Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Off Road Drop Bars 101: More On Design

Last week I wrote about how an off road drop bar design's radius maters to the overall set up of an off road drop bar. You can reference that post by clicking here. This time I am going to cover why a couple of bars have gotten the design more right than wrong. Hopefully this will help you find a bar for off road drop bar use on your steed of choice. 

Wide tops, enough flare to clear your wrists, and a decent amount of sweep.
 Let's consider what is generally thought of as "good" when it comes to a typical off road/mountain biking handle bar. One of the latest trends is for a really, really wide bar and a short stem. It used to be that it was the other way around- really narrow bars and a really long stem.  Either way, what the idea is that the bars and stem are working together to give the rider maximum leverage over their front wheel. Keeping that front wheel going where you intend to point it is crucial to having a good experience on an off road adventure. Off road drop bars can be tough to comprehend in terms of set up, because the bar itself has a component of "reach", which is usually in the realm of what the stem is for. I'll cover off road drop bar stems in another post, because besides radius, they are one of the most critical parts of an off road drop bar set up.

So, let's talk about why you would want a drop bar design for off road riding with a wider top. Looking at our flat bar users, we see that the wider bar, as well as the tops of an off road drop bar, are going to pretty much determine where the controls end up being in space. Typically you're going to want wider tops than narrower on your drop bar set up for control reasons, just like flat bar users do. This can be tough to find in an off road drop bar. That is because several off road drop bars have flared drops that are at such a severe angle that the slanted in drop section took away from the width of the bar overall. This puts the hoods at a much narrower point, not to mention slanted over on their sides more, which is putting your hands in a narrower stance if you are on the hoods. This makes riding the hoods less appealing, or not at all appealing, depending upon the radius of the drops. While being in the drops is where your set up should be focused upon, having a hoods position compromised due to excessive flare is not ideal. Remember- flare on the drops is there to clear your wrists and forearms while down in the drops. Enough flare for that is plenty, We don't need more.

The ramps shouldn't "reach" out too far forward of the top section.
"Reach" is how far forward from the tops that the ramp section sticks outward to the front of the bike. The point where your levers mount is usually the most forward part, or should be. Levers that have to mount downward from a point level with the tops create another odd hoods position, which, again- is not necessary or desirable. Besides the inherent reach in the bars, we have stems from less than 50mm all the way beyond 100mm and less reach means we can usually use a "normal" length stem so that we are not locked into finding a short reach/high angle stem, which there are very few of out there these days. Remember- stems will be covered later.

Again, due to stem limitations, we don't want to have a ton of "drop" either. Drop is the distance from the tops to where your hands will grip the extensions while in the drops. Deep drops are harder to use since they require a higher rise stem, and again- those are tougher to source without going custom. Besides, a slight difference in height for positions from "in the drops" to "on the tops" is easier to negotiate off road. Obviously, weirder radius bends can cause the extensions to have "constantly varying drop" which can get so radical the extensions/drop position is essentially unusable. The bars with a tighter radius bend tend to have the most usable positions because of this.

The Cowchipper has a reasonable swept extension outwards which should appeal to most riders.
Sweep is how the extensions are bent to "sweep" outwards from the bottom of the drop sections radius bend. The Woodchipper and the sadly defunct Luxy Bar have what I would term as "radical" extension sweep. This appeals to those riders who find bars like the Jones Bar appealing but want the variety of positions a good drop bar can give in different levels. (High/sitting up and Low/bent over) Less sweep is found in a bar like the Cowchipper, which is less radical but still allows for a nice, ergonomic feel and helps with the "elbows out", attack position for off road riding. The Midge Bar/June Bug Bar fall into this less radical sweep category as well.

The extensions length is the final piece of the puzzle and that is a personal preference that each rider can decide on for themselves. Midge Bar/June Bug Bar models tend to the minimalist side, offering only one good grip at the extensions, while a Cowchipper gives you room to move.

Luxy Bars had a radically swept extension and a shallow drop
So, to close on the design aspects of an off road drop bar, radius is the foundation. Too "open" and/or deep, the more that compromises the end user in terms of various options in set up and positions. Extensions that are more closely in parallel to the ramps work better in this regard. Then too, a long reach, or too much flare can take away from options for set up and this needlessly so because those things, when used too much, can actually render a bar less suited for off road use. Finally, swept extensions are great, and having options would be good, but as of now the only decent, highly swept off road drop is the Woodchipper. Extension length is a personal preference and shorter or longer really makes no difference in set up.

Finally, I wanted to tackle the questions about these sorts of bars and gravel road/touring use. In my opinion, we do not really need these sorts of bars for gravel road riding, although there are races/events/rides where things get rough and the control an off road drop bar lends a rider would be a nice option. I feel a wide road bar is definitely a good choice for gravel roads, and in my humble opinion, the Cowbell Bar by Salsa Cycles is the classic gravel road cycling bar. Some may say the Nitto Randonneur bar is better, or that some other bar is best, but for a road based design with modern features, a Cowbell is the bees knees with just enough flare and sweep to keep you in control.

Next time I'll talk about stems and how frame design plays into how you choose a stem.


MMcG said...

Liking this!

S Sprague said...

Great subject GT!
I'm particularly interested your Cowchipper vs. the Cowbell opinion. I have the Cowbell on my cross bike (yes, I know I should get a proper gravel bike and I will eventually!), that I use to ride gravel, and was thinking of a bit more flare in the drops. Not that I have any issues with the Cowbell but I would like a little more room in the drops. I spend most of my time on the hoods while on the pavement but in the drops for gravel/dirt descents. I'll go research on Riding Gravel about the Cowchipper.

Looking forward to stems!

Guitar Ted said...

@S Sprague: Cowbells vs Cowchippers is partly a discussion of being aero and partly a discussion on type of background/bike you have.

Obviously, keeping your stance narrower than wider will help with the aero thing.

The bike may help make the choice. I find swept off road drops work great on single speed gravel bikes where standing and mashing instead of seated climbing is more common.

Your background as a rider- road vs mtb- can play into those decisions as well.

I find that the slight aero advantage of the 'Bell is better than the "Chipper" for most gravel riding on geared bikes.

Chris Powers said...

Another great post. Just the topic I was looking for! Although, your forthcoming post on Dropbar MTB stems is the one I'm really excited for!

Although I do ride road / gravel....I probably have the most fun riding my MTB on singletrack.

Wide bar / short stem cockpit, decently slack headtube angle, longer top tube. I truly believe all of these moto tendencies are making bicycles more fun to ride on trails.

My first modern dropbar MTB is in the works, I'm currently getting ready to build up a Salsa Cutthroat frameset which I bought 6 months ago. I'm trying to make my final choices on cockpit.

My legs are longish, for my height, with arms slightly below average length. I'm going to run a Thomson dropper post, so setback is not an option. Planning on the 46cm Cowchipper bars (or possibly the forthcoming Ritchey VentureMax bars).

Likely a Thomson X4 stem. I would like to go short without being too short. Its tough for me to gauge what is too short with dropbar MTB. Thinking about 60 or 70mm and possibly with the 10 angle up. I would like to have the drops be higher without using more than a couple 10mm headset spacers.

The stems I have in my garage are all straight 100 or 110mm road stems or 50m or less MTB stems. So, I can't experiment much there. I'm attempting to guess right the first time for this build. What do you think about my 60mm or 70mm with 10 degree stem guess?