The Effect Gravel Handlebars Have On A Bike

by Jeff Whitfield on | Comments

Gear Commentary Gravel

Salsa Woodchipper on Marin Nicasio
Salsa Woodchipper on Marin Nicasio

With the surge in popularity of gravel handlebars, there are a number of aspects about them that are misunderstood and/or overlooked. Everything from hand position, arm width, shoulder stance, and stability change with the advent of a gravel handlebar. Understanding how these things effect your riding can go a long way to knowing which handlebar is right for you.

What is a Gravel Handlebar?

BikePacking.com has a rather good guide to gravel handlebars with reasons why you might consider them. There’s even a good chart that shows how they’re measured too:

BikePacking.com Gravel Handlebar Measuring Guide
BikePacking.com Gravel Handlebar Measuring Guide

Gravel handlebars are measured by many features but the most prominent feature is the flared drop-bars. It’s the angle from the top of the handlebar to the bottom of the drops measured in degrees. The more flare there is the more outward the bottom of the drops are compare to the tops. With a traditional road handlebar with 0-degrees of flare, the bottom of the drop is positioned directly under the widest part of the bar. Adding flare move the position of the drops outward so that your hands are wider in the drops. The more flare you have the more aggressive your position is in the drops.

To help compensate for the flare, some handlebar manufacturers add outsweep as well. They do this by taking the ends of the drops and angling them out so they are no longer parallel to one another. Doing this adjusts the angle of your wrists in the drops so that they’re twisted in more putting them into a more comfortable position. This is usually necessary for dropbars with wider widths and large amounts of flare. Otherwise your wrists would be put in a very awkward position.

Compared to traditional road handlebars, gravel handlebars generally have a shorter amount of reach, shallower drops, and wider widths to make up for the added flare and outsweep. Some even add features like backsweep and rise for a more comfortable stance in the tops.

But Why Would I Want A Gravel Handlebar?

Good question! Glad you asked! :P

Riding gravel is a different experience than riding on asphalt roads. The unpredictability of the terrains creates an experience that is right there between traditional road riding and mountain bike riding. As such, the way your bike handles on gravel versus asphalt greatly changes.

Now, what qualifies as a “gravel bike” can pretty much mean any bike. Many folks choose to ride on mountain bikes...which is just fine. But a good many of us chose to ride altered road bikes, which have a different geometry than most mountain bikes.

For one, the head tube angle is generally steeper, making steering quicker and more “twitchy”. While this is good for road riding with a traditional drop handlebar, it’s not so good on gravel with unpredictable road conditions. “Twitchy” isn’t good when you’re going downhill on a heavy gravel road at 20+ mph.

To compensate for this, you can do what many MTB riders do: you go wider with the handlebars to add back some smoothness to the handling. This is why you see so many gravel handlebar makers going even wider with their handlebars. These are designed to allow for more smoother handling on bikes with steeper headtubes.

Now, how wide you go depends on you really. Well...that and the bike you’re riding of course. If the bike you’re on has a pretty sharp headtube angle then a wider bar will help keep the handling of the bike from being overly twitchy on faster gravel runs. However, keep in mind that the wider you go the greater the effect it has on not just handling but also the position you’re in on your bike.

How Do Gravel Handlebar Effect Position On The Bike?

The general rule of thumb with handlebar width is that the wider you go the further out your reach becomes, especially in the drops. The only way to compensate for this is to shorten your stem which, of course, has an impact on the handling as well. It’s a bit of a balancing act really. How wide you go is really dependent on you, your bike, and what your goals are. However, you do need to keep in mind the effects that all of this has on you especially.

The Path Less Pedaled podcast talked about this very thing in an interview with Kevin Schmidt of Pedal PT. Kevin talked about the impacts that gravel handlebars can have on the position of the rider and the impacts they can have on the body as well. It’s a great interview and I highly recommend watching it.

Getting an understanding on how gravel handlebars can impact bike fit is super important. To illustrate this, let’s talk about a few areas that change greatly with many gravel handlebars.

Hand Position In The Hoods

Whenever flare is added to a handlebar you usually have to angle in the hoods so that you can access the levers while in the drops. Doing this causes your hand position to change a bit while riding in the hoods.

Unlike a handlebar with zero flare where your hands are parallel to one another, a flared handlebars requires that your hands are twisted in a bit. The amount of twisting is dependent on how angled in the hoods are. Many riders, including myself, find this to be a pretty natural position.

While the primary reason is to allow better access to the levers while in the hoods, there’s an added benefit of allowing the rider to ride in the hoods with their elbows flared out more. This allows for greater control on rougher terrain while in the hoods.

However, as Ben Delaney of VeloNews points out, angling in the hoods effectively narrows their width as well. I noticed this myself with the Salsa Cowchipper I ride on. I initially rode on a 44cm wide bar and found the hoods to be just a bit too narrow. To compensate for this, just go a size up. In my case, I upgraded to a 46cm bar which put the effective width of the hoods around 43-44cm, which is fine. I could probably even go up to a 48cm bar to make it that much more comfortable.

Hood and Bar Width on my Salsa Woodchippers
Hood and Bar Width on my Salsa Woodchippers

Stress On The Shoulders

One other thing to think about is how wide you really want to go. Riding on a wider bar does put more stress on your shoulders when you ride. With a typical road handlebar, your elbows are tucked in with your arms running in line with your shoulders. This position puts a lot less stress on the shoulders.

But with a wider handlebar, you’re kind of forced to ride with your elbows more out. For many road bike riders who aren’t used to riding mountain bikes, this is likely to be a rather foreign position. But for MTB riders, it’ll feel more familiar.

The reason for this positioning is rather obvious. With a gravel handlebar, you’re basically trying to get the handling of a MTB bar with a drop bar. What may work on a traditional road bike doesn’t work so well on gravel. On rougher terrain, riding with your elbows more out allows for more control over the handling of the bike while also providing more shock absorption on the body.

What I have found is that wider handlebars do require more upper-body strength. Granted, gravel riding does require more core strength overall. But with a wider handlebar, your arm position is such that you have to have more strength in your shoulders and chest to compensate for the position you’re in for longer lengths of time.

Now, I have no idea what it’s like to ride these mega-wide gravel handlebars like the Curve Walmer or the Farr Supa-Wide GRVL. To me, these seem super extreme and more novelty than anything practical. The widest that Salsa has for the Cowchipper is 52cm which, to me, would be wide enough for someone with wide-ass shoulders and a bike with rather feisty handling. So, why go as wide as 60cm or even 75cm? Seems nutty to me. I can’t imagine riding on a bar at that width, especially when you consider than the hood width would still be around 60cm on a 75cm bar. Riding on a bar like that all day would likely put a serious amount of stress on your shoulders. Or am I missing something?

Conclusion

Whether you’re new to gravel handlebars or you’re considering an upgrade, I would advise you to consider all the factors that go into a new gravel handlebar. Ask yourself what is realistic for your bike, the terrain you normally ride on, and how it will impact your position on the bike. Look at the specs of the handlebar. How will the flare and outsweep angles impact the position of your levers and hoods? Consider the width of the bar. How wide is too wide for you? Can you compensate for these changes?

Look, no one is saying that riding gravel requires you to have gravel handlebar. Many riders, especially the more faster ones, are perfectly fine riding on a more traditional road dropbar with little to no flare. It’s whatever suits you for your riding style.

But if you plan on investing in a gravel handlebar it’s best to research it first and be super realistic. Otherwise, you’ll likely be buying multiple handlebars in an effort to find the right one. Even then, that’s not a bad thing. I experimented with a number of handlebars till I found what worked. Gravel handlebars aren’t for everyone but with all the variety out there it certainly doesn’t hurt to experiment a little. In the end it’s just about finding what works for you.



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