Why Upgrade Your Mountain Bike Handlebar?
When purchasing a new bicycle either online or from a shop, most consumers are most concerned with the frame and the quality of the suspension. Mountain bikes and their performance are the sum of their parts, however, although many of those parts are often overlooked by both the manufacturer and the consumer. It is likely that the handlebar provided on your new bike, whether a $2000 budget build or a $6000 machine is perfectly functional but relatively basic. The majority of OE (Original Equipment) handlebars spec'd on complete bikes come from either the frame manufacturer's house-brand or an affiliate, which most companies have done with as a cost-reducing maneuver for years.
Many people don't realize that handlebars come in different shapes, sizes, sweeps, and materials resulting in varying levels of control, comfort, and on-trail performance. While your bike's frame may fit you, it is possible that your comfort can be further improved by finding the handlebar with the right geometry, rise, and sweep. Sure, you can control your bike, but perhaps you can increase your control with a different bar width or clamp diameter. Likewise, different materials and constructions produce varying levels of vibration dampening, stiffness, and compliance that can reduce hand fatigue while also enhancing control. While most handlebars will get the job done, you can personalize and customize your setup to get the fit, comfort, and performance that you seek.
There are a number of factors to consider when upgrading or replacing the handlebar on your mountain bike. In this article, we will lay out some important elements of handlebar performance, shape, size, and construction so that you can make a more informed purchase decision.
Handlebar width suggestions and preferences have changed often as bike geometry evolves. As bike geometry continues to change and bikes become longer, slacker, and more capable, handlebar width has increased in kind. Wider handlebars have become popular because they provide more control than the narrower bars of yesteryear. This is partly due to the fact that it encourages the rider to have a more forward, "attacking" position. This position encourages riders to shift their weight forward, which keeps longer/slacker bikes more stable in corners, jumps, or steep bits of trail. A wider handlebar also increases your leverage which aids in manipulating the front end of the bike by reducing the amount of force needed to tip the bike side to side, fore and aft, and when steering. Wider isn't automatically always better, however, and it is important to consider your body size and match your handlebar width appropriately. A handlebar that is too wide can have adverse effects on one's comfort and control on the bike.
To make an honest decision on bar width, grab a pair of grips, and while standing in front of a flat surface, close your eyes and place your hands naturally in front of you, imagining you are riding. Now measure the distance between the grip ends and see how far off that is from your current bar situation. One thing is for sure, if your current handlebar feels too narrow or too wide then it probably is. While you can't add width to a narrow bar, you can trim a wide bar down to the size that's right for you. Generally speaking, DH and enduro riders tend to ride between 780-800mm for men and 740-780mm for women, while trail and all-mountain riders trend a little narrower in the 750-780mm range.
Geometry of handlebars comes down to the rise of the bar over the stem and the sweep (both up and back) of the bar. Rise is often a personal preference but has its roots in a rider's body position during different disciplines of riding. Higher rise bars (20 to 40mm) are often found on trail, enduro, and DH bikes as they encourage a position that keeps body weight over the rear wheel or centered along the bike and put the rider in a slightly more upright position. Some people prefer a more upright body position, and adding rise to your handlebar can help you achieve that. Flat or short rise bars tend to encourage weight over the front wheel, as seen on XC bikes and light trail bikes. Upsweep does much the same as rise, but is in much smaller increments. Upsweep takes care of a little bit of rise (usually between 4-6 degrees) to provide a more neutral wrist position while riding. Back sweep angles the ends of the bars towards the rider which also aids in wrist position and comfort. The sweep, up and back, that is best for you is based on personal preference that is typically decided based on comfort. If your current handlebar is comfortable in terms of its sweep, then that is typically a good starting point when searching for a new one.
Alloy vs carbon is a debate that will never end in the bike industry, but to be honest, modern races have been won on both materials, whether frame or components, making the whole point seem rather moot when it is truly the rider that makes the difference in terms of speed. There are significant differences in the weight, feel, and price of carbon fiber when compared to their aluminum counterparts. Carbon fiber is typically lighter weight than aluminum, so if you are looking to shave some grams from your bike that is a good way to do it. In terms of feel, the vibration reduction and increased stiffness afforded by carbon handlebars is also notable. This can also be a curse, where some carbon bars are too stiff for an individual or a type of riding. Price is another consideration when deciding between materials, as carbon handlebars typically cost around double that of an aluminum model.
The clamp diameter or bore size is the width of the handlebar bar where it clamps to the stem, from which it gradually narrows to the end where grips are attached. Several years ago, the majority of handlebars came in the standard clamp diameter of 31.8mm. Some DH bikes were sold with 35mm bar bores, as the thicker tube circumference afforded more stiffness at the handlebar/stem interface. The past few years of ingenuity have afforded us many new 35mm handlebar options for trail and enduro riding that are not DH levels of stiff, but are as light as the old 31.8mm standard, with increased durability and variable performance characteristics.
There is no entirely correct choice with regards to bore width, but these days most modern trail to enduro bikes are sold with 35mm stems and bars, while many XC and trail bikes are sold with 31.8mm. If you are looking for a more aggressive, stiffer riding handlebar, consider 35mm to be the evolution of the bike industry in your favor. People seeking a little more compliance and comfort may be more interested in the narrower 31.8mm clamp diameter. It is important to note the clamp diameter that is currently on your bike, as switching to the different size will necessitate the purchase of a stem in the same clamp diameter.
All handlebars are adjustable in their width by trimming them down from both ends to reduce their width. Adjusting one's handlebars is a one-way scenario, however, as you can't make them wider once you have trimmed off material. Most handlebars have hash marks on their ends in 10mm increments to help in the trimming process. Sure, it's ideal to find the exact width that suits you, but you can always buy a wider bar and trim it down to your exact preferences.
Ibis is one brand that has made an adjustable width handlebar. Their carbon fiber handlebar has threaded aluminum inserts in both ends that can be removed. This allows the user to choose between 800mm with the inserts or 750mm without, and you can go back and forth between those widths without having to cut your expensive handlebar. The inserts can also be trimmed to length to achieve a width that falls between the 750-800mm range. This is a niche product that likely won't appeal to a lot of riders, but people traveling to races or those looking to experiment with bar width may find it appealing.
You just bought an expensive new bike, or maybe you are upgrading an old expensive bike, either way, your two-wheeled pedal machine with no motor is likely worth as much as a used car. Taking that into consideration, it goes without saying that an upgrade such as handlebars, that may transform your comfort and your bike's handling characteristics for under $200 is a steal. Expect aftermarket aluminum bars to range from $80 to $120 while carbon fiber options can cost around $170 and up.
A handlebar might not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering upgrading your bike's comfort and performance, but choosing the right one can make a world of difference. There's are many factors to consider, but hopefully, the information presented here will help you make a more informed decision in your search for the perfect new mountain bike handlebar.