Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Wide Handlebar Koolaid...

The wider, the better?

I apologize to all you who actually take the time to read my ramblings, but I've actually been out of the saddle since Sea Otter (due to a number of reasons, but I won't bore you with that). BUT! I'm back to riding again and all is well in my world. 

Today I'm going to ramble on about this wide handlebar issue. It's a beat up topic on all the MTB forums but after all my scanning, nobody has given specific examples on how extreme widths have improved (or not) their riding. Most blogs or forums just say, "they're good" or "they give me more control" but I'd like to go a little deeper than that.

I understand that this is all personal preference - there are some that still choose to ride those 510mm width handlebars - but open any MTB magazine now, and you will see wide handlebars on most of the bikes. 

There are number of factors that I believe are contributing to this wide handlebar trend, and foremost it has to be bike geometry. The demand for longer travel bikes in the all-mountain category, or the geometry changes due to demand for 29'er bikes, have given way to slack head angles to improve stability. When the front end is lifted that high and the head angle is appropriately compensated, the need for a shorter stem is warranted. Unless you prefer riding a slightly cramped cockpit, a short stem with narrower handlebars discourages the improved stability that is desired. 

Conversely, if you look at the old MTB's with steep head angles and short travel suspension or rigid forks, you will see very long stems (120mm+) and narrow handlebars. For this type of geometry, one can get away with narrow handlebars.

Then comes the old question, "Which came first... the chicken or the egg?" With riders desiring wider handlebars, does it require the use of a short stem to maintain stability and steering accuracy?

Recently I installed a Kore Torsion handlebar on my On-One Inbred 29'er. And until I received my short replacement stem, the handling felt very slow - like steering a bus. 800mm was a bit much, so I chopped them down to 760mm wide - but bringing in the grip slightly, combined with the 110mm stem, the steering still did not improve. 

70mm Thomson Stem

I did a very strange math and it seemed to have worked. On my XC bike I run a 680mm handlebar with a 110mm stem. If I were to reduce the stem length, to say, 70mm - could I run a handlebar 40mm wider than 680mm (720mm) and have it work well? In other words, if I take away from the stem reach and add that to the bar width... how would it fair? Since I like my riding position a little stretched out, I purchased a 70mm stem to run with my very wide 760mm handlebar.

My first ride out was an very pleasant surprise. The steering really livened up with the short stem and the wide handlebar was what I wanted for the big wheel single speed. I am not stretched out, my lower back does not hurt, and it feels, well... natural.

If you have been contemplating switching to a wide handlebar, you may want to consider a short stem to compensate for that added width. It will keep the steering precise and won't add any drastic change of body position on the bike.

Raw Steel finish on the On-One Inbred SS 29'er