The Bar Shape Paradox

Frank Schleck sporting a set of round bars with a classic bend.

I almost look forward to riding in bad weather because it means I have a perfect excuse to climb aboard my old Bianchi XL EV2, which currently serves as my rain bike (see Rule #12 for more information on bike requirements). Some bikes just seem to fit, and you feel it with every turn of the pedals. Sure, the frame’s about as soft as George Hincapie at the sight of a cobble stone, but I love the way that bike feels – and I always have. That’s something I really love about hand-built bikes – they all have their unique personality; both my Bianchis are hand-built according to (fundamentally) the same geometry, but somehow the EV2 just fits me like a glove.

One of the things that struck me the last few weeks riding the EV2 is that I really like the feel of round bars. Several years ago, I made the switch to FSA K-Wings for my main bike, believing I would never look at round bars again.  Not only did I love the comfort of the wide, flat platform at the tops of the bars, but I loved the scalloped perch they make for the hands when riding on the hoods. Imagine my surprise, then, as it recently began to dawn on me that the round bars on EV2 felt bit better in my hands, especially when climbing – both on the tops and the hoods.

It got me wondering about the peculiar choices that Pros seem to make with regards to their handlebar choice. It’s no secret that many Pros are notoriously finicky about their gear and in some cases refuse to upgrade from trusted pieces equipment to a newer model, especially when it comes to the touch points on their bikes. Lance Armstrong famously refused to ride Shimano’s SPD-R line of pedals after pulling out of a pair during the finale of a World Championship Road Race and, to this day, rides an old model of saddle, the Rule-Breaking Concor Lite (which also happens to be the second-ugliest saddle ever made, with the Selle SMP taking the win on that one). Similarly, Damiano Cunego Tom Boonen both refused to upgrade to the Time RSX line of pedals from their Time Impacts because they preferred the feeling of the metal pedal body on the old Impacts (I have a pair of these and they do, oddly enough, feel quite different from the RSX.)

When it comes to handlebar choice, it seems the majority of riders prefer round bars, and many also prefer a classic drop – not to mention aluminum (*shudder*). You have to search pretty hard for a Pro who rides a K-Wing or Cinelli Ram, and it also seems a minority even use an anatomic bend; most claim that the classic drop provides more hand positions.  I am not sure I understand this argument;  it seems to me that the classic drop would really only offer more places to build up sore spots on your hands when riding in the drops.  Are the round drops better for concealing amphetamines?  What am I missing?

That aside, I love the look of the classic bar bend, and as I contemplate switching from my K-Wing to a round bar, I find my mind drifting slowly towards a classic bend as well.  After all, if it’s good enough for the Brothers Grimpeur, isn’t it good enough for me?

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25 Replies to “The Bar Shape Paradox”

  1. When it comes to contact points – saddle, pedals and ‘bars – following the pros lead may not be a bad idea. These dudes spend mega miles in the saddle and use what works, not what the marketing department suggests (usually).

    My understanding of the heavier aluminum bars is for crash resistance. They want to get up off the tarmac and continue the race after a crash – tough to do with a snapped off carbon bar.

    Sure, the team car awaits with a plenty of spares, but you gotta wonder why most pros skip the carbon bars.

  2. @Dan O
    Interesting – good point on them using what works, not what is cool. As for the alu bars; as you say, while they’ve got lots of support, a lot of the time they do just pick themselves up off the tarmac and keep rolling without too much interference from the team – broken bars would definitely be cause to stop and wait for the car.

    But that brings me to another subject; I’m not sure I’m following this whole business around “carbon is weak”. From what I’ve understood is it’s actually quite a bit stronger (not just lighter) – and less prone to fatigue – than aluminum, just so long as it is built correctly (enough layers, etc). Carbon has the reputation for being brittle and that when it fails, there’s no bending or warning, just a sudden catastrophic failure.

    But, aluminum exhibits the same properties; you get hairline fractures that aren’t visible and over time they grown until they also fail without warning – it’s happened to me personally (it comes as quite a surprise when one snaps a handlebar with his formidable Dutch Power), and the last edition of the Rivendell Reader had a piece on the same thing happening to an aluminum crank set.

    That said, I don’t think I’d be the first dude to jump on a set of carbon wheels before setting off over the stones of Paris-Roubaix.

  3. @Dan following the PRO’s lead may be THE problem. They may well spend thousands of kilometres in the saddle, but they are also paid to ride the kit and are as prone to fashion trends/failures as the rest of us.

    If PROs are so good at finding the kit that works then why aren’t they all riding on virtually identical kit? Physiologically we aren’t all that different so why hasn’t kit evolved over time into the perfect, physiologically perfect kit? But then how do you explain the return of round bars?

    So, the important rule to follow here, is to ensure you look good. Comfort can be sacrificed if you don’t have to ride for six hours a day.

    As a footnote I grabbed a pair of round bars off the shelf to try the other week. Without riding them, they seemed hideously uncomfortable. But at least they don’t look hideous like a lot of the ergonomic bars.

  4. I really like my k-wings except when riding the tops in a standing position as the ovular bar shape is very awkward under hand. That said, riding in a standing position I prefer the hoods or the drops anyway (regardless of bar shape) because those positions afford wider hand position and more leverage. Seated with hands on tops I find to be comfortable enough but not superior to the round bars I have on the ALAN. And now that the ALAN has been returned to a dedicated cyclocross/dirt road steed, I shutter at the idea of putting shaped bars on it. The scallop on the K-wings is money. I also prefer the ergo bend (round or shaped bars) for the natural wrist position it facilitates. Aesthetically I see your point with round bars, practically I have yet to find a round bar I prefer to the K-wings for long days in the saddle. K-wings look sexy too IMO.

  5. @Jarvis
    You’re coming right in at where I always land on this stuff: a stalemate. We don’t get the chance to test gear for hours and hours on end in order to figure out what we like best, but the Pros are more fit, spend more time on their bikes, and – as cyclists – hopelessly rooted in tradition. It’s impossible to tell if their lead is a reliable one.

    So, I spend days or weeks or months (depending on the size of the investment) thinking over what I will do and eventually just go with whatever hairbrained solution I settled on. Of course, this phase of the product-selection process is my favorite. After that comes the next phase, which is taking new photos of the bike, updating my computer screensaver and wallpapers with it, and congratulating myself on how much better the bike looks while pitying Past Frank who had to suffer through the inferior choices previously made.

    Incidentally, I think you may be onto the start of a new Rule: Comfort should be sacrificed for looks.

  6. @Marko

    I really like my k-wings except when riding the tops in a standing position as the ovular bar shape is very awkward under hand.

    When do you ever stand with your hands on the tops? No power or control. I leave standing for the hoods and the drops only.

    On an slightly unrelated note, on a recent ride, I was reminded of Pantani’s monster climbing style where he would climb out of the saddle while staying in the drops. (Another loyalist to the classic drop.) Granted, my bars are way lower than his were, but it is really amazing how fast that is. It doesn’t lend itself to climbing in a high cadence, but the way your body is positioned when climbing like that, it almost feels like you’re pre-loading a spring and you generate loads of power through the hips. Fucking slays me after no time at all, but you really do fly that way.

  7. I really like my k-wings except when riding the tops in a standing position as the ovular bar shape is very awkward under hand.

    When do you ever stand with your hands on the tops? No power or control. I leave standing for the hoods and the drops only.

    That’s exactly my point. It’s moot. Since riding like that is foolish, the K-wings, for me, are much more comfortable.

  8. @Marko
    And I know exactly what you mean about climbing Ala-Marco on the drops. It makes a huge difference in kick and speed. Only problem is, I’m cached after about 25 pedal revolutions.

  9. I have been in love with Ritchey WCS bars that have not only round drops, but a fair flat portion at the beginning of the bends. They are heaven, and match my Ritchey WCS Seapost, Pedals, and Stem~

  10. @wvcycling
    A compulsive component-matcher, are we? You’re in good company here, and thanks for the tip! One reason I haven’t switched to a Shimano PRO stem is because it would break the FSA monopoly I have going when it comes to bars/stems/seat posts. Same goes for the bars I’m considering; I like the 3T bars, but then I’d have to switch stems and I really like my seatpost. So I’m a bit fucked, really.

    It’s funny; I generally tend to ignore the whole Ritchey line of products which is odd since I am head-over-heels in love with my MB-Zip, and Bridgestone’s alliance with Ritchey for parts was a huge part of those bikes.

    I’ll take another look at those bars, maybe they are a good compromise in shape, provided I can get over breaking the FSA stranglehold or like the stem and seat post options.

  11. wvcycling :I have been in love with Ritchey WCS bars that have not only round drops, but a fair flat portion at the beginning of the bends. They are heaven, and match my Ritchey WCS Seapost, Pedals, and Stem~

    I made the switch from round bars to flat (Zipp contours) a couple of years ago and instantly fell in love. Couldn’t imagine riding round bars any more – just feel awkward and uncomfortable on the tops. #2 bike got given some sub-standard ITM flat things (too flat) until I replaced the whole bike this winter. Interestingly, I chose the Ritchey WCS contoured bar, and these are the closest I’ve come to serious hand comfort (although nothing matches the Zipps)

    Handlebars is one of those odd areas where I think the Pro’s get overly suspicious (along with coloured tyres). They’re an odd breed.

  12. @frank

    Am I alone here in this particular obsession?

    You are not, my friend. Since I don’t update my components enough (still using round bars) I seem to take a new portrait photo of bike #1 even when I put on new tires or tape. What a weirdo.
    When I get new wheels I’ll be mailing out photo albums to anyone, like an overly proud dad.

  13. @john
    This Winter, I’ll be doing Christmas cards and providing long narrations of what minor modifications my bikes underwent during the course of the year.

  14. @frank

    I really find sometimes that component selection is a very painful process. Before I bought this ideal bar, I had a Ritchey WCS Logic; an ergo bar. I really wanted a 3T bar with the long but shallow, sweeping drops. Alas, I enjoy my Ritchey Products, and I feel the OBLIGATION to keep my components matching, so it took me a while to find a bar I liked and matched the rest.

    Some of us are pickier about components than women are about shoes. :D

  15. @frank I spend so much time fettling with my bikes that if I photographed every single change I wouldn’t have time to ride them. Besides, by the time I’ve deliberated, bought, stripped and re-built the bike, I’ve more than likely moved on to upgrading/re-building another of the bikes and so starting the process all over again.

  16. In regards to the Selle SMP: a coworker at one of my former shops hit the nail on the head when he dubbed it the “Selle Save My Penis.”

  17. I just ordered one of these babies and am so excited. Thanks for the recommendation Frank.

  18. more than any other component, bars are the thing I loose most sleep over and want to try the most variations of..

    more than any other component, bars are the thing that are the biggest pain in the arse to chop and change between!

    For now I compromise: compact fsa…. not quite round not quite ergo.

  19. You can call it what you like, but the Selle SMP is what keeps me on my Merckx.

  20. @TomB

    Thanks for popping this old article up into the sidebar.

    I’ve been thinking about trying out some classic bend bars. I’m not sure that I really like the ergo bars that came with my bike – they just don’t feel the most comfortable. Last summer I got to the point where I could ride them for a good while at any given time, but so far this year I’m just not feeling them.

    Perhaps I just need some more time to get back into form, but I’m not much enjoying the drops right now. I’ll use them on descents when I want maximum control, but that’s about it. Currently, when I really want to push hard I place my hands on top of the actual shifters, as that gets me into a nice stretched out position, with my back more flat and horizontal.

    I’m thinking about trying some bars with less drop, but we’ll see how things progress as the summer moves along.


    Those are the ugliest saddles ever designed. My LBS started carrying those recently. For how ugly they are, they better be the most comfortable thing your ass has ever sat down upon. They look heavy, as well.

  21. @mcsqueak
    I’ve got a set of Rotundos that the lads at 3T sent me; I’ll be jotting down my thoughts fairly soon. They’re odd at first, but I can’t imagine going back to ergo bars after having grown accustomed to the classics. Way mo’ bettah.

  22. @frank

    Nice, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on those.

    Now that I have a new saddle on bike #1, I’m going to take the saddle I use to have on it, since it’s still in good shape, and put it on bike #2, my old Schwinn that has classic bend bars, and see how I like those for longer rides.

    I know it won’t be a very good comparison since the bikes are pretty different, but it should be interesting at any rate, and I can see how my hands feel at a minimum. I’m also excited to throw my Speedplay pedals onto the old rig and run her up some hills. For as heavy as she is, I remember her being pretty comfortable to climb with when I was getting started.

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