Handlebar Width Matters

When I got my new C. S. Hirose, I was excited to have a bike with wide tires for the gravel roads of the Cascade Mountains. I love my other Hirose, and so I asked the builder to make the new one as similar as possible. Some parts we brought to Japan, like the cranks, fenders for 26″ wheels, and a generator hub, but most components the builder could just order. I wanted to use modern parts as much as possible.

And yet when I first rode my new bike, it felt different. It was hard for me to tell the reason, but I was more tense riding the new bike. I expected wider tires to be more stable, and yet the new bike didn’t put me at ease.

At first, I wondered whether the wide tires somehow affected the handling. The builder suggested that the bike’s geometry might work best with the low-rider panniers attached. But even that didn’t change it. Then I noticed that my elbows hurt a little after an all-day ride on the new bike. That’s when we measured the handlebars. They were 39 cm wide. And yet I knew that my old bike had 37 cm handlebars. In fact, I didn’t use Rene Herse handlebars because the narrowest version we offered was 40 cm.

Why had the builder used wider bars on my new bike? I checked the Nitto catalog and realized that the 37 cm handlebars had been discontinued. Suddenly it made sense: The builder had used the narrowest bars he could get. I was quite surprised that narrow handlebars no longer exist.

During our next trip to Japan, we asked Nitto’s president, Mr. Yoshikawa, about it. He said: “You’ll probably notice bars that are 2 cm wider, but there simply wasn’t much demand for the narrowest version.” 

Handlebars for not-so-tall riders may not be a big market, but it’s bothered me for a long time that the bike industry mostly thinks of riders as men of average height and body shape. Many Rene Herse products were created because we needed them, and nobody made them. So we decided to make 37 cm handlebars.

We modified the shape of our Randonneur handlebars a bit for the 37 cm version. The drop is a bit shallower, since a very deep drop would be a bit of a stretch for not-so-tall riders. The bars flare a little more at the bottom to give enough leverage over the front wheel in technical situations. The 37 cm handlebars are made to the same Superlight specification as our other bars. They weigh just 262 g – my bike got 45 g lighter with the new bars!

I don’t notice the lighter weight, but the feel of the new bars is very different. The bike feels more stable. I find it easier to direct the bike where I want to go. And there is no elbow pain any more, even after a challenging ride to Naches Pass in the heart of the Cascade Mountains.

The narrower bars make it much easier to bend my elbows, too. The width difference may just be 2 cm, but it makes a big difference when I ride. I finally feel at home on my new bike. It’s easy to relax. It’s my bike now!

And for those who are looking for narrow handlebars, we have the new bars in stock now.

34 Responses to Handlebar Width Matters

  1. Larry T September 24, 2020 at 4:33 am #

    So true! I learned this the hard way years ago when I put a 46 cm bar on a bike instead of the 42 I had always used. My shoulders hurt during every ride!!! Changed back to 42 and everything was fine. What I really don’t understand is the crazy-wide handlebars on modern MTB’s.

    • Natsuko September 24, 2020 at 10:02 am #

      I think it depends on your riding position. When I’ve ridden mountain bikes, I found that wider bars worked well with the upright position. On my Alps, I use flat handlebars when it’s set up as a passhunter, and drop bars when I go cyclotouring. The flat bars are wider, yet they work great with the different position. On singletrack, wider handlebars are good, but if you ride longer distances on roads (paved or gravel), I feel that narrow handlebars work better.

  2. Willem September 24, 2020 at 4:41 am #

    I recognize the issue, even though I am rather taller. On my m-gineering custom bike I opted for the 46 cm Noodle bars, against the advice of my frame builder who had said 44 cm would have been right for me. For years I used them but I increasingly suspected that 46 cm was indeed too wide for me. Finally, this year I decided to get something smaller. 44 Noodles were unavailable, so I opted for the 46 cm Nitto B136, having tried the 45 cm B135 on another bike and finding it too narrow for my broad shoulders. At the brake levers this 46 cm B136 is 43 cm wide, so a fair bit narrower than the 46 cm Noodles. The width is perfect for me, and I conclude that my framebuilder had been right all along. After my first longer ride it was obvious that the shoulder pain would never come back. In additionion, the B136 has a bit more reach which I also like. although it also means I have to train my lower back a bit more for the more stretched out position. But again, this new position feels better.
    Short people (including women of course) are indeed overlooked, and this is one of the concerns I have with the current trend to abandon 26 inch wheels. Simillarly, try getting hold of shorter cranks, let alone on a budget.

  3. Robert September 24, 2020 at 5:20 am #

    I’m glad you were able to sort out your new ride. It’s not just small people that have fit issues however. The industry doesn’t generally build bikes or components for tall long legged individuals either. People often scoff at the thought of extra long cranks for extra long legs. But for me, a bike built for 200mm cranks mean having my first bike as an adult that actually fits me properly.

    A bike that fits right is a beautiful thing.

    • Steve September 24, 2020 at 11:46 am #

      Same here–200mm cranks were a game-changer for my 200cm-tall frame! Wish I’d figured that out before my mid-40s, but better late than never. H/t to my extra-tall framebuilder, Doug Curtiss at Curtlo Cycles.

      Thanks for the post, Natsuko–always interesting to hear how people get to a good fit despite being too big/too small to fit mass market bikes.

    • Jacob Musha September 26, 2020 at 6:23 am #

      The very tallest people are ignored by the cycling industry but it is not just small people that are ignored, it is the bottom 74% of the population! At 5’9″ (175cm) I am at the 50th percentile for American adult men but at the 99th percentile for women. And I am frequently searching out the narrowest handlebars, the shortest stems, etc. Most of the mainstream frames in my size already use terrible geometry to avoid toe overlap with the huge wheels specified. Wide tires and fenders? Forget it. The smaller frames are even worse. No wonder so few women ride bikes. They have never ridden one that fits them, because they essentially don’t exist.

      I hope the trend of huge wheels even with wide tires and even on small frames goes away soon, but it doesn’t look that way.

  4. Ryan Adams September 24, 2020 at 5:30 am #

    Thank you for your article. Are you matching your hb width to scapular width of shoulders? I sell mostly gravel bikes and the tendency is to run the widest bars possible for more hand positions and leverage off road. Would a
    shorter stem have made the 40cm bars palatable? There are lots of different opinions out there, but I do appreciate yours very much.

  5. john hawrylak September 24, 2020 at 6:17 am #

    Natsuko

    Does the 37cm width correspond more closely to the distance between your shoulders than the 39cm width?? I recall a ‘fitting parameter’ for bar width as being the distance between your shoulders at some bony protrusion on your shoulders.

    I noticed a difference when I used a B177 bar which was about 2cm wider at the hoods than my previous bar. I felt like a parachute.

    John Hawrylak
    Woodstown NJ

    • Natsuko September 24, 2020 at 9:56 am #

      I haven’t measured the distance between my shoulders, just tried different handlebars until I found what works best.

  6. Nelson September 24, 2020 at 6:38 am #

    May the master rest in peace now.

    • Jan Heine September 25, 2020 at 7:35 am #

      H. Hirose was remarkable in that he created bikes for each customer that really brought out their very best as a cyclist.

  7. Ellen Hoover September 24, 2020 at 7:11 am #

    Natsuko, thank you for writing about not so tall rider issues. It’s so helpful!

  8. John-Paul Ferguson September 24, 2020 at 7:19 am #

    Please accept sympathy from the other end of the spectrum. I ride 48cm bars, which are also surprisingly hard to find!

    • Jan Heine September 25, 2020 at 7:21 am #

      We offer 46 cm bars. When bars get this wide, it’s hard to make them lightweight and still meet the highest EN standards for fatigue resistance.

  9. Stuart Fogg September 24, 2020 at 8:44 am #

    It’s great you were able to fill a need ignored by the mass market.

    Is there a relationship between shoulder width (or any other body dimension) and handlebar width which works best? My own dimensions are fairly average and I’ve had no problems with 42 cm bars.

    I had a motorcycle with a wide straight bar and my shoulders got sore after riding it for an hour or so. The problem was fixed by fitting a much narrower bar with about 45 degree backward bends. But I don’t ride it anymore because I’m having more fun on my bicycle.

  10. David Kamp September 24, 2020 at 9:29 am #

    How does one determine correct ‘bar width?

    • Natsuko September 24, 2020 at 10:03 am #

      For me, it was trial-and-error.

  11. Leo September 24, 2020 at 10:22 am #

    Interesting that the bike got more stable with narrower handlebars, I would have expected the opposite. Do you think it’s because the narrower bar allows the elbows to bend more and a more relaxed riding position, or some other reason?

    • Natsuko September 24, 2020 at 10:39 am #

      I think that may be the reason. It feel more natural. My bike doesn’t have front suspension, so I use my arms as front suspension, too. It’s important to relax on the bike.

  12. Rene Sterental September 24, 2020 at 10:38 am #

    I read, somewhere here in BQ, that proper handlebar width was correlated with trail. Low Trail required narrower bars vs high trail. Mountain bikes are usually more higher trail, if I’m not mistaken. Rivendell bikes are higher trail as well. That might explain some perception issues as to what is the proper width needed.

    But what happens if you are too narrow? And I guess it doesn’t mean too narrow fir your shoulder width, but rather too narrow for your bike’s trail?

    • Jan Heine September 24, 2020 at 10:57 am #

      I think there are a variety of factors that influence handlebar width: speed, bike geometry, riding style and, of course, shoulder width. Riders who bend their elbows usually prefer narrower handlebars, because elbows articulate inward when you’re on the bike. Riders who lock their elbows find that narrow bars constrict their shoulders. Bikes with a lot of wheel flop benefit from wider bars for more leverage on the steering – that’s the article you mention. And riding in singletrack at relatively low speeds requires large handlebar movements, whereas cornering at higher speeds requires only very small handlebar inputs. It all works together. Body shape also plays a role, of course. My shoulders are wider than Natsuko’s, and I prefer 40 or 42 cm bars for my all-road bikes.

  13. Eric Nichols September 24, 2020 at 10:48 am #

    Trial-and-error indeed!

    As a rider on the other end of the size spectrum (197 cm), I fitted 48 cm Nitto Noodles on my new allroad/rando bike, judging that a big guy needed a wide drop bar. After several long brevets, I began to develop bursitis in my elbows. Over time, I noticed that my elbows didn’t hurt as much when I rode other drop-bar bikes with narrower bars. Swapping the 48 for a 44 cured the bursitis.

    I’ve also found that narrow handlebars and low-trail bikes tend to work better together. Conversely, wide bars tend to work better on high-trail bikes like MTBs. Also, a wide flat bar doesn’t bother my elbows as much as a wide drop bar, though I don’t tend to ride really long days on flat-bar bikes.

  14. Andy September 24, 2020 at 10:53 am #

    Natsuko, thank you for an interesting article. I assume height is not the only factor here but if I may ask, how tall are you?

  15. Rob Wilkes September 24, 2020 at 2:06 pm #

    As well as comfort, if you like narrow bars this can affect your choice of bag (unless the top of the bag sits lower than the bars). I’m another fan of the Nitto B136, in my case the 42cm which is about 37cm wide at the hoods, perfect for me. The downside is that a Berthoud GB28 brushes my hands which I dislike though it might not matter to everyone. A 44cm B136, which makes enough space, feels too wide. Fortunately I also have a RuthWorks bag which is a little narrower and works fine.

    • Natsuko September 26, 2020 at 10:10 am #

      I also use a custom-made handlebar bag on my bike. Fortunately, custom bags can be made as one-offs, unlike handlebars.

  16. John C. Wilson September 24, 2020 at 2:53 pm #

    Bravo! This has been needed a long time.

    This 181cm rider uses ‘bars from 37 to 41cm. Depends on what the bike is asking for. My brother, who is often mistaken for a twin, uses 46 and will not go less than 44. Now hoping this will be a huge sales success and followed by narrow Maes bend.

    Following up on a previous thread if that is not too gauche. Shellac for tubulars was a track specialty. Definitely not an old wives tale. Still dominant as late as the 1960s, practiced into the 80s. Shellac did not fare well on wet roads, so track and the occasional crit or TT. If you ever rode them the difference was plain. Easy enough to stick the tires but very time consuming.

  17. Ray September 24, 2020 at 3:38 pm #

    The lighting in the last pic is cool. Was the yellow/orange hue caused by forest fire smoke?

    • Jan Heine September 25, 2020 at 7:20 am #

      Just afternoon light in the Cascades. The trip was well before the fires, fortunately.

  18. SteveS September 24, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

    For a road racing bike, the age old standard has been that the width of the bars corresponds directly with the width of the shoulders. So the center of the bar diameter at either the front of the bend where the levers mount or the drops can be held up to the front of your shoulders and the center point should be located halfway between your armpit and the outside edge of your arms. People mess with different widths…some people think that wider bars give a little extra leverage for climbing…and some think that “ opening your chest” allows for better breathing….and on the other end, narrower bars are touted for reducing frontal area improving aerodynamics. In the end, the cycling fashion pendulum swings both ways, and the center still remains the center…..

    • Jan Heine September 25, 2020 at 7:43 am #

      It’s interesting to see how that old standard was mentioned as far back as the 1930s, but nobody seems to agree about how wide a cyclist’s shoulders are. In the 1930s, bars were generally quite wide – 46 cm was common. By the 1950s, bars were narrow, and rarely wider than 40 cm. Each time, books and articles recommend sizing the bars to match the rider’s shoulders, yet it’s highly unlikely that riders’ shoulder width shrunk by 6 cm over two decades.

      I think what this recommendation really means is “use the standard bar width, but add 2 cm if you have wide shoulders, or subtract 2 cm if you’re of slight build.” So during the 1930s, that meant 46 cm +/- 2 cm, in the 1950s, it was 38 cm +/- 2 cm, and since the 1970s, it’s been 42 cm +/- 2 cm, at least for racers. And that actually makes a lot of sense, since it takes into account all the other factors such as riding position, front-end geometry, etc.

  19. Nigel Gardner September 24, 2020 at 9:03 pm #

    I’m 190cm tall but have relatively short leg to torso ratio, so immediately what is considered normal is not. It’s that problem that there is no average – it’s a mathematicians myth ( I’m an ecological statistician by training). On my racing bike I have always ( which means used to) run 42cm bars – on a steel frame that would be Cinelli 66, but with 120mm stem, generally – geometry depending, on alloy which means Campagnolo bifters a 44 anatomical bar ( Cinelli again) and 115mm stem. On my go everywhere converted 20 year old alloy Scott mtb frame with 531 forks I either use moustache bars with a short stem or a pair of old semi anatomical 44cm but with a stem extender to get them quite high and a 110 stem. I also have a Chinese built chromoly tourer/go anywhere bike with steel nitto uprights- forget the model but the accept bar end gear levers. Very wide bars.

    But on my joy to ride 53 year old Carlton Giro d’Italia use 39cm nitto randoneur bars and a 90cm stem. Every bike is comfortable every bike fits. None of them induce pain even after long rides, but each is 35+ years of personal cycling experience. Each is also a bike that is ridden differently and often in different conditions. What I have found most interesting though is that over the years my position on drop handle bar bikes has not changed, but on mountain bikes it has, I now need taller or I get lower back pain irrespective of bar width.

    There is no such thing as the perfect bar – only the perfect bar for you.

  20. Mike September 25, 2020 at 9:33 am #

    One needs to keep in mind that the handlebar measurements are center to center at the bar ends. If your riding position is on the ramps and/or brake hoods that may measure three to four centimeters less.

  21. Korina September 25, 2020 at 12:28 pm #

    Thanks for this. I’m 162cm myself, with narrow shoulders. I’ve gone on several rants about how the world is built around Reference Man, and this feels like another one:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_person

    I’m average height for a woman, but to the bike industry I’m small, an outlier, as are tall people; the industry is only interested in the middle, as it’s cheaper to keep only a narrow range of frames and components in stock; I’m assuming that’s why 26″ wheels are going away; even Surly seems to be gradually switching to 650b for their small frames.

    For those of us who can’t afford a custom bike, we just have to adapt. My main ride, my heart bike, is a vintage steel mountain bike with a short stem to help with the ridiculously long top tube (and a Brooks B17, Rustines grips, and big brass bell). The first time I sat on it, it felt like coming home; it felt proportional, whereas on 700c I always felt like a chihuahua on stilts, especially with the wild geometry they had to use to squeeze giant wheels onto a little frame. And I’m not even short!

    I still have to deal with the 175mm cranks; Sugino is the only mfr. I’ve found who makes 160mm cranks for under $400, and I can only find them in their online store, because no one stocks anything shorter than 165 because Reference Man. I intended to order one, but then I was laid off, so that may have to wait. Okay, I’m done now. 🙂

  22. Anthony September 25, 2020 at 5:55 pm #

    Crust towel rack for life in the largest size. Only thing that has eliminated by wrist, neck and back pain after years of messing around with different stems and bars. Seems to me that most people like bars about the width of their pushup position for rougher more upright riding. Makes sense-the pushup position is a position of upper body stability. Some people’s pushup position is narrower and utilizes their triceps more and others are wider and utilizes more chest and back. Neither is right or wrong, just depends on how you are built. I think the main point is that we need bars of all sizes because we are all different!