They might not be the first thing that comes to a cyclist’s mind when getting excited about their dream bike, but the humble bike handlebars play an essential role in adapting a bike to its purpose.
From butterfly bars to bullhorns, all bike handlebars have their strengths and weaknesses. Aero bars might be perfect for a Tour de France Time Trial, but they’d be an absolute disaster on a twisty, technical mountain bike trail!
To give you the lowdown on the key bike handlebar types every cyclist should know, we’ll be walking you through the pros, cons, and purposes of:
- Flat Bars
- Drop Handlebars
- Bullhorn Bike Handlebars
- Butterfly Bars
- BMX Handlebars
- Riser Handlebars
- Aero Bars
Ready to get clued up on bike handlebars?
Let’s get started!
#1. Flat Bars
Flat bars might be seen in many ways as the ‘standard’ handlebars by new cyclists. They’re commonly found on kids’ bikes, so most of us will have first learned to ride a bike with flat handlebars.
They’re the most simple design out there, consisting only of a straight(ish) tube which often has a slight bend towards the rider (known as the sweep angle).
Flat bars are well suited for use as mountain bike handlebars, and are also used often on hybrids and some ‘fixie’ bikes.
Flat Bars: The Pros
- Solid Riding Position – when you ride with flat bars, you can brace yourself strongly against them and put a lot of weight into them. This makes them well-suited as mountain bike handlebars due to the rough, bumpy downhill terrain of off-road trails.
- Control – flat bars are accurate and intuitive to steer with, especially at slow speeds, which makes them ideal for technical trail riding.
- Simplicity – flat bars are (usually) cheaper, sturdy, and versatile. It’s easy to attach brake and gear levers, or any other accessories you might want such as a GPS.
Flat Bars: The Cons
- Speed – when trying to ride fast on a bike, aerodynamics are incredibly important. The upright position flat bars force you to ride in makes your body act like a big parachute, holding you back.
- Comfort – on long rides, it can help your comfort in the saddle if you’re able to shift your riding position by changing your grip on the handlebars. With flat bars, you only really have one grip position,so they’re not ideal for multi-day trips such as bikepacking tours.
#2. Drop Handlebars
Drops are the other type of handlebar you’ll see cropping up all over the place, alongside flat bars.
Drop handlebars have a flat middle section attached to the stem, which curves down and towards the rider at each end. They usually have lever hoods that house the brake and gear levers, and offer the rider an alternative grip.
Drop handlebars allow for an aerodynamic riding position as well as the ability to leverage yourself against them to put extra power through the pedals while sprinting. This makes them the standard choice for road bike handlebars and track bike handlebars.
Drop Handlebars: The Pros
- Aerodynamic – drop bars let you tuck down your riding position, making your body shape more slippery through the air and letting you cycle faster.
- Versatile – there are a few different grip positions available on drop bars. This means you can tuck down on the flats, but opt for a more comfortable upright position while climbing or resting, making them well adapted to road racing.
- Stylish – let’s face it, we all want our bike to be the envy of other cyclists on the road! With their sleek, elegant styling and classic bike pedigree, drop handlebars certainly fit the bill.
Drop Handlebars: The Cons
- Less Agile – drop handlebars aren’t as nimble for slow, tight turns as flat bars, making them less suited to technical trail riding.
- Brake Access – when riding with your hands on the flat top section, you can’t cover the brake levers with your fingers. This can slow your stopping time in an emergency as you have to shift grips to slam the brakes!
#3. Bullhorn Bike Handlebars
Bullhorn bike handlebars – also known as ‘pursuit bars’ – are another style with an emphasis on aerodynamics.
They’re not dissimilar from flat bars but extend up and forwards at either end to allow the rider to lean further over the front wheel, reducing drag and increasing their leverage.
Bullhorn handlebars are a solid alternative for most of the riding styles in which drop handlebars are popular, including track cycling and urban-oriented road riding such as single-speed and fixie bikes. The ‘pursuit bar’ name comes from their traditional use in pursuit racing (an event within track cycling).
It’s possible to improvise bullhorn bike handlebars yourself by sawing off most of the descending sections of drop handlebars and mounting them on your bike upside down. Take care to sand down any sharp edges and plug the bar ends if giving this a go at home!
Bullhorn Bike Handlebars: The Pros
- Aerodynamic – bullhorn bars let you reach further forward over the front wheel, making them well-suited to racing.
- Similar To Flat Bars – bullhorn bike handlebars can essentially be thought of as a variant of flat bars which give you the option of a more aerodynamic position, as and when you need it. They benefit from being similarly intuitive and simple to use.
- Bullhorn Bars Look Mean – we reckon they edge out drop handlebars as the coolest-looking bars on this list (and they’ve got the best name to boot).
Bullhorn Bike Handlebars: The Cons
- Not As Fast As Drops – bullhorn bars let you adopt a slippery riding position, but most cyclists still won’t be quite as aerodynamic as they would be with drops. The reaching position gripping the horns can be a bit less comfortable over long stints than the aero tuck position on drops too.
- Less Agile Than Flat Bars – though they’re similar, bullhorn bars are usually narrower, making them slightly less stable for quick, precise turning.
#4. Butterfly Bars
Butterfly handlebars – sometimes called ‘touring’ or ‘trekking’ bars – are designed to allow a wide range of hand positions for maximum comfort over long, multi-day rides.
They usually take the form of a squished figure of eight extending backward horizontally from the stem.
Butterfly Bike Handlebars: The Pros
- Comfort, Comfort, Comfort – this is the prime consideration for butterfly handlebars. Along with the multitude of grip options, they’re also fairly upright, reducing pressure on the back, core, and arms over long rides. Butterfly bars have one job, and they do it well!
Butterfly Bike Handlebars: The Cons
- They Look A Bit Silly – definitely function over fashion on these ones!
#5. BMX Handlebars
BMX handlebars have to be able to take a massive amount of punishment. The forces put through them for jumps and tricks are among the strongest any bikes have to deal with.
BMX handlebars typically rise a long way from the stem to accommodate for the undersized frame of a BMX bike. They usually feature a cross brace to provide extra strength and stiffness.
BMX Handlebars: The Pros
- Rigid And Durable – most other handlebar shapes would bend or buckle under the extreme stresses placed on them by a BMX trick rider.
BMX Handlebars: The Cons
- Not Versatile – while they’re perfectly adapted for their specific job, there aren’t many other cycling styles for which BMX handlebars would be much use. But that’s a bit besides the point – you wouldn’t want any other handlebar style for BMX riding either!
#6. Riser Handlebars
Riser handlebars are essentially a variant of flat bars, in which each side of the bars rises from the center by about 2-5 cm.
Riser bars are typically a little wider than standard flat bars too, giving the rider extra stability. They’re very popular as mountain bike handlebars – often when you see a mountain bike with what appear to be flat bars, you’ll notice they have a slight rise to them on closer inspection.
Riser Handlebars: The Pros
- Very Agile – the upright riding position reduces the weight put through the front wheel, making it extra manoeuverable.
- Super Stable – the extra wide handlebars give the rider extra control and stability, making them ideal for technical trail riding.
Riser Handlebars: The Cons
- Slow – as with flat bars, it’s difficult to tuck into an aerodynamic riding position, making riser bars less efficient for pounding out the miles along paved roads.
- Wide – the tradeoff for that extra stability gained from wide handlebars is the inconvenience of being unable to fit through narrow gaps. This is particularly problematic in city cycling when trying to nip between static traffic.
#7. Aero Bars
Aero bars – sometimes called ‘triathlon bars’ or ‘tri bars’ – sacrifice all other considerations in favor of pure speed.
They’re primarily used in time-trial events or triathlons, in which aerodynamics take on extra importance because competitors ride alone and drafting is therefore impossible (although triathletes ride alongside each other, drafting is explicitly banned in most races).
Aero bars are a fairly recent addition to bike racing, having first been used at the Tour de France by Greg LeMond in the 1989 edition as he stormed his way to a stunning 8-second victory over Laurent Fignon, overturning a 50-second deficit on the final time trial.
They remain banned in most mass-start road races (excluding time trials in which competitors ride solo) due to safety concerns, as they take the rider’s hands away from the brakes and their narrowness reduces stability.
Aero bars are often paired with bullhorn handlebars to enable climbing and to offer an alternative riding position.
Check out our full Buyer’s Guide to Aero Bars here!
Aero Bars: The Pros
- Lightning Quick – aero bars are the fastest design out there due to the extremely aerodynamic position they enable the rider to tuck into. Across a 40 km time trial course, it’s estimated that aero bars can knock as much as 90 seconds off a cyclist’s time compared to drop handlebars!
Aero Bars: The Cons
- Unstable – due to their narrow position, aero bars require extra concentration from the rider to remain balanced. Blustery crosswinds can pose a real hazard.
- Useless For Climbing Or Sprinting – riding out of the saddle is all but impossible with aero bars, so they’re poorly suited to any type of riding which favours short bursts of power over aerodynamics. This can be worked around by pairing aero bars with bullhorns.
- Potentially Dangerous – aero bars are poorly adapted to making sudden turns and increase the reaction time required to reach the brake levers, so reacting to unexpected hazards becomes more difficult.
Bike Handlebars: Handled!
Now you’ve learned all about the key bike handlebar styles, it’s time to put the knowledge to use for your own cycling!
Whether you’re a road cyclist, mountain biker, triathlete, or BMXer, picking the right style of bike handlebars for you is one of the most crucial decisions you can make in setting up your bike.
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