How to set up road bike drop handlebars — tips and guidelines

by James Huang

One of the most entertaining things about the bikes we ride is how easily they can be customized to our liking. Components can be changed at will, there’s ample opportunity to dress things up with a bit of color, and the fit can be tweaked to better suit your wants and needs. Your cockpit is one area where there’s an especially generous range of flexibility, but there are still some basic guidelines you should follow in order to extract the most performance and comfort possible.

You’re doing it wrong (maybe)

Drop handlebars seem straightforward enough, but the reality is there is a huge range of adjustment possible, and plenty of ways to get it wrong. Before entertaining the idea of replacing your current bar to gain some comfort, you should first make sure that you’re making the most of what you already have.

Many handlebars come poorly set up straight from the manufacturer, usually with the levers mounted too low on the bar. There’s a good chance this rider would simply loosen the stem bolts and clock the entire bar upward to get the desired hood angle, but then that would compromise other aspects of the fit.

Many bike brands aren’t exactly helping in this matter in terms of how new bikes are assembled at the factory. Traditionally, the bottoms of drop handlebars have been set up nominally level with the ground, and the controls installed such that the tip of the brake lever is inline with the bottom of the drop (or with the upper surface of the hoods also roughly level to the ground).

“In the old-school way of thinking, hoods used to be level, but now it’s about five degrees up,” said Retül co-founder Todd Carver, who has analyzed thousands of sets of rider fit data over the past 11 years. “You should either have a neutral wrist [angle] or the slightest ulnar deviation, so slightly uphill. Never — and this is where I see a lot of riders make a mistake — set the hoods level to the ground. You’ll be too ulnar-deviated, and it won’t feel quite right. There is a rare exception where riders just prefer that, though. That’s the main point to check.”

Ok, so you want your hoods angled upward a bit. What’s the easiest way to do that, you ask?

If you’re like a lot of riders, you just loosen up the stem, rotate the bars upward, and — voilá! — all done. Simple as pie. But that’s also exactly what you shouldn’t do. That approach yields the desired brake hood angle, but it also affects other aspects of cockpit fit, and usually in a negative way.

Reach vs. effective reach

Every handlebar will have stated dimensions for drop and reach — or, in other words, how low the bottom of the bar comes relative to the clamped section at the center, and how far out the drops extend forward before curving downward. But those dimensions are based on the bar being installed in a neutral position in terms of rotation, and deviating from that can significantly change how the handlebar feels.

Every drop handlebar has a set of measurements that describe its drop, reach, and width. But how the bar fits in reality depends heavily on how it’s set up.

Carver instead prefers to use a term he calls “effective reach,” which refers to the horizontal distance from the center of the handlebar to the rearmost edge of the hood. According to him, this provides a much more useful description of how a rider’s cockpit is set up in reality, as opposed to just going by how the handlebar could fit.

For example, two cockpits with the same brake/shift lever and handlebar models could be adjusted to have identical hood angles, but depending on where the lever is clamped on the bar, and how the bar is rotated, one bike could feel much longer or shorter than the other one.

The “effective reach” of a handlebar refers to where the back edge of the lever hoods sit relative to the center of the handlebar clamp. You can often alter that figure by about 20mm by sliding the levers fore or aft. This also changes the hood angle, but leaves the position of the drops intact.

Complicating matters is the fact that component brands design their bars to be used within a certain window of angular adjustment. Specifically, the drops are meant to interface with the rider’s hands in a particular way, and skewing that orientation outside of the intended window can make them unusable.

“To us, [the fit of the cockpit] depends on both the roll of the bar and the setting of the hood,” said Carver. “The actual dimensions of the bar itself all depend on the end setup that you get, and it depends on the curve. A bar with a [printed] reach of 80mm can have an effective reach anywhere from 40mm to 60mm when you take the hood into account.

“A lot of times, what we’re doing during a fit is untaping the bars, and we’ll actually roll the ends of the bar back toward the rider, so they have that good drop position, and then we bring the hood up and it takes about 20mm out of their reach. It’s a big difference.

“Whenever we get a rider in who says they never use their drops, it’s usually because they’re not set up properly and they don’t have a good place for their hands to be. Their bar is rolled up too high, and their hoods are too low, and that makes for a really long effective reach to the hood.”

Drop bars first, brake levers second

The key takeaway from the above conversation is that you should set your handlebar angle first, and then set your levers up second; one adjustment should never be altered to suit the other. However, moving the levers on their own means retaping the bars, and for whatever reason, that’s intimidating to some.

It shouldn’t be.

Riders often just resort to clocking the entire handlebar upward to alter the hood angle just because they don’t want to mess with the handlebar tape. But it’s often a necessary step in order to get the right fit.

Installing handlebar tape is hardly a complex process; it just takes a little patience and attention to detail. Check out our in-depth guide to handlebar tape for more information. And even if re-taping bars isn’t your thing, consider it an opportunity to freshen up your bike or add some color, rather than a chore.

But if you’re really ruing the idea of wrapping your bars, try this: Once you’ve got a handlebar angle and hood position you think you’re happy with, go out for a quick ride with the bars unwrapped, keeping in mind the limited grip you’re have in the interim (or just do a quick-and-dirty job with the old stuff). That way, you can at least have some confidence that everything is where you want it to be so you only have to wrap the bars once.

There’s no need to wrap the bars to test out different handlebar and lever positions.

There are also a number of non-adhesive, gel-backed handlebar tapes on the market that will allow for limited number of re-applications within a reasonably short period of time. So if you’re the indecisive type, perhaps consider going this route.

Spoilt for choice

Again, all of this discussion has been geared around making the most of the bars you already have. But what if you’ve done all of that, and still aren’t happy with how things feel? At that point, it might be time to look at some new handlebars. Although with so many choices available, where do you start?

Compact vs Ergo vs Traditional road bars
Which handlebar bend type will work best for you? Personal preference – or just what feels right – plays a big role for sure, but there’s also some logic behind the different shapes as well. Photo: Zipp.

Carver is a fan of the semi-ergonomic bars that are now practically standard-issue on new road bikes. According to him, the gradual curve affords more options for hand positions, while still relieving pressure for long-term comfort.

“The new ergonomic bars are better than the old ergonomic bars because it’s more of a gradual curve; they just seem to work better,” he said. “You’ve got this position for when your forearms are level to the ground and you’re coasting, and then when you want to pedal, you can bring your hands further down, and open up your hips to pedal. It gives you that continuum to move along, whereas with the old [ergonomic] bars, you kind of just had one spot. This just gives you more freedom.”

Classic-bend bars aren’t very popular, but they have a little more leeway in terms of how they’re rotated since the constant-radius drops will largely feel the same throughout a large range of handlebar rotation. The long reach and deep drop let the rider really reach down and forward, for an ultra-aggressive position.

Adding a bit more food for thought is Zipp product manager Nathan Schickel. Zipp not only offers multiple choices in handlebar drop and reach dimensions, but also dramatic differences in bar shape — and there’s a distinct logic behind each of them.

According to Schickel, much of the reasoning behind a certain drop and reach dimension relates to aspects of your bike fit. The goal is similar to what Carver aims for in terms of hood positioning: a neutral wrist angle. If you tend to ride in the drops with your forearms more vertical (which often corresponds to a lot of handlebar drop), Schickel recommends a drop section with a more horizontal orientation. Conversely, riders who run less drop that tend to have their forearms closer to level with the ground will likely be happiest with drops that are more upright.

“[The shape of the drop] is informed by body position and how you reach into it,” Schickel explained. “Everybody’s a little different. On my road bike, I run a 70mm-reach, but on my track bike, I run an 80mm-reach. That’s because I have more drop on my track bike, and so I’m reaching down into the drops. Whereas on my road bike, I have a little bit of a flatter position. But generally, if you’re sitting up a little more and you’re reaching down [into your drops], you choose the 80mm bar.”

According to Zipp, the type of drop handlebar bend that suits you best will depend heavily on your desired (or necessary) arm and body position. Photo: Zipp.

Alternatively, there are more traditionally shaped bars — so-called “classic” bend bars — that have a more consistent radius throughout the curve, a long reach, and lots of drop. This is what is often favored by pro riders, who more often favor (and can actually manage) the longer body positions that are so good for aerodynamics. But for amateur riders, Schickel says, the take rate is a scant 3%.

As for width, the old adage still holds true for the most part: bar width should roughly match your shoulder width, measured from the bony protrusions at the end of your acromion. But even then, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. If narrower feels better, go that route; likewise with wider. And if you find that you prefer some flare, then by all means, have at it.

And what about carbon vs. aluminum? According to Schickel, it’s not strictly a matter of one being “better” than the other.

“Generally, if you have the same amount of material, then yes, [a carbon bar would be stiffer than an aluminum one],” he said. “But because carbon has a higher stiffness per gram than aluminum, we can target the same stiffness, and build the bar lighter.”

There’s also a ride quality component to the decision as well.

“Carbon is an insulator, vs. aluminum being a conductor, so generally vibration is more damped slightly [on a carbon bar],” Schickel said. “Recently, we had a pro cyclocross racer mention that he didn’t want to race on carbon bars because he said he couldn’t feel what was underneath his wheels. [A carbon bar is] not as lively as an aluminum bar.”

Take the time, reap the benefits

Getting the cockpit fit that you want doesn’t necessarily have to involve a three-hour professional fitting session and hundreds of dollars in new gear. If your current setup just doesn’t quite feel “right,” it might just be a matter of some trial-and-error, a bit of patience, and far less cost than you might expect.

Ultimately, all of the recommendations and guidelines on the subject (either here or otherwise) should be taken with a grain of salt; all that really matters is what feels good in your hands.

“In reality,” said Carver, “it’s really just personal preference. But there is still a right and wrong setup for every bar.”

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