Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bar Ends: You're Doing It Wrong

On very short rides, commutes of just a mile or two for example, bicycle fit and body position are not vitally important. If you're only on the bike for ten minutes, you don't really have time to suffer any serious discomfort. 

But if your commute or errands are much further than that, your body position affects your comfort quite a bit, most notably at the handlebars and the saddle. I'll talk about saddles in a day or two, but right now I'd like to talk about handebars. 

Where your hands are has a lot of affect on your riding comfort. Handlebar height affects how far you lean over the bike, how much weight goes onto your hands and how much you have to flex your lower back. The "sweep," how much the handlebar grips are angled back, affects the angle your hands rest on the grips, which in turn affects your wrists and shoulders. Because there are a wide variety of preferences and requirements, there is quite a bit of variety in handlebar designs. Road and touring bikes usually have drop bars, whose distinctive "ram's horn" shape offers the chance to change grip positions over the course of long rides. City and commuting bikes, on the other hand, usually go for a single, fairly comfortable hand position, usually with swept back handlebars to put the shoulders in a relaxed stance. 

Swept-back handlebars with no rise. Many commuter bikes have bars that come up before sweeping back towards the rider. 
 And while there are no hard-and-fast rules as to how high the handlebars should be, most non-competitive riders find that a slight forward lean is the most comfortable, say, between 20 and 45 degrees. More lean than that makes you more aerodynamic, but puts more work on the hands and lower back, while sitting straight upright puts all your weight on your tailbone and makes it hard to pedal efficiently (there are those who are perfectly comfortable with their nose to the handlebars, though, and conversely plenty of city-bike riders who can go for miles with a ramrod-straight spine, I just find that the bulk of casual and commuter cyclists fall somewhere in between). My own preference puts my handlebars at about the same height as the seat, a bit higher for commuting and a bit lower for "sporty" riding.

While road and city bike handlebars offer the chance to position your arms at a comfortable angle, the most common mountain bike bars are either completely straight across or nearly so. This gives the rider great control over rocky ground, but is not actually all that ergonomically efficient. The hands are held at a fairly unnatural angle which many riders find uncomfortable on long rides.

A fairly simple solution is to install bar ends, which are attachments that bolt to the ends of the handlebars (hence the name) and give an additional hand position, or often, a couple different hand positions. This works pretty well, so long as you don't mount the bar ends at too steep an angle. They should be facing forward on the bike, at about the same angle as the handlebar stem. However, there's a tendency among those looking for a more upright riding position (usually on a bike that's way too small for them) to aim them straight up, or even face them backwards a bit to shorten the reach.

They're like antlers!
There's a couple reasons that this is a bad idea. First, this tends to put you at a really odd position in relation to the steering, but you can get used to the affect on the handling. A bigger problem is that because of the way your weight rests on the top of the bar ends, it can be very difficult to change position quickly to reach the brake levers. When the bar ends are positioned forwards, you simply move one or both hands back a bit and grab the brake, but here you have to let go of the bar end and reach under it to grab the brake lever. While this may not realistically take a large amount of time, on occasions when you find yourself needed to get to the brakes really quickly, fractions of a second make a big difference.

The third, and most dangerous problem, to my eye, comes when you're riding on the handlebars using the controls.
Size, angle and hairiness of arms may vary by rider. 
As you can see in the above photo, my forearm is right next to the curve of the bar end. Because the bike was equipped with twist-type shifters, I was actually having a lot of trouble changing gears due to the interference of the bar end. But worse than that, take a look at that picture and imagine me hitting a pothole, or slipping on some gravel or any other sudden event that results in my weight shifting forward quickly. A big, sturdy guy like me might get away without breaking my wrists, but I wouldn't want to bet my blogging career on it!

In short, while sticking a pair of upright-facing bar ends on a bike might seem a quick way to counter too-low handlebars, it's actually kind of stupid.

If you just need more height, there are a couple of options you can look at, which are not much more expensive than the above. First off, a taller stem can make a big difference, and handlebars with a built in rise also help (although if you make too dramatic of a change, you may have to swap out some cables, which if you're paying a shop to do it, might start to add up).

One of my own projects, a folding mountain bike. It's a bit small for me, so I added a longer seatpost and swapped the straight handlebars for a pair with a 3" rise. 
Other handlebar options to add comfort to a mountain or flat-bar type road bike include swapping to a pair of North Road style handlebars or go with the Euro-style touring bars known as "butterfly" or "trekking" bars (they're the Crocs of the bicycle world, god-awful ugly, but super-comfortable).

This isn't a stickup. When it comes to bar ends, you don't have to "reach for the sky!"

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