Over the course of the past year, gravel riding has surged in popularity. So much so that its led many bike manufacturers to produce their own spin on the gravel bike (like the Marin Nicasio+). It has also led to many bike component manufacturers to create new parts geared specifically for gravel riding. One of the most recent examples is Shimano’s announcement of the GRX groupset. None of this is new and if the past year has taught me anything it’s that gravel is leading the way toward greater comfort on road bikes across the board.
Such is the case with road bike handlebars. If there’s any niche in cycling, gravel is definitely helping define newer styles of handlebars. In my post about my bike, I talked a little bit about my handlebar choices. I’ve spent the past year looking at different handlebars and, strangely enough, the gravel niche is actually helping other styles of riding.
My goal in the search for the perfect handlebars was to find something that wasn't just good at one thing. I wanted something that was highly versatile and would allow me to switch between both endurance and gravel riding. Most gravel specific handlebars lend themselves to comfort so, with the right configuration, they would be good for endurance as well as casual road riding.
Now, keep in mind that I focused my search primarily on aluminum alloy handlebars. My budget at the time didn’t allow for carbon fiber handlebars. I did keep an eye on various carbon choices though and, honestly, most of them looked to be just carbon versions of the same alloy styles. Not a whole lot of variance between the carbon and alloy versions…at least not with more traditional handlebar styles. As such, if weight is the issue then, yes, go with the carbon. Otherwise, most of the ones I talk about here work just as well as an alloy handlebar.
Gravel Handlebar Characteristics
When I got my Marin Nicasio, the stock handlebars weren’t that bad...they just we’re great. Standard alloy handlebars with pretty much zero comfort features. But, like with most cheap bikes, the stock components are rarely the ideal especially when it comes to saddles and handlebars. An upgrade was definitely in order. They did had a relatively comfortable drop with 12 degrees of drop flare. That’s actually pretty standard for most gravel handlebars.
Drop flare usually runs around 12 to 16 degrees of flare with more extreme gravel-specific bars having as much as 24 to 25 degrees of flare. Another characteristic is that many of them add drop angling as well. If all you’re doing is gravel riding then having 12 degrees added to the drop angle can help. Many of the more extreme bars (ie. Salsa Woodchippers) can have as much as 38 degrees of angling. That might work for strictly gravel riding but if versatility is what you’re after then it might be best to keep these specs somewhere in the middle.
In my initial search for more ergonomic handlebars, I concentrated on four main characteristics:
- Ergonomic flat tops
- Backsweep in the tops
- Relatively shallow, compact drops
- 12 degrees of flare in the drops
Zipp Service Course SL-70 Ergo handlebar
One of the first ones I looked at was the Zipp Service Course SL-70 Ergo handlebars. These looked close to checking off all my requirements but fell short a bit. They had the ergonomic tops but the rest of the specs were just a little too conservative. The backsweep is only 3 degrees with just a slight 4 degrees of drop flare. The drop is pretty shallow though (128mm). I’m sure for just road riding, these would fit the bill for many riders.
Ritchey WCS ErgoMax handlebar
Next on my list was the Ritchey WCS ErgoMax handlebar. These are very similar to the Zipp handlebars. Again, had the ergonomic tops and, while offered better specs that the Zipp handlebars, just didn’t quite meet the specs I was hoping for. The backsweep is only a degree more (4 degrees) than the Zipp handlebars. They do have 12 degrees of drop flare with a little bit of flare out (3 degrees). I think the only thing that kept me from liking them was the 10mm of rise in the middle. Just didn’t know how I felt about that.
3T SuperErgo handlebar
Next up was the 3T SuperErgo handlebars. These are interesting in that, along with the ergonomic tops, offer a corner grip which, according to them, allow for greater comfort when riding with your hands in the corner. Keep in mind though that the corner grip feature is only available in the carbon version. Like the Zipp’s, these look great and might work well for just road riding. But with little drop flare (6 degrees) and no backsweep, I just didn't see them benefiting me.
Origin8 Flare II Ergo handlebar
I ended up settling on the Origin8 Flare II Ergo handlebars. They seemed to check off all the features I was looking for. They have a 5 degree backsweep, 16 degrees of drop flare, ergonomic tops, and a bit shallower drop (124mm) than the Marin bars. They seemed perfect!
The Origin8 handlebars definitely felt better than the stock Marin handlebars. However, the drops felt like they were in the wrong place for me. I felt like they needed to be back a little more so that the angle of my hands worked better. The tops were ok and, honestly, I didn’t feel that much of a difference with the ergonomic tops. At this point, I was ok with them. They’re good handlebars but were they the perfect fit? I wasn't sure.
Soma Condor handlebar
Around this time, I ran across a picture of some handlebars that immediately caught my attention: the Soma Condor handlebars. These are perhaps the most unorthodox handlebars I had ever seen!
The Condor bars are crazy in that they add rise, backsweep, upsweep, and flared drops all at the same time. The problem comes with the upsweep. In thinking through the practicality of these bars, it quickly became apparent that the hand position in the tops is compromised. If you’re riding in the tops, an upsweep along with a backsweep is likely to put your hands in a weird position. I didn’t really think about this before I ordered them.
I was very close to ordering these but learned that they were being discontinued. I’m kinda glad I didn’t get them for the reasons I mentioned above. Soma ended up replacing them with the Condor 2 which was redesigned in a way that eliminates some of the distinguishing features of the original Condor handlebar. The middle rise remains but the backsweep is eliminated in favor of straight tops that pretty much make them not that much different than the Specialized Hover handlebars. Great if you’re looking to give your handlebars more rise without adding to the stem but that’s about it. More practical than the original Condor...just not as distinguished or cool looking.
Traditional Gravel Handlebars
At this point, I decided to narrow my focus and concentrate on just the drops. I was ok with nixing the ergonomic tops in favor of the proper amount of drop and flare. Basically, I was backpedaling towards a more refined version of the Marin stock handlebars.
I looked at different gravel specific bars and narrowed it down to just two: the Whiskey No. 7 and the Salsa Cowbell Deluxe handlebars. These bars are virtually identical to one another in terms of specs: 68mm reach, 115mm drop, 12 degrees of drop flare. The decision came down to the shape of the drops. I don’t know if it’s just me but it just looked like the Salsa Cowbell’s have a slightly sharper bend near the top of the drops which, to me, would make them just a little more comfortable.
Salsa Cowbell Deluxe
So, I’ve been riding with the Salsa Cowbell’s for a while now (since December 2018). I like them and they serve their purpose. Are they the most comfortable handlebars? Not really. Nor are they the most ergonomic, but they’re the best I have found in terms of a standard drop style handlebar that fits my needs.
To up the comfort, I did opt to double wrap them with some Specialized S-Wrap Roubaix bar tape. This stuff is pretty cushy to begin with so double wrapping my bars just makes for super Cush.
Now, at this point you’re probably wondering, “Wait...so the way forward was to go backwards?”. Well, yes and no. The thing I learned was that there just isn’t much in the way of innovation when it comes to drop handlebars right now. Granted, there are a number of carbon options but most of them seemed geared for aero or road, not gravel and endurance. Handlebars like the Soma Condor bars exist but, while they may look cool, they’re not practical at all and can even make your rides more painful than they need to be. For the most versatility it’s best to stick with the basics, find a set of bars with the specs you need, and just use clever ways to maximize on the comfort of your bars.
That would be the end of this story...but it’s not. As Steve Jobs used to say, “There’s just one more thing...”
Coefficient Wave handlebar
Right around the time I started compiling notes for this post, I saw a press release on the Gravel Cyclist site for a new handlebar call the Wave. I was highly intrigued when I saw this press release. So much so that I emailed Coefficient Cycling, the company behind them, and after a few emails back and forth ended up buying them. I’ll be providing a full review soon. Just need to ride with them for a bit. Stay tuned!