female enduro racer

“I cut my bars to 760mm. I feel this is on the wider end, but I ride on the West Coast mostly, and we don’t have too many tight trees.”

Brand/model of handlebar: Tharsis 3Five

Material: Carbon

Intended use: Trail, enduro

Clamp diameter: 35mm

Width: 760mm

Rise: 20mm

Backsweep: 9°

Upsweep: 0°

Bike: Fuji Rakan

 

Need a new handlebar for your moutain bike or are you just curious to see what else is out there? Check out MBA’S HANDLEBAR BUYING GUIDE that has a bar for every rider: https://mbaction.com/handlebar-buyers-guide-find-your-perfect-bend/

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