Tuesday, November 29, 2016

DIY Two-Tone? Long-Term Impressions of Brooks Leather Handlebar Tape



I still remember how uneasy I felt when, 5 years ago, I decided to wrap the handlebars on my nascent new roadbike with leather bar tape. It is not that I am against using leather. I have owned leather shoes, bags, jackets, bicycle saddles. But in using leather, I feel a heavy sense of visceral respect for the material. And I reserve it for products which I know will see a lot of use; products which I hope are with me for the long haul.

This is why the leather bar tape gave me pause. Me and handlebar tape... we did not have a history of long and meaningful relationships. On my previous roadbike I must have changed bar tape (cloth and synthetic variants) more than half a dozen times within a two year period. On a couple of those occasions this was because I altered my handlebar setup and the tape did not survive the re-wrap. But in the other instances, I would simply wear it out with alarming speed - destroy it with my death grip, or corrosive palm sweat, or who knows what. The synthetic cork would quickly grow filthy, then curl at the edges and tear. The shellacked cloth would crack or wear down. The microtex stuff I'd tried toward the end lasted longest, yet still grew tattered in a way I cannot account for by the time that bike made it to its new owner.



Things did not bode well for the Brooks leather handlebar tape, with its aura of organic vulnerability. But I got it anyway, the pull toward its softness and beauty winning out over my misgivings. Stifling niggles of guilt, I hoped it would last me a year, which would certainly have been a record.

It has lasted me nearly five years so far.

The bicycle this tape was on, was my Seven Axiom - the bike I have put by far the most miles on of any bicycle I've owned. And after all those thousands miles, in the heat, cold, sun, rain and snow, the only signs of wear this tape showed was colour fade.



While the tape isn't waterproofed with any sort of treatment or top layer, I have found it untroubled even by heavy rain. To the scorching sun it is more sensitive.

The fade happened gradually. Having started out a dark and saturated violet, the colour moved toward a toned-down mauve in its first year of use. Then, slowly, over the following years, toward a bleached brownish-taupe.

A couple of months ago, I disassembled my Seven Axiom. Its frame being in transition, I "loaned" most of its components to another bike. And as I took apart the handlebar setup, I fully expected the bar tape to crack and rip. Instead, it unraveled with a graceful elasticity, revealing its hidden stripes of still-pigmented purple underneath the bits that faced the elements.

With renewed love for this long suffering bit of dressing, I transferred it to my 650B DIY bike. I was hoping for a neat stripey effect. The kind that some manufacturers produce deliberately. But the discoloration was too varied for that, and instead I got some rather half-hazard streaks of violet and brown and taupe.

Compared to its original state, it has now also attained a sort of glowing sheen - brought on, I am guessing, by years of greasy handling. It was almost as if the very things that destroyed every other bar tape I've used, have made this one thrive.



When I first got the Brooks leather bar tape, it had been an un-tested novelty. Now that it's been around some years, you will find all manner of feedback. Mainly: it is praised for its stretch and reusability, criticised for its colour-fading and price. Make of that what you will, and you now have my feedback to add to the mix. I should note that Brooks now also offers non-leather models: Cambium rubber bar tape, and microfibre bar tape.  I have not tried either and can't comment on their qualities.

How much life does my tape still have in it? I have no idea. But I'll take whatever it's got to give. And I've now replaced the tape on my other two drop-bar bikes with its siblings, in different colours. The cost works out less in the long run. And the leather gets lots of use, and lots of love.



43 comments:

  1. Veloria,

    I have both, the leather and cambium brooks bar tape. The brooks leather is going on 10 years old now. I've found you can restore it to its natural leather color (in my case brown) by sparingly rubbing some vegetable oil on it. This seems to bring life back to the sun-dried sections.

    The cambium tape is wonderful. I recently put it on my road bike and cannot say how nice it was to apply. I can't yet comment on its durability, but it looks and feels great.

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    1. 10 years! That is good to know.

      Does the rubber of the Cambium feel strange to the touch?

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  2. In 11th grade I stitched some RhodeGear leather Handlebar Hide to the bars of my Raleigh Competition G.S. It lasted and lasted, getting scuffs here and there from bumping into things, some minor crashes(I was already firmly in the habit of falling down even then), and getting hung by the bars from a pipe in the dorm at college. The bars and stem got switched to a few other bikes, not just because I couldn't afford enough parts to go around, but because I was so attached to the leather. Eventually I started using wider bars and the leather got unstitched and put aside. It was still supple and perfectly usable (and was still the last time I found it in the basement a few years ago). It wasn't even wearing thin that I could tell.

    I used to stumble across that wad of leather and thread in a box every few years and wished I had a bike I could use it on. Now decades later, I'm finding that narrow bars suit me great, especially on some of my "Vintage" bikes. In any case, I don't do much sprinting out of the saddle on anything but a cross' bike anymore anyway. So I've been keeping my eye out for that 35 year old handlebar hide and can't find it ANYWHERE. And it's KILLING me!

    I've used some leather tape in the past too(not any Brooks though) and liked it very much. But the stuff you stitch on is nicer I think, it's so satisfyingly snug and sleek, it ends up thinner too, which I like.

    The idea of putting my old covers back in service on one of my neat old bikes appeals to me in a bunch of ways, mostly nostalgic but also because it was made from a living breathing animal. And while no-one was snuffing cows just to wrap handlebars, I always feel that if we are going to raise animals to eat, render for chemicals, use their skins etc., than we honor the animals and ourselves if we don't toss their various bits away casually just because we aren't hungry right now or we would like a new pair of shoes that look newer or aren't scuffed at the toe. I really hope I didn't throw that box of bits away in one of my occasional, misguided attacks of inventory rationalization(I'll never, NEVER throw ANYTHING away again), but if I did maybe I'll try some Brooks'. You make it sound pretty swell.

    Spindizzy

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    1. I hope you find the original tape, Spin.

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  3. I'm impressed with your careful, mindful, attitude to leather.

    My favourite bar tape is Fizik 3mm stuff. It feels good to me and outlasts my handlebar formats! I've never tried leather bar tape and probably won't, for similar reasons to why I wouldn't use a leather saddle; partly similar aspects to your "visceral respect for the material" and partly because I'd worry over the effects of rain, though rain is probably a lot less an issue for bar tape than for saddles.

    I didn't know Brooks made Cambium bar tape. I recently started using a Cambium saddle: it's wonderful! I'm not going to recommend it to you because saddles are of course personal – as are bars and their tape – but it is very different to any saddle I've ever used before. That doesn't mean I'm going to try their tape though.

    Lastly, I'm intrigued as to how you manage to keep your bar tape on so long when you have under-tape cables. Do you manage to replace the inners by feeding them into the outers and leave the old outers in place, or do you unwrap then rewrap the tape? which reminds me – one thing that might put me off using, necessarily expensive, leather or even rubber tape, is that I always make a mess of the taping.

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    1. Yup - the housing was kept in place. I did not do it myself, so don't ask me how!

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    2. I have found that there is little purpose in changing out the housing under your tape. The short section at the rear derailleur, sure, as it gets more wear with its tight loop, and collects road dirt, but the vast majority of riders are not going to wear through the housing liner, which is the only thing that is going to affect shifting performance. If you use Shimano shifters, you should change the inner wires annually, as they tend to break cables right bdhind the head. Always use "slick" inner cables, as these are drawn through a die to make them smoother, which reduces friction and liner wear. Put a bit of oil or light grease on the inner wire before threading it into the housing.

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  4. I love the way Brooks tape ages. I usually get honey and watch it darken. My seat fits a B-17 Imperial that is on 3 of my bicycles, so matching tape is nice. Recently I was disappointed by a splice that came apart. I tried the V.O. brand. It's comparable quality and the ones I got were splice free.

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    1. Bar tape should not have splices IMO. I'd have inquired about returning it.

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    2. Thank you for your reply. It seems like the intentional act of splicing would infer they deem that acceptable, so I wouldn't expect any action. I'm not trying to be argumentative, just pointing out that it would be nice if we all had the same standards of functional quality. It's easier just to move on to the next product. But people should know what they're paying for.

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  5. I've had Brooks tape on my Sam Hillborne going on three years.I have Fizik gel pads under the tape.It seldom sees rain but plenty of intense sun here in Colorado.
    I use the Brooks goop on the tape when I give my Brooks B-17 a treatment.
    Seems to help keep the tape from drying out and helps maintain it's Honey color.
    One side started loosening up.I rewrapped it and the leather had very little stretch and the tape that was exposed didn't show any difference in color compared to the tape that was covered up.
    Love the tape and get many compliments from other riders.

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  6. Having resisted Brooks leather tape under the impression it was delicate, I find this review enlightening. Thank you and damn you for enabling my next bike related purchase!

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  7. Wowza. I remember seeing pictures of your bike maybe a year ago and thinking you must have changed from purple handlebar tape to brown. I did not realize it was the same tape! The re-wrap is a great idea, it looks ace.

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  8. Don't you wear gloves when road cycling? I've never destroyed any kind of tape with palm sweat and never wear gloves during our hot and long summers. After reading this I was curious as to what kind of tape I'm currently using because it's been on the bars for close to five years and has yet to wear down or out, and that's five years of daily use where I've already worn through one set of brake hoods, one rear rim, three or four chains and countless brake pads! It appears to be Cinelli tape which remains cheap compared to the Brooks. Btw, do you get discounts for your Brooks purchases (or free samples) or do you pay market prices?

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    1. Cinelli cork tape I have definitely destroyed, and quickly. I do wear gloves, but they are thin. It's a working theory, as I'm not sure what else to attribute the excessive wear to. On most components I am very easy and they seem to last me longer than their average lifespans, but bar tape seems to be an exception.

      Re Brooks products: it depends. Like most in the bike industry, I have trade accounts with various manufacturers and distributors. However the bar tape was bought through ordinary means (on sale, from a retailer). I was an early tester for a couple of their saddles though, so have 2 Cambiums which are demo samples.

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    2. When I worked in a bike shop I probably changed handlebar tape every few weeks b/c it was simple and cheap and I could indulge my whims. Now the prices have gone crazy high and I no longer have whims, especially aesthetic wise, so I'm glad that the Cinelli tape has lasted so long. I don't know how one can destroy it (I've even had a couple crashes and the result is a minor tear) but maybe it's that my rides only last a couple hours at a time? Like you I'm very easy on the bike and with regard to daily use some things will always wear out, right?

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  9. So, you've got three drop bar bikes in current use, all with Brooks leather? Do you also have another waiting to be reassembled?

    I would love to see a family photo of the three siblings all together, along with a few close ups!

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    1. Yes to the first question. It's a little complicated at the moment. If I keep the demo Seven I designed (and it's starting to look that way), my original Seven will go to a new home.

      Family portrait - good idea. The bikes have some commonalities even though they are quite different.

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  10. In old photos of your DIY bike you're using some kind of shiny tape that looks like leather but not the tape shown above, what kind of tape was that and did it wear out or did you just decide you did not like it?

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    1. I was testing the first iteration of Rivet's handlebar tape (not the same as their current tape). It was leather with a sleek waterproof toplayer (which began to sort of scuff and wear off after some time). The surface texture always felt a bit too slippery to me, but this is a matter of taste. I still have the tape (in used & scuffed, but intact condition); if anyone wants it within reasonable postage distance send me an email.

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  11. Looks-wise, I like the look of real leather. Hard to beat. There's a... patina(?) that develops that just doesn't seem to be duplicated by anything else I'm aware of. That said, I've never gotten leather tape for my bars. I don't like to wear gloves, and I guess my concern has always been that sweat would make it feel all manky.

    I used cotton and cork forever and lately have been happy with the Fizik microtex stuff, but none of them "age" like leather, they just get old.


    As an aside: I remember when your Seven came on to the scene, and have always liked the silver/ black with that purple tape. It's a smart looking combo. The way the tape is aging is neat, too, in that it gives the hard industrial look of the bike a bit of personality.


    Wolf.

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  12. Per Grant Petersen: Beauty derived from usage = "beausage"
    PN byoo-sij

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  13. Now I'm thinking of asking my local leather crafts person if she can make leather tape. It's available and malleable and lovely so, why not? Plus, I like keeping local businesses going so this makes sense.

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    1. Great idea. They may be able to vegetable-dye it a custom colour as well.

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  14. If you want to get leather tape a lot cheaper, consider leather tennis grips. You can get 1.3 metres for 7.95. Just checking locally Brooks bar tape is 93.00. If you used 4 of the tennis grips to do a handlebar you could save a lot of money; they both come from a cow. ( Not the same cow of course, the Brooks cow probably has an English accent.)

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  15. Odd bike you've got going here. I'll be interested in hearing about the wheel build, which I assume is coming soon.

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    1. Yes. You can also see some snaps of it on my instagram account
      {here}

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  16. I don't know if Brooks handlebar tape is similar to their saddles in the sense that I've discovered it seems to be hit or miss. Of the three saddles I've purchased only one has stood the test of time while the other two have been less than impressive even though they're all the same model. In four years I've put twenty five thousand miles on the good one with no issues while the other two did not go more than a couple years without problems. Never tried their tape but the reviews are mostly positive.

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    1. As I understand it: The quality of the hides used to make leather Brooks saddles changed some time in the late 2000's (something to do with cows' diets?). So if you have a saddle from before this period, it will be less sag-prone than one made after. And some retailers do still carry the earlier made saddles, or at least did as of several years ago. This might account for the discrepancy you've experienced.

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  17. If your shellacked cloth tape shows cracks wipe it with denatured alcohol. But how does that happen? And how would it wear down? What does that look like? Every time I have done it the stuff seems immortal.

    The tape and shellac routine was created by cheapskates and better results may come from sticking close to cheapskate method. Do not use expensive name brand bicycle tape. Get cotton twill tape from the notions counter at the fabric store. It is way more absorbent than branded tape. Fill the weave with shellac. You end up with a solid block of shellac clear through any number of layers of tape. Clear shellac is generally harder than amber. If the shellac is getting syrupy in the can add alcohol. Shellac that is already half dry when applied will be soft. If you get a worn spot just wrap some more tape right on top and saturate with fresh shellac.

    If you like color the notions counter has color. Clear shellac is close to clear. And don't forget garnet shellac. Stunning over white tape.

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    1. What I meant was, if the layer was too thin it would quickly wear down to the naked cloth (from excessive hand friction in the same spots?) and then the cloth would quickly wear as well. If I shellacked thicker, it would crack if I knocked the bike against something, or sometimes even for no reason at all - maybe from rapid temperature changes.

      I *am* going to give cloth + shellac another try at some point; especially if I get into fiddling with vintage roadbikes again. Aside form the cost factor, it appeals to me because I prefer minimal padding.

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    2. Most perplexing. It sounds as if you have a layer of shellac on top of a layer of cloth and the two are not bonded. When I do it every fiber of cotton is completely immersed and embedded in shellac. Ordinary pre-mixed shellac should do the job without any fuss, but it does sound like you could use it thinned with more alcohol. Shop around a bit and you can find cotton 3/4" tape for as little as $0.10/yd.

      But then in my experience the only way to wear out Cinelli cork was getting it dirty. Used the stuff for decades it seemed and had no problems. Always bare handed in fair weather.

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  18. When the tape was on the Seven you started from the bar ends and ended at the stem but with the latest wrapping it looks to be the opposite….Or is it the other way around? What's your preference on wrapping direction? I prefer it overlap the former way

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    1. Yes, from the top in the latest wrapping. I do not have a preference, it depends on the bike and on how the mood strikes : )

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    2. If you hands move around much on the tape it's possible to curl the overlapping edges since they're going against the overlap, but maybe Brooks holds up differently.

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    3. Surely that's true (theoretically true; I'm not sure it ever happens in practice unless the tape's wrapped too slack) whichever way you wrap it. Unless you only ever move your hands in one direction, in which case they won't be moving much cos soon they'll reach the ends of the bars!

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    4. Tape wrapped from the top very often rolls from hands pushing against the edges, counter-intuitive or not.

      It's unfortunate because it's by far the easiest way to apply tape since you simply start wrapping at the top and tuck the other end in the end of the handlebar and secure it with the endplug. You'd never see anyone go to the trouble of starting at the bottom with the extra messing around required to avoid a hump or the added hassle of how to secure it at the top without wrapping it with electrical tape, twine, or glue if there was a better alternative. I've never had any luck wrapping cork tape, stretchy rubber or cloth from the top without it rolling at the edges and only do it now when using cotton tape and shellac. If Bmblbzzz knows a technique that allows wrapping from the top that doesn't require shellac or contact adhesive I hope they'll share it with us because it would sure be great to be able to eliminate the tape/twine/glue at the top without having to put up with the edges rolling up and making a mess.

      Spindizzy

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    5. Sorry, I know no such technique. I've only done it from the bottom up, and spiralling from the inside out, IYSWIM. Tucking the bottom end into the barend and sticking the top end with electrical tape (the Fizik tape I like comes with a section of sticky tape cut to size, but it's the same stuff). And I'm not very good at it either. :( I was only thinking that however its wrapped, there's an overlap and if your hands don't go against the grain in this direction they will in the opposite. However, I have heard it said that back in the day when cloth tape was standard, it was usual to wrap from the top down; I presume this was using shellac but I don't know. As it happens, my newest bike has cloth tape – came like that – and it's wrapped bottom up. No shellac. Don't know about adhesive but it has electrical tape. (And it's comfy but I have doubts about how it's wearing.)

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    6. When I worked at a bike shop in the 70's we always started from the top down when setting up bikes from the box. As Spindizzy said, it's faster and easier and we always were looking to get as many bikes built during the day as possible. One of our major brands was Schwinn and most of the tape was a stretchy plastic which came in all sorts of colors and never had the rolling issue when done properly. I now go from the bottom up because it's the easiest way to avoid that potential problem with the tapes I use today.

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  19. Why not go all custom and get a leather vest or skirt from an second hand shop. Cut into strips and thin the overlapping half out with a sharp (very sharp)knife. I use kickwax for skiing to prevent it from sliding on the handlebars. Important to use some force and stretch it when you do the wrapping. Next step; grow a beard, get a fixie and learn how to strangle a cow.

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  20. Once upon a time, long ago in a far distant land settled the by Angles, there were industries run by adults. They were so grown up that other grown ups working the BBC with very grown-up voices would make documentaries about them (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USHsFv8nNSA). Adults are mature people who use their brains, learn through trial and error and work things out, so when they make stuff, it works.

    In the Angles Land there was a company called Brooks, started by John, a saddle maker who named the company after his last name. It is said that after his horse died, Brooks bought a bicycle, but found the wooden seat so uncomfortable that he made a bicycle saddle out of leather, because he understood leather. He had been working with leather all his life, and no doubt had originally had learned his trade as an apprentice, with wisdom passed down through the ages.

    John's business grew, and eventually he hired other leathermen - there were few leather women in those days - who also devoted their lives to learning and mastery of their trade. In working with leather, those men were imbued with knowledge that began the first time a human became a hunter and worked out that the skin of the prey was useful. By the time of the Romans almost everything that could be understood about leather was known. By the time of John and his leathermen, the life of leather was understood in terms of how to make it last for decades or sometimes even centuries - keep the skin fed and it will remain supple. Know how to tan the leather, and the different techniques that produce different leathers.

    But then everything changed. A new form of home sapiens began to flourish on this earth... The college graduate.

    The college graduate comes in several different varieties including the scientist & engineer, the accountant and the marketer.

    The scientist has no use for timeless wisdom - new is good, old is... well old and dusty. New is plastic, chemicals, bright shiny stuff made in a factory. The scientist and his subspecies, the engineer invent things that use this bright shiny stuff, and as long as it looks good in the shop front, it is good.

    The accountant loves the new shiny things because they do not last. It means the customer has to come in and buy the same thing every year. The old worn out things in the landfill do not bother the accountant because his company does not pay for disposal.

    The marketer then promotes the new things earning lots of money from his company selling these things that do not last. Everyone is happy... the scientists and engineers, the accountant, the marketer and of course the shop selling the things and the investors who get rich. Well, the customers are not happy and neither is mother Earth, but they don't matter because the ones who make the money are happy.

    'And such is life' as the old gaffers say. 'The adults are gone, the world is run by post-pubescent children.'

    But then something else changes.

    A rider of bicycles discovers, by accident it seems, that John and his merry leathermen never went away. Quietly turning their leather stock into handlebar tape and saddles, they don't tell anyone about their millennia of knowledge, they just keep selling their products. And lo and behold, one of those riders - who happens to be a modern bard who tells stories to listeners far and wide - discovers something that only comes with the passage of time... John's product works. It lasts. It changes with time, but in a good way.

    So she sings its song and others hear. And the old wisdom once again comes to light.

    What goes around, comes around and there is hope for the planet after all.

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    1. Wonderfully written.
      -Anne K.

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