Handlebar display

Getting the drop on handlebar shape

Next up in my series on the properties of drop handlebars is the aspect “drop” (‘C’ in picture below) and the closely related aspect ‘shape’. (Other articles in the series include one on finding your optional road handlebars and the skinny on handlebar width.)

Diagram showing how handlebar width, reach and drop are measured.

Drop is a measurement of the bars from the centre of the tops of the bars to the centre of the lowest point of the bars. Typically this distance ranges from 10 to 15cm.

Handlebar shape is how the bar bends to form the drop. Most “modern” bikes off the shelf have drop bars with a “compact” shape. This means that unlike a traditional “drop” bar where the radius of the bend is fairly constant as it forms the drop, a compact bar starts from the top with a small radius bend which increases as it proceeds further into the drop.  The third common variant (though not very common at all these days) is the anatomic / ergonomic shape.  It has a straight, or even reverse curved, section in the drop that is supposed to be more comfortable to hold.

Diagram showing the three most common handlebar drop shapes

Traditional handlebar shape

Traditional bars are the shape they are because manufacturing anything other than a constant radius bend has only relatively recently been feasible for mass produced items. The size of the drop was substantial by today’s standards, typically around 15cm.  The brake levers were positioned near the forward most part of the bar (I.E. mid bend).  This made them easy to reach in the drops but created a low hoods position.  The hoods were often uncomfortable for the hands due to the change in angle from the bar to the hood, combined with the shorter hoods of the day.

FSA bars with traditional bend

Traditional bars were originally used on bikes with the shift levers on the downtube. It is likely that cyclists spent more time on the drops for easier access to the gears. The constant radius bend allowed an aerodynamic position with forearms parallel to the ground when in the drops.  A more relaxed position could be achieved by sliding your hands further around the bend and straightening the elbows.

Good for
  • Those who want to achieve an aerodynamic position when in the drops.
  • Look great on retro bikes.
Watch out for
  • Traditional shape bars often don’t play nice with modern hood shapes.
  • The big drop means that the tops, hoods and drops can have a substantial difference in height.  Not necessarily a problem (it’s great for some riders) but something to keep in mind.

Anatomic / ergonomic handlebar shape

Whilst they are still available, anatomic handlebars had their heyday from the mid 80’s to the mid 2000’s.  The problem with traditional bars is that the large radius bend can result in the hollow between the bars and the palm. Anatomic bars seek to fill that bend, increasing hand comfort in the drops. There is the side benefit of promoting a more aerodynamic position in the drops, with the forearms parallel to the ground.

Ritchey bars with anatomic bend

The drop of anatomic handlebars can be less than what’s typically seen with traditional bend bars. There is a lower limit however, as there has to be enough room to accommodate the anatomic shape.

Depending on where the anatomic section is located, the bars can either promote or discourage an aerodynamic position in the drops.

Good for
  • Those who have hand discomfort in the drops.
  • Cyclists who want to maintain an aero position in the drops (depending on the design of the anatomic section).
Watch out for
  • Some designs mean that there is only one hand position in the drops.  This can be an issue for those who like to shift their hands around.
  • Reaching the brake levers from the drops can be an issue for some hand size / anatomic design combination.

Compact handlebar shape

Compact handlebars made their first appearance in the mid 2000’s.  The bend starts with a tight radius which quickly directs the bar back towards the cyclist.  The radius of the bend then progressively reduces through the rest of the drop.

Profile Design compact handlebars

This design has a number of advantages.  The bend typically plays very nicely with modern hood shapes.  The flat transition between bar and hood increases hand comfort.  The drop is also relatively shallow (12cm is common and smaller drops can be found).  This means that the hood position can be quite aggressive without the drops being out of reach.

There are drawbacks though.  One big one is that compact handlebars encourage straight(ish) elbows when in the drops which is detrimental to aerodynamics.

Good for
  • Reducing the vertical distance between the tops/hoods and drops.
  • Multiple hand positions when in the drops.
Watch out for
  • Can be detrimental to holding an aerodynamic position in the drops.
  • Many find it difficult to reach the brake levers from the drops due to the shape.
  • Some find that they hit their wrists on the upper portion of the bars when sprinting in the drops.