Handlebar Width

A few people have asked about handlebar width in our handlebar discussion. Grand Bois handlebars come in widths between 41 and 43 cm, which may appear narrow by today’s standards.

Many riders, even very tall ones, prefer relatively narrow handlebars. Above is my friend Ryan, who is 6′ 4″, riding on 41 cm-wide Grand Bois Randonneur handlebars (click on the photo for a bigger version). On his previous bike, he used 46 cm-wide carbon handlebars, but he loves the improved comfort of the narrower Randonneur bars on 24+ hour rides. (His new bike also has a different steering geometry that requires less leverage to guide the front wheel, see below. By the way, all measurements in this post are center-to-center.)

Ryan’s bars are narrower than his shoulders, but human elbows articulate, and we can adjust to different handlebar widths without restricting our breathing. Otherwise, no racer would climb with their hands on the tops of the bars, where they are much closer together than even the narrowest handlebars. Andy Schleck seems to be breathing just fine in the photo below. He wore the yellow jersey in this year’s Tour de France…

From the 1930s until a few decades ago , most riders used handlebars that would be considered very narrow today. Fausto Coppi was 6 feet tall, and he rode 40 cm-wide handlebars.

Contrasting this, handlebars as wide as 46 cm were popular in the 1920s, when front-end geometries had a lot of wheel flop. The extra leverage of the wide bars may have helped to keep those bikes on course. By the 1930s, head angles got steeper (which reduced wheel flop), and handlebars became narrower. When I measured the geometries of all the bikes featured in our book The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, I found a strong correlation of handlebar width with wheel flop, rather than with rider size. Handlebars became wider again in the 1970s, when wheel flop increased as geometries were adjusted for narrower tires.

Aerodynamics can be another reason to choose narrow handlebars. When we tested “real-world” bicycles in the wind tunnel, we found that frontal area is the most important factor in determining wind resistance. Wider handlebars increase your frontal area, and thus probably increase your wind resistance. Aerobars are so effective because they put the rider’s hands closer together, and reduce the frontal area, as well as shielding the cavity formed by the rider’s chest.

Handlebar width is influenced by many factors, including personal preference. We recognize that many riders today like wider handlebars, so we asked Grand Bois to make a 43 cm wide version of the “Maes Parallel” model. However, we encourage you to try narrower handlebars – you may like them.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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10 Responses to Handlebar Width

  1. Michael says:

    Thanks for the post, Jan. You have validated something I have noticed for quite awhile. I receive looks ranging from confusion to near hostility when I mention that I really dislike 44cm bars (I’m 6’2″). In fact, I have an old bar with a Maes bend that I use on a bad-weather bike. It’s only 38cm! But for some reason, not only can I breathe, but I really like the bar…

  2. Brett says:

    I feared narrow bars until I bought an ’83 Trek several years ago that came with the stock 38cm bars and it was a revelation after an initial adjustment period of a few rides. Perhaps it was also a combination of the low trail geometry of the Trek but I found the handling in many ways superior to another bike that had 46cm Noodles at the time. I then briefly tried narrow handlebars on that same bike but it didn’t feel right either, especially when I used it for touring with rear panniers so I finally went back to 44cm Noodles which was just right. So it certainly does seem that bike geometry and front vs. rear load are also important factors. In any case, I’m definitely a convert to narrow bars for lower trail bikes and the Grand Bois Rando bars in particular are the most comfortable bars I’ve ever used.

  3. Christian Bratina says:

    I use different width handlebars on all my bikes: 44 c-c on the tandem, 42 c-c on my club bike, and 40 c-c on my rando bike, due to both trail and how they feel climbing out of the saddle. Switching back and forth they all seem natural. Purchasers need to be sure the bars they are comparing are measured the same way, center to center or outside to outside, or they may be in for a surprise.

    • Willem says:

      I have very wide shouders. So when I needed to replace the 41 cm c-c at the drops and 37cm at the hoods handlebar on my 1970′s ‘comfortabele road bike’ after a fall I went for a 45 cm Nitto rando bar. Unfortunately I found out that at the hoods this was only a bit wider than my old bar: 38 cm. That really is still too narrow for me. So for my new loaded touring bike with wide and sometimes coarsely treaded 26 inch tyres I went for a 46 cm Noodle bar, and I am very pleased. It matches my physique, and it gives me more leverage on bad roads. This is a bike to go almost anywhere, so even the 46 cm bar is a bit of a compromise. When I ride with friends who have wide straight bars, they clearly have more leverage on off road stretches.
      So I do think there is a real need for nice wide bars, both for rough stuff riding, and for those with wider shoulders. Of the latter, there are more and more, of course, since people are so much bigger on average than they were a few decades ago.

  4. I find 42mm dropbars to be pretty much perfect. But if that width is unavailable, I prefer a little narrower to wider.

  5. stephen says:

    on a new custom bike a couple of years ago, i resisted by lbs’ recommendation that I go to 42cm bars from the 44cm ones i was used to. i recently upgraded the original bars and decided to try 42s instead — not only can i breathe just as well, but the handling on the bike has improved substantially.

  6. wildeny says:

    How about the handlebar width for female cyclists?
    Currently I’m riding with FSA compact handlebar with c-c at 38 mm. The ones that Compassion Bicycles carries are still too wide for me.

    • Yours is the first request for narrower bars, but we’ll look into that. We used to sell a 40 cm wide version of the Maes shape. If you need one, I can check whether we have one left somewhere.

      • wildeny says:

        I’ll consider it for for my next randonneuring bike. :-)
        The reason why I asked about the handlebar width for female cyclists is because I feel that some discussions here (as well as in BQ) might not be suitable for small-built cyclists. At least not in the sense of linear proportion.

        For instance, this article “Optimizing Your Tire Pressure for Your Weight”. Has that suggested pressure been tested by light cyclists? The weight of my bike & I is about 60kg (including the small saddle bag). I’m not sure that 60 psi in my front wheel is better (OK, I can give it a test ride but I’m not confident in riding with such low-pressure tires :P ).

        I also wish that BQ can review or suggest some randonneur bike geometry suitable for short cyclists like me (5′ 2.5″) in the future.

      • Frank Berto’s tire pressure charts do scale even for light riders. I ride my (wide) tires at 40-50 psi, so 60 psi should be fine for you. However, with many tires, you get to a point where the stiff sidewalls are beginning to hold up the bike, and lowering the pressure has little effect. I notice that on my daughter’s bike with Schwalbe Durano tires… anything below 40 psi doesn’t really get her more comfort.

        Geometries for small (and very tall) riders – we have been thinking about this, but since we cannot ride small or very tall bikes, we’d need a few test riders who have ridden many different bikes and who can articulate the differences in handling. It’s something we are working on.

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