Absolute Beginners: Handlebars and Control

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On a road bike, the handlebars are the place where you rest your hands, part of the load distribution between front and rear wheels, the location of the bicycle controls for brakes and shifting, and integral to steering.

This post answers two general questions. First, why do long distance cyclists usually choose road bicycle handlebars? Second, what role do the handlebars play in controlling the bicycle?

1. Why do Long-Distance Cyclists Choose Road-bike Handlebars?

As with every other part of your bicycle, there are a number of choices you can make in handlebar style:

Figure A.1: Typical Road Bicycle Handlebars. Image Credit.
Figure A.2: Road Bicycle Handlebars with Brakes and Shifters. Image Credit.

Figure B: A more relaxed handlebar configuration. Image Credit.

Figure C: Mountain Bike Handlebars. Image Credit.

If you read the Wikipedia entry on bicycle handlebars, you will see over ten identified styles of handlebars. But as you do the ALC, you’ll notice that the vast majority of riders use the type shown in Figure A.1 and A.2. As we’ll explore in future posts, road bicycles provide a smaller contact to the road, give you a less-upright position, and give you the opportunity to distribute your weight relatively evenly between the handlebars and the saddle. These features exist, in part, because in road cycling, you may spend extended lengths of time in, essentially, one position.

Figure D: Parts of the Handlebars.

Handlebars are a tube of metal (or carbon fiber) intended to accommodate your hands as comfortably as possible. They’re tubular and not solid to cut vibration, because tubes are lighter, and because they are stronger for this application. Some features of the road bars in order to accommodate the specific positions your body takes in road cycling are: multiple grip points, controls accessible from most of the grip points, and tape covering the entire bar. See Figure D for the names of the parts of a handlebar (not every bike will have this exact configuration).

These features provide two primary benefits for road cyclists:

  • Multiple hand placements during a ride. Allows:
    • Altered placements during long rides to avoid cramping and discomfort, generally.
    • Use of the top of the handlebar during ascents.
    • Use of the hoods during the bulk of the ride.
    • Use of the drops during descents.
    • Quick access to the brakes and shifters from each placement.
  • A neutral hand position in each placement (meaning the wrists are in line with the forearms). This puts the least amount of strain on the wrists and forearms, and should help alleviate numbness and pain.

a. The Hoods.

You’ll spend most of your time with your hands engaged in the hoods. What that means is the crook between your thumb and forefinger will be pressed against the plastic portion (hood), your thumb will be crooked over the hood, and your other fingers will be wrapped around the hood and below it on the hook. In this position, you can easily open your fingers to use the brakes and shifters. Your grip should generally be firm but light (not a death grip), but should affix your hand firmly to the bar. (That way if you hit an unexpected bump, your hand doesn’t fly off.)

b. The Top and the Drop.

From your standard position in the hoods, you’ll move your hand — still firmly wrapped around the tube — to the top when on long ascents, to give your hand a break, or to drink from your water bottle. This position is furthest from the brake levers, so keep your eye on the road and be prepared to move to the drops if necessary.

You’ll move your hand to the bottom of the hook or the drop on long descents, to give yourself a more aerodynamic seating posture, and to give your hand a rest. Riding in the drops can be challenging for new riders, so get used to it on flats or very gradual descents before trying it on steep descents. You can brake or shift from the drops, so practice that as well.

c. Neutral Wrist Position.

A primary complaint riders have is that their hands, fingers, forearms, and beyond get numb with longer rides. Part of the solution is to maintain a neutral wrist position — meaning your wrists are in the same plane as your forearms and palms.

Figure E: Not a perfect position. Image Credit and Details.

Figure E shows a cyclist with a fairly good wrist position. Notice that his palm is not flexed. But also notice that the line of his hand is bent relative to the line of his forearm. A good position, but he could do better (read the discussion for details). For a good understanding of neutral wrist position, see Figure F.

Figure F: Ideal Neutral Wrist Position. Image Credit.

I used to grow numb on long, flat rides, but not on hilly rides. For me the resolution was a bike fit. The fitter swapped out my stem and handlebars to bring the controls closer to my body and to narrow the handlebars to prevent strain on my shoulders, too. That and seat adjustments completely eliminated numbness and most soreness.

If you have a bike fit, your fitter may alter the geometry of the bars. You may get a shorter stem (the component which attaches the handlebars to the frame. You may get a tighter or shorter hook to place the drops closer to your body. You may get a narrower handlebar to keep your wrists in a neutral position. Or the fitter may simply adjust the angle of the bars to the frame.

2. What role do the Handlebars Play in Bicycle Control?

Just to state the obvious: handle bars are not a steering wheel. Bicycles are not controlled by wrenching the handlebars from side to side, but instead by more subtle movements of the body. That being said, bicycles turn the way they do because the front wheel is free to move from the plane of the rest of the bike. So, what role do handlebars play in steering?

Mainly, the handlebars are used in a maneuver called countersteering. A full discussion of countersteering will be the subject of a future blog post, but see my prior posts about cornering. The gist of countersteering is that rather than pulling your handlebars to the right to complete a right turn, you gently press on the right handlebar causing the bike to lean to the right — counter to the pressure. In cycling, however, you use your whole body to give the bike that gentle pressure to the left, rather than just the handlebar (which is somewhat different that in motorcycling).

In a future edition of Absolute Beginners I will walk you through a complete turn.

Your Bear

Over the next couple months, I’m going to write a few articles with the lead-in title “Absolute Beginners,” explaining some of the basic principles of cycling. Most of the information is stuff I’ve learned from other cyclists, bike shop mechanics, classes I’ve taken, and Google searches. Please help me out and comment with corrections, additions, or supplements which will help my readers learn about how to operate their bikes!


2 thoughts on “Absolute Beginners: Handlebars and Control

    Robert Boucher said:
    October 18, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Shout out to PosPeds rider Zev Lowe for correcting my terminology!

    Jim Touchstone said:
    October 29, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Good article!

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