Something that seems as simple as a bicycle handlebar, can actually be incredibly confusing.
There are multiple different types of bike handlebars. Some work great with one sort of bike (drop bars on a road bike, for example), but would be a terrible idea on another sort of bike (drop bars on a mountain bike, for example).
What are the different types? What are the pros and cons of each? Which bikes are they a great choice for? And why wouldn’t they work for other types of bike.
I’ve broken them all down into seven broad categories of handlebar and I’ll take you through each of these now.
What do handlebars do on a bike?
The main job, obviously, is to turn the front wheel of the bike left or right. This is one of the ways that you steer whilst cycling, particularly at lower speeds (at higher speeds, you tend to steer more by shifting your balance to the side of the bike that you want to turn towards).
But, that’s not the only job that the handlebar does, as it also:
- Gives you extra leverage so that you can press down harder on the pedals – useful when you want to accelerate or climb steep hills
- Helps you to balance by distributing your weight between handlebars and saddle/pedals – without the handlebars this would be much, much harder (think: trying to balance on a unicycle)
- Allows space for installation of critical bike controls (gear shifters and brake levers) and other accessories (such as lights, bells, baskets, pannier bags, and cargo racks)
So, handlebars are, well, handy to have around.
Let’s dive in and check out the specific types of handlebars for bicycles.
One of the most common types of handlebar that you’ll see on bikes is the riser bar.
This is a variation on the flat bar (see below) and can actually look quite similar.
A riser bar is a handlebar that ‘rises’ up from the central fixing point (making it look a little banana-shaped). The angle of this rise can vary more or less, but the effect is to position the rider’s hands higher than they would be with a standard flat bar.
The advantage that this gives is to give a more upright riding position.
Why is this useful? Well, for mountain biking, where you cycle down steep hills regularly, this helps bring the rider into a somewhat more horizontal angle.
But you don’t have to be a daredevil MTBer to feel the benefit of a riser bar! The upright riding position that this handlebar type gives can be very useful in allowing a more head-up riding position (useful for keeping your eyes on city roads, for example). It also helps by shifting weight off your hands and wrists (a huge benefit if you have arthritis in these joints).
Bikes you’d normally see riser bars on: most mountain bikes, hybrid/city/commuter/fitness bikes, ebikes, cargo bikes, folding bikes
- The most common bar type and the one you’re probably most used to riding with
- More comfortable to ride with than drop bars
- Upright riding position is good for downhill mountain biking
- That same position also gives great 360 degrees visibility – useful for urban riding and commuting through city traffic
- Good if you have wrist pain or arthritic joints
- Less aerodynamic riding position than drop bars
- Wider than drop bars, so can be difficult to get through narrow gaps
Drop bars are the curved handlebar style that you get on road bikes, such as the bikes that you see in races like the Tour de France.
They have a flat bar protruding either side of the central clamp, at the ends of the flat section, the bar then curves forwards, down towards the ground, then back towards the rider.
Drop bars are typically narrower than riser or flat bars. Virtually all road racing bicycles have this type of handlebar fitted.
You will also see a variation where the curved ‘drop’ sections of the handlebar are flared out away from the bike. This is often seen on ‘gravel bikes’ – a more beefed-up version of a road bike used on gravel paths and trails – where it gives more leverage to make turning easier. Some road bikes also have flared drop bars and here it can give a narrower flat section of handlebar for an aerodynamic advantage.
The key benefit of drop bars is that they allow a variety of different hand positions: hands on the flat top for cruising along and hands on the drops for sprints – a position which can get uncomfortable if used for long periods of time. Compare this with a riser bar or flat handlebar, which only have one hand position you can use – this can get tiring on long rides and aggravate pain from arthritis, for example.
Bikes you’d normally see drop bars on: road bikes, some gravel bikes, electric road bikes.
- More aerodynamic than riser or flat bars
- Allows use of combined gear shifters and brake levers
- Gives multiple hand positions, which can relieve wrist and hand discomfort
- Narrower handlebar so less turning power and harder to balance
- Less upright riding position than riser handlebars
Flat bars are, as the name suggests, flat. Flatter than a riser bar, but still often slightly swept back towards the rider.
They’re great when you need to have multiple attachments on your bar – lights, brake levers, gear shifters, and bikepacking bags.
They’re also good for climbing as you can use the width of the bar to get plenty of leverage on the pedals.
Where they’re less good though is:
You can’t easily get down into an aero-style riding position like you can with drop bars on a road bike
The riding position will be different than with riser bars in that your hands will typically be somewhat lower. This may reduce your field of view for city riding as you’re facing more towards the ground. It also puts more stress on your hands and wrists, which can be painful over time.
Bikes you’d normally see flat bars on: some mountain bikes, some gravel bikes, fitness bikes, many e-bikes.
- More comfortable than drop bars
- Easy to steer with and balance
- Plenty of room for mounting accessories
- Less upright riding position than riser bars
- Only one hand position (vs multiple with drop bars)
- Can’t get into an aerodynamic ‘tuck’ position
Cruiser handlebars are a broad category that includes a variety of styles and shapes, including north road handlebars and mustache handlebars. They are all characterized by having a single bar which is swept back towards the rider.
They’re used on the sort of bike that you’d normally see folk cruising down to the beach on, whilst wearing flip flops, a bathing suit and carrying a cooler of ice-cold drinks.
The main advantage of cruiser bars is that they give the most upright riding position of any handlebar. This has a massive positive impact on weak or painful wrists, fingers, and forearms by taking weight off them and putting it onto the saddle via your butt. This position also brings your head right up and so gives you a clear view all around – so you can either spot potential hazards…or find the best spots on the beach.
Another advantage of this style of handlebar is that, by bringing the hands back from the front of the handlebar, it gives plenty of space to fit a basket or front cargo rack. With a straight bar, such as a riser or flat handlebar, you would be more likely to bash your knuckles on a front-mounted rack or basket.
Bikes you’d normally see cruiser bars on: cruiser bikes, electric beach cruisers.
- Very comfortable to cycle with and give an upright and very natural riding position
- Great 360-degree visibility
- Excellent choice for seniors and those with arthritis in wrists or hands
- Pairs well with swimming costumes, flip flops and coolers of ice-cold drinks!
- Whilst cruiser bars are great for cruising on the flat, they are very poor for climbing up hills – unless your bike is an electric cruiser bike
A niche style, but the bullhorn handlebar is, I think, a very versatile choice for many cyclists and bikes.
The shape of the bullhorn is simple – from the central clamp, the bar goes straight out to the sides before turning and going away from the rider. You can see from the image that they are reminiscent of a bull’s horns, hence the obvious name.
Bullhorn bars are a popular choice for trend-setting ‘hipsters’ who like them for their fixie or single-speed urban commuter bike. They’re also chosen by many bike couriers.
The aesthetics of the bullhorn bars – simple, uncluttered, minimalist, and uber-cool – are what attracts hipsters and bicycle couriers to them. But those qualities also make the bullhorn handlebars are very astute choice for lots of other bike riders.
Why? Well, first up, the shape of these bars allows multiple hand positions, which can be great when one grip gets tiring or sore. You can have your hands on top when you’re cruising along, but the upraised tips of the bars allow you to get into more of a tuck position when you’re steaming downhill or plowing into a headwind.
You get those benefits with drop bars too, but being shorter, bullhorn bars can often be lighter than drop bars and with the added advantage of giving more bar space for accessories, such as lights, bell, etc.
Bikes you’d normally see bullhorn bars on: city bikes, single-speed bikes, fixie bikes, commuter bikes, courier bikes, and urban electric bikes.
- The look uber-cool and hip
- Gives varied hand positions which can reduce fatigue on long rides
- Lighter than drop bars, more versatile than flat or riser bars
- Depending on where the brake levers are situated, one grip position might leave your hands some way off
If you’ve ever watched the time trial stages of events such as the Tour de France or Vuelta a España, then you’ll have seen riders using aero bars.
The bars are parallel and head straight out in front side-by-side of the central clamp. To use them, a rider rests their elbows on the pads and holds the front end of the bars. This gives a position with the least wind resistance by keeping the everything from the fingers to the upper arms in line with the torso.
For ultimate speeds these are an essential but they have downsides and can be tricky and sometimes dangerous to use.
Because the bars are so close to the front wheel it makes steering harder and, because a rider is effectively steering with their elbows, even harder still.
Additionally, where the aero bars are clipped on to the normal handlebars (which is often the case unless you’re a pro!) then your fingers will be a long way from the brakes.
For both these reasons, even elite riders don’t use them when they’re cycling in a pack and reserve them for when they’re racing against the clock only in a time trial.
Bikes you’d normally see aero bars on: road bikes, e-road bikes, time trial bikes, triathlon bikes
- Allows the most aerodynamic position for road cycling
- In aero position, your hands will be a long way off from the brake levers
- Steering is more difficult than with other handlebars
- Adding aero bikes will inevitably add weight to the bike
When you’re cycling long distances, two things are guaranteed to be the case:
One, is that your fingers/hands/wrists/arms are going to get very sore and painful if they’re kept in the same place for long periods of time.
Two, you’ll have a ton of kit that you need to find a home for on your bike.
For both these reasons, trekking handlebars can be very useful for cycle touring.
Why? Well, these bars (often described as butterfly bars) are much bigger than standard bars and have lots of places to position hands and kit. That means you’ll be able to vary how you’re holding the bars as you pedal along and won’t need to stay gripped in the same place for hours and day on end.
Bigger handlebars also means more space to hang kit off and that can be a real bonus when you’re unable to pack light. Tents, stove, and spare underwear can all have a home hanging off the handlebars.
Ok, maybe put the underwear somewhere else.
Bikes you’d normally see trekking bars on: trekking bikes, touring ebikes, touring bikes, bikepacking bikes
- Allows many different hand positions for comfort on long rides
- Plenty of places to attach bike accessories (such as a GPS) or cargo (such as a touring tent)
- With multiple hand positions, these bars are bigger and heavier than many others
- Can be expensive to buy
There’s more to bike handlebars than just a long piece of metal that you steer the front wheel with.
Some bars types are great for one style of riding (trekking bars for long-distance cycle touring, for example) but not for another.
Some bar types are great when you have wrist pain, or where you need to keep a good look out for upcoming hazards.
Whichever handlebar you choose, make sure it’s right for the riding that you’re planning to do.