What’s the big deal about drop handlebars?

One of the defining traits of a road bike is the distinctive arcing shape of the handlebars. Ever wondered why they’re shaped the way they are?

FLAT HANDLEBARS EXPLAINED

Many bicycles come with flat handlebars. This basic shape of bar comes standard on mountain bikes, BMX bikes, and most folding bikes. They typically start at a width of 580mm for folding bikes, working up to 700mm and beyond for mountain bikes. The shape of the handlebars dictates how you hold them: you hold out your arms, turn your wrists 90 degrees inward, and hold the bars to keep balance, steer, and operate the brake levers and shifters.

I bet you learned how to ride a bike using one with flat handlebars. While this may seem like the natural “of course that’s how it’s supposed to be” configuration, this isn’t necessarily the case, and it has a few downsides. Notice that you have to maintain a 90-degree twist in your forearm and wrist in order to hold a flat handlebar correctly. Also, you can vary where along the bar you grip, but you’re essentially holding it only one way the whole time. For short trips, this is okay, but for longer rides on the road, this can become uncomfortable and/or unnatural depending on what kind of riding you want to do.

WHY THE NAME “DROP”?

Drop handlebars have the trademark two bends per side, one going forward and another going downward – dropping away from the center. These transform an otherwise flat metal tube into something with three dimensions. From the center of the bar where it is clamped by the stem, the length of the forward projection is called the reach, while the height of the downward projection is called the drop. The width is the same as before, but measured from one forward bend to the other. Measured this way, most drop bars are 400-480mm wide – considerably narrower than even a folding bike’s. This range of widths is meant to match up to the width of a rider’s shoulders.

The brake levers on a drop handlebar are mounted specifically on a region at the top of the downward bend. On road bikes of old, the shift levers mounted separately on the downtube, or sometimes on the stem, or even on the ends of the handlebars. Most modern road bikes integrate the braking and shifting into one area, in order to minimize hand movement and maximize control. This is done via devices such as Shimano’s STI (“Shimano Total Integration”), SRAM’s DoubleTap, and Campagnolo’s ErgoPower. Regardless of manufacturer, all three are called “brifters,” as they are effectively an amalgam of BRake and shIFTER levers.

POSITION 1: RIDING ON THE HOODS

New or old, operating a road bike with drop handlebars is slightly different compared to holding a flat handlebar. The shape and control layout of a drop handlebar gives you at least three different hand positions, and each one serves a specific purpose.

First and foremost of these is riding on the top rubber covers, or “hoods,” of the brake levers. This may actually be the least intuitive or obvious position, so it deserves explanation. The hoods are designed so that your thumb and two forefingers hook and wrap around them, and this is where you spend most of your time riding on a road bike (around 80%). With your brifters set up correctly, riding on the hoods should mean you have full control over the braking and shifting of your bike using your fingertips. Notice that you raise your arms forward as before, but now you no longer have to twist them to hold on and steer the bike – and this is far more natural for your arms.

Riding on the hoods is a jack-of-all-trades position where you still sit relatively upright, but are also leaned slightly forward. It may feel unnatural in the beginning riding in this stance, but this is remedied by bending your body forward at the hips instead of at the lower back, and getting used to this position.

Riding while seated for too long can constrict blood flow to your groin and soft tissues and lead to numbness, so standing out of the saddle is a good way of preventing and/or relieving this. From the hoods, once you stand up out of the saddle, you can ride in a heavier gear and a slightly slower cadence. This is perfect for a spurt of power while climbing or for changing up your position for comfort. Conversely, standing while riding on the hoods in a heavier gear with a faster cadence is a good position for acceleration into a sprint.

There are some disadvantages to riding in the hoods. Most noticeable is that it takes practice and patience to get used to braking from this position. This is as much a function of the shape of the hoods and brifters as it is having your hands getting used to holding them this way, and even so, the hoods don’t offer the best leverage on the brakes. I find I have to make use of three fingers for harder braking on the hoods. Not as noticeable is the risk of losing grip on the hoods when riding over rough terrain at high speed, such as in cyclocross races or the cobblestone-riddled European Classics races such as Paris-Roubaix; riding in the drops is better for this.

POSITION 2: RIDING ON THE TOPS

This is the traditional hand position you would normally adopt on a flat-handlebar bike. Because of the narrower width of a drop bar, your hands are usually closer together and nearer to the stem while riding this way. When riding on the tops, your hands don’t make use of the reach of the drop bar, so this is the most upright position available. Your shoulders can relax and your diaphragm has the least restriction, so you are able to breathe the freest.

Cyclists ride on the bar tops mainly to rest and regain their breath quickly. This position sees the most use on long seated climbs.

You will quickly notice that riding on the tops usually means you have no access to your brakes or shifters. There are exceptions, but for the most part, riding on the tops leaves you only with steering. For this reason, this is the hand position used the least on a road bike.

You usually don’t need to use your brakes on a climb anyway, as you’re going at a slow pace while resisting the force of gravity, and any obstacles are easily avoided just by steering out of the way. Once you need to click into an easier gear, you’ll tend to go back to riding on the hoods.

By the way, standing up and riding on the tops isn’t recommended, as it tends to exaggerate any swinging movement of the bike. This may lead to a loss of stability.

POSITION 3: RIDING IN THE DROPS

Making use of the ends of the handlebars, also known as riding in the drops, is much more versatile than one would initially believe.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Just gripping at the drops while seated requires that you get long and low on the saddle. It looks racy doesn’t it? This reduces your frontal area and aerodynamic drag. This is useful when riding into a headwind or riding at high speeds.

Not as immediately obvious is the benefit to weight distribution. In any other position, your weight is biased more to the rear of the bike. Riding in the drops spreads your weight forward across more of the bike, and automatically gives the most secure grip on the bars themselves. This aids control in so many situations: descending a mountain or hill slope, riding through rough terrain, or sprinting. All three are situations where riding on the hoods might throw your hands off the bars and result in a loss of control, especially when combined.

You also may not notice that your forefingers have the most leverage on the brake levers while riding in the drops. This aids in the modulation of your brakes from a featherlight touch to full-on maximum speed retardation.

Getting out of the saddle while riding on the drops also keeps you very secure while allowing you to play with the weight balance of the bike. The most important application of this is under emergency or maximum braking. Given enough flexibility, a rider can hold on to the drops, set the pedals level, get out of the saddle, and hang his/her buttocks or hips over the rear of the saddle to transfer weight rearward…while applying hard pressure on the front brake. This way, a rider is able to apply as much brake pressure as needed, while reducing the risk of going over the handlebars. This skill is worth practicing.

Conversely, when grip and conditions are good, riding in the drops out of the saddle also allows you to push your weight forward so that your legs can propel the bike with the most power in a sprint. Some sprinters even hold the bar ends and forego covering their forefingers over their brake levers as they accelerate.

For all the versatility of riding in the drops, there are a few disadvantages to the position. First of all, your breathing becomes restricted due to being bent over the bike. This means the drops aren’t very useful on long climbs. Apart from that, it can be painful for beginners’ lower backs to hold this bent-over position for extended periods, especially if a rider isn’t very flexible to begin with and/or has not gotten used to riding in the drops yet. This can be remedied by using handlebars with a so-called “compact drop” of 125mm or so. Lastly, riding in the drops out of the saddle with your weight thrust forward can correspondingly unweight the rear wheel, to the detriment of traction. This is usually an issue when climbing on poorly surfaced roads.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct United Folding Bikers blog on January 27, 2015. It has since been slightly updated.

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