Tech trends: Narrow bars with shifters angled inwards – should you be copying the pros to ride faster?
Thanks to spending a huge number of hours on the bike each week, riders in the pro peloton can pull off some pretty extreme positions that, of course, we mere mortals love to copy. The latest 'in thing' appears to be using tiny bars and angling the shifters inwards, but why? And should we be setting up our bikes the same?
Whilst keenly watching the spring races and now the Tour de France, the road.cc tech team in an effort to find any inspiration that might make us quicker (aside from serious training) has noticed that more and more riders are choosing to use narrow bars and get their shifter hoods even narrower still. This seems to be a trend, especially with the younger riders in the peloton, and something that is being replicated on the local, regional and national racing scene.
Just last month at the British National Criterium Championships, Harry Tanfield was sporting these rather extreme bars on his Ribble Ultra road bike. Go to any criterium up and down the country and it's likely you'll spot similar, albeit maybe not to such extreme levels.
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The advantage of going to a narrower bar is of course aerodynamics – not from the bar itself but from the narrower frontal area it gives the rider.
Wind tunnel data is hard to come by but some quick maths using the known Cda (coefficient of aerodynamic drag) of a cylinder (standard round profile bar) indicates that the bars themselves contribute about 0.9 watts of additional drag for each 2cm gained when travelling at 40km/h. In other words, it's negligible.
For the rider, though, it makes a much larger difference. That's why we see time trialists using aero bars. Most sources indicate that for every 2cm closer together you bring your hands there's a 25w advantage when travelling at 40km/h.
Now, the reliability of any data should be taken with a pinch of salt but let's play devil's advocate and say in real-world terms the advantage is only half that. That's still a very real gain and by no means marginal.
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There's also the fact that in a road race narrower bars can squeeze through tighter gaps and in the hustle and bustle of racing that is very useful. It's likely for this reason you'll find many sprinters in the Tour using narrow bars (38cm).
So why don't people go really narrow? Well if Dan Bigham got his way then everyone might. However, narrower bars do close up your lungs. On a flat time trial, the aerodynamic benefits far outweigh this but as you slow down when you hit a climb (I've heard there are quite a few in the Tour de France) riders suddenly need all the oxygen they can get into their lungs so a balance has to be met.
The other disadvantage of narrow bars is reduced control. The steering will feel twitchier and more input from the rider will be required in crosswinds as the moment arm is shorter.
Very early road bike bars were quite wide and then got narrower and narrower until the 70s when skinny tyres meant that wider bars were necessary again. These days most bikes ship with 42cm or 44cm bars, depending on intended use and size.
Who's using what?
In the men's peloton, you'll find that 40cm bars are predominant, with plenty of 38cm bars on show too. That's much narrower than bikes off the shelf usually come with. A big part of that is down to performance. We've already discussed that narrower is often faster and the pros have plenty of time on the bike to train themselves into more extreme positions than most of us would ever find comfortable.
Another reason why the pros like using narrow bars is that many of them ride, or have ridden, on the track. Track bars always tend to be much narrower. Most track-specific bars start at 36cm from centre to centre.
Should you be copying the pros?
For the vast majority of the time, the bike industry does know what it's doing and the wider bars that come fitted to bikes will indeed provide more comfort. This is especially true if you ride with your arms straight. Forcing your hands inwards will simply put more strain on your shoulders and cause discomfort on longer rides.
Get a mate to take a video of you riding along (even better if you don't know it's happening). If your arms are almost locked then you should probably go for bars that are a similar width to your shoulder joints.
If, however, you're a keen racer or a smaller rider then yes, narrower bars have an advantage. For example, I have quite broad shoulders and after using many sizes find that a 40cm bar works best for me. If you bend your elbows then you can tend to get away with narrower bars as elbows articulate inward, not outward, for example when absorbing shocks.
Tilting shifters inwards
On Trek's recently released 2023 Madone, the rather cheeky aero claims were in large part based on the rider's position thanks to the shifters moving inwards when compared to the previous generation. According to Trek, on the same size bars, moving the shifters in 3cm accounts for 9.7 watts of the total 19w saving it claimed – so over half!
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We spotted this rather extreme position on Steff Cras' bike. The inward-pointing shifters allow him to be as narrow as possible when cruising on the hoods without sacrificing leverage or stability when descending or battling for position on the drops.
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To see where you should angle your shifters we recommend relaxing your arms and letting them hang by your sides. Then, without moving your wrists, rotate your arms so they're in front of you. Are your wrists pointing inwards or are they in line with your forearms? Everyone is different but for many people, there is a SLIGHT inwards angle. We recommend putting your shifters at the same angle. Letting your wrists sit in their neutral position is likely the most comfortable.
I think that a lot of the inward-pointing shifters at a local level are for pure aesthetics – a trend, if you like, that's especially popular with juniors. For a few people, it will be more comfortable and there are some aero benefits allowing a narrow position without sacrificing drop width.
However, the key to speed is sustainability; sustained power in a position that you can comfortably hold for the duration of your ride or race. If it's not more comfortable then it's not worth it, but you might want to look at the increasing number of flared bars which provide a similar effect.
Have you ever successfully copied a setup you've seen the pros using? And what size bars do you think are best for you? Let us know in the comments below...