Why Handlebar Shapes Are Important

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Once again, riders are realizing the importance of handlebar shapes. In recent decades, makers tried to make ergonomic shapes by flattening the bars where the most useful hand positions are located. But human anatomies vary a lot, and locking riders into a few “anatomic” hand position rarely results in the promised comfort. In fact, rather than locking you in, the most ergonomic bars allow you to find the position that matches your very unique anatomy.

Compass Randonneur Bars 31.8 Clamp

The sweeping curves of classic handlebars allow you to do just that. Depending on the angle at which your wrists are most comfortable, you can move your hands to find exactly that angle. It’s something that was evident to riders and racers during the days when stages were longer and roads were rougher, but it has been somewhat forgotten in recent decades.

Riding classic handlebars, I was surprised how much more comfortable they were than the modern handlebars on my daily riders. That led us to explore classic shapes more and offer handlebars that are quite different from what you see on most bikes today.

Compass now offers two handlebars, the Maes Parallel and the Randonneur. I like them both, as they feel quite different on the road.

cobbles_fireflyThe Maes Parallel is great if you change hand positions a lot. The ramps are long and flat, giving you plenty of room to roam. I prefer these bars for fast-paced group riding, where speeds change constantly, and I am moving around to use the most efficient position for the power output required by the group’s speed. The drops are relatively shallow, which suits modern racing bikes with relatively low handlebars.

I use the Maes Parallel handlebars on my Firefly (above) and on our Specialized Diverge long-term test bike.

rando_bar_touring

The Randonneur is great for longer efforts, where you find a good position and stay in it. It’s also great when you aren’t pedaling super-hard, and a little more weight rests on your arms and hands. This doesn’t mean you cannot use these bars to go fast: When it’s time to hammer, you use the hoods or drops for a lower, more powerful riding position. The drop is a bit deeper, to give you a more pronounced difference between riding positions: upright for lower efforts on the ramps, or low for higher speeds in the drops. In between, you have the hoods, and for sliding back on the saddle during climbs, I use the tops.

The upsweep next to the stem isn’t there to raise your bars – it creates a three-dimensional shape that fits perfectly into the palm of your cupped hands. With Randonneur handlebars, it’s extremely important to get the shape “just right”. Otherwise, your bars are less comfortable than handlebars without the upsweep. We tested numerous designs before settling on the shape of the Compass Randonneur handlebars.  The differences are subtle, but you’ll notice them soon after you start riding. And the longer you ride, the bigger the differences become. We now offer the Compass Randonneur handlebars in a 460 mm version for those who prefer wide handlebars.

I use the Randonneur bars on my Mule (above) and on the René Herse that I ride in brevets.

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Two different handlebars for different riding styles – each optimized for its purpose. Available in a variety of widths and with 25.4 mm and 31.8 mm clamp diameters. We think you’ll enjoy them as much as we do.

Click here for more information about our handlebars.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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42 Responses to Why Handlebar Shapes Are Important

  1. I have been looking for the ideal handlebar a while now. This is interesting and I have a few questions.
    “The upsweep … creates a three-dimensional shape that fits perfectly into the palm of your cupped hands.” Do you mean when riding on the corners ? Why would this not be desirable on the Parallel ?
    Why not wider ? My shoulders are not broad by any stretch of the imagination but I feel constricted on 42-44 cm. I rode once an old MTB with ~50 cm bars with bar ends and that was great. More comfort and more open chest and freedom to breath. I do not really care about being aero. I think 46 maybe good but I’d like to try 48. [after writing this I see some versions are offered in 46cm].

    Thanks

    • Do you mean when riding on the corners ?

      I think we are talking about the same thing, but of course, the sweeping shapes of our bars don’t have “corners” like many modern bars. It’s the position that you see in the initial photo.

      Why would this not be desirable on the Parallel ?

      On the “Randonneur”, there is one really great position on the ramps. On the “Maes Parallel”, there is a long ramp that allows you to move around as you ride. Also, some riders don’t like the upsweep of the “Randonneur” when climbing and holding the bars at the tops.

      • fnardone says:

        Thanks, that’s what I meant.
        Now let’s hope you don’t get sued by Apple about round corners.

  2. Froste says:

    Any chance there will be a 31.8 46cm bar coming soon too?

    • From our experience, riders of modern bikes tend to favor narrower handlebars – 42 cm is by far our most popular size in the 31.8 mm diameter, vs. an even split between 42 and 44 cm in the 25.4 mm clamp diameter. However, we are considering offering the wider bars in other models, too.

      • HaloTupolev says:

        >”riders of modern bikes tend to favor narrower handlebars – 42 cm is by far our most popular size in the 31.8 mm diameter, vs. an even split between 42 and 44 cm in the 25.4 mm clamp diameter.”

        I wonder if the purchase patterns are a result of actual rider preference, or because the narrow handlebars that a lot of vintage bikes came with mean the market is relatively larger for people wanting to convert wider.

        My 1979 Fuji America, 58cm and nominally a light tourer, has 38cm handlebars. When I put together my track bike last year, I decided to get another of the same handlebar NOS!

      • I don’t think there are many vintage bikes with super-narrow handlebars out there any longer. It’s probably just a different riding style and different culture. Modern racers pretty much have standardized on 42 cm bars… whereas in the cyclotouring bike area, there are many who like wider handlebars.

        Part of this may be due to handling and speed differences of the bikes and riders – at low speed on a bike with a lot of wheel flop, wider handlebars are useful to get extra leverage over the steering. At higher speeds (or on bikes with less wheel flop), that leverage isn’t needed, and narrower bars often are more comfortable (and more aerodynamic).

      • Froste says:

        Im considering to use them on my new Enduro allroad bike and is thinking they might be a little narrow for off roading. Currently running Cowbells 44cm on my other all road bike. Your bars are measured c-c at the drops correct?

      • Correct – we measure center-center at the drops. Each handlebar has complete measurements on the Compass web site under Tech Specs. It really depends on the bike, but I am very happy with the 42s on my Firefly and with the 40s on my cyclocross bike.

  3. Based on an earlier discussion about handlebars I believe you were saying the bicycle frame needs to be built with these handlebar styles in mind. So I can’t just replace my flat handlebars with a “Randonneur” and expect good results, right? Also, I wonder how handlebar tape affects rider comfort.

    • Yes, your bike should be designed for drop handlebars… Handlebar tape can help comfort by reducing the pressure you have from gripping the bars, but if you have a relaxed hold on the bars, bar tape doesn’t make much of a difference. Padded bar tape isn’t very effective in absorbing road vibrations, because the unsprung mass of front wheel, fork and the front half of the frame is too large and vibrating at too high a frequency to be damped effectively. Vibrations are best dealt with close to the source (the road), where the unsprung masses are smallest. The contact patch of a tire weighs only a few grams, so the vibrations can be absorbed very well by a supple tire. By the time the vibrations reach the handlebars, more than 2000 g are moving up and down at very high frequencies…

      • I recently started out with Bon Jon Pass tires in 35mm, which is as wide as my bicycle mechanic could get to fit on the bicycle. The tires have definitely improved the ride for me and are a blessing for long rides. I think the next step is to improve my handlebars; but I recognize I may need a new frame that allows a lot of possibilities for building out the bicycle. I’m doing lots of studying towards that end.

  4. Bil Thorne says:

    Many modern bikes are designed around a shorter reach handlebar. Salsa Cowbells are something like 76mm. Your classic shape is 115, so unless I’m missing something, in order to recreate the same position on the hoods I would need to switch to a 60mm stem.

    • Usually, there is no need to change the stem when using classic bars. With our handlebars, you have multiple hand positions on the ramps. Your hoods will be a bit further out, but the on-the-ramps position will be further back. So you basically split a single position into two.

      When I replaced the short-reach handlebars on our Specialized Diverge long-term test bike, I kept the stem, and I found that the fit radically different. I never felt the stem was too short with the old bars, and it doesn’t seem too long with the new ones. If you already feel very stretched out when riding on the brake hoods, you might get a stem that is 1-2 cm shorter, but most likely not the whole 4 cm difference.

  5. Neil Foddering says:

    I assume from experience (though I stand to be corrected!) that the upsweep of the “Randonneur” pattern bars was originally designed to allow more lever travel for “guidonnet” brake levers, rather than having been designed specifically for hand positions.

    • That is an interesting hypothesis, but I’ve seen photos of Randonneur bars on 1920s racing bikes, indicating that back then, they weren’t yet “randonneur” bars. And if you wanted more lever travel on the guidonnet levers, it would be much easier to re-design the levers than the bars.

  6. Michael Kennedy says:

    Jan, I have a pair of “Maes Parallel” bars I bought from Compass a few years back that I like quite a bit–Grand Bois branded, and 43cm at the drops. Are these new bars the same shape and tubing weight, but with different widths?

    • The Maes Parallel shape is the same between the Grand Bois and Compass bars. The latest Compass Extralight specification is quite a bit lighter, as we worked with Nitto to make the lightest aluminum handlebars that still pass all the testing and are safe to use even on rough terrain.

  7. marciero says:

    Am considering trying the Randonneur bars. I like spending about half of my time or ramps or on “corner” as referred to above. Have been a happy Nitto Noodle user for the most part. They are also comfortable on tops, drops, hoods. I think the downward sweep facilitates a bend that is similar, but more subtle, than the Compass Randonneur bars. Instead of upward sweep they have downward then upward. It could be that the backward sweep is part of what I am feeling; not sure. People describe these bars as having flat ramps, but I think there is a subtle curve there. I also have the Mod 176, which have been described as Noodle without the weird curves, but they are different (though also nice). On the other hand, the transition to the hoods on the Noodles is also very nice. The drops also seem similar to the Compass-not parallel but close to it. I also think that as far as reach goes, since we are really concerned with ramp length, rather than how far forward they extend your total reach, these bars may be comparable to the Compass, since am pretty sure the listed 95mm does not include the backward sweep. I use a longer stem with this bar to give the same hand positions as the Mod 176,(and also the Velo Orange bars, which I tried and did not like). I’ve read your comments on Noodles- again am not sure whether the backward sweep may also help facilitate the bend. Am not a fan of it otherwise. Any thoughts on this? Also curious about whether the more dramatic curve on the Compass bars makes for a more abrupt transition to riding on the hoods.

    • Many of us at Compass used the Nitto Noodles before we designed our own bars. They are a good shape, but as you say, the rearward sweep doesn’t make much sense. I don’t think it makes the bars more comfortable – it’s hard to imagine how it provides a better fit with your cupped hands. I think they are more comparable with the Maes Parallel bars, but of course, there are many subtle differences.

      All these bars are made by Nitto, who make the best handlebars ever. (The old French bars had great shapes, but the quality wasn’t as nice as Nitto’s.) Compass “standard” bars are the same quality level (and weight) as Nitto’s top-end “Soba” bars. Our “Extralight” handlebars are lighter and to a higher spec than any others Nitto makes. That level is an exclusive For Compass. We developed the “Extralight” bars, because for us, it’s important that Compass parts are competitive with the latest and most modern bike parts, but without compromising reliability and safety. So we worked with Nitto to develop the lightest aluminum bars that can pass the most stringent fatigue tests.

  8. Joe says:

    Excellent post. I love the look of the Maes bar and I’m considering it for a road sportif style bike. However, that bike will have integrated (Ergo) shifters.

    Have you used these bars with modern integrated brake levers? Will the reach be excessive? The poster above asked a similar question as it relates to stem length, I just want to hear about experience using these bars with larger “brifter” levers.

  9. Frank says:

    Hi sir Jan.
    Is there any demand for 26.0 bars? I’ll put up my hand for a Maes bar 26 x 44.
    Thanks again for your work.
    Best, Frank

    • No problem! Compass sells a shim made by Nitto that allows you to use a 25.4 mm handlebar with a 26.0 mm stem. A shim actually is a very nice way of reducing the stress riser at the transition from the stem to the bar, so it’s not a bodge like it would be in many other places on a bike. René Herse’s original stems incorporated a lip that acted the same way…

  10. Karl-Heinz says:

    How does the gilles berthoud rotary handle for the rohloff speedhub fit on the compass 25,4 mm randonneur 440 mm handlebar? The gilles berthoud requires 55 mm of straight bar length and I prefer its placement as next to stem as possible. Any experiences or ideas on that?

    • We have no experience with that, but the upsweep of the Compass Randonneur handlebars starts close to the stem. I think with that setup, you’ll be hard-pressed to use any Randonneur-style handlebars. I’d use the Maes Parallel instead. You won’t be disappointed.

  11. Jon says:

    When the Noodle first came out, most bars on the market had either a short reach or sharply downsloping ramps. The Noodle has longer, flatter ramps (though not so much so as the Compass bars) than most bars of that time. That was their main selling point, and it’s a good one. I have an earlier Nitto model (176, Rivendell called it the dream bar) with a similar shape but no rearward sweep, and it’s much more comfortable for me than other Nitto bars I’d used before it. I have not compared it to a Noodle or Compass bars. I wonder if the rearward sweep of the Noodle was intended to lengthen the ramps without increasing the reach.

    A comment about tape: it’s too thin to absorb much shock, but a thick wrap can increase the area that the hand contacts on the bar. That can reduce pressure (force/area) and can be helpful for folks bothered by that. Judging from the bikes of most of my friends, most prefer a thin wrap.

    • Alex says:

      ” . . . the rearward sweep of the Noodle was intended to lengthen the ramps without increasing the reach.” That’s what I’ve always thought, as well.
      Completely agree about thick handlebar wrapping, and/or gel below, aiding comfort by providing more area for the hand, reducing pressure. For this reason, handlebars with cable grooves are to be avoided IMO: they greatly decrease the effective diameter of the bar, resulting in unnecessary pressure on the palms.

      • For me, the opposite is the case. I really dislike thickly wrapped handlebars. I don’t grip the handlebars tightly, but prefer a light touch, almost resting my hands on the bars. When the padding is too thick, I don’t feel like I have a good hold on the bars, so I must grip harder, and that is uncomfortable to me. I guess this depends on personal preferences and how you hold the bars.

  12. Hal says:

    The picture of the Firefly is interesting. Gotta ask if you had just dropped the chain?

  13. Piotr says:

    Who made your “Mule” bicycle?
    I like it very much. Can you write some history and technical data of it?
    What is the diffenence between Mule and your silver Rene Herse?

    Regards from Poland

    • I made the Mule with help from Bicycle Quarterly contributor and framebuilder Hahn Rossman. The main difference to the René Herse is that the Mule is designed for Rinko, so it packs quickly into a small package for travel by train, bus, car, etc. It also uses an oversized down tube and is equipped with a front low-rider rack. It doesn’t use any special parts, but almost everything on the bike is available “off the shelf” – unlike the René Herse, for which I made many of the components. The Mule is described in the current issue of Bicycle Quarterly.

  14. Thomas says:

    When selecting handlebars, I believe riders need to take into account the brake lever/brifters they will be using. Modern brifter shapes offer much different (and better in my opinion) ergonomics than old brake levers, and consequently I ride them differently. On a bike I have with early 80s campy brakes, I ride with my hands on the ramps and flats mostly. On a more modern bike I own, I ride almost exclusively with my hands on the hoods, which requires much shorter reach handlebars.

    • It really depends. I find that even on bikes with modern brake/shift levers, I prefer the “on the ramps” position, because I can adjust the angle of my wrists by sliding my hands backward or forward. On the brake hoods, the angle is 90°, which doesn’t quite fit my anatomy.

  15. I am interested in seeing a picture taken from the side of the Randonneur handlebars with sram brifters mounted. Thanks!

  16. I would like to add a point that riders with arthritis in their wrists may find of interest.

    For three decades I rode bikes with short handlebar ramps, i.e. the bars that came OEM on most road bikes and what most bike shops carry. From reading Jan, GP and others pointing out the advantage of old school bikes, I decided to give Noodle bars a try on an old steel bike I had. I was immediately drawn to having longer ramps, allowing me to move my hands around in multiple positions.

    However, all my modern bikes had 31.6 stems. I tried Salsa Cowbells and really liked the shape and how the curve blended right into Shimano brifters (unlike most compact style bars). But, on long rides my wrists started to suffer as I aged into my late 50s (onset of arthritis) which I attributed to lack of space to change hand positions as I could easily do on the Noodles (FWIW, I prefer a “French Fit” setup, with bars near saddle height, no more than 2 cm lower).

    In a hunt for bars with longer ramps, I found a nicely shaped bar from Zipp that has 88 mm ramps and traditional style drops, with ends flared out a bit. It’s become my favorite bar and resides on the bike I ride the most. Having room on the bars for my hands to have more positions has reduced the pain in my wrists and that really makes a difference on longer rides.

    However, that was before Compass offered the Maes bar in 31.6 clamp area. Now that I’m planning a for a new steel bike that will fit wider tires, I won’t hesitate to spec the Maes bars.

    If you have aching wrists after longer rides, try out some bars with longer ramps (assuming your fit is proper). You might be pleased with the result.

    Bill in Roswell, GA

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