The 10-speed with drop handlebars was an iconic thing in the 1980s, when 90% of bikes on college campuses had this style of bike. Drop bars were synonymous with speed, elegance, and fitness. But how and why did they become a thing?
More importantly, when are they the best choice today, and when is a flat bar more appropriate?
It all started about 130 years ago…
The great bike tech shake-up of 1890
During the 1880s, the latest and greatest bike to ride was the “penny-farthing”. Actually, the device wasn’t called that at the time, but rather, the new and sophisticated term of “bicycle”.
These bicycles had wheels up to five feet in diameter, for maximum distance covered per pedal revolution, and were capable of great speed for the era. (The previous model, nicknamed “the boneshaker”, went about 6 miles/hour). The era of popular cycling was born.
With some modification from the normal design, bicycle racers could even go 20 miles/hour. That modification for racers was the drop handlebar. It had just one purpose–to bend the rider from a seven-foot-tall wind obstacle to a six-foot-tall wind obstacle.
There was still the matter of wind and falling from great heights. Bicycles had become their own safety issue.
Enter the era of the “safety bike”, that was actually at ground level. It featured the brilliant leap forward of large and small cogs on a chain, instead of large and small wheels. The wheels could then be conveniently sized.
What stayed the same? The drop bar and hunched-over rider position.
Suddenly, just after the first era of biking had started–and gained a reputation for dashing courage in the face of danger–the second era began, widening the attraction of biking to people who preferred to remain closer to the ground.
Through it all, the racing drop bar remained, with gradual tweaks to its purpose.
When the Tour de France launched in 1903, virtually everyone had bars like this. What else was there?
The introduction of brakes–what a novel idea!–to the handlebars provided a second position for using the bars. One for speed, and the other for braking.
And with that, over a century ago, the multi-position bar was set for its final adaptation, into the most versatile type of handlebar, for racers and non-racers.
The five uses of modern drop bars
Although many shapes of bike handlebars exist today, the term “road bike”, at least in the US, refers to bikes with drop bars–sometimes even called road bars. Today’s drop bars are usually fully taped, with additional grips around the brake attachments, so you can use them five different ways.
POSITION 1: THE TOPS
Use this highest position for maximum back relaxation, often as a temporary break from other positions, particularly if you are in a wind-free area with limited need for aerodynamics or intense bar control.
POSITION 2: THE SHOULDERS
This is roughly the same height as the top position, providing a similar feel in the lower back, but has a 90-degree rotated grip. That means it uses different muscles. Swapping back and forth between positions 1 and 2 can rest your shoulders, neck and back on a long ride.
POSITION 3: THE HOODS
Riding the hoods is probably the most common riding style, combining back relaxation with wider control and quick access to brakes if needed. They are also useful for climbing, when you may be in a more upright and lean-forward position.
POSITION 4: THE HOOKS
Riding the hooks is most common when you have an extremely high need for control and accurate braking, such as in a fast or highly technical descent. It may seem odd to lean forward more in a descent, but that’s where the brakes are.
POSITION 5: THE DROPS
This original Tour de France position offers maximum defense against wind resistance. That’s it.
What type of bar is best?
There’s a reason that drop bars have stayed around for over a century. But so have flat bars; the first bicycle bars were flat, and today’s mountain bikes require this level of powerful steering. And other bars have developed as well. What do you need from your bike?
What’s the next development in drop bars?
We can’t speak for the whole bike industry, but from our perspective, the next big development is a full-size folding bike with drop bars—a true road bike that folds in half quickly to fit in any size car trunk. It’s designed for convenience of getting to and from your adventure without any car rack, offering comfortable 100-mile rides and the security of a truly locked-up bike once you’re done.
This bike is currently in Early Adopter phase; you get a discount in exchange for feedback on component selection and usage observations.(Early feedback so far: Use round, not aero bars, and swap out the brake pads.)
We still have bikes for two more early adopters. Is one of them you? If you’re interested, let me know directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy road riding!