Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Musings On Drop Bars

I have been following some commentary on a blog recently concerning set up for drop bars on road going bicycles. The blog is written by a guy by the name of Dave Moulton. He's a very good frame builder, or was. I guess he's somewhat retired these days, but no matter. The guy has been around and knows his racing bikes from back in the day.

He laments in this piece he wrote recently that too many folks are not getting it with regards to how to "properly set up drop bars". While many commenters are taking him to task for a homeless person comment, (which I honestly don't even remember reading), this comment that he highlighted really struck me:

"With a road bike it is akin to buying a Formula 1 race car then trying to convert it to a family minivan. In the end you achieve niether comfort or performance."
Wow! Did he ever nail my experiences as a bicycle mechanic working on "road bikes" or what?  So many times it is all about the tipping up of the bars and slanting the aero bars up at a ridiculous angle so folks can get their "bar lean" on as they pedal the bike.

While commenters are going back and forth on what constitutes a good bar set up, I think a few things that bear mentioning are being left out of the conversation.

First off, people want to be "faster". The thing is, they put their confidence in equipment first. "Will these tires make me faster?", or "Will this gearing make me faster?" are comments I've heard so many times I cringe when they are spoken in the shop. I mean, I get the thrill of going faster. It's what the fun of cycling is mostly about- speed. The thing is, equipment can't buy you "love".

Secondly, and obviously tied to the first thing, you'll need to become more fit to get more enjoyment, (if speed is a big part of what attracts you to cycling), out of cycling, on whatever bicycle you want. This is particularly tied to "road" cycling, it seems. Really. Who cares where your drop bars are at if you are out of shape and unwilling to "invest" in the "motor"? We "died in the wool" cyclists know this, but the guys and gals that see cycling as recreation don't a lot of the time. (I speak from experience in the shop from where I work. Your mileage may vary)

Finally, and more to the point of the quote I pulled from Mr. Moulton's blog, drop bar bikes that are bred from racing are not what most recreational cyclists should be riding over the road. It is why I see a lot of "Formula 1 race cars" trans-mutated into "mini-vans".

Now, let me temper this by saying I do not say anything about my philosophy at the shop where I work. I keep my mouth shut, unless my opinion is earnestly sought out, which is rarely. Why?

Well, for one thing, folks that want "road" bikes have their minds set, most of the time, as to what will be making them faster. They want to ride a bicycle, and my boss wants to sell bikes. Manufacturers make "Formula 1" type road bikes because folks get all starry-eyed about going fast, and these bikes are "fast", right? So, they buy the bike, then they try to bend it to their will, and many times end up with a "mini-van" with 23mm tires. The drop bar set up comes with the territory.

Hey! "At least they are riding bicycles", right?

Well, on one hand we can all shake our heads in agreement, and find solace in the fact that one more person is pedaling while we ride home on that "all rounder" we've been working on that is 100 times more comfortable and practical than the carbon-wonderbike-of-the-day that just went out the door with a seat post rack, slanted upward aero bars, and that wireless, 90 function computer. But the bike that I ride isn't anything like what would actually sell, right?

I don't know, but something seems wonky about that to my mind.

And this was supposed to be about drop bars! Okay, let's get back to that for a minute. Looking at what goes for road drops these days, I'd guess most folks rarely, if ever, use the drop section. (Based upon wear patterns I notice on bar tape and hoods/tops on the bikes I work on) If I am right, I am thinking most folks could (A) use a different bike with a flat bar, or (B) use shallower, flared drops like we weirdos on off road drop bar bikes are using. I know that when I test ride a regular road bike with "normal drops", my arms get all tight, and my wrists twist in an uncomfortable way. In fact, I can honestly say I'll never use a "standard drop bar" again. Ever.

I bet a lot of road riders would really dig flared drop bars too. Easier to reach the drop section, so the "more hand positions" would actually be something usable, instead of a pipe-dream. The flare of the drops puts the upper body in a more relaxed, less tense position too, so comfort is actually increased. Yes- it is less aero, but c'mon! We're not talking about criterium racers going out for a racy group ride here. We're talking about regular "Joes" and "Jills" that want a drop bar road going rig.

Raleigh actually puts a flared drop bar on their touring rig called the Sojourn, so maybe I'm not so off my rocker as you might think. So, as odd as that might seem to Mr. Moulton, I would suggest that the off road drop bar is a great way to start the "de-programming" of the recreational road cyclist. That and the "fresh air" that some companies are bringing to the marketplace with some smartly set up "all-rounders" like Raleigh, Salsa Cycles, and others. (And yes- Rivendell has always been hammering on a similar drum).

So, at any rate, my hope is we can start steering away from the weird way road bikes are marketed now into a more practical, more comfortable, and more sustainable road bike that will foster a life-long pursuit of road biking. You could be fast, but be somewhat more practical and comfortable too. I dunno. Maybe I am just an odd-ball mechanic that should stick to gravel and off road! I mean, who'd want to do that kind of riding anyway?


Charlie Farrow said...

"...equipment can't buy you 'love'". Sage words, but don't let "The Industry" hear them...lest they hang you as a witch!!!

Jason said...

Lots of this is me. I hardly find myself in the drops. And surely my bar tape is worn on the hoods. It's probably a fit thing or just a question their set up, but I use them so rarely, I question why I have drops on my road and cx bike at all and would opt for a flat bar if brake set up was easier.

Jerry said...

if I had a road bike, I'd put a woodchipper on it. try it Jason, I bet you'll like it.

Unknown said...

Mark but I want to go faster and I really think that the carbon stem/handlebars is the final upgrade that will make me go fast right????? Please say yes!

Great write up Sir - bang on and as Mr. Farrow said be careful :)

BTW - I love my Ragley Luxy's and even found myself in the drops yesterday battling a fun little head wind on the way home!

Captain Bob said...

"odd ball mechanic" well, we agree on that for sure. i got a little "odd" in me too which i think makes us both think outside thebox a little. the only reason i can think of roades bikes not having flare is for the "racers" in a tight packmaybe not getting bars tangled so easliy. otherwise i see no reason for the non-flare. I never have understood why the drop is so deep either. i guess ith my belly in the way i will never understand why people use them on a road bikes when they are so low.

Anonymous said...

It's articles like this that help to change the concepts of sport cycling. Great write up.

Ari said...

The woodchipper is fantastic, The Luxy is fantastic, the Nitto Noodle is great. Riding in a group ride with the Luxy is dangerous. I have "hooked" some of my riding partners. Maybe that is one reason Lance Armstrong does not ride a flare drop bar.

The Breathing Room said...

Cyclocross bikes to the rescue. I've put many people on cross bikes that originally came into the shop for a road bike. A cross bike with slick 28-32c tires and a positive rise stem.

andersonreed said...

i really like the fsa compacts. the drop is really shallow, the ends are slightly flared and the platform on top is very comfortable. i'm surprised more bikes don't come with them.

Guitar Ted said...

I get that flared drops might not be the best "close quarters racing" set up, but keep in mind, those are not the folks I am writing about today either. Completely different user group in mind. Racers probably are just fine with racing bikes, if ya catch my drift.

MG said...

Amen brother... We are of the same opinion here, and that's why you'll find Woodchippers on two of my three drop bar bikes, and a Bell Lap on the third.

Sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot.

galaxysearchlights said...

Equipment can't buy love but it can buy acceptance.
We are all victims of marketing to some degree.
We all went through the learning curve. Just take a look at the photos from your early years of cycling.
The beauty of this sport is the room to grow and develop. Nobody starts out "died in the wool".... that all,,,, I need to go shave my legs now.
P.S. giddyup!

Guitar Ted said...

@galaxysearchlights: Oh, to be sure, we all did get stung by marketing here and there. But you and I are on "the other side of that" now, and what I am referring to today are the folks that aren't, or are not interested in pushing through the marketing. (Or maybe those that just walked into the door for the first time).

Those folks and how drop bar bikes are marketed to them- That's what I am referring to.

But to your point- yes, I have been suckered in by marketing in the past. It just isn't pertinent to my point in the blog today.

tcxjon said...

How does the woodchipper bar or the ragely work with sram shift/brake levers.Isn't the angle kind of weird?

Guitar Ted said...

@tcxjon: Actually, it isn't really any different than with ordinary drop bars. The levers stay pretty vertical on Woodchippers, and even on bars where the slope is greater to the drops, the SRAM levers would be easily operated.

I know of several riders that use SRAM on flared drops and they all say it works great.

Ralph said...

I also rarely use the drops on my fancy bike. I do like them for down hill and into the wind though. Currently using FSA K wings for the flat surfaces on the top. Arthitic thumb joints, the flats and carbon help a lot. The woodchipper is an intriguing look see. Any out there similar in carbon with flat tops? My lament on Dave's site is teh marketing engine doesn't seem to be set up to sell people on a practical everyday bike for most casual riders that doesn't weigh a ton. We should beable to get a decent relatively light bike that can be used in all seasons an most road ways. They seem to be few and far between.

My fancy bike is really fast, campy wheels, special steel frame, all the rest. Too bad I'm not fit emough for it to be fast.....

shiggy said...

Totally agree, GT. The short reach, shallow drop bars are more usable for most riders. Can still set them up for a "fast" position in the hooks. Many of the off road models can be too wide for regular road use, though. I narrowed a Midge bar by ~3cm for my road bike, using the Bike Friday method.

Brifters (STI/DoubleTap) work great on a vertically flared bar. I find it EASIER to shift and Shimano seems to agree as they have shaped the STI lever to mimic this.

So, here's to the Adventure Bike as the Sports Coupe/GT/Rally Car of cycling!

Guitar Ted said...

@ralph: Thanks for the comments. As far as I know, there are no carbon fiber versions of these flared drops. Maybe someday.

@shiggy: Here! Here!

Pixy Stoneskipper said...

Your post is perfect. It describes with precision how mechanics at race-oriented shops are expected to eschew opinions.

We need more people to scream about what constitutes a good bicycle setup for 3-25 miles of riding per day. I would like to see all bicycles as Simple Machines.

I am a mechanic at a wise shop that 'gets it,' but will happily work on anything. I ride what most people see as a 'hoopty.'

Philip Williamson said...

I can't ride 'normal' drops anymore, either. They feel freaky in the drops, and unsteady at low speed. It feels like low-speed turning (big bar movement) changes my wrist angle relative to the bar more than flared drops do.

I just rode a Woodchipper setup with friends, and got one for myself. I'm pretty enthusiastic to compare the setup to my Midge and WTB bars. (I started calling the classic Dirt Drop the "Cunningham Bar" if anyone wants to get on board with that).

Newb Biker said...

Do you have a link to your post that covers more detail information on how to set up drop bars properly? I thought that I saw it on your website but I cannot find it. I see some info but not enough to know what stem length, reach, rise, etc to start with.