Sunday, October 12, 2008

Drop Bar For Mountain Biking: Part I

Today I want to address the subject of the drop bar for mountain bike use. It seems to be a ridiculous suggestion to some mountain bikers to even consider a drop bar off road, but in reality, drop bar usage off road pre-dated flat bar use off road, even in the beginning of the "modern era" of mountain biking, which I put at about 1977 or so. (Basically when Joe Breeze conjured up and made his first purpose built off road bike)

Guys were using "drop" bars off road and they worked great. When the whole "mountain bike" thing got going; however, there was a movement that rejected anything "roadie" oriented. Drop bars were most commonly associated with road racing rigs, so the whole idea of even thinking about using a drop bar off road was a totally "anti-mountain bike" thing for many folks. Some folks didn't get that message though and were thinking in a whole different manner.

Folks like Tom Ritchey, who used his road bike off road more than a mountain bike. But chief amongst the drop bar for off road aficionados was Charlie Cunningham. Amongst other innovations, it was primarily his influences that made the late 80's drop bar boom in mountain bikes a reality. I took many of my cues from Charlie's writings on the subject, so I credit him here as the reason I got into the whole idea as well.

So, using my custom built for drops Badger, I will endeavor to illustrate why and how drop bars for mountain biking work. If you think it makes sense, well then maybe it will be something that will change the way you mountain bike, or maybe it is just a curiosity. Whatever the case, here is the information that I hope will help you decipher what is going on with this whole idea.

First off, here is the bike. I must say up front that there are a couple of key things happening with this rig that you should take note of. First, the frame angles and fork were "modified" to accommodate the use of a drop bar with a "normal stem". The other way to get drop bars to work with mountain bikes not designed for drop bars is to use a stem that accommodates the proper position of your bars. (More on that in a minute) Either way, the ideal position for your drops is to have the drop section be where your flat bar grip height would normally be. This means that the drop bar needs to be higher than a road bike bar to achieve this ideal. (Remember also: Drop bars work best off road if you stay in the drops) So, with that in mind, your frame designed for drop bars offroad will typically have a longer head tube, a severely sloping top tube, and/or an extended fork. Maybe a combination of all three things, maybe just one or two, it depends on the individual rider. Again, a non-drop bar mtb may have a really tall, goofy looking stem to achieve the proper drop bar position. It is just the way it is. You may not approve of the looks, but drop bar folks don't use drop bars because it makes their bikes "look cool". They use drops off road because they work better for the rider in question. Not that a drop bar mtb can not look good. I know of some that are awesome looking.

As you can see here, if I use the drops my hand position is only slightly below my saddle. That's what I wanted and that's where my flat bar grips would be. If the picture was a bit clearer, it would be apparent that my hand position would be just slightly aft of the center line coming out from the stems handle bar clamp area. The hand position mimics an 80mm stem/flat bar set up. I used a Thomson 100mm stem on this bike. Note: A drop bar set up for off roading should not consider using the hoods or bar top as the primary hand position. The drop is where it is at to make the idea work its best.

These are "Gary Bars" by Origin 8. They are very similar to the On One Midge bar. These two bars are currently the most favorable choices for setting up a dirt use drop bar. WTB has a model, but it has more "drop", and therefore is more difficult to get to work right, especially on non-custom applications. The "drop" is the difference between the bar top and the lower extensions. The Gary and Midge have a very shallow drop, which makes getting your set up correct an easier thing to do. Note also the slope of the drops, which is more severe on the Gary bar pictured. This really has no bearing on fit, as you will not be "on the hoods" very much, if at all with a dirt drop set up. Although I will say, it is actually very comfortable to perch the hands there from time to time.

Here is a great view showing the shallow drop of the Gary Bar. (Remember, the Midge has an identical drop) Note also how low the brake levers are lower on the bars. You should be able to reach out from the drops and grab the end of the brake lever with your index finger, at least. This means that the levers will look ridiculously low at first, but trust me, that is where you want the levers. Stopping is good! You might also notice that the drop extensions really do not flare out all that much. These are more akin to road drops than anything else used for mountain biking. The drops align your wrists, elbows, and shoulders in a different way that I find relaxes your upper body more and promotes better breathing. You'll find your elbows closer to your sides, and that you are not using so much energy to hold on to the handlebars. I find it promotes a longer day in the saddle. Finally, your hands can relax a bit, since rocky, rough sections force the handle bar into your grip, and they don't tend to rip out of your hands because of the way your hands are aligned on the bars.

I'll post later with my Karate Monkey to show how you accommodate drop bars to a frame not designed with drops in mind.

Now on to the questions..........
"How do they compare to "regular bars" in technical sections. After 23 years of standard flat bars, (well bull moose at the start), I gave the Mary bars a try and love them, so like many curious about the drops."
"I could see some of the advantages of drop bars for mt. biking, but what about in rocky or technical terrain?"

Well, as stated above, they actually work rather well. Think of how a cyclo cross bike works off road to begin to see how bump forces are dealt with while using drop bars. The climbing off road with drops is really an eye opener. Think of how you pull up on a pail handle to get an idea how a drop bar allows you to use your upper body in a different way to climb. I think its awesome. Actually, if you have ever stood and climbed a steep on a road bike in the drops, you already know how it feels

One of the commenters, "mw", who is an avid drop bar user off road had this to say about riding in technical sections with drops:

"I like the drops even in technical situations. Weighting the bar is natural but different feeling since your hands are in a different orientation. The goal is getting the drop at your normal flat bar height. If not then the front end will feel heavier since your hands are further down and your weight bias is further forward as a result."

Look for another update to this post in the days to come.....


Tomas Rofkahr said...

This helps a lot. I jumped into the drop-bar mtb thing face first and bought an X9 Cutthroat when they came out. After riding flat bar bikes since the mid-late 80s it was a bit of an eye opener. The kind where you get a stick in the eye for your trouble. Between riding rigid for the first time in two decades and being in this oddball drop position I wasn't really sure that I liked it. On the road? It was amazing. Off road? Not so much.

The piece I was missing was the whole bit about setup and positioning. I do like how the far ends of the woodchippers feel when I'm in them, but I can't reach my brakes and it makes doing anything technical really dicey. Looking at how the LBS set the Cutthroat up I can see that they have everything perfectly positioned as if it were a regular drop-bar road bike.

I'll spend some time and move the brakes down lower in the drops and try again.

Guitar Ted said...

@Tomas Rofkahr- Thanks for reading! By the way, the Woodchipper Bar is a bit of a tough one to get everything you want out of it. I might suggest a switch to the Cowchipper Bar if you end up not being satisfied with the Woodchipper. In my opinion, the Cowchipper Bar is a much easier bar to set up to most people's liking.