The Handlebar, without it we would probably ride unicycles. It is the main greeting point on a bike, the first thing you grab. People don’t know much about their bars past the material from which they are made. But, really, the handlebar is highly undervalued and underrated – it is the unsung hero of the bicycle. With this piece, I’m going to share a recent journey and discovery of my relationship with the glorious component.
I started racing DH when I was 14. I started on a size small P.2 hardtail with a single-crown fork and cable-actuated disc brakes. The following year I upped the ante, buying a Giant DH Comp at shop cost for $1800, in a size medium. As the years of racing rolled on, I continued to buy and race “medium-sized” bikes…so I was riding too-small frames considering I’m been around 5’10” since I was 17. In that time, the biggest aid to making bikes feel less cramped was the 2009 introduction of the BooBar from Truvativ, a 780mm wide, 7* x 5*, 31.8mm bore DH bar that made you feel like a superhero – maybe that was just me. I recall the day I put them on: we were at Plattekill for a series event, I’d just bought them, and had been waiting for a time to swap them on. After two runs, I thought the fast, off-camber track was a perfect testing ground for the new bars. It was a wild change, as I had so much more control and leverage (unsurprisingly) that I immediately was riding way too fast and over my head on a fresh track. It was perfect. Funny that the-now-normal standard of 780mm became commonplace and so quickly passé in favor of 800mm+ in today’s market. How far we’ve come since 27” bars were considered unwieldy.
There are endless ideas about how to combine Reach, Stack, Stem Length, and Bar Width/Rise. There is a middle ground being established for that ratio, but the options to get a bike “just right” are better than ever. As I’ve been adapting to longer and more relaxed bikes over the past few years, I’ve noticed I’ve had to change both my riding stance and my cockpit set-up with regards to bar roll, stem length, and lever angle – but I have continued to run my bars at 780mm (moving to 800mm on my DH bike in 2017). Adjusting the cockpit with each iteration of slightly bigger frame sizes, I found that I was experiencing more and more discomfort while riding in recent years, despite the suspension, brakes, and tires improving.
Towards the end of 2017 when I bought a “current” size large trail bike with a 457mm reach, and I put a 31mm stem on it, matched to 780mm bars with a 38mm x 7* x 5* fit. I spent a lot of time trying to find the right set up, but it never quite felt spot on. I couldn’t tell if the stem was too short [turns out it was], if the bars weren’t rolled enough [they were fine], if the reach was too short [it is not], or if something else was off. There was a lack of cohesion between myself and the bike, but I couldn’t quite figure out specifically what it was for some time…
In mid-June during Crankworx in Les Gets I test rode a pre-production 465mm reach Marin Alpine that came spec’d with a Deity Blacklable bar, which was 800mm 25mm x 9* x 5* and a matched to a 35mm Copperhead stem. It was a proper speed machine, a 150mm travel 29’er. Upon riding it, I felt immediately at home, as though it were my own bike. I was floored by how intuitive the bike felt in my hands. Riding it was one of the best days on a bike all summer.
I then got back on my own bike that same day, a Renthal-equipped (780mm 38mm x 7* x 5* bars with a 40mm stem) size large Zerode Taniwha with a 445mm reach/160mm travel, and suddenly my own bike, which I’d been riding for nearly 3 years felt intensely foreign. I chalked it up to being tired and the difference between a 29’er with 800mm bars and a 27.5 bike with 780mm bars. But, after arriving home from the trip to the Alps, the more I rode and swapped between my Scout, Supreme, and Taniwha, I realized that no matter how much I rolled the bars fore and aft trying to find comfort, I just couldn’t settle on something that felt spot on (keeping in mind, I had Renthal bars on all of my bikes); the day in Les Gets lingered on my mind.
After almost ten years since my first “wide” bar, I was just now beginning to have major issues with bike comfort because my elbows, wrists, and shoulders didn’t feel like they were aligned with one another as they once had been…and even with stretching, warm-ups, and meddling with the wrenches, the physical issues were not alleviated. So began the cycle of puzzling. Being the bike nerd that I am, I began looking at some numbers: reach, stack, sweep, rise, as well as talking with a few other fellow nerds. After more uncomfortable riding, more frustrated wrenching on the bike, and some silently fuming introspection/analysis, my conclusion was this: because I’m riding longer reach bikes, the angle/flair out of my elbows and shoulders was being exaggerated beyond a comfortable plain because of the 7-degree back sweep; the Fatbar was too “flat” for my range of comfortable motion, my lack of comfort lay in the sweep on the bars; in France, the relaxed sweep of the test bike’s cockpit is what made it feel so nice in my hands.
This problem was further emphasized when I went out for my first real ride aboard my new DH bike, an XL with a 455mm reach, a 50mm stem, and 800mm 10mm x 7* x 5* bars. I could not get my hands to sit comfortably, which meant my weight distribution was all out of sorts because I couldn’t get my body into a strong position. This wasn’t an issue when I was riding bikes with a 405-415mm reach, as the angle of my joints wasn’t as significant because I was pretty compact on the bike, even with 780-800mm bars. But, as the distances have grown i.e. standing up versus crouching on the bike, so have the angles. As I have become stretched out on the bike, the flatter bar forced my elbows and shoulders to flare up-and-out, that classic Sam Hill Attack Position or Aaron Gwin stance on a bike (riders who champion Renthal 7* x 5* – Sam did before moving to Nukeproof). I ride in the middle/back of the bike, a style best seen in Sam Blenkinsop and Bas Van Steenbergen (riders who both champion Deity 9* x 5*). I still wanted to benefit from the bigger reach/longer wheelbase of bigger bikes, but I needed to finally fix this issue of discomfort immediately. I needed the geometric change, a new ergonomic position, which would allow my wrist to turn back towards my body so my elbows and shoulders to drop to where they were more comfortable.
I sat on this idea for a few weeks, double-checking the “math” and trying various things with my set up just to rule out me being an idiot – a necessary step in these situations. Once I felt certain that I wasn’t delusional, I wrote an email to Deity, the impetus of this entire deep-dive. The resulting conversation bore fruit in the form of some new cockpits and a new relationship with a really cool company. After installing the bars on all three bikes, the Trail, the All Mountain, and the DH (keeping them all the same width as before), I was excited to experience my experiment, even though in the back of my mind, I was questioning whether I was really onto something with this whole, “Longer/larger bikes need more swept bars”.
It didn’t take long to establish an initial assessment…I didn’t even reach the trailhead before I was convinced I was correct in my hypothesis. The best way to describe the result is, “Revelation”. For the first time, I felt as though I really had comfort and range of motion – I’d grown so used to being uncomfortable from the race-mindset (racing isn’t always comfortable-feeling), that I didn’t know I could feel “like one with the bike” while also having it perform at a high level. The new 9* x 5* Deity bits relit my world. The last time I made such a monumental change to a bike was running tire inserts.
My initial anticipation of results was that I would feel something like, “Yeah, I this is a decent change”. What I ended up with is, “[Expletives]…this is so much better!” Experiencing the same comfort while upon my own bikes that I once found on a single test ride in France has been a treat. The old adage in racing and riding of discomfort = fast is gone, bikes don’t have to be uncomfortable to be fast; a paradigm shift. Riding my local trails is a whole new experience, DH riding/racing is now so much more controlled. I can properly position myself on the bike, not having to work around it now. With the 9-degrees back, I’m able to roll my wrists, drop my elbows, and flatten my back/push my chest out a.k.a. squaring up – this is my position of comfort and strength, especially after years of powerlifting in conjunction with riding. The most telling aspect of this setup change has to be that I finally felt good enough to try to race DH again.
The takeaway from this isn’t about brand shaming or promotion, I want people to learn more about how their bike’s fit affects their riding and comfort/ability to control the bike. The “Degrees x Degrees” metric when buying a bar is often misunderstood or not understood well enough to make an informed choice. There is definitely a finite range of workable degrees in the world of mountain biking, and they are commonly between 7 and 9 degrees of back sweep and 4 to 6 degrees of upsweep. A short list of brands and their offerings regarding metrics for their alloy DH-rated bars (I refuse to ride carbon bars):
- Deity: 9 back and 8 back, and 5 up.
- Burgtec: 9 back and 5 up.
- Renthal: 7 back and 5 up.
- Cromag: 8 back and 5 up.
- Joystick: 9 back and 6 up.
- Spank: they have a wider range and mix than most.
It’s hard to know what is needed on a rider-to-rider basis, but I think a good starting point would be if you have good joint mobility/health and/or ride with a forward bias, you can get away with/may prefer a flatter bar. Otherwise, a more swept bar will likely be more preferable for those with restricted mobility like me and/or a more rear-ward riding bias. Further physical traits to consider are arm’s length and shoulder width, as these will dictate bar width heavily – I have long arms and broad shoulders.
With this experiment still on-going, I must say the results so far are tremendously positive. To find a solution to a long-time problem is both a relief and very encouraging. A huge thanks to Eric at Deity for the support with this project and going forwards, it is very exciting to be working with a group of passionate and like-minded people in my quest for faster and better feeling bikes!
Thanks for tuning in!