Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Drop Bars: What Are They For?

After initially having set the handlebars on my Sam Hillborne quite high so that I could get used to them, I have now lowered them to a more typical position. Despite having done this, I think that there was nothing objectively wrong with my initial set-up. I received lots of comments and advice in my previous Hillborne posts, and one view expressed was that if I have to raise the bars so high, then perhaps I should not be riding with drop bars. This is an idea I very much disagree with, and here is why.

What is the purpose of drop handlebars? Many believe it is "to go fast" - that is, to achieve an aggressively forward-leaning position that would allow for maximum speed. And for that purpose, it would indeed make sense that the handlebars ought to be placed as low as possible.

However, while this is one of the things drop bars can be used for, it is by no means their only function or their mandated use. An equally important feature of drop handlebars is the unparalleled variety of ergonomic hand positions they offer - which is crucial for long rides. When cycling long distance, it is not only uncomfortable, but dangerous to use handlebars with limited gripping areas that allow for only one hand position. And by "dangerous" I mean that you can cause nerve damage to your hands. Drop bars, on the other hand, offer a continuous gripping surface with 5 distinct hand positions to switch between, greatly reducing the chances of this happening.

As I have mentioned before, I already have pre-existing nerve damage in my hands, so I feel hand "discomfort" (electric-current-like sensations running through my wrists and fingers) a lot sooner than those with healthy hands. This makes me an especially good candidate for drop bars when I go on long rides.

So what do ergonomic hand positions, nerve damage and touring have to do with speed or aggressive cycling? Absolutely nothing, and that is precisely my point. I have no interest in breaking speed records. All I want, is to cycle long distances without my hands ending up in bandages again. Drop bars are perfect for that, and whether they are placed high or low is completely irrelevant - as long as I am comfortable reaching all the available hand positions. Drop bars mounted high are better for touring than no drop bars at all. Sheldon Brown and Grant Petersen agree.

The perception that drop bars must be mounted as low as possible is an aesthetic preference rooted in racing culture and informed by the male anatomy (as males have longer torsos than females). But it's time to break that connection. Drop bars are fantastic for touring and exploring, and they can make your ride extremely enjoyable if used in a way that is right for you.

40 comments:

  1. I have found that some bike/drop bar combinations cause my hands to go numb and others do not. The Cannondale is the worst of the bunch in this regard and the Falcon is the best. Gloves help quite a bit...

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  2. Here's the funny thing about gloves: On my Motobecane, I couldn't go a couple of miles without wearing them. (And when that bike started out with drop bars last summer, I couldn't ride it without them at all.) I had to use both cork tape and gloves with that bike, and my hands still bothered me. With the Rivendell, I immediately realised that there was no reason to pad the bars and I could use simple cotton tape. And I feel perfectly comfortable without gloves; there is simply no need - unless it rains, in which case I need them to prevent slippage on the brake levers.

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  3. That's such a pretty bike, and it looks wonderful against the green background. The bottom photo is particularly beautiful.

    On the idea of drops, I rode flared drops for years on my mountain bike ala Jacquie Phelan/Charlie Cunningham. I caught lots of flack from my riding buddies, but I always had fewer wrist problems and I was often the first one back to camp. The moral of the story is, ride whatever works for you.

    Alan@EcoVelo

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  4. Thanks Alan, I was testing the Hillborne's off-road capacity : )

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  5. I've never had my bars lower than my saddle (they're level) I like the drops for precisely the same reasons you've given. I'm not a speed-freak, in fact, if I can't whistle at the same time as pedal I'm working harder than usual! To enjoy a comfortable day's ride and wake up the next morning without any stiffness is all I strive for with my bike's set-up. That includes using drop bars and how I position them. Horses for courses. Happy cycling!

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  6. I can ride with drops bars as low as anyone (mine are about 1" lower than saddle at the moment), but having witnessed how comfortable Velouria is with her drops, I want to raise the stem on mine. This could make the hooks and drops much more friendly, and allow me to point them down for a more aggressive lean. Why didn't I think of this before?

    Alas, the mechanic who set up my brakes last year cut the cables way too short. I'd have to rewrap & reshallack my bars... :(

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  7. F****** amazing photographs and commentary. Please turn this into a book someday. (Maybe 101 Cookbooks could give you some inspiration!)

    Totally agree that drop bars don't have to be low to be useful. I see a lot of riders on road bikes, with drop bars reallly low, and forward extended stems, and their backs are bent at such dramatic angles that I can't imagine them being comfortable or safe. In the city too!

    Padding is overrated I think. On handlebars and on seats. Pressure is what matters and it's just force/area.

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  8. I am curious, why did you choose what look like traditional bend bars? Was it for looks or comfort?

    I have a variety, traditional, anatomic and Randonneur bars. I like the look of traditional bends better but I have to admit that the Anatomic and Randos feel better to me personally. I'd like to try a Nitto Noodle bar at some point.

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  9. My hands go numb right away which is why I like the higher cruiser/comfort bike handles. They are the only handlebars I can hold for any length of time that keep my wrists in a neutral position.

    Cheers,
    Laura

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  10. Matthew - I tried a variety of handlebars at Harris Cyclery, including the Randonneurs and some others. The Noodle was the most comfortable for me, especially for keeping my hands on the hoods.

    Laura - Where are you holding the bars when your hands go numb?

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  11. Interesting post, I can use about 7 different hand positions on the tops of my bars, and only use the drop bit for fast descending. So much more comfortable than straight bars.
    By the way that is a really lovely bicycle, wish they were easier to get hold of in the UK.

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  12. go you. wonderfully said.

    I might go your route too someday. I found I could not change hand positions on my drops road bike ( borrowed) for the tri and ended up having issues b/c I couldn't change positions. Having my hands on the brake thing and shifter got old quick.

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  13. I ride noodle bars, too. And I am an ex-racer. The real reason to ride drop bars is for the variety of hand positions. And I have yet to find a bar that offers more useful ones than the Noodle.

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  14. Anonymous - I count 7 positions also if I include braking. I am planning a post with some illustrations : )

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    Replies
    1. Did you ever run this post and I just missed it? If not, please consider it... I would be really interest to see where you hold and have a reference that I could send people to.

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    2. Erin, thanks for reminding me. I never did publish a post about this, will work on it.

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  15. I've never really ridden drop bars (at least, not since I was in elementary school), but your explanation really makes sense, and I can see after riding my Raleigh, that having a good way to change your hand position could make a big difference on a long ride.

    Some days even on a 5 mile ride with my Raleigh I find myself wishing for that, but then again, others I've ridden for 20 miles and haven't had any problems. I do need to get some different grips that are smooth, I think that will help (the original ones have little grooves in the top, and they kind of bite into your hand sometimes).

    That really is a gorgeous bike.

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  16. I haven't ridden with drop handlebars for nearly 20 years - I don't think I could cope with squashing my stomach up these days. Mine had the additional brake levers on the top which I found helped with the confidence issue - I was only 11 when I started riding with them and my bike was bought to "grow into" so it was way to big and I couldn't touch the ground with my legs over the crossbar! It wasn't till I went on long runs that I got the hang of the drops, then I used to find alternating asymmetric positions (one hand on the top, one on the drop) worked quite well. The classic drop position is quite good for hill climbing though. Now I prefer the leaning way back position of my dutch bike for hill climbing - it might not be efficient, but it's worth it to see all the dropped jaws as I manage to cycle up the hill anyway!

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  17. Hello,

    Nice post. You should always do what works for you, of course, no matter what prejudices the "culture" assigns.

    For what it's worth, the Harris Cyclery article you link to is by Tom Deakins, not Sheldon Brown, although I'm sure Sheldon would have agreed with everything he said here.

    Great bicycle! One day I'll own one...maybe an Atlantis.

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  18. Hi - i couldn't find your email anywhere... just wanted to let you know I LOVE your blog. I am so jealous of your gorgeous bicycles and also super inspired and excited about getting mine to be just as stylish.

    I was wondering what you guys do when it comes to bringing water along on longer rides. I noticed that you don't have water bottle cages on the bike.. I think it looks so much better that way, but I'm not really sure what my options are, unless I want to carry a bottle in my bag. Do you just use a camelback?

    Thanks!
    Carina

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  19. I currently only have one bike with drop bars and they are set at or just above saddle level. No one and I mean no one will ever accuse me of being a fast rider...

    Aaron

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  20. Hi.
    I was just wondering what tape you've used for your bars... They look amazing and match the honey B17 saddle really well.
    Thanks!

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  21. portlandize - I presume you don't mean that the finger-rest grooves are on top, but that the surface itself is textured? I find the "Dare" grips on my vintage Raleigh more comfortable than fancy leather or cork grips (gasp!), but everyone is different.

    Inca - Thanks. I used brown Tressostar cloth tape, with a couple of thin layers of amber shellac.

    sheffield - I never understood how one can ride a bike at all if they cannot clear the top tube! How did you mount and dismount?.. I wear shoes with 4" platform heels to ride my husband's bike, but I am guessing you did not take that route as a child.

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  22. Anon 1:50 - You're right, but Sheldon Brown supports this view and published the article on his site. I remember reading other articles where he discussed the benefits of raising drop bars, but I cannot find them now.

    carina - Thanks! I am planning to get an old fashioned bottlecage from Velo Orange soon. For now I carry a bottle of water in my saddlebag. I do not use a camelback.

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  23. I have the Noodle bars on one bike, but I've found that I don't actually like the rear “corners” that they have. My favorite drop bars are types that have much larger radius here -- they're often called “criterium” bars, but I just like them because I can put my hands in a few different positions on the way down to the brake hoods. They're also more comfortable for me when riding the hoods (as in traffic).

    If you want the bars up high, more power to you. I would give the Nitto DirtDrop stem a second chance, because I think it makes a high bar placement look more “natural“ and it's beautifully made. I have 3 of them (well, two are on other family members' bikes).

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  24. I would like to gracefully and ever so respectfully disagree with you Velouria- While I believe you should take personal comfort issues into account when sizing and fitting your bicycle (and I endorse tailoring a bike to be comfortable with to physical limitations imposed by tendonitis or nerve damage), your rationale for a higher stem and handlebar height seem to mis-state the argument some made for lower handlebar height.

    I don't know if you meant it literally when you said there was a notion that "drop bars must be mounted as low as possible." I, for one, have never heard this, or said it as a command. But I have read multiple places and & heard it repeated that road bikes are meant to be ridden in a different position and with a different posture than an upright city bike. Specifically, on a road bike 40% of your body weight should be on the front of your bike and 60% on the rear. This is not just for racing but for all types of riding on the road, as it is dictated not by the type of riding but the bike frame itself.

    Most books say that for normal riding, your saddle should be at least level, if not 1-2 cm below, the tip of your saddle for general riding (the recommendations for racing are much more severe), and this is not so that you can achieve the highest speed in the world. It is instead so that your body can be in a balanced position which makes the riding motion comfortable and uniform for your legs.

    And I think that Grant Petersen and Sheldon agree with me :) Look at the way the bars are arranged on the Hillborne on Riv's site -
    http://www.rivbike.com/products/show/sam-hillborne-framebike/50-700

    ...or at how Sheldon has the drop bars arranged in relation to the saddle on any of his road bikes or touring tandems (and Sheldon was certainly NOT a racer).
    http://sheldonbrown.org/bicycle.html

    And all of the Rivendell staff's road bikes observe the rule - Saddle and Handlebars level to promote proper weight distribution.
    http://www.rivbike.com/products/show/staff-bikes/50-998

    Respectfully yours,
    -David

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  25. David is correct. The frame geometry itself should be integrated into what type of handlebars are chosen and how they are positioned. Just look at the head tube angle and fork on the Pashley or Raleigh Tourist. This is why the Raleigh Sprite, which is a Grand Prix/Record frame, fails with conventional handlebars. The frame and fork are simply not relaxed enough. Alas...a salad bar it is not. :-)

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  26. Jeff - But most Rivendell bicycles (certainly the Hillborne) are designed with relatively relaxed geometry to accommodate either upright or leaned over positions, which is why these bikes are just as good with Albatross bars as they are with drop bars. And while Rivendell's pictures do show saddles and drop handlebars more or less aligned on the sample builds (perhaps to appeal to the majority of customers), they also promote the Dirt Drop stem - the very purpose of which is to raise drop bars.

    Keep in mind that *I was never even close to being upright* in the hoods position with the stem raised as high as it initially was. In fact, the degree of my lean was the same as the leans of most men I see on the hoods whose saddles and bars are aligned. Why? Because I have a shorter torso, and it takes a lot more lean for me to reach the same position as they. So again, I did not raise the drop bars in order to be unnaturally upright - which is what you seem to be assuming. I raised them in order to achieve the lean one should typically have while on the hoods.

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  27. despite using my frenchie (mixte) 98% of the time, the other 2% when I use my road italian retro bike, the drop bars are *awesome* for hills. mind you i am in SF, i doubt there are hills elsewhere on a daily basis, like the one we have here....
    drop bars are fun to grab hills by the horns and over come them, i must say

    xxo.m

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  28. When I first started adapting my old Rock Hopper to be more upright I got sooooooooo much crap from "bike" people about how I didn't need raiser bars or a certain type of seat. My very raised stem was going to kill me. My fenders would make it too heavy. The four cyclemen of the Bikeoplypse would come and take me out at the knees for my changes, which were some kind of threat to the laws of physics (or testosterone).

    Today, you can buy that bike in any store and they call it a Hybrid.

    Point being, how you ride is how you ride. What is the best equipment for your bike? The equipment that makes you want to ride! If others don't understand it they don't have to use it. So hang those drops high and to heck with the naysayers!

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  29. Very helpful

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  30. I bit the bullet and decided to try drop handlebars on my touring bicycle. Just my luck a set of anatomical bars 46cm wide (I'm a really big fella) came up for $10! That's the right number of 0's - they normally retail for $99! I'm still hunting around for a few more parts to finish building the darn thing, but I do intend to give them a fair try. Drop handlebars receive a lot of bad press because of their use in racing these days, but I saw on old film where people were using drop handlebars without being bent over double.

    You might like to watch it - "The Cyclists' Special, 1955" The way cycling should be, and the way drop handlebars should be used when touring.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kP1KxPjh4RM

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  31. Two points: my beater's drop bars (Nittos) are way above my - properly set - saddle, by about 5 inches! Lots of stares from the college of Cardinals (but I use the drops to duck down out of headwinds, as well as change handposition).

    Second point: have any of you folks heard of, or even seen, a Dursley Pedersen? See where the bars are?

    Milo.

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  32. nice one. and that's exactly why i canged my built-up from raisers to drops and from fixed to freewheel. fixed/raiser is supernice for short rides in the city or tours with short rests. but when you try riding over 70 km a day on a short tour, it kills the fun. i always ended up with numb palms after 30 km. now with my drops and the freewheel, it's perfect.

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  33. I am another distance cyclist that has recently raised a standard drop bar to get more comfortable. Mine is on a Surly LHT which formerly had a brooks b17 which I never was able to get comfortable with. I got a b67 and immediately loved it, so I adjusted my handlebars higher mostly to accomodate the saddle...which is the last saddle I'll ever ride.

    The position is great, and offers many positions and I certainly don't feel has limited me in any way. I ride 30 miles a day and do longer weekend rides once in a while.

    It works for me, so that's that!

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  34. You should try out mustache bars. They're the best of both worlds - slightly more upright than drop bars, so they're more comfortable on the neck for longer rides, but there's still a variety of hand positions possible to increase comfort for longer rides as well. But you're still in a somewhat bent over position, so you still get all the benefits that drop bars offer. Plus, you can still go into drop on those fun hills by placing your hands toward the inside and bending your elbows. I love mine!

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  35. I'm a touring cyclist; I use drop bars because I like the neutral position of "on the hoods" more than the neutral position of any other style of bar. It's personal choice really.

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  36. ...this is where I would flip the drop bars upside down.

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  37. Good blog. Just wanted to weigh in on the drop handlebar height issue, on which I tend to disagree with Grant Peterson. Here's an excertp from my blog (http://dharmadawg.shawwebspace.ca/blog/post/some_thoughts_on_bike_position_1/):

    "Today, products are designed with some ergonomics in mind. Where to put your hands is pretty instinctive on well-designed products. The racing-style drop handlebar, though, was developed around 1900, in the days long before they invented the term "ergonomics." So for beginning riders used to modern products, it looks like you're supposed to ride with your hands in the drops. And this is a popular misconception that leads to most people having their drop bars set too high on the basis of comfort, even to the point of having the bars level with the saddle, which some very influential people espouse.

    "And I would respectfully disagree with these people. I would suggest that the bars should be set lower than the saddle because the "normal" position with drop bars is not in the drops; it's on the tops, or on the brake hoods. Unless you are racing, the "down" position, with hands in drops, should be used maybe 2% of the time, like when you're leading the pace line into a headwind. The down position should not be the basis for setting bar height!"

    When I rode Paris-Brest-Paris, I spent about five minutes of the nearly-65 hours in the drops, and this was just to stretch out my back.

    Also, another good reason to use drop bars is for out-of-saddle climbing. You need to have your hands on the brake hoods; this puts your body as forward as you need to be on the bike to deliver maximum gravity-assisted power to the pedals. Unless you have those bar-end extensions, you can't get this far forward onless you have drop bars. And the moustache bars put the levers at an awkward angle for gripping securely, with solid control of the brakes (although this is not usually an issue when climbing out of the saddle!).

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  38. have you ever tried butterfly bars??? i think they are the most comfy out of all the bars that ive used

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