Why Contact Points Matter: Handlebars

Why Contact Points Matter: Handlebars

Riding long distances – especially on rough roads – puts different demands on your body and your bike than short and fast-paced races. The contact points with the bike become more important the longer you ride. These days, you don’t hear much about them, especially the saddle and handlebars.

If you compete in relatively short races, this makes sense: When you pedal at maximum effort, your hands barely touch the bars, and your saddle only serves to stabilize you on the bike, but not to support you. All your weight is borne by your feet as you push the pedals with great force. And indeed, racers are more likely to complain about foot pain than other problems.

It’s a totally different matter when you are riding long distances, whether it’s touring, randonneuring or racing long gravel events: Inevitably, your power output over ten or more hours on the bike is lower than it would be in a three- or four-hour race. And so you’ll put more weight on your handlebars and saddle than the average road racer.

Gravel racing and long-distance cycling aren’t new ideas – until World War II, most mountain roads weren’t paved, and the racers of the ‘Heroic Age’ were used to riding on gravel. Stages were much longer, and thus speeds were a little lower.

Back then, each racer had their personal saddle and handlebars, which they moved from bike to bike as they had new frames made. The handlebars were custom-bent to the racers’ specifications.
In the photo above, you see Nicolas Frantz, winner of the 1928 Tour de France, climb the Aubisque. The stage that traversed the Pyrenees was 387 km (240 mi) long! Racing on roads and distances like that is closer to modern gravel races or randonneur brevets than to it is to today’s Tour de France. Frantz took 16 hours and 20 minutes to complete this monster stage. And when you look closely, you see that his handlebars are what we’d call ‘Randonneur’ bars today.

Classic handlebars are characterized by their generous reach and subtle curves. They give your hands room to roam and support them in many positions.

Most modern bars are short and square. You usually hold onto the brake hoods, sometimes use the tops, and very rarely ride in the drops. There is a reason why drop handlebars have become so short: For many riders, the low handlebars of racing bikes were difficult to reach, because the ‘aggressive’ riding position did not match their strength. To accommodate recreational riders, handlebars (and top tubes) became shorter, allowing an upright position while maintaining the ‘racy’ look of low handlebars.

Fortunately, modern all-road and adventure bikes don’t have ultra-low bars, and there is no need for ultra-short reach handlebars any longer.

Handlebars with a longer reach give you choices between multiple riding positions, from relatively upright ‘on the tops’ to low and fast ‘in the drops’ – and many positions in between. This means that you can change the angle of your back as you ride, which greatly helps reduce fatigue.

The best handlebars are carefully designed to support your hands in multiple positions, eliminating pressure points that can lead to numbness and even nerve damage during long rides.

We have developed two different handlebar shapes, based on classic designs that have proven themselves over millions of miles – literally. The Maes Parallel (above) is a generous shape that provides much room for your hands to roam. I love it for fast-paced rides where my position changes frequently.

The Randonneur bars echo the shape that Nicolas Frantz used to win the Tour de France. Their upward curve is designed to support your hands as they rest ‘on the tops,’ behind the brake levers.

This is a very comfortable position – above I’m using it during the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris – but it’s important that the curves are ‘just right.’ Before we found this shape, I’ve used many ‘Randonneur’ bars that actually were less comfortable than their standard counterparts.

What about padded handlebar tape? It can help a little with relieving pressure points, but it cannot make up for a poor handlebar shape.

New in the Rene Herse program are the Nitto ‘Monkey Banana’ bar pads (above) for the corners of your handlebars. They go under the bar tape to help support your hands in the ‘on the tops’ position, plus they offer a little extra shock absorption. They are designed to fit our Rene Herse Maes Parallel and Randonneur handlebars, but they are flexible and can be adapted to many other bar shapes.

Whether you are racing long gravel events, preparing for Paris-Brest-Paris, or planning a long tour, well-designed handlebars can make all the difference in enjoying the long hours on your bike. And even if you aren’t riding for ten hours or more, having comfortable bars makes cycling more fun.

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Comments (25)

  • Tom Gandesbery

    What doesn’t work for me are mustache bars. They look cool and seem like a nice way to convert a drop bar bike to more of a utilitarian bike (because you can keep the brake levers), but they end up being uncomfortable on long rides. Drop bars have gone through 100 years of evolution.

    June 13, 2019 at 6:58 am
  • Pk

    Sliding the saddle back will reduce weight on the bars. Hips must be behind the tipping point or one is constantly “falling” onto the front of the bike. Many people believe hand discomfort can be solved by moving the saddle forward, this makes matters worse, hence all the nice bikes hanging in garages everywhere, unridden.

    June 13, 2019 at 7:43 am
    • Neil Hodges

      It’s generally better practice to set up the crank-saddle relationship first, then adjust the stem and bars to correct the saddle-bar relationship. I’ve seen many bike fitters over the years and they all follow that mantra.

      June 13, 2019 at 3:11 pm
  • Daniel Jackson

    This seems like an appropriate time to politely request WIDER RH Rando bats. I’ve been a longtime fan of the 46, but know I’d truly love a 48 or 50. No bars have such a comfortable shape, but I do love wider bars for gnarlier tracks in the Northeast.

    June 13, 2019 at 7:53 am
    • aquilaaudax1

      I’ve gone the other way and find for longer rides I prefer narrower bars, 38 to 40cm ( Bike fit suggestion for a road bike is 42cm).
      I find the narrower bars require reduced effort for supporting my body weight when riding at lower speeds. The other thing with riding slower is don’t have a need for a wider bar to swing off as most of my climbing is done whilst in the saddle.

      June 13, 2019 at 5:13 pm
  • Rod Bruckdorfer

    I purchased a randonneur bar from Compass Bike five or six years ago. It was advertised based on a classic AVA randonneur bar and appears the same as the current Rene Herse randonneur bar “developed by you.” I also have the same “AVA” bar on our tandem. The “AVA” bar is very comfortable.

    June 13, 2019 at 7:55 am
    • Jan Heine

      Yes, the best shape were the old AVA ‘Randonneur’ handlebars, and the Rene Herse Randonneur bars are based on that shape with some minor modifications to make it work better with modern brake levers.

      June 13, 2019 at 8:13 am
  • Greg

    I always seem to want to be shortening my reach (via shorter stem, shorter reach bars, etc) on my road bikes in order to not feel too stretched out on the hoods. But also, my hands always seem to be the most uncomfortable body part after a few hours of riding. (I’m 5’8″, typically ride 52 or 53cm road bike) I’m having a custom rando bike built (with a lot of inspiration from here and BQ), and don’t know if I should try these “even longer” reach classic-style handlebars or not. Compared to compact bars, should these longer bars use a shorter stem? A shorter head-tube? Should the hoods be in the same place (compared to using compacts)? Or should the tops be in the same place? Any words of wisdom are welcome!

    June 13, 2019 at 9:38 am
    • Jan Heine

      Riding position is hard to analyze in this forum. Remember that your bars come backward as you raise them, so you are shortening your reach in two ways. My suggestion would be to shorten the stem (or top tube) about half as much as you want to shorten the reach.
      If you are replacing a short-reach bar on the same, then it depends on how comfortable you are on the hoods. Do you feel you might want to be a bit more stretched-out for fast riding, knowing that you’ll have the ‘on the ramps’ position behind the brake hoods for normal cruising? Then keep the stem as is. If you’re already as far forward as you’ll ever want to be when you ride on the hoods with your short-reach bars, then shorten the stem to keep the hoods in the same position.

      June 14, 2019 at 8:48 am
  • milosz

    > We have developed two different handlebar shapes
    hi jan, is your maes parallel shape different from grand bois’ ?

    June 13, 2019 at 11:10 am
    • Jan Heine

      The main differences are weight, shock absorption, and strength. Rene Herse bars are made to our proprietary specs from ultralight, thinwall material that Nitto doesn’t use for any other bars. That makes them lighter and also absorbs shocks better. The bars are heat-treated, so they are stronger than the heavier versions.

      June 14, 2019 at 10:07 am
  • Rick Thompson

    I’ve spent most of my riding life with drop bars, but never found any to be comfortable for long rides. The wrist angle on hoods or drops becomes painful. For the last couple of years my bikes have had the slightly swept style flat bar, Nitto Jitensha or similar. With a longer stem and ergo type grips, these work for me all day. There is no drop position for wind, but with a quill stem the bar height can be lowered in a minute or two. By far most people seem to be happy with drops, I must be unusual.

    June 13, 2019 at 12:53 pm
    • Jan Heine

      You might want to try the Rene Herse Randonneur bars. Tilt them up slightly – the ‘on the ramps’ position will be like the swept-back bars, except the curve fits the palm of your hands better.

      June 14, 2019 at 10:09 am
    • Stuart Fogg

      Also unusual, I’ve been using time trial bars (Cinelli, then Deda Dabar). The hand position is similar to the hoods on a drop bar but more comfortable for me both to rest on and to work the brakes. I ride at a lower cadence and usually climb off the saddle so there’s more force on my feet and less on my hands, also I seldom ride more than 3 hours. A side benefit is with everything forward of the stem the bars never get in the way.

      June 14, 2019 at 6:44 pm
  • Michael Wilson

    Why not make the stem clamp area on the bar long enough to also attach aero bars? Yes I read this stuff. Yes 9 of my non-time-trial road bikes have aero bars (and front brake levers on the aero so I can stop for sudden pedestrians, moose, trucks running stop signs, etc.) And the HED clip lite nicely flip away for hand positions on the top of the bars. It is true that out of 5-7k miles per year, maybe 20 miles are done in a group.

    June 13, 2019 at 3:21 pm
    • Jan Heine

      I haven’t looked at aerobars in quite a while. When I last used them, they attached to the thin portion of the bars. The upward sweep of the Randonneur model won’t be compatible with most aero bars, anyhow, as the bars would be angled inward. Maybe we should develop Rene Herse aerobars that fit our handlebars?

      June 14, 2019 at 10:11 am
      • scott g.

        Lugged aero bars would be neato.
        More seriously, Michael’s point about the narrow stem clamp area means GPS mounts,
        don’t fit Compass bars. The mounts are all 31.8. I did find a BarFly mount for
        aero bars that does fit the 23.8 section of Compass bars, but the go-pro
        light mount is then sideways.

        June 14, 2019 at 10:54 am
        • Jan Heine

          Maybe the best solution is a shim that can go on the bar to mount aerobars or computer/light mounts. I’m not too fond of the ultra-wide center section of modern bars – it looks bulky and it creates a step where my hands sometimes go when I hold onto the tops.

          June 14, 2019 at 12:30 pm
        • Rod Bruckdorfer

          Scott: Accessory mounts are the solution, if more HB space is needs. VO’s mount weighs 95 grams. https://velo-orange.com/collections/lighting/products/handlebar-accessory-mount

          June 14, 2019 at 1:26 pm
      • John Duval

        I have fitted aero bars and GPS to Maes Parallel (the older thicker wall version). The bars have to be without a bridge at the ends, and require carefully crafting spacers and fiber grip paste to prevent rotation. For the GPS, a narrow strip of foam double adhesive tape will keep the mount steady right up next to the stem. If the middle part was wide enough for the GPS mount, the aero bars would be too far apart. I also wonder how much stiffer the bars would be with the larger diameter all the way across. Maybe Rene Herse shims for those purposes?

        June 14, 2019 at 11:16 pm
      • Virgil Lynskey Walker

        I’ve fitted TTT aero bars to the RH randonneur bars. Admittedly, it took a bit of fettling and swearing but they did fit. The combination of shapes worked pretty well, but eventually I took them off because some Audax riders looked sideways at me on the few occasions I found myself in a group (although I never used the aero bars in groups); they were extremely awkward when train or plane traveling with the bike; and because I decided in any case that I liked the Maes bar shape better overall.

        June 16, 2019 at 10:28 pm
  • Derek

    If anyone is comparing the Maes Parallel with the Velo-Orange Course, they look like they’re the same shape and advertise the same reach and drop. I own both and they are not actually the same. The VO Course has longer bends with more reach and drop. This could be a pro or a con depending on your fit preferences, but don’t buy it if you think it will fit the same. It is obvious that they differ in other qualities like price, weight, safety, and appearance.

    June 13, 2019 at 4:20 pm
    • Craig Lloyd

      How is it obvious that the VO bars differ in ‘safety’? I don’t doubt the Compass/Herse bars are lighter or more shock absorbing, etc but I think it’s unfair to speculate one bar may be safer than the other.

      June 15, 2019 at 9:20 pm
      • Jan Heine

        Failures of aluminum handlebars are rare – unless they are made out of inappropriate materials (for handlebars), like 7000-series aluminum, which can just shatter.
        That said, a uniform extrusion prevents thin spots at the transition from the bulge that can cause failures. To get a uniform extrusion, you need experience, good machines and skilled labor – which is the reason we have our bars made to our specs by Nitto and don’t go with a cheaper, less reputable manufacturer. All Rene Herse bars are tested to the highest EN ‘Racing Bike’ standard – not many other small makers test to this high standard.

        June 16, 2019 at 8:22 am
      • twentyclicks

        Fair enough. Testing to a higher level does give the user added reassurance. Although the 17-20% weight increase of the VO bars suggests they haven’t striven for such high performance where those skills/tolerances are required to maintain durability. The test standard of the RH bars shows nothing has been compromised despite achieving the low weight.

        June 17, 2019 at 4:30 am

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