The Effect Gravel Handlebars Have On A Bike

by Jeff Whitfield on | 13 Comments

Gear Commentary Gravel

Salsa Cowchipper on Marin Nicasio
Salsa Cowchipper 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? 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: Gravel Handlebar Measuring Guide 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?


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.

Post a comment!


Thanks for this article! So I just bought a used Ritchey Swiss Cross Canti (so fun) that has pretty conventional-looking 4Za Cirrus Compact bars (42 wide, 125 drop, 70 reach). With road bikes (haven't ridden drop-bars for about 7 years) I find I ride about 95% on the hoods, rarely in the drops, and I'm pretty comfortable now on 780mm mtb bars. Any thoughts on what might be a good set of gravel bars to start with? Aero is not important. Will be mostly commuting and doing dirt roads/paths and some (relatively) mellow singletrack. Shallow drop is appealing to me, as it means I might actually utilize the drops more. The Beacon sounds appealing to me with its really shallow drop, but I'm concerned how they might feel on the hoods. The bike is pretty agile, so I don't feel the need to go super-wide to get more leverage. Any thoughts or experience you have would be great, thanks!


Check out the bars from Salsa Cycle. The Cowbell, Cowchipper, and Woodchipper all come highly recommended. Just think about which one will give you the positioning you'd like. Out of the three, you should be able to find one that works well for you. I'm particularly fond of the Cowchipper. :D


What's confusing me on this issue is on my mtn bike I ride handlebars which are 780 mm wide (the trend in mtn bikes has also been to get progressively wider) and I love it. I don't find I get any discomfort with these wider bars. I realize drop bars aren't an exact comparison for a number of reasons but it seems I could easily go from my stock Salsa 440's to a 500 or 520 mm without creating comfort issues? The bike is a Cutthroat. My main goal truthfully is to get a bit more space between the hoods for bikepacking gear but I think they might actually improve comfort and handling. Thoughts?


Mountain bikes are quite different because the geometry and purpose. I might be wrong but I think because you're sitting more upright and are generally riding on more complicated terrain that a wider bar makes sense. I don't think very many folks enjoy riding a mountain bike long distances the way we do with gravel bikes. With a gravel bike, the reach might be more or less the same...but the stack is usually lower. That puts you in a more crouched position on the bike. Wider handlebars then put more stress on the shoulders which, over a long ride, can lead to fatigue.

That said, there's nothing wrong with using a sider bard in order to fit bikepacking gear. Thats a pretty common problem actually with narrower dropbars. 500-520mm is just fine. I think it's only when you get into the 600-750mm range that it can become a problem. 750mm just seems way too wide for long rides. :P


Really appreciate the information and ideas in this post.

One question - the text says you ride a Cowchipper but the photo caption says Woodchipper. Do you have both, or if not, which one is correct?



Nice catch! Just corrected the text. Definitely Cowchipper, not Woodchipper. The Woodchipper has a more extreme amount of flaring.


I’m wondering about going from 44cm to 46cm drop bars, primarily to have more room for gear/a basket on my front rack. Find my bike to be very comfortable and don’t want to ruin that. Is the extra 2cm really going to make such a difference?


2cm will make a modest difference...but not likely in a negative way. Going from a 44 to a 42 would...but not the other way. Your body will compensate much easier with a wider bar than a narrower one. I'm on a 46 myself and completelh happy with the feel. Normally ride with a 44 on a standard road bike. 46 just feels better with a gravel bike. I feel like I have a bit more control.


Good article, thanks. I was ready to order new bars then stumbled across this excellent article and realized I needed to do some more thinking about all the options.


Thanks man! Appreciate the compliment! :)

And, yeah, definitely think about what you're after. Main thing is to look at the geometry of your bike along with your stem. Think about the effect a wider bar will have on things. That alone steered me in a direction that caused me to get a different stem.


I've opted for the super wide Curve Walmer 60s. As a mtb'er predominanty, yet all summer roadie too, my Trek 1120 with its huge 29+ hoops needs a wide drop bar, I tried 48cm Genetics and they were godo but these seem spot on. (Walmers were designed around Curve's GMX 29+ bike so that makes sense). It's far from uncomfortable, asides from the day after the first ride where I felt I'd been doing push ups, it's great. Really confidence inspiring. Maybe a little too much so as I'm constantly getting myself into hot water charging as if on my mtb with suspension, luckily the 3inch tyres can help. It also gives great cockpit room and variation on long rides, you can use hoods or pretend you're back in the early 90s on an mtb with skinny flat bars. And all that room is so good for lights, feed bags etc. I wouldn't recommend a full 60 width Walmer to a regular gravel bike, but I think ones that are running the larger wider print tyres can certainly benefit from extra leverage and back up on descents.


I think you just outlined a good use case for the Walmer. I'm actually looking at building something along the lines of a dropbar MTB. Basically, it's a Kona Sutra ULTD frameset. With a really short stem and less trail, you kind of have to widen the handlebars in order to smooth out the handling. Otherwise it gets really twitchy.


Keep it coming! Thanks for sharing