Handlebars: Wide vs. Narrow

One of the hardest parts of bike fit is the width of the handlebars. There are many recommendations, but not all make sense. For decades, racers have been told that handlebars should match the width of their shoulders – but nobody seems to agree how to measure shoulder width! Let’s look at what we know about handlebar width.

Historically, handlebar width has matched the handling of racing bikes. When bikes had slack head angles and much wheel flop (1920s), bars were very wide: 46–48 cm was common to provide the leverage required to keep the bike going straight. When low-trail geometries were popular (1940s), bars shrank to 38 cm – that was enough to guide the bikes with a light touch. Narrow tires made the bikes less stable again (1970s), and bars grew to 42 cm. I wrote about that in detail here, but even that is not the full story.

Bike Radar recently had a feature about one of the tallest riders in the professional peloton, Jan-Willem van Schip, who uses ultra-narrow Nitto handlebars – measuring just 38 cm. (Bike Radar‘s sensationalist number of 32 cm is measured at the top of the hoods.) Regardless of how we measure van Schip’s bars, they are very narrow. That raises the question: Why does such a tall rider use such narrow bars?

The answer is simple: aerodynamics. Being so tall, van Schip needs every advantage he can get. Other pros also use relatively narrow bars: 40 and 42 cm are the norm. That got me thinking about the advantages of narrow handlebars. Here are a few:

  • More aerodynamic: Bicycle Quarterly‘s wind tunnel tests found that lowering the stem by 2 cm reduced the rider’s wind resistance by 5%. Using handlebars that are 2 cm narrower probably has a similar effect – about twice the benefit of aero wheels (2-3%)!
  • Easier to thread through narrow spaces: That is why track racers use narrow handlebars, and why I prefer them when riding through forests and in crowded cyclocross races.
  • More comfortable for riders who bend their elbows: Your elbows can articulate inward, not outward, so (relatively) narrow handlebars work great for riders who bend their elbows to absorb shocks and guide their bikes with a light touch. Bars that are too wide can cause shoulder pains for these riders. Few riders need bars as narrow as Jan-Willem van Schip’s 38s, but 40–42 cm seems to work well for many riders. For me, 44 cm-wide bars are too wide for comfort on long rides.
  • Weight: It’s not just the 2 cm of extra aluminum tubing: A wider bar exerts extra leverage, so it needs to be stronger. Nitto makes Compass handlebars to our exclusive ‘Superlight’ specification from thinwall, heat-treated tubing. However, this tubing can only be used for handlebars up to 42 cm wide – it doesn’t pass fatigue tests if the bars are wider. So our wider handlebars are made to Nitto’s ‘Lightweight’ specification, which, while still lightweight, is a bit heavier.

How narrow can you go? At some point, you will no longer have enough leverage over the steering. Guiding the bike becomes less intuitive, and countering crosswinds and bumps will require too much force. The bike becomes less fun to ride. But as Jan-Willem van Schip shows, you can go quite narrow. In fact, I’d love to send him a set of Compass bars, which are much lighter than the Nittos he took off an old touring bike, but we don’t offer our bars that narrow!

Wide handlebars also have their place, and some riders and bikes are better with them. Here are their main advantages:

  • More leverage is good on high-trail bikes: Wide handlebars are almost a requirement on bikes with high-trail geometries, because there is so much wheel flop. With the extra leverage of wide handlebars, these bikes are easier to keep going straight. The wide bars also provide leverage in tight spaces off-road, when you want to turn the handlebars immediately, without first setting up the bike with subtle weight shifts.
  • More comfortable for riders who lock their elbows: Our upper arms connect to our shoulders at an angle, and if you lock your elbows, your entire arms splay outward slightly. If your handlebars are too narrow, your shoulders feel strained when riding in this position. Bars that are wider than your shoulders feel more natural if you ride with your elbows locked.

There is another consideration: If you use a handlebar bag, it needs to fit with room for your hands to hold onto the bars. Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag bags are designed to provide a perfect fit with 42 cm-wide Compass handlebars (above).

Most of all, the width of your handlebars is based on personal preference, and that’s why we offer our Compass handlebars in widths from 40 to 46 cm. This covers the range for most cyclists – except that we apparently need a 38 cm version made specially for ultra-tall professional racers!

Further reading:

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 the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
This entry was posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Handlebars. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Handlebars: Wide vs. Narrow

  1. mcb says:

    great article as always. 36cm and 38cm would be a welcome addition for smaller riders. my e. csuka alex singer came with 36cm and i love them. hiroshi iimura from jitensha recently built up an ebisu 650b for me and found one manufacturer in japan making 36cm bars for integrated shifters – they are awesome. please consider 36cm for your maes parallel bars 🙂 thanks!

  2. Blablabla says:

    I was told Pantani used to climb hands-on-drops because that let him more air flow. Also, on some sort of ‘Bike Radar’ kind-of-magazine I read Nairo Quintana uses 42 cm wide handlebars, which is quite wide for him (167 cm) for the same reason – it let them “expand” their chests and hence getting more oxygen. What’s your input about that?

    • I’ve also heard that story in the past, but it only applies if you lock your elbows. Yet pros ride with their elbows bent, so bar width (and hand position) doesn’t affect their chest. When you compare the photos of me riding on wide and narrow bars, you can see that my upper arms always slant outward from my shoulders. The only difference is whether my forearms are bent inward (narrow bars) or straight (wide bars). For my chest, there is no difference between wide and narrow bars.

      Also consider that many pros climb with their hands on the tops, next to the stem – an ultra-narrow position – and yet they seem to breathe just fine.

      • RW Benton says:

        I really think this may be a Myth that needs to be debunked.. I’ve heard to so many times , wide bars allow you take in more oxygen.

  3. Where exactly do you messure the width?

    • Generally, handlebars are measured in the drops. On the Compass spec pages, we also list the bar width on the ramps, since the bars flare outward. The outward flare allows sprinting in the drops even with the long reach of these bars – otherwise, the ramps would hit your wrists as you rock the bike from side to side.

      • I’m not sure what “in the drops” means. Is it the point below the brake levers (hooks) or at the bar-ends or both? As you mentioned randonneur handlebars flare outward. My favourite handlebars messure 42cm at the bar-ends, 38cm in the hooks and 36cm on the ramps (outside-outside, Sakae and DFV). Do I have 38cm width handlebars?

      • The ‘nominal’ size is at the ends of the drops, but we measure them center-center, so that makes your favorite bars the equivalent of 40 cm-wide Compass bars. We make almost all our handlebars in that size.

      • Jacob Musha says:

        I thought Compass bars were measured center-center, not end-end. So Gerald doesn’t have “42cm” bars, but something narrower, likely ~39.6cm assuming a grip diameter of 23.8mm.

        It would be helpful to specify on the Compass site whether the bars are measured center-center or end-end.

      • You are right – I overlooked that Gerald measured his bars outside-outside. I corrected my comment, and we’ll add that information to the Compass web site.

  4. Rocky Naff says:

    Wide handlebars are essential for low speed control and control in cross winds on a tandem.

    • You are right – many modern tandems have lots of wheel flop, just like the 1920s racing bikes mentioned in the post, so they require wide handlebars for added leverage to control the steering.

      However, this isn’t inherent in tandems: If the tandem’s geometry takes into account that there is much more weight on the headset (and thus more wheel flop) than on a single, then the steering is no different from a single bike. Our 1947 René Herse tandem has 40 cm handlebars, and it’s easy to control at all times. Cross-winds don’t affect it much at all. See it for yourself in this video.

  5. john says:

    and i prefer even wider bars
    wide bars save lives

  6. larryatcycleitalia says:

    One thing I can add, if you’re going to get it wrong, narrower is better than wider. 40 or 42 cm has always worked well for me over 3+ decades but a few years ago I scored a deal on a set of 46’s. Same bend as always, but my shoulders were a wreck! Changed back to 42 and the pain was gone.

    • Bigschill says:

      everyone is different. I rode 44’s for a few decades, ended up trying 46’s and loved them, especially on low trail bikes

  7. ayjaydee says:

    Extra leverage does not equal extra force! If anything, extra leverage requires LESS force to rotate the resistance of turning the front wheel. Turning moment= Force x distance from centre of rotation.

  8. Preston R Grant says:

    This certainly is an interesting topic. My 1963 Jack Taylor touring tandem, which I picked up at the factory in July of that year had very narrow bars, 14 inches as I recall, so less than 36 cm, and I never had a problem with steering under any circumstances, but Taylor bikes were low trail. I always was amazed that a tandem could so heavily loaded, and yet so easy to steer.

    • Yes, the Taylor brothers used a ‘French’ tandem geometry, and as a result, their tandems were very easy to ride. A Jack Taylor tandem was my first low-trail tandem, and I was surprised that all the things I had considered ‘normal’ when riding tandems – the shoulder fatigue, the veering off-course each time the stoker moved, etc. – no longer occurred.

  9. gcziko says:

    Informative. I hadn’t thought of the bent-elbow reason for narrower bars.

    Another use I’ve found for wider bars is riding a single-speed (including fixie) bike where they allow more upper body use for starting quickly or climbing hills in a big gear.

  10. Guy says:

    Jan – I’m interested to know if you personally go a step wider with a flared Randonneur bar than you would do with the Maes Parallel bar, to account for the narrower position on the hoods? My personal experience is I need to go wider by 2-4cm to achieve a comparable level of control on the hoods and ‘shoulders’ with rando bars.

    • The flare of the Maes Parallel and the Randonneur bars is the same – it’s necessary because of the long reach, so that your wrists don’t hit the ramps when rocking the bike as you ride out of the saddle. Since I prefer narrow bars, I don’t go wider on these bars, but if you prefer wide bars, you may want to add a little to compensate for the flare.

  11. Francisco says:

    The need for chest expansion depends in part on the rider’s position. Normal breathing engages mostly the diaphragm (see how the abdomen of opera singers, the ultimate breathing experts, expands alarmingly when they take air in) but if the diaphragm is constrained by being bent over the handlebars the thorax will need to expand to supplement the diminished abdominal expansion.

    • Absolutely, but the thorax can expand even with narrow handlebars: Your upper arms don’t need to be aligned with the bars if your elbows are bent.

      • Francisco says:

        I was attempting to answer to the post by #Blablabla, in particular explaining why riding on the tops needs less chest expansion than riding in the drops. One reason why arm placement is ‘freer’ on the tops.

  12. Chris Lampe says:

    I ride a mountain bike, mostly on pavement, and with 700 x 60 tires (80mm of trail), my 72cm MTB bars feel right. With 700 x 48 tires (76mm trail) my 72cm bars make the front end twitchy. It’s a very small change in trail measurements but a significant difference in handling.

    • I’ve observed the same thing on many bikes. What you feel isn’t the change in ‘geometric trail’ (due to the smaller wheel diameter with the narrower tires), but the reduced ‘pneumatic trail’ of the narrower tires. Wider tires stabilize the bike due to their greater contact patch on the road. Another (smaller) factor is that the smaller tires probably are lighter, thus have less rotational inertia, which also means less stability of the front wheel.

  13. John Allen says:

    Same issue as in a peloton.applies in any kind of traffic. If the end of the handlebar nicks a stationary or slower object, the bicycle will steer toward that end of the handlebar and the cyclist will fall to the opposite side. If the end of the handlebar is pushed forward, the cyclist will fall toward that end of the handlebar. So, a cyclist will fall toward the moving traffic whether one handlebar end strikes the opening door of a parked car, or the other end is brushed by a passing vehicle. This is one of several reasons that controlling the travel lane is preferable if its width is marginal.

    • Striking anything with your handlebars should be avoided at all costs! Fortunately, most cyclists have a very good feel for the widths of their bars, and the worst case is a light brush of an obstacle.

      Opening doors provide a terrible hazard because they have no ‘crumble zone’ – they basically impale you. Perhaps we should go back to cars doors opening at the front like on 1920s cars – often called ‘suicide’ doors – that would strike a glancing blow. Until then, cyclists should always stay out of the ‘door zone,’ no matter how wide their bars!

  14. David says:

    Thank you yet again for your combination of measured data with real world experiences! Your findings have influenced how, and what I have ridden; and you have always ‘steered’ me in the optimum way!

  15. Dr J says:

    I noticed Compass bars seem to be a bit on the heavy side. Rando bars in “lightweight” option are listed at 345g for 44cm width. I weighed my Salsa Cowchipper 46cm bars at 306g. The extra weight is not a deal breaker but I wonder if Compass bars are designed to be stiffer?

    • Compass bars are designed to pass the EN ‘Racing Bike’ standards for fatigue resistance. This means that our wider bars (44 cm and up) need to be made from thicker-wall tubing (‘Lightweight’ spec) for safety. The 42 cm bars are made to the ‘Superlight’ spec and weigh just 296 g. (Also consider that our bars have a long reach and medium drop, which requires more material than the ultra-short reach and shallow drop of the Cowchippers.)

      Some ultralight bars are made from 7000-series aluminum. That material is very strong, but also susceptible to stress corrosion cracking – cracks form when 7000-series aluminum is under load and subjected to oxidizing environments (sweat from your hands). Those bars have been known to break suddenly while riding and hitting a bump. While we make our Compass parts as light as possible, it’s never done at the expense of safety.

  16. Philip Lussier says:

    Please explain how the upward slant at the ends of the tops of some randonneuring bars reinforces or changes some of the principles you’ve mentioned. How does that slant change the wrist position and what does that do to the “feel” of the bars relative to a flat-topped bar?

    • The Randonneur bars are curved horizontally (not just vertically) on the rear of the ramps. That shape fits into the cupped palm of your hands, making the ‘on the ramps’ position very comfortable. A bar without that curve (when seen in profile from the front) puts pressure on the outside of your palm in that position.

      The upsweep is just a side-effect to get that horizontal curve. The curve of Randonneur bars must be ‘just right’ to work well. Unfortunately, most ‘Randonneur’ bars just have a random upsweep, which often makes them less comfortable than standard bars. We tried a lot of bar shapes before settling on the most comfortable one for the Compass Randonneur bars.

      The downside of Randonneur bars is that the ‘on the tops’ position (hands next to the stem) slants your wrists. It doesn’t bother me, but some riders find that position uncomfortable. So if you ride ‘on the tops’ a lot, I’d recommend the Maes Parallel bars instead.

      This post goes into more detail about the differences between the two handlebar shapes.

  17. Gert says:

    I am 6’5 and for years i have been riding 46cm handlebars because they said so at the bike shop. I am only a t-shirt medium size and then I saw Adam Hansen riding very narrow bars one summer in the Tour, so I tried a 42cm Nitto dream bar. I have experienced no disadvantages and as you say aerodynamics must be better. The new bike I am assembling right now (can not insert picture) has the 42 cm Randonneur handlebar.
    By the way interesting article about Adam Hansen’s views on bar width, crank length, cleat position, saddle position etc here
    https://pelotonmagazine.com/features/from-inside-peloton-adam-hansen/

  18. Stefan says:

    Hi Jan! Which handlebar is used on the Caletti pictured above? Thanks a lot!

    • I think it was a Salsa Cowchipper, but the bike went back to Caletti, so I can’t check. It worked well on the bike – basically a drop bar for mountain biking… It’s not a bar you’d want to use for long-distance riding, but that is not what it’s intended for.

      • Dr J says:

        Jan, I think you meant to write “not a bar I would want to use for long distance riding”.

        Bars like Cowchipper are widely used in gravel races (Dirty Kanza, Trans Iowa) not to mention ~3000mi long Tour Divide when riders spend even 16hrs a day in the saddle and ride for many weeks. If that’s not long distance then I don’t know what is.

      • You are right, although I think in those racers choose their bars for other reasons than ultimate comfort. If the alternative is a flat mountain bike handlebar, then Cowchipper-style bars certainly are more comfortable!

  19. Dana Shifflett says:

    My road bike is a ’72 Raleigh Grand Prix. Ten years ago I added a front rack and, under the influence of bike mags bought at the grocery store, converted to 700c wheels with 25mm tires and wide drop bars. The bike was then intolerably twitchy. It was about then that I discovered BQ and re-learning what motorcycles taught me about pneumatic trail and handlebars. I reinstalled the stock GB bars, switched to 32mm tires, dropped to 90psi, and got MY Raleigh back. I went back to 27″ wheels last summer, too, and love them. Short story: bars should match geometry.

  20. Archetype says:

    I’m wondering about the stability and effects of that ultra narrow bar on van Schip’s bike at high speeds and cornering. I would think that the narrow width bar shortens the steering arc, therefore making the bike possibly twitchy or unstable at higher speeds, especially during cornering. Perhaps it doesn’t bother him and/or he likes a ‘twitchy’ feeling front end. .

    Personally, I have experimented with 40cm, 42cm and 44cm bars. And noticed that I can feel a slight difference in stability and steering ‘quickness’ going from the 44cm to the 40cm width. I tend to like the narrower bars myself, which produces that quick side-side to transitions in the steering. Much of set up comes down to preference, but those 32cm bars… whew!

Comments are closed.