dandy MECHANICS part 4: The Handlebars

Mechanics Corner

By Derek Chadbourne

Illustrations by Jody Hocs

In our dandyMECHANICS column we explore each part of the bicycle individually, and examine the special role it plays in making your whole machine run smoothly.

In part one, we looked at the chain. Part two was focused on the derailleur and part three explored the brakes.

 ~ originally published on the dandyBLOG on September 4, 2013 ~

Part #4: The Handlebars

Since the dawn of time, the handlebar has been a thing on all velos.  The first bicycle, the draisienne, or dandyhorse was steered by a bar connected to the front wheel. Now they are attached to a stem, which is attached to a fork which turns the wheel.  We have come a long way,   The first handlebars were made of solid pieces of wood or steel depending on what manufacturer produced them.

As the bicycle progressed and became easier to ride, so did the handlebars.  Handlebars came in all kinds of different shapes and sizes.  Watton bars were developed to make the Penny Farthing safer.  Somehow putting the handlebars under the saddle accomplished this.  Solid steel handlebars were replaced by wood on safety bikes, the precursor to the modern day Fahrrad.   Wood, I guess, was eventually replaced by aluminum or maybe hollowed out steel rods and then aluminium.  I could not find anything on the Internet that proves or disproves this theory,  We do know, thank you wikipedia, that while aluminium bars were introduced in 1935 they were not considered safe until Cinelli got it right in 1963.

There are a lot of handlebar designs, some you may never see, because they have been outlawed. .  But more pressing, what is the best for your kind of commute?  Here are four or maybe its five, of the most popular handlebars and some of their pros and cons.

Drop Bars

Drop bars are the ones that the tightly dressed crowd from the Tour de France ride with.  They are hunched over, one with their carbon fibre mount.  If you are racing this bar will give you the most aerodynamic position.  .

Pros:  While these bars look great and are fantastic for longer rides.  mileage may vary.   If you are riding drop bars with a fixie or a coaster, really, no cons.  This style of bars are totally serviceable and they look great..  On longer rides you have the most  hand positions to alleviate strain on palms and wrists.

Cons:  Drop bars with rim or disc brakes are problematic because people tend to put their hands on the flats of the bar, away from the brake levers.  In emergency braking situation the rider might not be able to brake in time.  If you tend to ride the drops a lot it could put a strain on your lower back.  It also tends to limit your field of view in traffic.

You can install interrupter levers.  These levers go on the bars between the brake lever and the brake caliper.  With this set up you are able to sit up straight, while riding in traffic and still have your hands on your brakes.  Its a great compromise.

North Road handlebars

One of the oldest type of handlebar designs, the  bar was named after the North Road Cycling Club in London.  They can be found on three speeds, single speeds and old ten speed frames that have been hybridized.   North Road bars are also called cruiser bars, but true cruiser bars are wider and farther back.  North Road bars are straight at the stem and then rise and swoop back.  This gives the rider a straighter posture taking pressure off the lower back.

Pros: There are a lot of pros to this kind of handlebar.  All the control systems, shifters, brake levers and sound making devices are within hand reach.  You have less strain on your back and neck as you are riding in a more upright position.  With the upright position you will be able to get a better view of traffic and your surroundings.

Cons: Unless you are going on long rides, over 30 kilometers and even then it wouldn’t be so bad.  You might get some wrist pain, but just stop for a coke and you should be fine.   Mileage may vary.

Ape hanger

This style of bicycle that has these handlebars were crazy huge in the 60’s with styles like the Schwinn Sting-Ray.

Pros:  NONE JUST DONT!!.  They look really cool and those bikes are great for going to the corner for a pack of smokes, but not really suited for commuting..  Those bikes look awesome, and are all get out to ride, but you will hurt you on any kind of long distance.  Unless your commute is downhill both ways, don’t. For those two busy to click the link, The answer to the skill testing question, what handlebars were deemed illegal, the answer is these, kind, here.

Flat Bars:

Flat bars are the standard handlebars equipped on mountain bikes, hybrids, and recently on fixed-gear bicycles and flat bar road bikes. The name says it all, they are flat and have basically the same pros and cons as North Shore handlebars,  Good news, flats come in riser as well, so once again you can adjust that back for really just a much nicer ride.

As always with the bike, the best handlebars to use depend on the situation. If you are going on a forever bike ride around the moon, its best to have STI shifter lever combo (thinking of you Tour de France) with interrupter levers. These bars give you more hand positions and you can stretch out to cut the wind or stand up tall to wave at the cows.  If your commute is closer than the moon and is heavy with traffic, North Shore bars or risers are your best bet. Everything is at your fingertips for immediate use.  As well, your back will have a mile high smile on your way to and from work.  Maybe I should go see a chiropractor.

Pro Tip:  You can solve a lot of bicycle fitting by swapping out seat posts, stems and handlebars. Lower back pain while riding of the bike usually happens because you're bent over your handlebars too much.

Very Important Point:  If your handlebars are damaged, bent unnaturally or don't look quite right, get them replaced.  Your teeth will thank you for it.

Derek Chadbourne has many huts around the city where he fixes bikes and contemplates the flow of traffic in the astral lane, which by the way Toronto, is fully separated. 

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Related on the dandyBLOG:

dandyMECHANICS part one: the chain

dandyMECHANICS part two: the derailleur

dandyMECHANICS part three: the brakes

Central Commerce Collegiate’s bike repair and maintenance course

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