New UCI regs? Challenge accepted! Dan Bigham’s 27 cm road handlebars

How narrow is too narrow?

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The UCI has a long history of creating rules halting progression and making riders slower in the name of safety and protecting the image of the sport.

Graeme Obree’s Superman position, Cinelli Spinaci bars, smaller front wheels, the Lotus 108 frame – all banned by the UCI before helmets became mandatory and while doping was ignored. Fast forward two decades and the UCI is now enforcing sock height rules and banning invisible aero bars, again in the name of safety.

Try as the UCI might to slow riders down, the ingenious minds of this sport will always find a way to innovate and push the boundaries of development. Ban one speed-assisting aid, and inventive riders or engineers are sure to find another.

One such innovator is British Track World Cup winner, team time trial Worlds medalist, UCI Continental team road racer, and chief consultant at Watt Shop, Dan Bigham. Always one for finding innovative solutions to performance problems, Bigham has caused a stir after a photo emerged of the Ribble-Weldtite rider racing in Denmark this past weekend using extremely narrow handlebars with the levers at an extreme angle.

We spoke to Dan Bigham this week to get all the juicy aero details on the new bars.

Bigham confirmed to CyclingTips that the bars are a prototype still in development. “The bars were initially part of a lockdown project to investigate the aero benefits of extremely narrow handlebars and bar profiles with real-world validation versus CFD modelling,” he said.

The bars measure a staggeringly narrow 27 cm at the hoods and just 33 cm at the flared-out drops. This ultra-narrow setup allows the rider to adopt an improved aero position while upright on the hoods and an even-further-improved position while tucked down on the hoods for attacking, in breakaways, or riding on the front.

The images seem intentionally dark to hide the exact design, but the extremely narrow lever position is clear to see.

So what sort of aero benefits can a rider expect from the new bars? Bigham explained that savings will vary depending on the rider’s unique shape and position on the bike plus how disciplined they can be in holding a position. Bigham explains he sees savings on the higher end of the scale as a result of all his TT and track work. A conservative estimate would be in the range of 0.004-0.008 m² CdA. Or in simpler terms, 0.004 m² is 5 watts at 45 km/h, the equivalent of half a second for every kilometre.

“I know how I win bike races and that’s by breakaways and solo attacks, Bigham explained. “To maximise my W/CdA in this method I need to reduce my CdA for short to medium durations. Narrowing my front end achieves a big step forward in this.”

As the bars are still pre-production prototypes, Bigham couldn’t comment on their weight but he was confident that the reduced size alone would result in a final product that should weigh in at less than more conventionally sized road aero bars.

Bigham was also tight-lipped about the exact details of the final production-ready bars, saying “the final design will also have some very unique aspects” and “I am not into designing something that is basically the same as everything else – we want to design the best.”

The UCI introduced bans on both super tucking and riders draping their hands over the front of the handlebars on safety grounds. Bigham’s prototype Watt Shop bars appear to offer a solution for riders looking to reduce their frontal area and improve aerodynamics without falling foul of the UCI’s new regulations. But what about handling?

“Handling is actually very similar to wider bars,” Bigham said. “It largely comes down to familiarity. Think back to when people claimed narrow TT arm rests restricted breathing and reduced stability, yet nowadays it is the status quo for any top TTer. You train to enable the end goal and not make concessions around performance without good reason.”

The extreme lever hood angle is even more obvious from this photo angle.

This is not the first time we have seen designers get creative with handlebar shapes in a bid to improve rider aerodynamics. Last year Dutch company Speeco unveiled its ABB (Aero Breakaway Bar). Similarly narrow, the ABB combines a short stem with an extremely long reach to the lever position.

Bigham’s Watt Shop bars take the opposite approach with the reach achieved via a longer stem. Bigham himself uses a 140 mm Enve Aero stem. The tops of the bars have a long-profiled shape, which, while perhaps not offering the most comfortable hand position, will have been designed to improve front-end aerodynamics.

Both the Speeco and Watt Shop bar designs are radically different from traditional handlebar design and even modern integrated bar designs. With the UCI’s previous record of dealing with technology it perceives as threatening the image of the sport, one wonders how the governing body will fall on this emerging bar design trend. The Speeco bars are still awaiting UCI approval. It is not clear if the Watt Shop design will be deemed “new technology” by the UCI and thus also be subject to approval requirement. It seems a stretch to deem narrower bars as new technology, but stranger things have happened over at UCI HQ.

The pandemic has delayed development and production times but Watt Shop is hopeful of releasing the new bars later this year.