Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tops, Drops and Hoods...

I have imparted words of wisdom, or at least conveyed that infamous roadie arrogance of which all us who ride the pavement are guilty (or so I have read) on various topics before. Who knows how many riders now turn, or attempt, perfect circles when they pedal, or sit upon saddles with the least padding they could find at their LBS, and look on those fat, cushy saddles with new-found and righteous disdain, thanks entirely to my turning them on to the truth. In that same true spirit of roadie arrogance, I am now going to talk about handlebars and tell you just where to put your hands upon them given different riding situations.

Handlebars. There are a plethora of different styles out there in the cycling market these days. You've got your typical road bars, most commonly known as drop bars, which themselves come with slight ergonomic-inspired variations. Then there are the moustache bars, flat bars, bmx bars, bull horns, triathletes have their own varieties of bars, cruiser bars, the rare ape-hangers, etc. The type of bar you use will most likely depend on your bike and the type of riding you do. For instance you won't realistically expect to see a drop bar on a beach cruiser, nor aero triathlete bars on a mountain bike. Admittedly, those are pretty extreme examples, but in general, you expect certain bikes to come with specific bars. However, there is some leeway. For example my single speed; when I bought it used, it was set up as a fixed gear bike with bmx bars, which had a rather shallow rise to them, and big red rubber grips on the bar ends. They were fine for a while, but I eventually traded them out for drop bars. Why? Well, that is the gist of this post. Road drop bars, with their typical curved "drops", offer advantages which other flat, or swept-back style bars, cannot match. 

The advantages of which I speak are about variety. Drop bars offer a variety of different hand positions, which in turn affect body position. Now if you only ride shorter distances, and have no desire to try anything longer, or faster, this may not matter. For the sake of argument I am going to assume it does matter. Why? First, being able to hold the bars at different places allows you to react effectively to different conditions. Second, being able to adjust hand, and body positions, especially as the miles add up, helps to ease fatigue, muscle and joint stress.

Take the photos shown below; what do they tell you? Yes, they tell you that I use black electrical tape to finish off the bar wrap. I know this is a strike against me according to the arrogant roadie rules of conduct; two more and they may revoke my membership card. Regrettable, but so be it. That is not exactly what I wanted you to consider though. The photos are meant to show the different hand positions typical of drop bars, which I will now explain.

In this photo I am holding the top of the bars, what I usually just call the tops. I suspect that I may be a bit unusual in that I do not wrap my thumbs around the bar. I don't recommend doing this, it is just how I have always done it. Yes, I have had my hands fly off the bars after hitting a bump; once while descending Sepulveda Pass - that's why it's not recommended (thanks to my superior bike handling skills, I did not crash). Anyway, griping the bar tops is the most relaxed position, your hands are closest to the body, so you sit relatively upright. Or, you can bend your elbows more, absorbing road shock - good for riding on cobbles, or beat-up city streets. I ride in this position a lot, especially if riding solo; if I am climbing while seated, I will grip the tops at least 90% of the time. It has been said that the more upright position allows you to breath deeper, more effectively fill your lungs, a definite advantage on those long climbs. Don't be fooled into thinking this is only for a slower, relaxed pace though. There have been plenty of times when I would grip the bars on the tops, bend my elbows and pull them in close to my body, while trying to power away from a group. You can get surprisingly aero while resting on the tops. Just don't let me catch you doing anything out of the saddle, either picking up speed/sprinting, or climbing. I will call you out for the error of your ways.

Next photo, riding the brake hoods. If I am on a group ride, you will usually see me here. It is probably the most versatile position for some obvious reasons - braking and shifting is right at your fingertips, it also allows you good leverage when picking up speed, or climbing out of the saddle. Gripping here provides improved control over gripping the tops. I will often go into pursuit mode when gripping the brake hoods, you can generate a lot of power while seated and holding the hoods.

This is a slight variation to riding the hoods; you'll notice my hands pulled back a little from the actual hoods, for which I am generally forced to apply a little extra pressure with my fingers to keep from sliding forward. Your arms are a little less outstretched, so it is somewhat more relaxed than riding the hoods. I have noticed that I favor this hand position when there is a crosswind and I want some extra control and stability, but don't want to be stretched out. There is one additional variation to gripping the brake hoods, but I forgot to take a photo - I will put my palms flat on the top of the hoods and wrap my finger around the tops of the levers. It is kind of reminiscent of the position you get from using bull horn bars; it is as stretched out as you can get using drop bars. I have successfully broken away from groups using said position.

I pretty much limit riding on the drops to two situations. First, descending. Second, sprinting. I may also ride in the drops during group rides when some knucklehead up front is really pushing the pace, and sometimes if I am chasing a breakaway. You see something common there? Speed. The higher the speed, the more likely I am to be in the drops. Every once in a while I will notice someone climbing in the drops; makes me want to yell at them, but I never have. It is their choice, I guess. You won't catch me climbing like that though.

Well, there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about holding those drop bars. You may be saying, "well that is great Mike, but it sounds like that applies to racing, and training, and that is not the type of riding I do". True, that is how it has been written, but keep in mind that many of the same advantages apply, or are adaptable, to your daily commute, or errand runs. At some point everyone has to take off from a stop, pick up speed, fight their way into a headwind, or battle to keep from being blown over by a crosswind. Our backs, and muscles can become sore and stiff, from even shorter rides sometimes; shifting position will help to minimize the likelihood, and can help relieve these aches and pains, when they occur.


  1. Very clear, nice explanations - thanks.

  2. Your color theme destroys my sight, I see lines of text when I go back to white background. Terrible theme


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