Getting a Handle on Flat Bars and Drop Bars

A hot topic of discussion within cycling communities is the debate between flat handlebars and drop handlebars. Most riders have a strong preference for one handlebar type over the other and tend to advocate for their favorite. For new riders, this can add to the uncertainty when choosing a new bike.

So which style of handlebar would suit you best?

In this article I’ll cover the differences between flat bars and drop bars, the pros and cons of each, and which riding style and terrain each bar is best suited for. That should help you decide which of these common types will work for you. Let’s start with the basics.

What are flat bars?

A flat bar is a bike handlebar that goes straight across the front of the bike for level steering. This bar does not bend in toward the rider like cruiser handlebars, nor away for diversified steering.

A cyclist with his hands on flat handlebars

There are still variations within flat handlebar design, though. You can find flat bars that are rod-like and completely straight across. But often they are angled up towards the rider to provide a more comfortable riding position. Some riders opt for stem extenders to increase the height of their handlebars. And sometimes there is crossover between flat bars and slightly swept back handlebars. On average, flat bars are just over two feet wide.

What are drop bars?

Drop bars are bike handlebars that are designed with a flat area in the middle and a curved bend on either side that circles forward and down. Unlike flat bars, where the brakes are placed parallel to the bar, drop bar brakes are attached at the front of the drops for a very different hand position.

A cyclist's view of his own hands on drop handlebars

There are variations among drop bars, but for the purposes of this post I’ll be referring to a standard drop bar.

Drop bars are considered the more sophisticated design for bike handlebars, likely because they offer the rider three different hand placement positions: the tops, the hoods and the drops. Drop bars usually remain between 16 and 18 inches wide, quite a bit narrower than flat bars.

Aesthetically, many riders also think drop bars look cooler.

Flat bar advantages

Better control

Flat bars offer more steering control because of their length, especially when trying to turn corners or weave your way through heavy traffic. With brake lever placement directly in front of your hands, you’re able to make split-second decisions without having to shift hand positions. Easily accessible brake levers can be the difference in avoiding an emergency situation.

More space

The longer the handlebars, the more room you have to mount all your accessories. This includes lights, bells, baskets, GPS devices and for those who are touring, larger handlebar bags.

Easier to maintain

Flat bars are the more common of the two styles. This means any components you’d need to fix or replace are cheaper and more widely available. This is great news for cyclists who use their bikes for touring in areas where it would be more difficult to access specialty parts.

Similarly, changing your brake cable is more straightforward with flat bars because it doesn’t require you to unwrap any tape. Bar tape wears out, while flat bar grips last a lot longer. This all adds up to flat bars being a more economical choice if you’re working within a budget.

Comfort and visibility

The placement of flat bars allows you to ride in a more upright position, which in turn puts less stress on your back, arms, shoulders and neck because you don’t have to extend your reach forward and hold a stretched position while you ride.

This also increases your visibility. You can concentrate on what is in front of you without straining to keep your neck up while your body is folded forward.

Flat bar disadvantages

Only one hand position

Having only one spot to place your hands can make it difficult to go on longer rides without putting strain on your hands or causing them to go numb. However, if this is a problem for you then flat bars can be modified by installing bar ends and creating more space for hand placement. We’ve also covered cycling gloves that can help with hand numbness in another post.

Wider and less efficient

The cost of better steering control is that flat bars take up plenty of space. This can be a challenge when trying to fit through tight spaces and traffic.

Decreased speed

In that more comfortable upright riding position, your body acts almost like a sail and takes away the aerodynamic advantage that you might have had with drop handlebars. This increased air resistance comes into play when you hit faster speeds of at least 9 mph. If you are traveling at slower average speeds it is less noticeable.

Limited pedal power

The position of your body also becomes a factor when you are climbing hills, since you can’t shift your weight as far forward which makes climbing hills more challenging. Essentially, expect an overall slower ride on a flat bar bike.

Drop bar advantages

More hand positions

Side view of a cyclists arms holding drop handlebars
Drop handlebars offer three potential hand positions for more comfort on long rides.

Drop bars offer more versatility when it comes to hand positioning. Switching between holding on to the tops, drops or hoods helps vary your grip, decreases tension and offers the ability to stretch your hands while riding. This helps keep you in the saddle longer.

Narrower

If you are riding through city traffic during a commute, drop bars will make it easier for you to weave your way through the cars. Handlebars are the widest part of any bike so the less space they take up, the easier time you will have squeaking by.

Aerodynamic

The forward-fold body position required to reach your drop bars also makes you more aerodynamic. This allows you to better combat wind resistance and helps increase your speed, especially on downhill descents. Riding with your body lower to the bike will help you reach top speeds.

Hill climbing

Drop bars give the ability to shift your body weight further forward and give you more leverage for pedaling. In turn this enables you to add more power to every rotation. Drops bars increase your speed on both downhills and while climbing them.

Drop bar disadvantages

Less control and visibility

With drop handlebars being narrower, they offer less control. Stretching to reach them means you are putting more weight on your hands making quick turns more difficult. This is especially noticeable while traveling at slower speeds and trying to make precise turns. So even though the handlebars make it easier to travel through traffic, it is still tricky to navigate safely. And because you’re leaning forward and looking down, visibility is decreased. That’s not ideal in high-traffic situations.

Brake lever accessibility

Brake levers on these handlebars are typically positioned parallel to the drops. Which means if you’re steering from either of the other two hand positions, you may have to adjust your hand position before you can hit the brakes. Any delay in braking time increases the risk of an accident. However, if brake lever accessibility is a concern for you, there’s always the option to modify and customize them. Some riders chose to move their brakes to the top bar, others opt for both.

Closeup of a the brake on a flat handlebar
A flat handlebar (above) always keeps a brake lever at your fingertips, unlike drop bars which may require a shift in hand positions before braking.

Mechanical components and parts

Drop handlebars are specialty parts on specialty bikes. They use different shifters and levers than flat bar bikes and are therefore more expensive—sometimes up to three times as much. They are also more fragile, break more easily and are harder to come by.

When you want to replace or upgrade the brake and shifter cables on your drop bar bike, you’ll likely have to unwrap and replace the bar tape to do so. Hopefully the timing will line up because bar tape wears out faster than a flat bar grip.

Less space

sleeping bag packed on the front of a bike with drop handlebars
Front cargo bags can be a tight squeeze on bikes with drop handlebars.

When it comes to mounting accessories, you’ve got at least eight inches less real estate to work with on drop handlebars. This may not be an issue for a simple light or a bell, but when it comes to a fully loaded handlebar bag on top of already less responsive steering, you may run into some issues.

Which type of handlebar has the advantage?

 FlatDrop
Steering control✔️
Cargo space✔️
Ease of maintenance✔️
Rider visibility✔️
Comfort in the saddle✔️
Hand position variety✔️
Navigating tight spaces✔️
Speed/aerodynamics✔️
Power and hill climbing✔️
Quick access to brakes✔️

What to consider when deciding between flat bars and drop bars

So now that you know the major differences between flat handlebars and drop handlebars, it’s time to figure out what kind of riding you’ll be doing and which aspects of these two types of handlebars are most important to you.

Speed

If you have the need for speed and want to stay in the saddle as long as possible, drop bars would be to your advantage. They keep you in a lower riding position and offer you the ability to change your grip. Drop bars are the best option for reaching high speeds with less effort. They’re ideal for racing and long rides out of the city.

Handling

If it’s greater control you’re after, then flat bars are the way to go. This applies to both urban commuting and touring. It will be easier to navigate busy city streets, carry extra luggage long distances, and find replacement parts more easily.

These rules are made to be broken

There are of course exceptions to every suggestion. Some commuters prefer drop handlebars because they’re narrower, but they generally have wider, gravel compatible wheels that increase the bike’s overall versatility. There are also cyclists who go on tours and prefer to switch their hand positions over the course of the day. They also opt for drop bars.

Flat handlebars are recommended for new cyclists, since they are easier to handle and more comfortable when you’re first getting into the sport.

Personally, I am very comfortable with my flat handlebars. Instead of the traditional round grips,  I have an ergonomic grip that’s wider on the ends, offering more space to rest my palms. At this time I prefer the comfort of an upright riding position. With 20 gears to switch between, hills are very manageable.

But who knows? As I continue to increase the distance of my rides and explore outside of the city limits, I may give drop bars another try.

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