Get a grip: Your guide to all things handlebar tape
Handlebar tape serves as the interface for a critical contact point on the bike, yet it is often overlooked. Too often, riders are prepared to put up with worn and tattered tape despite the fact that is relatively inexpensive to replace. Fresh bar tape will always make a make a bike look (and feel) new again, and with an extensive range of tapes to choose from, there is enormous scope for personalisation.
In this post, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a look at the range of bar tape available and offers a few tips for wrapping your bars like a pro.
The handlebars of road bikes have long been wrapped with some kind of tape, but aside from an evolution in materials, it has remain unchanged for many decades. It’s a classic product that no road cyclist can do without, and in many ways, it embodies the traits of a great cyclist: tough, robust, and resilient with an amount of class.
The demands that bar tape must satisfy are few and simple: first, it must provide sure grip under all conditions, regardless of whether the rider’s hands are slick with sweat or numb with cold; second, the tape should make the handlebars more comfortable to hold; third, it needs to withstand regular use in a wide range of conditions; and fourth, provide an amount of decoration to suit the rider’s taste.
Every material that has served bar tape has managed to satisfy each of these demands, more or less, but it’s interesting to note that the rate of evolution has been very slow when compared to other parts of the bike. Cotton was the material of choice for at least three decades before it was supplanted by plastic, which, in turn, enjoyed at least 10 years of favour before cork and foam tapes took its place.
While the last 20 years have seen a few new materials emerge, there is no indication that the rate of evolution is accelerating. What has changed, though, is that there are now more colours, patterns, materials, and finishes to choose from than ever before, which is perfect for personalising any bike or applying the final touch for a custom road bike build.
By contrast, the earliest bar tape was dull and pragmatic, and probably re-purposed from elsewhere during a moment of resourceful thinking. That may extinguish some of the romance associated with vintage bar tape, but by taking a look at it, and the other kinds of materials that have been used through the years, it is easy to appreciate how much this humble product has evolved.
The early era: cotton tape
The earliest road bikes often featured simple rubber grips for the drops, so a decade or two passed before handlebars were ever wrapped. Cotton tape started appearing on road bikes perhaps as early as the 1920s and was in widespread use from the ‘30s until the mid-‘70s. The material was cheap, easy to use, and with a few coats of shellac, it could withstand years of regular use.
The application of shellac also served to add some colour to the tape, resulting in some attractive honey and deep brown hues. Twine was typically used to secure the end of the tape at the stem, though there was an art to doing this well so that it wouldn’t come undone, just like taping the bars.
Cotton may have fallen out of favour with contemporary road cyclists, but there are at least two manufacturers — Velox and Newbaum’s — that are still creating cotton tape, in a stunning range of colours, no less. Velox’s Tressostar tape is available in 18 colours while there is a choice of 25 colours for Newbaum’s tape. The latter also provides a kit for shellacking the tape and includes twine and cork bar ends to finish off the job in a classic manner.
The middle era: plastic, vinyl, cork, and foam tape
Benotto’s solid plastic Cello Tape replaced cotton during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Like cotton, it was cheap and easy to use, but there was no need to apply shellac to achieve a glossy, durable finish. The company was also able to offer Cello Tape in a variety of colours, however white was favoured by professional riders.
That Benotto occupied a position of esteem in the professional peloton probably helped the popularity of its simple plastic ribbon, and it would come to define an era of cycling that came to a close during the mid-‘80s when the company faltered.
Benotto may have stopped producing its cello-tape many years ago but it’s still possible to find it in its original packaging, complete with bar ends, for those hoping to complete a period-correct build for any steel road bike from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Plastic was not the only material that was used for bar tape during this period: imitation leather and vinyl bar tape were also common sights. The Italian manufacturer Bike Ribbon made use of both materials as it pioneered a chamfered tape design that allowed thicker tape to be wrapped around the bars without creating any bulges where it overlapped. It was a simple solution yet the company managed to patent the idea.
The other great innovation that helped the development of cushioned bar tape came in the early ‘80s when Cinelli started blending ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam with cork to yield a resilient and cushioned tape with a great feel. Andy Hampsten immediately fell in love with the new tape because it allowed him to race without gloves, but Cinelli understood that more work was needed, and spent another couple of years experimenting with how to colour the new material.
By 1987, Cinelli had developed eight colours, and cork/EVA soon became the material of choice for bar tape. The company would go on to to develop even more adventurous finishes for its cork tape while other brands started offering their own variations of EVA tape. Cork was not a strict necessity to create lightweight and comfortable bar tape, however the original blend can still be found in Cinelli’s catalogue alongside newer synthetics.
The current era: microfibre, polyurethane and other synthetics
The next step in the evolution of bar tape came in 2006 when Fizik introduced its Microtex bar tape. The synthetic material could be combined with foam to create a more durable cushioned tape that could also be more easily washed to maintain its appearance. Fizik used Microtex to create tape with different thicknesses, textures, and finishes, and at one point, was even stitching together different colours to create the final product.
Microtex ushered in a new era for tougher synthetics and now a variety of brands offer their own versions of “microfibre” bar tape with various amounts of foam backing. Aside from being more robust, this material can be decorated with stitches, perforations, and/or embossed logos without compromising the durability or washability of the tape.
More recently, Lizard Skins and Supacaz have been using more supple materials, such as polyurethane, to create tape that is more flexible and easier to apply than microfibre. These tapes are available in a wide range of colours and thicknesses, and can be textured for extra grip while offering the same kind of durability and washability as microfibre.
Two other materials, namely rubber (e.g. Brooks Cambium rubber tape) and silicone rubber (e.g. Fabric’s Silicone tape), have also been used to create handlebar tape for many of the same reasons, however both remain in limited use at this stage.
Leather: a timeless alternative
One material that has long satisfied all the demands for bar tape is leather. It’s a traditional choice that is extremely hard wearing, but the exorbitant cost has always limited the appeal of this material. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to find: Cinelli offers a leather tape, as do Brooks, HandleBra, and Melbourne-based DiPell, to name a few.
For some, the extra expense will be relatively easy to justify since leather will last for years, and potentially improve with age. The material also offers a unique texture and fragrance that cannot be matched by other materials, synthetic or otherwise. However, leather does not offer much in the way of padding or shock absorbency, so it won’t suit the needs of all riders.
There is also a small number of craftsmen that create bespoke handlebar tape, such as Melbourne’s Mick Peel (aka Busyman Bicycles), HandleBra, Leh Cycling Goods, and Eonkim Craft. It is a premium product, so it’s not really surprising that leather is the material of choice for every one of these craftsmen.
Choosing handlebar tape
Bar tape may have evolved dramatically over the last 50 years, but none of it has really been left behind. So in addition to current products, it is still possible to source more traditional tape and materials, including cotton, and the market is considerably richer for it. Aside from providing an array of colours and finishes, all can be differentiated on the basis of comfort, feel, grip, and durability.
Cork/foam blends are generally considered a good choice for those riders looking for comfortable and absorbent tape. Thick versions (up to 3mm) of microfibre tape are also very comfortable, yet harder wearing than cork/foam and much easier to clean once it gets grubby. Leather and thin microfibre tape will suit those riders that want to keep handlebar bulk to a minimum, while cotton and plastic are best suited to vintage and classic builds, respectively.
As for choosing a colour, rules abound, but feel free to ignore them. Black is a conservative yet practical choice that won’t show its age like a coloured tape. White, by contrast, will demand a lot more attention and age quickly. Let the bike guide any decision on the choice of colour: if the tape matches another part of the bike, then it’s likely to blend in and even add some interest to the final build.
With all of that said, bar tape is very much akin to tyres, so a bit of experimentation will be required before a rider can form a preference. Bar tape is generally inexpensive, and because it is prone to wear and tear, riders will always have a reason to explore what the market has to offer.
Don’t let it decay
While some of the materials that are used for handlebar tape are extremely durable, all are prone to wear and tear (and none are immune from crashes), so it is inevitable that the tape will need to be replaced on a semi-regular basis. Exactly how often will depend on a variety of factors, including how frequently the bike is used and the kind of conditions that it must endure.
One factor that is often ignored is the impact of sweat. For those riders that sweat profusely and find that the bar tape is often soggy at the end of the ride, it will be important to replace at relatively short intervals – and not just because it starts to smell. All of the salt contained in the sweat will quickly diffuse through the tape, creating a highly oxidative environment for steel lever bands and alloy handlebars.
Ignoring the tape for an extended period of time will allow oxidation to take place unchecked, creating a potentially disastrous situation if the bar fails unexpectedly. It’s better to replace the tape at least twice a year to limit the damage and keep an eye on any oxidation that has occurred.
Tips for Wrapping Handlebars
In general terms, wrapping handlebars is a simple chore because all that is required is a smooth, taut spiral from one end of the bars to the stem. Of course, there is a little more to the process than that, such as contending with the levers, and while a few tips can make a difference, wrapping bars is a handicraft that will always benefit from some practice.
Aside from finding the opportunity to practise, the most important thing to pay attention to when learning how to wrap handlebars is the choice of tape. The material needs to be supple so that it readily conforms to the shape of the bars and avoids wrinkles, yet robust so that it won’t break when pulled hard.
Cork blends and foam tape are generally supple, however they can break when pulled too hard. Polyurethane tape is a better choice because it is much more resilient and forgiving. Microfibre tape is very difficult to break but it is also very stiff, so it takes more time, strength and care to wrap the bars cleanly, while leather is even more difficult to work with.
Wrapping bars requires two hands at almost all times, so a bit of preparation makes the job easier, starting with the brake and gear cables (or wires). Arrange them neatly and then use some electrical tape to secure them against the bars. In this way, there won’t be any need to let go of the tape when wrapping the bars to make sure the cables are positioned correctly.
The tape can be wrapped in one of two ways — clockwise or anti-clockwise — when looking at the end of the bar. Opinions differ on which direction is “correct”, although ultimately, it is solely a matter of preference (and how you tend to roll your wrists when gripping the bars). In practical terms, neither choice has a dramatic influence on the final result. However, if the tape is not wound with enough tension in the first place, it will unwind regardless of the direction chosen.
This last point is where much of the technique of wrapping lies, because the tape needs to be stretched to some degree as it is wound onto the bars. This will prevent a lot of wrinkles from developing while also ensuring that the tape won’t unwind or slide with use. That kind of effort is enough to move the bike around if it isn’t secured, so it’s worth anchoring the front wheel or fork in a stand to make the job easier.
Deciding on where to finish wrapping the tape is usually dictated by the handlebars. For external cables, it will be important to wrap the bars most of the way to the stem to keep them secure and tidy. In contrast, there is no strict need to wrap the tops of the bars when the cables are routed internally. This is especially true for aero shapes where a cushioned tape can increase the bulk of the tops considerably, however a thin microfibre tape can be used by riders that find untaped tops too slippery.
Keep a pair of scissors handy, and hang two lengths of electrical tape on the stem or top tube of the frame so that they are easy to reach. Once wrapping is complete, the end of the tape can be cut and secured without letting it go. It’s heart-breaking to watch all your hard work literally unravel before your eyes.
The sequence above details one common approach to wrapping bars where a single loop is used around the levers. When using this method, a short strip of tape is required to hide the lever band and fill in some gaps. Alternatively, some lever shapes can be wrapped in a figure-eight, as shown in this video that Dave Everrett captured at the Tour Down Under a few years ago, in which case there is no need for an extra length of tape.
Once the bars are wrapped, there a few choices for finishing off the job. Electrical tape provides the simplest and most effective means of securing the end of the tape to the bars, but don’t use too much or wrap too wide as it will spoil an otherwise neat finish. Electrical tape is available in a few different colours, so it will often blend in with the bar tape.
Alternatively, twine, short strips of leather, cotton tape, or a vinyl sticker can be used to hide the electrical tape and add a bit of interest to the finished job. Keep in mind that whatever the choice, it needs to withstand a fair bit of abrasion without posing too much of a challenge to remove when it comes time to replace the tape.
At the other end of the bars, a simple plug (or even a cork from a bottle) is used to tuck away the tape to make sure that it doesn’t unravel. For those looking for extra flair or greater personalisation, it’s not difficult (or expensive) to get a pair of custom-engraved alloy bar plugs, while brands such as Velox and Cinelli offer some interesting alternatives.
What’s your favourite bar tape and how do you like to finish off the job?