Mountain bike handlebars: the width issue

By Matt Pacocha, US editor, from Boulder, CO | Saturday, June 16, 2012 7.00am

When it comes to mountain bike handlebars, wider is better. They offer you more control, easier breathing and better positioning for balance. This makes you more stable and slower to fatigue.

As with any component so intimately related to fit, handlebar width is relative. So what constitutes ‘wide’? For bikes that are small, medium, large/extra large, we’d consider the following handlebar widths as ‘wide’, respectively: 650-680mm, 680-730mm, 730-750mm. Anything larger than 750mm is probably influenced by discipline – downhill or gravity, for example – and personal preference.

When it comes to fitting a wide bar, the first thing to understand is that bar width is closely linked to stem length. So as you add bar width you should also reduce stem length. For example, say you’ve decided to go from a 680mm to 700mm bar, and you have a 90mm stem – we’d suggest reducing stem length to 75mm. How about swapping from 680mm to 730mm? Try going to a 65mm stem, and so forth. Going even wider, to 750mm on a trail bike, you should plan on pairing the bar to a 50mm stem.

Once you head into the mid-700mm range, it’s worth considering the terrain you’re riding. Those who rip aggressive trails at higher speeds are much more likely to benefit from a wider bar. Whereas slow-speed singletrack technicians will likely get tired of weaving a wide bar through tightly spaced trees. So think about the environments you like to ride in when considering this ‘wider is better’ movement.

Also consider the purpose of your riding, as bar width can easily be influenced by this, too. Generally, faster trails are more open, so are more conducive to wider bars. Prefer downhill racing on high-speed courses, or tackling jump trails? A medium-sized rider could push out to the 800mm width there. And we can imagine an East Coast all-mountain rider being quite happy with a 680mm bar.

Downhill and uphill advantages

The main feature of a wider bar is the increased leverage it gives riders. This means steering inputs require less force, but you need greater movement when driving. It also makes it easier to resist trail feedback. All of this conspires to give you much more control over the bike.

Try doing a push-up with your hands centered and touching under your chest; then move them out past your shoulders – which is easier, and which feels more stable? Now imagine a rough downhill run as a series of push-ups.

A wider bar also requires (or allows) a shorter stem, which can center you better over your bike. This makes for easier and more dramatic weight shifts both front and rear, allowing for more overall control of the bike.

Finally, long travel (and even short travel) trail bike geometry is going in the direction of slack head tube angles. More bar-based leverage serves to mute the floppy feeling that some riders struggle to adjust to.

It’s easy to argue that stability and balance can help with going uphill, especially when things get technical. Leverage is a benefit too, when you’re out of the saddle and putting down the power. But the substantial uphill benefit most riders will notice with a wide bar is how it opens the chest for easier breathing when climbing.

Bontrager Rhythm Pro (US$169.99)

bontrager.com

Bontrager test the rhythm pro carbon bar to downhill strength standards: bontrager test the rhythm pro carbon bar to downhill strength standards

Bontrager tested the Rhythm Pro carbon bar to downhill strength standards

Bontrager’s Rhythm Pro is one of the latest wide carbon handlebar options on the market, and comes in a massive 820mm as well as 750mm (220g). The brand jumped into the wide bar game for 2011, in tandem with Trek’s Slash all-mountain bike, which comes equipped with the 750mm Rhythm Pro. 

“Once you experience it [a wider handlebar] it’s pretty hard to deny its strong benefits,” said Michael Browne, Bontrager’s marketing manager. “We’ve got a guy in ACG [Trek’s Advanced Concept Group], named Blake Jensen, who designs the mountain bike control stuff, and we kind of just let him loose. No one was really doing much in the wide carbon realm, so we decided to see what he could come up with. His idea centered on providing two different bars – one would be a 750 and the other an 820, and each would be cut-able by 60mm.”

This is exactly what Bontrager put into production. With the two bars they cover an effective range from 690mm to 750mm, and 760mm to 820mm depending on which bar you’re using and where it’s cut. “They’re essentially the same bar,” said Browne. “But the clamping area is reoriented for the grips and controls.”

Not much weight is lost with the use of carbon, but Browne was quick to point out that the Rhythm Pro tests to Trek’s downhill standards. We’ve found that it seems to be noticeably stiffer than many of the aluminum bars available at wide lengths.

Easton Havoc 35 (Aluminum US$90, Carbon US$160)

www.eastoncycling.com

Easton's havoc 35 has a 35mm stem clamp to balance the bar's strength, stiffness and weight: easton's havoc 35 has a 35mm stem clamp to balance the bar's strength, stiffness and weight

The Havoc 35 is 800mm wide and specifically designed for downhill

Easton’s standard handlebars reach to 750mm (the downhill Havoc Carbon) or 711mm (the all-mountain Haven) whereas the new Havoc 35 reaches 800mm and is available in both aluminum and carbon. 

Easton weren’t happy with just increasing the span of their 800mm bars, though – they increased clamp diameter, too, boosting strength and stiffness while also reducing weight. At the April 35 launch, Dain Zaffke, Easton’s brand manager, said that simply lengthening the standard Havoc bars would have compromised performance. 

Of course, with the 35mm bar clamp you’ll also need a compatible stem. Easton offer direct- and steerer-mounted options for $100.

Truvativ BooBar (US$55) 

www.sram.com

The truvativ boobar: the truvativ boobar

Truvativ’s BooBar was developed with feedback from pro downhill riders

The Truvativ BooBar helped usher in the wide bar movement. The 7050 aluminum alloy bar comes in 740mm or 780mm lengths and sports a 7-degree back sweep and 5-degree upsweep. It was developed with SRAM’s BlackBox downhill racing program, with riders including Steve Peat, Sam Hill, Nathan Rennie, Mick Hannah and Eric Carter providing feedback.

You might wonder why the Truvativ has the name of Jeremiah Boobar, RockShox’s product manager. At the time, he was running the BlackBox program and had a small run of wider bars produced for his team of riders. “The riders really liked them and the Truvativ guys wanted to put one into production,” said Boobar. “I thought, ‘Awesome, this is exactly what my job is suppose to be – creating things and putting them into production.’ 

“Then, at a product management summit after Interbike, we were going through a bunch of stuff and the wide bar came up. Ron Ritzler [one of SRAM’s category managers] said, ‘We should call it the Boobar.’ I was like oh, God, but it actually stuck.”

The BooBar became an official product in Truvativ’s line in 2009. When the bar was launched it cost almost twice what it does now, which accounts for our original review’s low score. If pressed now, we’d probably give it four or more stars – the bar sports a very comfortable bend, is reasonably light and represents one of the best value options on the market.

Handlebars are part of SRAM’s BlackBox program for 2012, too. We can expect signature models from the likes of Danny Hart and Ross Schnell, which will vary in material and design based on riding category. “We’re actually creating specific bends and widths for athletes,” said Tyler Morland, SRAM’s PR manager. “There’s upwards of eight to 10 athletes right now.” Expect more news on this at the fall tradeshows. 

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