The handlebar is one of your key contact points with your bike so it's important that you have the right one. Swapping your bar can make a huge difference to the way your bike feels, not just to your hands but to your whole upper body because it has a big influence on your riding position. A new bar also gives you the opportunity to drop a little weight.
All current handlebars are made from either aluminium or carbon fibre, but there's a huge range of weights and shapes in both materials
Handlebar width comes down to fit — they should be as wide as your shoulders — and to an extent to taste; if you're used to a mountain bike bar a 40cm drop may feel narrow even if it fits
High-end bars tend to have provision for Di2 cabling, but even cheaper units give you lots of options in reach, drop and details of shape
Bars with flat top sections are claimed to offer better aerodynamics; we're quite fond of them as a place to rest your hands when cruising along
After vanishing for many years bars with a flare that provides a wider stance in the drops are making a comeback for gravel riding
Here we're going to explain the key variables you need to consider when choosing a new bar and show you some of the best – for both road and gravel riding – at prices from under 50 quid to well over £400.
Width is usually measured between the two ends of the bar (but see Flare, below). Beware, though, that some brands – such as FSA – measure between the centre of the ends while others – such as Deda – measure from the outside of one end to the outside of the other.
Drop handlebar widths usually increase in 2cm/20mm increments.
Broad shouldered riders will get more stability and breathing capacity from wider bars, but go too wide and you could end up with aches in your neck and shoulders.
A rule of thumb is to match your handlebar width to your shoulder width, but we'd advise a professional bike fit to make sure you get it right.
This is the horizontal distance that the handlebar extends forwards from the stem clamp area. A longer reach pulls you further forward.
Ritchey's WCS Streem handlebar has a reach of 73mm across all sizes, for example, while the majority of FSA handlebars have an 80mm reach.
Drop is the vertical distance from the stem clamp area to the end of the bar. FSA's K-Force New Ergo handlebar, for instance, has a drop of 150mm while the K-Force Compact has a 125mm drop.
Compact handlebars have become common over recent years. Some people use a compact bar as a means of avoiding an extreme riding position that's hard on their back and neck when they move from the hoods to the drops.
Flip the thinking, though, and some racers use a compact bar to ensure they don't come too far out of their most aero position when they shift from the drops to the hoods.
Flare is the amount that the drop section of the handlebar slopes outwards from the vertical, measured in degrees.
Most road handlebars have just a small flare or none at all. On the other hand, gravel and adventure handlebars have a large flare to provide extra stability and control when you're using the drops. The Pro Discover Medium handlebar, for instance, has a 12° flare.
In case like this the brand will often quote the handlebar width as the distance between the shifter clamping points (measured centre-to-centre) rather than the distance between the ends of the bar.
Constant-curved drops are traditional but many brands offer different types of bends that are designed to be more comfortable.
The Genetic Drove (above), for example, is an anatomic shape with a tight radius at the top of the bend, a flatter section where your hand can rest just behind the lever, and a gentle curve towards the end.
The tops of most handlebars are circular in cross section but some are shaped for comfort or aerodynamics.
Ritchey, for instance, says that the tops of its Comp Ergomax gravel/adventure handlebar (above) are ovalised for comfort – your weight is distributed over a larger area so pressure is reduced – while the Prime Primavera carbon handlebar (below) has flattened tops that are designed to reduce frontal area and drag.
Bear in mind that it can be difficult to fit some lights, computer mounts and so on to the non-round sections of bars, although it's usually possible right next to the clamping area.
The tops of most handlebars head out at right angles to the stem but others sweep forwards or backwards. The Vision Metron 5D (below) has a 10° forward bend, for instance. Vision says that this results in "a more ergonomic climbing position and easier breathing".
In contrast, the tops of the Ritchey Comp Ergomax handlebar sweep 5° backwards. Ritchey says that this, combined with the ovalised tops, more evenly distributes the weight of the rider's hands and wrists and puts them in a more natural position.
The tops of most drop bars sit level with the stem clamp but riser drop bars do exist. The bars slope upwards on either side of the stem clamp area before levelling out.
Most bars of this type are designed to increase the height of the front end for gravel use, doing a similar job to a taller head tube, a higher rise stem, or a stack of headset spacers. The Genetic Driser–16 handlebar that we reviewed, for instance, has a 20mm rise to provide a more upright riding position.
Specialized's S-Works Aerofly Carbon Handlebar isn't designed for gravel riding, though. Specialized says that "a 25mm rise [will] allow you to achieve a more powerful position, or lower you stem stack to become more slippery in the wind".
The outward bend, or outsweep, is the degree to which the ends of the bar are angled relative to a line going down the centre of the stem. Most Pro bars, for example, have no outward bend, the ends of the bar pointing directly backwards. Zipp's SL-70 Aero has an outward bend of 4°, the same as most FSA bars.
Brake cables/hoses and gear cables are usually positioned on the outside of the handlebar, underneath the tape. Some bars, like the Easton EC70 SL Di2 (above) we reviewed, have recessed channels to accept them.
Other handlebars allow cables and wires to run internally. The Vision Metron 5D handlebar (above), for instance, has holes in the tops where cables/wires can enter and exit.
Internal cable routing does make swapping to a new handlebar more complicated.
Handlebars are almost always made of either an aluminium alloy or carbon fibre. Carbon is lightweight and can be shaped more easily into aerodynamic or ergonomic profiles, but many racers still prefer aluminium for its ability to withstand the odd crash or drop. It's also more obvious when an aluminium bar has failed following an accident.
You can't fix clip-on triathlon aerobars to all drop handlebars. Some bars are the wrong shape and others simply aren't designed to handle the forces. It's always best to check the manufacturer's specs before fitting any.
The vast majority of drop handlebars on modern bikes have a 31.8mm clamping area diameter, but when buying a new bar always double-check that you're replacing like with like. Smaller bars, usually found on older bikes or some very cheap models, may be 25.4mm (Japanese and British bars), 26.0mm (most old Italian bars) or 26.4mm (old Cinelli bars).
A few years ago Deda introduced bars and stems with 35mm clamp sections. That idea wasn't a big success for road bikes, but there are quite a few mountain bike bars and stems now in 35mm, where the greater strength and stiffness makes sense along with super-wide modern mountain bike bars.
Ritchey's WCS Carbon Streem Handlebar is a stiff bar with an aero top section that offers loads of comfort thanks to a 4.7-degree sweep on the tops and a short 126mm drop on this 42cm version. The aero section and internal routing make for a very smart-looking bar.
One of the issues that aero bars can have is limited space either side of the stem to attach computer mounts and lights. No such problem with the Ritchey bar – I had enough space for a front light and a K-Edge computer mount, making it easier to live with for general riding.
The drops feature a traditional bend and flare out by just one degree, highlighting the aggressive aero position that Ritchey was aiming to create with what was designed as a road racer's bar. I think it's balanced the aggressive drop position with the more relaxed hood and tops position really well.
Ritchey Streem II Road Bar - detail 3.jpg
Comfort is further improved by the lack of road buzz transferred to the hands. I found the bar comfortable to ride with thin tape and no gloves, despite the surface-dressed roads near me.
The Coefficient Cycling Wave carbon handlebar is designed to offer enhanced comfort and some claimed aerodynamic benefit when holding the tops of the bar. It can be fiddly to fit, but we found that it gave multiple hand positions which were comfortable for extended periods.
The Wave bar has really quite a complex shape. The most striking thing when you first see it is the upwards kink either side of where it is held in the stem. At first glance, many will be reminded of the Specialized Aerofly riser bar as fitted to the Venge VIAS, or the Genetic Driser bar, but whereas the tops on those bars are horizontal, meaning that all hand positions were higher than they would be on a straight bar, the unusual thing about the Wave is that it then slopes back down across the tops.
What this means is that with your hands on the hoods or the drops, they are no higher than they would be on a conventional straight bar. What's the point then, you're asking? Coefficient says that it noticed if you hold your arms out in front of you palms-down, the natural position of the hands is with the thumbs slightly raised. Hence, if you are holding onto a horizontal bar, you're having to rotate your wrists away from their neutral position. The tops are also swept backwards by 12 degrees in the horizontal plane, something we've seen with quite a few other "ergonomic" bars such as the Ritchey Comp ErgoMax.
Tester Jez Ash says: "I quickly noticed a big change when riding in the drops along a stony towpath. This bar has the most effective vibration isolation of any that I've used, (disclaimer – I haven't ridden Canyon's double handlebar yet). Back to back with a standard handlebar, the difference was akin to going from a 28mm tyre to a 40mm tyre (with pressures adjusted accordingly). Really. It was that noticeable."
The Genetic Driser-16 bar is a good choice for long rides off-road, where the flared drops give control and the wide tops offer plenty of comfort for your hands.
This bar offers a 16° flare of the drops, plus a 20mm rise to the tops. This rise will come in handy for those looking for a more upright position for long rides on or off-road without getting a new stem or – for anyone who has maxed out their steerer tube – a new fork.
The tops are 'semi-aero palm friendly' as Genetic puts it, meaning even extra-large hands get plenty of grip with just a single layer of bar tape. Cable-run indentations on the underside of the tops help to guide and minimise the feel through the bar tape.
The flare makes for confident handling at speed through the rough stuff. The end of the drop section is straight for a palm's width and immediately above that is a pistol grip for all-out efforts where you need access to the shifters and brakes.
Value is pretty darn good when you compare it with what else is available – especially given that if you need to raise your bar you don't need to fork out for a new stem.
All in all, the Genetic Driser-16 is a cracking handlebar for more adventurous riding, and with the 20mm rise and wide tops it may well suit you for less-rigorous pursuits as well.
This is a great upgrade for a gravel or adventure bike, offering plenty of width at the drops thanks to a large flare for aiding stability when travelling across loose terrain. It's a decent weight, too, and all for a good price.
The Ergomax is available in four widths from 40cm to 46cm, measured centre-to-centre at the top of the drops, but there's a 12° flare on each side, plus the drops have an outward bend of 3° sideways, which increases the distance between the ends of the drops (to 50.3cm on the 42cm bar, measured outer to outer). This wide stance gives you extra control over rougher terrain.
There is a 10mm rise from the clamping area to the tops, which gives you a slightly more relaxed, upright riding position; if you don't want to go any higher you could always whip out a 10mm spacer from beneath your stem.
The clamping part of the bar is only 80mm wide which could be an issue if you want space for fitting light brackets or computers.
The tops have a flat aero section which gives you a great platform for your hands, and they also sweep back by 5°, giving you shorter reach to the drops.
Comfort-wise things are pretty good. You want a little bit of give for when you are rattling across bumping surfaces and that's what you get from the 6061 aluminium alloy tubing. It just takes the edge off but still feels plenty stiff enough when you're out of the saddle.
The Profile Design DRV AEROa Drop Bar doesn't just go with shoulder width to define what size you need, its 'DRiVe' design also incorporates hand breadth. It works – very well.
Most handlebars come with one drop and reach figure across the range of widths, but Profile Design does things differently. All you need to do is measure the width of your palm just below your fingers and the Profile Design website tells you which handlebar drop/reach will work best for you, and then you choose your preferred width.
The shape is brilliant. TheAEROa's flattened aero tops offer plenty of material to rest your hands on and the cables/hoses are routed internally. It's pretty simple to set up as Profile Design has created elongated holes large enough to get the outer housing through without too much of a squeeze. If you are using a Shimano Di2 junction box which plugs into the bar end, there are also holes for guiding the wire through.
The AEROa is very stiff and has a round-section central area that's 100mm in length so there's plenty of space for your gadgets. Its pretty good value for a high-quality 6061-T6 aluminium alloy handlebar.
Part of Easton's new range of gravel and adventure components, the aluminium alloy EA70 AX has a wide flare at the drops for stability and a shallow drop that makes it great for blasting over the rubble.
The EA70 AX flares out by 16°, which increases the overall width from the tops to the drops by 68mm across the 40, 42, 44 and 46cm options. This gives you a wider stance when descending on rough terrain, making for more composed steering and a better feeling of control.
You might notice that the bar's stiffness is compromised a little when you're really hauling on it during a short, sharp climb, but not much, and the plus side is that it's not so rigid that it batters your wrists on long gravel rides.
Reviewer Stu's only real criticism was that the grooved channels for fitting the cables underneath the tape were quite shallow.
Overall, the Easton EA70 AX is a great shape for use on the gravel or road, it looks the business, and comes in at a decent weight for the money.
Deda has taken one of its top end alloy road bars and given it a tweak to suit the challenges of gravel. It offers an excellent ride, with a nice flare from top to bottom giving extra control and the large centre section providing plenty of room to attach your gadgets.
The upper part of the bar has a slightly flattened aero shape, which works really well on the gravel where you can often find yourself tapping out the miles with your hands on the tops. The slightly wider shape than a standard round bar gives you a bit more surface area, allowing a more relaxed grip, so you can let the bike float about a little more beneath you when on the rough stuff.
Up at the hoods the widths are standard road size options, 40cm to 46cm outside to outside, but the 12° flare each side kicks the bottom width out by an extra 60mm for each size.
The bar is made from triple-butted 7075 aluminium alloy and offers plenty of stiffness for sprinting or pulling on the bar when climbing, with just a small amount of flex to help take out road buzz.
There are cheaper options out there but the Deda Gravel100 delivers a very good ride quality, a great shape and good looks.
Prime's Primavera Carbon handlebar offers a great aero upgrade for users of both mechanical and electronic shifting. Setting it up is simple and the feel on the road is very comfortable. It looks the business and costs a lot less than some rivals.
The Primavera features some subtle shapes that might go unnoticed thanks to the flat aero tops. The curved section of the drop is shaped like an egg with the leading edge slightly narrower than the trailing edge. It results in the drop feeling thin in your hand but it's still comfortable.
Setting up the internal routing is straightforward thanks to large entry and exit holes. With a hole at the back of the stem clamp area, it offers users of electronic shifting the option of where to mount the junction A box. The bar is compatible with Shimano's Bar End Junction A box which makes changing and gear adjustments easy. The stem clamp area is wide, giving you enough space to mount a computer and a light.
Out on the road and there's a lack of road buzz. It's a weird sensation, similar to running wide, supple tyres at very low pressures. It's only on the really bad surfaces that anything gets through. Price is also an area where the Primavera does well.
PRO's PLT Carbon Handlebar offers good stiffness and excellent comfort and is reasonably lightweight, at a price that is lower than most other carbon-fibre options. The compact drop offers a powerful sprinting position and the round tops with internal cable routing are a super-comfy place to spend time on the climbs and flats.
This bar is constructed using UD T700 carbon, with a 130mm drop and a comfortable 80mm reach. The drops flare out by 2°, giving a hand position in the drops that is 1cm wider than at the hoods. It's all very comfortable for a relatively aggressive position.
The PLT bar absorbs buzz well to provide plenty of comfort and it comes with about three inches of internal routing. This gives a clean finish and because the section is straight and short, it's incredibly easy to feed cables through.
Out on the road, there is no rattling from the internal cables and wrenching on the bar brings no front end movement.
The PLT Carbon looks really smart, performs well it comes at a very attractive price for a bar of this kind.
The Schmolke Roadbar Oversize Evo TLO is an astonishingly light carbon-fibre handlebar that offers a good level of stiffness although the price is going to send all but the most dedicated weight-savers diving for cover.
Schmolke is a German brand that has supplied bars for the likes of Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel in the past. All of its products are made in Germany. The TLO – it stands for 'The Lightest One', by the way – is made from T1000 carbon fibre and it comes with a reach of 76mm and a shallow drop of 126mm.
The top section of the bar is slightly squashed in profile, fitting beautifully into your palm when you're climbing, and it's easy to arrange things so that you get a flat or just slightly angled platform from the shoulders to the hoods of your levers.
The drop bends smoothly with a generous amount of rearward extension at the end, allowing you to shift your hands backwards if the road ahead is clear and you don't need immediate access to the controls.
The Schmolke Roadbar Oversize Evo TLO sits about mid-table for a high-end bar in terms of stiffness, offering plenty of confidence when you're out of the saddle or cornering hard while, on the other hand, also helping to damp vibration over rougher road surfaces. It's a decent balance.
If you want to use clip-on aero bars or Di2 internal wiring for a bar-end junction box, models are available with the necessary strengthening (which adds 8g of weight in each case).
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Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.