One of the most important things to consider with your bicycle, whether an e-bike, mountain bike, road bike or gravel bike, is the type of handlebar that is best suited to your riding needs. Even if you are not thinking about making any modifications it can be a good idea to make sure your handlebar is right for the type of riding you do to increase endurance, reduce fatigue and in some cases reduce the possibility of injury.
Handlebars come in many different shapes and sizes, including aerobars for triathlons, but the two main types are drop bars and flat bars. Drop bars are typically found on road or race bikes and are primarily designed to provide riders with an aerodynamic riding position in order to maximize speed. The curved “drop” section on the bars allows the rider to get into a tuck which reduces drag (a critical element of going faster on a bike). Drop bars also allow for a wide range of hand positions, you can use the previously mentioned drops position, or place hands on the tops of the brake hoods (called the hoods position), and finally you can grab the bar on either side of the stem in what is called the “tops” position. Having multiple hand positions can help to prevent hand and wrist fatigue and pain on longer rides.
Flat bars, on the other hand, are typically found on mountain bikes, hybrid or cruiser bikes, and most e-bikes. They are primarily designed to provide comfort and control and generally enable a rider to have a more upright riding position. Most flat bars are a good bit wider than drop bars which means the primary grip area is farther apart which facilitates good control and stability, which is especially important when riding on rough terrain. In general, bikes with flat bars are not set up with speed as the main objective, so having a more upright position is not a drawback and does allow for a relatively comfortable position for most riders.
Recently, with the growing popularity of gravel riding, a type of off-road riding that combines aspects of both mountain bike and road bike riding, specifically designed gravel bike handlebars have been developed. These bars have some pretty innovative features that accommodate the unique needs of gravel riders which are incidentally relevant to the drop bar vs flat bar debate.
Gravel specific handlebars have added a new aspect to the debate over what handlebar is best for different types of riding. In particular, for when it comes to commuting where both drop bars and flat bars are commonly used. Let’s take a look at whether drop bars or flat bars are best suited for different types of riding and see how the introduction of the gravel bar is bridging the gap between the two.
Drop Bars vs Flat Bars for Commuting Bikes
When it comes to choosing between drop bars and flat bars for commuting bikes there are a few different aspects to consider. Does your typical route have a lot of traffic? Are the roads or trails rough or are they mostly smooth or well paved? What is the average speed and distance that you typically ride during a commute?
Drop Bars for Commuting - Pros and Cons
Drop bars can be a good option for commuting if you have a longer commute and want to maintain a faster pace. The aerodynamic position provided by drops can help you go faster with less effort, which can be particularly helpful if you're commuting over longer distances. Additionally, drop bars for longer distance commutes allow riders multiple riding positions that contribute to overall comfort and reduce fatigue.
Traditional drop bars also tend to be more narrow and protrude less from the bike centerline than flat bars, which can be an essential feature when trying to navigate busy streets and squeeze through tighter areas.
The main downside of commuting with drop bars is that they can provide less stability than a flat bar and many riders do not like riding in the drops because it can be an uncomfortable position.
Flat Bars for Commuting - Pros and Cons
Flat bars are a good choice for commuters who prioritize comfort and control. The wider hand placement and more upright body position you get from a flat handlebar can provide better stability and control in traffic, which can be particularly important for riding on busy streets.
As noted previously, flat bars are generally wider than traditional drop bars and that means that they do not fit as well into tight spaces which is something to consider when there are not well established bike lanes on a commuting route.
Consider Gravel Bars for Commuting
Even though they have been designed with gravel riding in mind, gravel handlebars can be pretty ideal for commuting. Gravel riding at its very nature is all about riding a variety of terrain from smooth flat roads to loose dirt/fire roads to rough single track climbs and as such that can be a great option for the type of terrain often encountered while commuting (which is almost never beautiful smooth paved roads). Gravel handlebars combine some of the best features of both drop bars and flat bars. They are often very wide like flat bars which is good for stability and control. And many have a flared drop which allows for a reasonable aerodynamic position while at the same time being more comfortable than a traditional drop position. When combined with comfort features like a suspension stem or suspension seatpost, a gravel handlebar setup takes commuting to the next level in safety, stability and comfort.
Drop Bars vs Flat Bars for Gravel Bikes
Drop bars are the most common handlebar used on gravel bikes and are the go to for road bike to gravel bike conversion because they are well suited to long distance and higher speed riding, two of the elements that are fundamental to traditional gravel cycling. Drop bars offer a wider range of hand positions and a more aerodynamic riding position, which are beneficial for riding long distances and/or at higher speeds. The multiple hand positions also help to reduce hand and wrist fatigue over long rides.
Flat bars can also be a good choice for gravel riding. And while they are less common, they are great for riders who prioritize comfort and control over speed. Flat bar gravel bikes do start to blur the lines between gravel riding and endurance mountain biking but in the end it's not really important how you classify your bike or the type of riding you do as long as you enjoy it.
Combining Drop Bars and Flat Bars: Gravel Handlebars
Gravel handlebars, also known as gravel bars or flared drop bars, combine the best aspects of flat bars and traditional drop bars to provide a setup that is ideal for long distance and fast off-road gravel riding. To achieve a comfortable and fast handlebar, gravel handlebars use a drop bar shape but are typically wider than a traditional road handlebar, have some degree of flare at the drop, and can often have other unique characteristics like built-in rise or back sweep.
What is Gravel Handlebar Flare?
Flare on a gravel handlebar refers to the outward angle of the drops, which is generally between 10 and 25 degrees off of vertical. Flare creates a wider hand position that is generally more comfortable to ride in and it provides more stability and control on uneven terrain than a traditional vertical drop position. Regarding width, a standard road drop bar might come in widths between 32 and 40cm whereas many gravel handlebars come in widths as big as 50 or 53cm. And as noted above, many gravel handlebars include additional features aimed at increasing comfort and performance such as built-in rise or a compact drop which makes the drop position more accessible and comfortable which in turn allows riders to utilize it for longer durations and get the aero benefit.
Shop Gravel Handlebars
Gravel Handlebars combine Stability, Comfort, and Performance
Gravel handlebars can provide more stability and comfort (while still allowing for an aerodynamic and fast body position) when riding on rough terrain or gravel roads for several reasons:
Increased Width: Gravel handlebars are typically wider than traditional road handlebars, providing a wider stance for the rider. This increased width can provide more stability and greater comfort, particularly on rough terrain over long distances, such as those encountered bikepacking.
Enhanced Control: The flare drops that are typical of gravel handlebars allows the rider to more comfortably ride in the drops. This provides easy access to the brakes and keeps the center of gravity low which means more control.
No Performance Sacrifice: Because gravel handlebars are still drop bars they allow riders to assume a more aerodynamic position than one would get from flat bars. While this position might not be as aggressive as a typical road bar it is still pretty aero so there is little sacrifice to performance when using a gravel bar.
Overall, a gravel handlebar can provide more stability and control, particularly on rough terrain, but will still allow for an aerodynamic body position to ride fast.