Handlebar Width

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Handlebars, Testing and Tech

Handlebar Width

A few people have asked about handlebar width in our handlebar discussion. Compass handlebars come in widths between 40 and 46 cm, which may appear narrow by some standards.

Many riders, even very tall ones, prefer relatively narrow handlebars. Above is my friend Ryan, who is 6′ 4″, riding on 41 cm-wide Randonneur handlebars (click on the photo for a bigger version). On his previous bike, he used 46 cm-wide carbon handlebars, but he loves the improved comfort of the narrower Randonneur bars on 24+ hour rides. (His new bike also has a different steering geometry that requires less leverage to guide the front wheel, see below. By the way, all measurements in this post are center-to-center.)
Ryan’s bars are narrower than his shoulders, but human elbows articulate, and we can adjust to different handlebar widths without restricting our breathing. Otherwise, no racer would climb with their hands on the tops of the bars, where they are much closer together than even the narrowest handlebars. Andy Schleck seems to be breathing just fine in the photo below. He wore the yellow jersey in this year’s Tour de France…

From the 1930s until a few decades ago, most riders used handlebars that would be considered very narrow today. Fausto Coppi was 6 feet tall, and he rode 40 cm-wide handlebars. (My height is similar, and I also prefer narrow handlebars.)
Contrasting this, handlebars as wide as 46 cm were popular in the 1920s, when front-end geometries had a lot of wheel flop. The extra leverage of the wide bars may have helped to keep those bikes on course. By the 1930s, head angles got steeper (which reduced wheel flop), and handlebars became narrower. When I measured the geometries of all the bikes featured in our book The Competition Bicycle – A Photographic History, I found a strong correlation of handlebar width with wheel flop, rather than with rider size. Handlebars became wider again in the 1970s, when wheel flop increased as geometries were adjusted for narrower tires.
Aerodynamics can be another reason to choose narrow handlebars. When we tested “real-world” bicycles in the wind tunnel, we found that frontal area is the most important factor in determining wind resistance. Wider handlebars increase your frontal area, and thus probably increase your wind resistance. Aerobars are so effective because they put the rider’s hands closer together, and reduce the frontal area, as well as shielding the cavity formed by the rider’s chest.
Handlebar width is influenced by many factors, including personal preference. We recognize that many riders today like wider handlebars, that is why we offer 46 cm-wide handlebars. However, we encourage you to try narrower handlebars – you may like them.
Click here to learn more about Compass handlebars.
Note: This post was updated in September 2016.

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