Road bike handlebars guide: how to choose the right ones

They're more than just a place to hang your brake levers, y'know…

Road bikes are commonly sold without pedals. In addition to keeping the price down, bike manufacturers know that cyclists are picky when it comes to choosing pedal systems. But why are we so fussy about one contact point, and so often just ignore other equally crucial points? With this in mind, it is of my opinion that road bikes should also be sold without handlebars.

Regardless of whether your bike is entry-level, premium or fully custom, it is the five contact points between you and your bike that will ensure the comfor and efficiency of your ride.

Your bars are more than just a place to hang your gear and brake levers (though this role is, of course, essential). They're also instrumental in determining bike stability and handling characteristics. Additionally, a well-adjusted handlebar-hood arrangement will allow for hours of comfortable riding.  

However, get the position wrong and you'll likely suffer neck, shoulder and lower back pain, not to mention running the risk of handlebar palsy (or ulnar neuropathy — numbness of the two smallest fingers due to compression or traction of the ulnar nerve as it passes across the wrist into the hand, with or without hand muscle weakness).

When choosing the handlebar for your road bike, we recommend you consider the following; 

How to choose the width of your handlebars

Pro rider Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) uses a Zipp SL70 Ergo handlebar for a compact reach
Pro rider Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) uses a Zipp SL70 Ergo handlebar for a compact reach

Too much fuss is made about the importance of shoulder width when choosing bar width.

In practice, I can’t recall a rider suffering undue shoulder tension from riding a bar too wide. In fact I have many narrow-shouldered clients successfully riding 730mm handlebars on their mountain bikes, happily dropping off ledges with additional confidence due to the stability offered by having a wide platform under their hands.

The same applies on the road, where a broad handlebar offers stability and confidence to an inexperienced rider, regardless of their size or shoulder width. I regularly install wider bars for riders who have presented with shoulder tension, neck pain, jaw pain or hand fatigue from the 'death grip' they have due to riding nerve-wracking, narrow bars. This is perhaps most notable on many women’s bikes, which come stock with narrow handlebars to suit narrow shouldered riders.

How to choose the shape of your handlebars

What looks fastest should not be the main consideration where comfort is concerned
What looks fastest should not be the main consideration where comfort is concerned

It's taken a while, but manufacturers are finally realising that the bulk of bike sales are not made by elite bike racers. Until recently, most bikes catered to the racing fraternity via low head tubes combined with a bar and stem combinations which offered the most aerodynamic position possible when riding in the drops.

In most cases there were no considerations regarding comfort when riding out of the drops. This all changed when FSA and 3T offered up the Omega and Ergonova respectively, triggering a trend of short-shoulder, shallow drop (or 'compact') bars on new bikes.

This more ergonomically considered hardware, especially when paired with 'endurance' bike geometry, allows even the most dedicated office worker to be comfortable on weekend rides when on the hoods.

It also means you can actually reach the drops without your knees clipping your chin. This is an absolutely critical position as it offers the greatest leverage possible on the brake levers when descending.

How to setup your road bike handlebars

Road bike handlebars can dramatically affect your comfort and control on the bike
Road bike handlebars can dramatically affect your comfort and control on the bike

When given the choice, opt for compact bars with a longer stem rather than a shorter stem with a long-shouldered bar. This allows easy access to the controls when riding on the tops, as well as improved bike handling, a good torso posture, and easy access to the brake levers when riding in the drops.

If you’re new to road cycling, start with a bar that's wider than your shoulders, then aim to get narrower as your skills improve (although best leave the 36cm bars to pro rider Adam Hansen).

Many of the latest bikes are starting to come with sensible handlebar choices. That said, if your bike is from a few years ago, there's a good chance you can do better
Many of the latest bikes are starting to come with sensible handlebar choices. That said, if your bike is from a few years ago, there's a good chance you can do better

You should position your hoods so that there is a continuous, level surface from the bar's shoulder onto the hoods. Make sure the transition from the bar shoulder/hood surface is a degree or two up from horizontal. This allows a good platform for the hand and puts your wrists in a far more natural position when reaching for the controls.

Bar tape also has a huge impact on hand pressure and fatigue. We recommend cork or other easy-to-grip tape. Gel inserts can also be used to absorb road vibration, but make sure they are positioned such that they don't cause pressure points.

One-piece carbon handlebar and stem combinations look cool, but they're a bike fitter's nightmare
One-piece carbon handlebar and stem combinations look cool, but they're a bike fitter's nightmare

When it comes to bar selection, it’s best to avoid anything too fancy. 

Full carbon integrated bar-stem units may get the conversation started at the coffee shop, but as their position is fixed, they are a bike fitter’s nightmare. Anything too aerodynamic also tends to neglect ergonomics, and the tight curves of internal cable routing create hassles for mechanics and poor shifting for the rider. It’s best to express your individuality with zany shoe covers or socks, not with the bike parts that impact on your safety and comfort.

The Body Mechanic series on BikeRadar covers topics from bike fit to injury prevention to how your component selections actually affect you. The Body Mechanic is a Sydney-based physiotherapy, bike fitting and cycle repair workshop established in 2008 by physiotherapist and former NSW elite state road cycling champion Blair Martin.

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