Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Drop Bars: What Are They For?

After initially having set the handlebars on my Sam Hillborne quite high so that I could get used to them, I have now lowered them to a more typical position. Despite having done this, I think that there was nothing objectively wrong with my initial set-up. I received lots of comments and advice in my previous Hillborne posts, and one view expressed was that if I have to raise the bars so high, then perhaps I should not be riding with drop bars. This is an idea I very much disagree with, and here is why.

What is the purpose of drop handlebars? Many believe it is "to go fast" - that is, to achieve an aggressively forward-leaning position that would allow for maximum speed. And for that purpose, it would indeed make sense that the handlebars ought to be placed as low as possible.

However, while this is one of the things drop bars can be used for, it is by no means their only function or their mandated use. An equally important feature of drop handlebars is the unparalleled variety of ergonomic hand positions they offer - which is crucial for long rides. When cycling long distance, it is not only uncomfortable, but dangerous to use handlebars with limited gripping areas that allow for only one hand position. And by "dangerous" I mean that you can cause nerve damage to your hands. Drop bars, on the other hand, offer a continuous gripping surface with 5 distinct hand positions to switch between, greatly reducing the chances of this happening.

As I have mentioned before, I already have pre-existing nerve damage in my hands, so I feel hand "discomfort" (electric-current-like sensations running through my wrists and fingers) a lot sooner than those with healthy hands. This makes me an especially good candidate for drop bars when I go on long rides.

So what do ergonomic hand positions, nerve damage and touring have to do with speed or aggressive cycling? Absolutely nothing, and that is precisely my point. I have no interest in breaking speed records. All I want, is to cycle long distances without my hands ending up in bandages again. Drop bars are perfect for that, and whether they are placed high or low is completely irrelevant - as long as I am comfortable reaching all the available hand positions. Drop bars mounted high are better for touring than no drop bars at all. Sheldon Brown and Grant Petersen agree.

The perception that drop bars must be mounted as low as possible is an aesthetic preference rooted in racing culture and informed by the male anatomy (as males have longer torsos than females). But it's time to break that connection. Drop bars are fantastic for touring and exploring, and they can make your ride extremely enjoyable if used in a way that is right for you.


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