We all know that the GB sprint riders were running very narrow handlebars, all with the aim of reducing the aerodynamic drag required to beat the competition. As time has passed, more & more endurance track riders & now more road riders are switching to narrower bars, to benefit from the improved aerodynamics. If we ignore the outliers, like Christopher Horner, we are seeing a trend amongst road riders, narrow bars are becoming the norm.
When choosing bars in your local bike shop, it used to be done with a mirror. You picked up some of the various bars available, including the obligatory Cinelli ones that were your standard bar & stem combo, with your hands in the hook of the bars, you then checked to see if it looked ok in the mirror, which meant that you arms went more or less in a straight line, parallel with each other. That was more or less it, apart from choosing standard or deep drop. Now we have such a huge variety that fit probably isn’t the primary selling point anymore, bling may be the biggest factor. I’ve ranted before about aero profiled handlebars being a bit unhelpful sometimes, they do compromise fit, so choose bars carefully. In the present & future, aerodynamics of the rider, and not necessarily the aerodynamics of the component will be the prime selling point for riders with a competitive mind.
If you want the definitive example of an endurance rider with wee-boys-bars, it’s Ed Clancy. He’s a big lad, he normally has to turn his shoulders to get in most doorways, he bruises his driving instructors face trying to squeeze himself into a Ford Fiesta, but he still manages to ride incredibly narrow handlebars. It doesn’t appear to affect his breathing too much, but the gains must be quite large for him to go this narrow. If a rider with these broad shoulders can ride bars that narrow, you can reasonably assume that most of us would be fine on bars a bit narrower without any ill effects.
I’ve recently been studying riders over various events, looking at riders likely to have been involved in some wind tunnel testing. It does seem that many professional road riders, especially climbers are still riding bars which an endurance track rider may now consider far too wide. It appears that there may be a glaringly obvious reason for this, climbing position.
When the riders are climbing on ‘the tops’, their hands are closer together than they are on the hoods or the drops. So for climbers, having that wider portion of the tops of the bars available may ‘feel’ better, but is it? Looking at the photo above, we can see that with the two hand positions, the upper arms are in almost identical positions, leaving the chest just as open in both cases. So perhaps having a narrower bar won’t really make too much difference to a riders ability to breath properly while climbing. Perhaps we compensate by simply moving our arms.
Our own Brian Smith used to prefer bars with less of a straight portion, which began to bend forwards much earlier than regular bars. This may lead us to conclude that it helped angle his arms in a direction that opened his chest up during climbing. Could this be the way to go for modern narrow bars, a change in shape to allow improved aerodynamics & encourage a more open chest climbing position? Would be interesting to hear Brian’s comments on bar width & shape on this.
The Gist Of It
There’s more to come on this, I’ve got myself a set of narrower bars than I normally ride & I’m going to be testing them on some climbs. We may find out that it makes no difference, we may find a higher heart rate relative to power, or it may cause some muscular pain which could be remedied by some simple gym work. The narrower bars may work better on headwind climbs, we really don’t know. I can’t find a single study to show if there are all round benefits or detrimental effects to wee-boys-bars away from the drop bar position. Handling issues seem baseless too, as most can negotiate quite tricky corners while on tri-bars after a little practice. Based on what the pro’s are doing, apart from old man Chris Horner, there’s got to be something in it.