Which is best: wide handlebars or narrow?
February 19th 2018
There’s a saying in the consulting world that the right answer to an question is: “It depends.””
And yet, that’s exactly true with handlebars. How do you want to ride your bike? Because ultimately, the whole bike-customizing experience is about fitting the bike to your requirements, not the other way around!
Handlebar types and functions
First, some clarification about handlebars in general. There are many types.
Drop handlebars (sometimes called aero bars) on road bikes have aerodynamic and other properties. Flatbike doesn’t offer these on any model yet, although some customers reportedly have plans to swap out for these. Bars should be shoulder width.
Comfort bars are the opposite of aero bars. They are designed to put your body more upright, with less stress on your lower back and neck. This puts more weight on your bottom, so they should be combined with a wider seat. They vary in length of rake back.
BMX bars are designed to make a very small bike larger and more controllable at the front end. Unlike a comfort bar, they are reinforced for high-impact use. They come in short and tall.
Time trial bars are even more bent over than aero bars, designed for minimal wind, not comfort. They come with and without center bars.
Finally, the flat bars used for mountain biking. Some variation of these currently ship on all CHANGE bikes.
The case for a long handlebar
At its most basic, a flat handlebar is a lever that you use with either arm to exert maximum turning force on your wheel or balancing force on your frame.
Why does that matter? Maybe you’re riding highly technical trails at high speed, when control every millisecond counts. Or maybe you’re riding a less technical trail more slowly, but it’s full of dried hoof prints and dirt ruts conspiring to pull you off balance. You might want the longest lever you can ride.
How long is that? It depends. (Not that again!)
We’re all built in different proportions of arm length, torso length, and leg length, as well as different feelings about leaning forward while riding. Going downhill, you might feel more need for control, but a wider hand position also pulls you into more of a forward lean–when you’re already leaning downhill!
So good safety practice is to shorten the stem whenever you make the handlebars longer. You can also adjust forward lean by sliding the seat horizontally.
The case for a short handlebar
The downhill case isn’t a permanent thing, but short arms might be. This could limit your maximum handlebar size.
Also, where do you typically ride? A rider in the wide-open west will have a different feeling about wide handlebars than someone careening along narrow forest trails that wind among the trees. Clipping a tree at high speed is a memorable, one-time experience.
Finally, when you have a folding bike, longer bars stick out more. Is it a minor annoyance, occasionally catching on things, or does a longer bar keep you from putting it in your trunk or stowage compartment? If a longer bar does get in the way, are you OK with taking a 4mm hex wrench to the 4 bolts holding it in place?
And now, what really matters. The specs.
Except for an occasional older bike in stock, all CHANGE 600 series bikes (609 MTB, 612 MTB, and 611 rugged hybrid) come by default with 23″ (580mm) handlebars. This is generally near the short end of mountain bike flat bars.
The 702 commuting bike comes with 22″ (560mm) handlebars. While generally short for flat bars, it is actually wider than most drop bars, for a feeling that combines responsiveness and control for on-road conditions.
Flatbike also offers, by request at purchase, a FREE swap-out to a carbon fiber 26.75″ (680mm) handlebar on all CHANGE 600 series bikes (609, 611, 612). This is more toward the mid to upper range, but will increase the folded length by another two inches.
A final word of advice.
Today’s bikes offer a wealth of customization within broad industry standards. That means you don’t have to get it completely right the first time.
Maybe “right” isn’t even the right concept. Maybe you try one size handlebar for a while, then decide to change it later by yourself with a purchase from Amazon or your local bike shop. Once you’ve got the right bike, the rest is just details…
Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, an
ecommerce company offering full-size folding bikes
and kits to make any bike take up half the space.