Saturday, June 18, 2005

Handlebar Height

I hate when I don’t practice what I preach. It’s even worse when I finally do, but then discover that I've been preaching to a false idol.

I’ve been preaching about high handlebars for a long time. They’re many reasons you should raise your handlebars, but I won’t go into them here because I’m not sure about them any more. I will say this. Don’t settle for low handlebars just because your bike comes with them. It’s rare that you raise your handlebars and you don’t end up more comfortable. As a rule of thumb, I’d say, be suspicious when your handlebars are below your seat.

But it’s not easy to simply raise handlebars. Odds are your handlebar stem is already at its maximum. So you have to get a new stem. But the real pain is removing your bars from the stem. Some stems have 2 bolts and plate. This makes sense. You unscrew it and take your handlebars off. But most stems have one bolt and to take the bars off you have to take everything off one side of your handlebars: tape, brakes, handlebar grip, bells and whistles. And then, odds are, you have to resize your brakes and shifter cables. It’s a real pain in the ass just to sit up an extra inch or two.

But I finally did this to my bianchi. The picture below (and this will tell you where the story is going) is both the before and after picture. I put the high stem on the bianchi and the low stem on the Screamin’ Salmon. Strangely, both bikes were less comfortable. On both bikes I suddenly had a lot more weight on my hands and arms. I’m still not certain how this could be for the bike I raised the handlebars.

It’s good to have your weight balanced somewhat on your bike (nobody can be against balance, right?). But you should also be able to let go of your handlebars without changing position. If you have to hold on tight at all times, it’s not good for your hands or your arms or your shoulders.

After riding enough to convince myself the new position was not simply a matter of getting used to, I switched everything back again. What a pain. It’s not a complete loss, however, as I did end up turning the moustache handlebars on the screaming salmon upside-down (I think--now the bars raise coming from the stem. This both raises the handlebars some and puts the brake in a better position, rotation-wise).

Look how low the bars on my bianchi are. This goes against everything I thought I stood for. But it’s so much more comfortable than 4 inches higher. Riding the new/old lower handlebars, I think the answer to the comfort question may be that the lower handlebars make me put more weight on my feet. When the handlebars go up, I sit harder in the seat. This makes me grip the handlebars for to keep my upper-body balanced. With lower handlebars, I’m more often just resting on my seat, using my legs much more for both support and shock absorbers (which, unlike your arms, your legs are designed for).

The reason drop handlebars can be very comfortable isn’t their height (or lack thereof). It’s that your hands rest on the brake hoods at a very natural and comfortable position. It’s somewhat close to putting your hand out as if to shake somebody’s hand. As a result, you can grip drop handlebars extremely gentle, or not at all, when going over bumps.

The position of hands on drop-handle bars, ironically, is similar to the position of hands on the handlebars of a old-fashioned granny bike (Omafiets, in Dutch). This allows your arm to be straight from your elbow to your fingers and not be twisted sideways. Your wrists can relax and your arms can absorb some shock quite well.

The worst handlebars, I would say, are those straight-rod mountain-bike handlebars where are arms are taut. It’s hard to grip these gently. Every bump is like a hammer blow into the base of your hand. It goes right through your arms and into your body, causing pain the whole way.

Meanwhile, the lower handlebars on the fixed gear were much less comfortable. This, I believe is because they’re not drop handlebars. Lowering the handlebars made me put more weight on them, and it was tough for me to relax my hands and arms.

So what’s the moral of this story? I don’t know. I guess I learned something about handlebar height, but didn’t learn anything I can generalize. All I’m left with is saying that small changes in handlebar height make a huge difference. But it’s a pain to adjust the height, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be moving them in the right direction.

You’re welcome for nothing.

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