Profile Design road handlebar display

Finding your optimal road handlebar

When optimising a cyclist’s position on a bike, there has been extensive research regarding torso, hip and knee angles, or an optimal cleat position on the shoe. There has been research regarding the aerodynamics – particularly regarding the CDA and how to reduce it by reducing a rider’s frontal surface area.

There has however, been next to nothing regarding the optimal road handlebar for a given rider nor how they affect a rider’s comfort and performance. The only recommendation, which is not much more than tradition is that handlebars should be as wide as the pointy bits (AC joints at the tip of your shoulder blades with the idea your hands ought to be positioned beneath your shoulders, resulting in a neutral wrist

Handlebars on the market have four different parameters: width, reach, drop and shape.  Between them, these parameters control body position and each one has a different purpose.  The combination of the 4 has a direct impact on the fit, comfort and performance of the rider.

Unrealised potential

For performance, the types of bars people use affect frontal area of the rider confronting the wind. Wind tunnel tests have found that lowering the handlebars by 2 cm can reduce a rider’s wind resistance by 5%. This is about twice the benefit of aero wheels (2-3%)! Using handlebars that are 2 cm narrower possibly has a similar result, depending on what affect it has on elbow position.

Something else that handlebars have an impact on is breathing mechanics. When cycling, adopting a position which favours activation of the diaphragm is highly beneficial. Handlebars that are too narrow might be great for reducing the frontal area but can reduce the rider’s breathing effectiveness. This is due to increased upper back flexion and an inability to access the diaphragm. The result is ventilatory inefficiency and over use of the accessory breathing muscles about the neck and shoulders.

The barriers

Despite the importance of bars, it has not been an area that has been researched to any great extent.  Further, it is quite unusual for cyclists to do anything other than simply use the bars that came with their bike. Saddles and stems and seat posts get changed out fairly regularly. There are even  saddle trial programs like the one we have here at Winning Position. But handlebars? Not so much. Even the elite and professional cyclists tend not to try different bars.

Why is this so? My hypothesis for this is that cyclists just don’t have the opportunity to trial them. Think about the obstacles involved. First you need access to a lot of different bar widths and shapes. Even restricting ourselves to common shapes and measurements you are looking at 72 different bars! How many shops or fit studios can afford to sink that much money into handlebars?

Then, if we have a range of bars available, the next problem is that it’s a chore to swap them over. We have to undo the stem face plate and take off the existing bars. (And work out where to put them as they are still attached by cables/brake lines.) Then the trial bars go on, the stem face plate is installed and the rider tries them. And then the face plate comes off, the bars are swapped and the face plate is attached again.  Repeat ad nauseam. Very few people have the patience for this!

Enter the Profile Design sizing bars.

Profile Design sizer bar

The solution

When you come to Winning Position for a road fit, these nicely practical sizing bars will be positioned on dynamic fitting bike. They allow us to experiment with the width, drop and reach quickly and easily. We can explore aspects such as breathing mechanics, upper limb alignment – specifically wrist alignment – and head and neck position. In short it is much easier to find your optimal road handlebar. Since the bars are just one of the contact areas of body to bike, I can also assess the handlebar dimensions and how they relate to the other contact areas like the saddle and shoes/pedals. Our body is connected and one variable will influence another.

Once we have explored handlebars with the sizing bars, you are then armed with the measurements of width, reach, drop and shape that could better serve you.

In future articles we will explore each of the handle bar dimensions.