Of the three touchpoints, riders generally tend to focus on pedals and saddles; chopping and changing until they find what works best. But when it comes to handlebars, quite a lot of people made-do with what comes on their bike.
Finding the best road handlebars for your bike can make a huge difference to your comfort, help you achieve a better fit, and potentially dampen more vibration before it makes its way to your hands. A different size bar can also have a significant effect on the handling characteristics and stability of your bike.
Road handlebars explained
Traditionally, handlebar width has been determined based on the width of your shoulders, and the general rule of thumb in finding the correct size bars is to measure the distance between your AC joints (the bone that sticks out of the top of your shoulder.)
However, this is just a starting point, and from there, you’ll need to take into account what you’re looking to achieve with this new set of bars. Narrow bars will help you tuck your elbows in for a more aero position, but they will also quicken the handling characteristics of your bike. On the other hand, wider bars will offer more stability and may even open up your chest a bit to help you breathe.
Of course, everything in moderation, if your shoulders measure 40mm, a 48mm bar or a 32mm bar will probably leave you uncomfortable, but a size either side likely won’t leave you in pain. When it doubt, consult a bike fitter for advice.
2. Reach and drop
Reach is the distance from the horizontal part of the handlebar to the furthest edge of the drops and determines how far away the levers will be placed. Bigger riders will need a more extended reach while shorter riders will be more comfortable with a smaller figure.
Drop refers to the distance from your tops to your drops. Most people are better suited to a shorter drop because it doesn't require quite as much flexibility, but a lower front end should theoretically result in a smaller frontal area, which in turn requires fewer watts for faster speeds. All in moderation though, as saving 10 aero watts won't benefit you if you lose 20 due to discomfort.
The shape of the drops varies from brand to brand, but they are roughly divided into three categories.
Traditional bars are what you expect to see on old school road bikes with a long gentle curve which creates a deep drop and a low position. Compact bars are a bit straighter and put the hoods flatly in inline with the tops; the bend into the drops is tighter, meaning it’s also higher. Ergo bars seem to fall somewhere in the middle and feature a flat spot part of the way down the drop.
Bar shape is highly personal, and you want to look for bars which create the least amount of bend in your wrist when you grab the drops — how you like to position your hoods will also come into play.
The age-old question when it comes to bike components is alloy or carbon. Carbon bars are typically lighter, dampen more vibration than alloy, and can be moulded into an aero or ergonomic shape. However, they are fragile - they don’t bend or dent before they break, and are susceptible to being crushed by over-tightened stem bolts.
Alloy bars are typically a bit heavier and will provide a harsher than carbon bars, but don’t see any less performance — in fact, you will find alloy bars widely used in the pro peloton thanks to their durability and impact-resistance.
Best road bars you can buy today
3T SuperErgo Stealth
An improvement on some of the best bars you can buy
Drop: 119mm | Reach: 77mm | Material: Carbon | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £290 / $350 / AU$450
An evolution of the Ergonova, 3T’s SuperErgo bars are all new except for the tops, which the brand says customers and sponsored pros alike pleaded with them not to change. With an oval profile, it nicely distributes pressure in your hands when you sit up.
Made from unidirectional carbon, the bars have a tight bend and a gradual drop which will suit a wide range of hand sizes. Near the hoods, there is a new corner grip designed to better distribute the pressure on your palms all the way along the bar.
The underside of the bar has provisions to run cables inside, but coaxing cables and housing through can be expletive inducing.
Enve SES Aero V2 Bar
Double duty aero bars
Drop: 127mm | Reach: 79mm | Material: Carbon | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £400 / $400 / AU$590
Handlebars with aero tops are nothing new, and many brands realised long ago that you could save a few watts buy optimising yet another leading edge on the bike — but it’s not the bike, it's components that create the majority of the drag.
Instead, it's the rider's body which creates the bulk of the wind resistance, and we’ve learned riding in the hoods with your elbows bent is the most efficient position. ENVE’s SES aero bars are 5cm narrower at the hoods than they are at the drops, forcing you to tuck your elbows and shoulders in, while the extra width down below adds control for sprinting and descending.
In typical ENVE form, the SES Aero road bar is made from unidirectional carbon and has routing for internal cables and a junction box in the bar end. While the ENVE bars themselves may not quite match an integrated setup in the wind tunnel, if you want to change your stem, you don’t have to change your bars too or re-wire your bike.
FSA SL-K Compact
Compact carbon bars that won’t break the bank
Drop: 125mm | Reach: 80mm | Material: Carbon and kevlar | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £200 / $230 / AU$369
With a short reach, FSA’s SL-K bars are made from a mix of carbon and kevlar moulded in a monocoque. The SL-K is one of FSA’s more budget-friendly carbon bars, and they offer a short reach and shallow drop.
The shape offers a variety of potential hand positions, and the carbon and kevlar layup quells vibrations that would otherwise fatigue your hands.
They are still not cheaply priced at £200, but for those looking for a compact shape and added dampening, the price tag is easier to swallow than quite a lot of carbon options.
Vision Metron Integrated 5d
HALO integrated bar and stem
Drop: 125mm | Reach: 80mm | Material: Carbon | Clamp diameter: Integrated stem | Price: £549 / $595 / AU$950
According to Vision, the Metron 5D bar is the stiffest and most aero bar you can buy. With a flat top, the bar sees a slight rise and 10-degree forward sweep to match the natural angle of your hands and allows you to really lay down on the bars as you reach for the hoods.
Beyond the aero shaping, the inside of the Vision bars can guide cables from the levers directly into the frame without ever seeing the wind. The transition to the integrated minus-six-degree stem is beefy and eliminates some of the sharp angles which complicate internal routing. Given it's all a single piece of carbon good luck getting it to flex.
While the Metron 5D creates a super clean front end, the trouble with integrated cockpits is if you don't like the stem length, angle or bar shape, you’re looking at an expensive bill to replace it.
Ritchey WSC Carbon NeoClassic
A mix of old school geometry and modern tech
Drop: 128mm | Reach: 73mm | Material: Carbon | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £240 / $267 / AU$TBC
Made from unidirectional carbon fibre, Ritchey's WSC (World Championship Series) NeoClassic bars feature a traditional bend that will accommodate low hoods, but see a shorter drop and reach, likely to please the old school rider who just isn't quite as flexible as they use to be.
Available in three sizes, the bars have 128mm of drop, 73mm of reach and are compatible with Shimano's bar-end Di2 junction box.
The clamping areas are textured to prevent slippage, and as you'd expect of any product that's labelled World Championship Series, they are top performers weighing 260g (size 42) and are plenty stiff.
Zipp Service Course SL 80
Durability of aluminium without too much added weight
Drop: 125mm | Reach: 80mm | Material: 7050 aluminium | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £90 / $103 / AU$160
When you think of Zipp, alloy isn't the first word that comes to mind but its Service Course SL bars are nearly as light as some carbon options and don’t sacrifice any strength or stiffness.
Made from 7050 aluminium, the bars tip the scale at about 250g depending on the size - the shape allows for a neutral wrist position in the drops and a flat-brake hood transition. Named for its 80mm reach (they also come in 70mm reach), the bars see a 125mm drop which keeps the levers within grasp and the drops comfortable for those that don’t have yoga levels of flexibility.
With a rounded top, the Zipp SLs are also compatible with clip-on aero bars if that's your speed.
Deda Zero 100 Anatomic
Great budget option with an aggressive reach
Drop: 142mm | Reach: 86mm | Material: 7075 aluminium | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £83 / $104 / AU$148
The classic drop is becoming a rarity as many brands have shifted toward more compact shapes. However, for those that prefer the angular bumpy bend, the Deda Zero 100 Anatomic combines several different shapes.
The bend creates two distinct hand positions in the drops and with an 86mm reach and 142mm drop they create an aggressive position on the bike.
Deda only makes them as narrow as 40cm, and they are claimed to weigh about 260g depending on the size.
Ritchey Comp Curve
Budget option with a range of fit choices
Drop: 128mm | Reach: 73mm | Material: Aluminium | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £38 / $40 / AU$70
Not every bar needs to be expensive, and if you're just looking to try a new bend or width, a cheaper alloy bar is a good place to start.
Ritchey's Comp Curve compact road bar is available in sizes 38cm to 44cm and features a 73mm reach and 128mm drop. That said, Richey makes the Comp level bar in several different shapes and sizes, and with a relatively low price tag, there are plenty of options for experimentation without needing to remortgage.
Drop: 125mm | Reach: 80mm | Material: 7050 Aluminium | Clamp diameter: 31.8mm | Price: £88 / $91 / AU$159
FSA’s Energy bars are available in both a compact and ergo shape. While the classic drop might come with a certain aesthetic panache, riders and bike fitters alike have been quick to profess their adoration for the shape and bend of the more modern, compact drop.
With 125mm of drop, 80mm of reach and a few degrees of flare, your hands settle into a comfortable position where you can still reach the levers, while the flattened tops allow a more upright position.
The bars themselves are made from double-butted and tapered 7050 Aluminium and feature a 120mm clamping area, so there is plenty of room for clip-on aero bars, lights and computer mounts.
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