THE CONVENIENT CYCLIST

Where did drop handlebars come from? And why?

Schwinn Varsity
This 10-speed is virtually identical to my first road bike. Today, it’s a museum piece. The iconic shape remains, with the top of the drop bars slightly below the seat.

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 an eight-foot-tall wind obstacle to a seven-foot-tall wind obstacle.

dropped penny farthings
The first world championship cycling race in Berlin, 1889 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild)

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.

The first safety bike
The safety bike could go 20% faster and was less accident prone. A real bicycle. Anything less, with two different-size wheels, was just a penny-farthing (a reference to large and small British coins together).

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.

Professional women cyclists
By 1891, all racers, male and female, used drop bars, which were starting to include the recognizable straight top section.

When the Tour de France launched in 1903, virtually everyone had bars like this. What else was there?

1903 tour bike
A bike from the 1903 inaugural Tour de France had bars the same shape as today, but only the drop ends were intended to be used, as shown by the grips. Stay low. Go fast.

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.

1914-style tour bike
By 1914, rim brakes and the bar tape to reach them added the final developments that get us functionally close to today’s modern drop bars.

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.

Drop bar top position
For the top position, grab your bars at the widest part of the top, flat section. (Photos from Lovely Bicycle in Ireland: https://lovelybike.blogspot.com/)

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.

drop bar shoulder postion
The shoulder position is at the top, just where the bars curve forwards. You have more control than with a pure top position.

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.

drop bar hood position
Before riding the hood position, make sure your hoods are attached tightly.

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.

drop bar hooks position
Whether or not you’re touching your brakes at the time, riding the hooks puts the brakes just a finger-twitch away.

POSITION 5: THE DROPS

This original Tour de France position offers maximum defense against wind resistance. That’s it.

Drop bar drop position
Use the drops when you’re in maximum aerodynamic position, such as a fast and wide non-technical descent, or simply when you’re facing a long slog against a fierce headwind.

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?

drop bars
Drop bars are best if you bike over 40 miles at a time, routinely bike in windy areas, or simply like to go fast.

 

flat bars
Flat bars are best if you have high needs for “power” steering, such as rocky trails, ruts, roots–basically anything mountain biking–or know that you have zero need for the lower half of a drop bar.

 

time trial bars
This is not a spacecraft. Time trial bars are for going very fast for a well-defined time frame in a severely bent over position. At the conclusion of that, you get off and go ride a more comfortable 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.

Flatbike Century
The Flatbike Century is built around the CHANGE 733 folding frame, with Shimano 105 gearing and a carbon fork.

You can see the specs and videos for this bike at https://flatbike.com/century/ or order it in black or white at https://flatbike.com/product/century/. This bike has proven popular for anyone from RV owners to boat owners to private pilots.

Looking ahead, we are considering another dropbar model… an all-terrain folding road bike with disc brakes and 40mm airless tires–a beast of a gravel bike that never gets a flat. Is that something you’re interested in? If so, let me know directly at bob.forgrave@flatbike.com.

Happy road riding!

Bob Forgrave's Signature

Bob Forgrave

President, Flatbike.com

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425-985-6219

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