Tech: How to Choose the Correct Road Bike Handlebar Size & Shape

On the left is my original bar. Once the “flat” part at on the top of the bar was adjusted more or less to my liking, I had to work with the curve of the bar to get the brake levers in a position that allowed easy resting on the hoods, which is where I spend most of my time. I also had to be able to reach the brake levers from the drops, which was hard to do with that bar. You’ll notice they stick out pretty far in front of the bar and the whole brake lever assembly is angled pretty aggressively upward. Had I slid the lever body down the bar to put them in a flat position and easier to reach from the drops, they would have put my hands too far downward when riding on the hoods.

Enter Ritchey’s Evolution bars (WCS Carbon Evolution in this case), pictured on the right in both photos above. Notice how the bar remains level as it bends forward and continues straight for a bit before beginning it’s drop. This allows the brake lever body to be mounted such that the hoods end up level with the top of the bar, and that makes resting on the hoods easier.

It also puts me in a more upright position, which eases strain on my neck and is more comfortable for longer distances. You’ll also notice that the levers are more vertical, which makes them easier to reach from the drops.

Most handlebar manufacturers/brands offer a range of sizes, widths and drops to accommodate various riders, but how do you know what’s right for you?

In my opinion, there’s no magic prescription based on body dimensions. The “standard” is measuring your shoulder blade width and getting the same width handlebar. some of it just needs to be what feels right…especially for the average cyclist that’s not trying to maximize aerodynamics and efficiency at the expense of comfort.

First, let’s discuss width: There are two schools of thought floating around. One says a wider bar gives you more control and leverage, just like with mountain bike handlebars, and it opens up your chest for easier breathing. The other says that a slightly narrower bar opens up your shoulders and back, which reduces muscular fatigue and tightness. It also may make you a bit more aerodynamic.

My original bar was a bit wider than 44cm, and the Ritchey that replaced it was a 42cm. At first, I was concerned, and it definitely felt different, both in handling and closing in my chest a bit (I’m more muscular than the average roadie). From a handling perspective, I quickly adapted. After all, I’m not bouncing off rocks and logs, so losing a bit of leverage wasn’t a big deal. From a comfort standpoint, I do find myself resting my hands off the outside edge of the bar a bit more and I might be using a bit more tricep muscle because I don’t lockout my arms as much when just cruising along, but I’ve gotten used to it and it feels normal now. I can’t say I’ve noticed any effect on breathing.

Eddie O’Dea, founder of 55 Nine Performance, a training and bike fit center in Atlanta, GA, says “The rule of thumb is your AC joint to AC joint width should match your center-to-center width on the handlebar, but like anything, that’s a ‘rule of thumb’ we use as a starting point.”(NOTE: The AC Joint is basically the outermost part of your shoulder bone, which is the part that extends outward just below the little bone bump you can see in your skin)

“Narrower could put more tension in the forearm at the elbow, which may cause a bit of fatigue there. I can’t think of any problems that may come from a wider bar.”

So, should you go narrower? Wider? Possibly, but take baby steps. If you’re suffering from tight back and neck muscles after every ride, perhaps try a narrower bar. If you feel twitchy or claustrophobic, or your arms are always tired after a ride, try a wider bar.

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