Yesterday I posted a review of the Soma Gator Bar
and mentioned how I felt that the drop sections radius basically made the bar very difficult to like. It is my opinion, of course, but today I wanted to tell you why it is my opinion.
I didn't just come to this opinion flippantly or by accident. Hopefully after this post, you will see why I feel the way that I do about this radius issue. I am not expecting that all will agree, or even a few, but hopefully this spurs you on to consider why it might matter to you. Well.......if you ever consider off road drop bars, that is.
I am going to use a lot of visual aids today and first I want to point out a basic design feature of flat bars.
|Basic flat bars are generally set up close to parallel with the ground. |
Using my mini Blackburn pump for something actually useful, (that's another story!), you can see how the pump lines up with the spaces between the boards on my front porch. This represents how a mtb handle bar is typically level with the ground. The reason this works is because the position your hands end up in promotes an "elbows out" and up stance, or as some refer to it as- the attack position
- which promotes better control over the bike in rougher terrain. Sweep and rise notwithstanding, this is the basic handle bar position for off roading.
|This would be considered "bad" for a normal mtb bar to have as a feature. |
Most mountain bike handle bars with a basis in the flat style do not droop downward. This wouldn't be a preferred position for your hands in rough terrain because the bumps and lumps your front tire create going over a uneven surface would want to vibrate your hands down and outward, right off the handle bars. Typically this would be seen as a bad thing. Yes? Yes.....it would.
This is important for a bit further down in the post.
Now we get into a bit of history. Off road drop bars, at least in the modern sense, started with Charlie Cunningham and his bikes which featured modified Cinelli bars and his own stems to get the extensions up to a point where a flat bar's grips would be at from the ground.
The bars were modified to flare out and sweep outward at the extensions a bit to allow for the wrists and forearms to have room to move side to side in difficult terrain without smacking the tops of the bars. It is important to note that these bars were designed to be ridden almost always in the drops. The brake hoods, (if there were anything other than the metal perch), weren't a place that was expected to be used much, if at all. The point was that the drop extensions oriented the wrists, arms, and shoulders in a much more natural, relaxed position. The theory being that this more ergonomic position was better for absorbing trail chatter, left the rider fresher longer, and required less energy to hold on to the handle bars. You will note that almost every drop barred 'Ham has the extensions level, or nearly so, with the ground.
After Charlie helped found Wilderness Trail Bikes, the company made its own version of the original Cunningham modified bars for years. I remember mounting several pairs of them to cyclo cross bikes in the 90's. Then, WTB went through several changes, and the drop bar was cut from the product line, and that would be that for years. After a time when used WTB Dirt Drops were fetching triple digit prices on the used market, a couple of dirt drop aficionados helped design the On One Midge Bar using the WTB Dirt Drop as the design foundation. The off road dirt drop market was born again with the rising popularity of 29"ers and "monster cross" bikes in the early 00's. Several off road drop bars have followed in the wake of the Midge bar, but many have veered wildly from the basis of thought behind drop bars for off roading.
|A modern take on the off road drop bar- This is an Origin 8 Gary Sweep OS Bar|
Off road drop bars these days are typically not designed with the original intentions of the bars that Charlie Cunningham would have made or that WTB used to sell. These days it would appear that "uniqueness" is valued above function. Above we have an example of a bar that hits a middle ground of sorts when it comes to bars meant for off road use in the drop bar flavor. I'm not going to get into stems, or much about lever placement here. I am going to talk about hand positions and how the critical feature of a drop bar's radius used to bend the hooks affects those hand positions.
|The same bar as above, rotated so that the ramps/tops are parallel to the ground. (Note spaces in porch boards as a reference)|
If we take a bar like the Origin 8 Gary Sweep OS as an example, (shown above), we can see that by placing a priority on hand comfort at the ramps/hoods by placing that section level points the extensions downward at an angle which does a couple of things. Number one- It causes that "sloping downward" bar position like I described would be bad with a flat bar above. Bumps and lumps caused by the front wheel running over rougher ground is going to cause the hand to want to slip downward. The rider will have to counter this with a tighter grip. Not what we want in an off road drop bar, which should require less grip
if the extensions are closer to level to the ground. Secondly, it cants the wrists backward into your forearms. This raises tension in the muscles, which again- is the antithesis to the reasons behind having a drop bar for off road use.
|An effective lever placement could be anywhere between the two red lines, depending upon the rider's preference.|
Now let's talk about lever placement in a general sense. Remembering that the primary hand position for an off road drop bar should be set up in the drops,
that will dictate that you be able to reach and operate the brake lever, or "brifter", if using a multi-speed set up, from the extensions. That's why bars with more "open radius" drops are difficult to get right. If the bar is rotated too high, and the levers mounted so the hoods come off the ramps at a level to the ground way, usually you can't reach the lever effectively from the drops, and that is a big problem. You might say, "Well then! If I cannot get a good hoods position, then why bother?"
Yes. Exactly, but also keep in mind that the primary place you need to have working above all others is in the drops.
Now perhaps you can see that a really "open radius" design really limits the effectiveness of an off road drop design. You may have flare and sweep in the drops, but if you almost cannot use that position, what is the point?
In the case of the Gary Sweep OS, a slight compromise in the ramps- having them slope downward slightly, away from the rider as seated, yields an extension position that points slightly downward, but is still usable. I find that if the extensions point in the general direction of the rear axle of the bike, it is okay. Anything forward of that, if the extensions point at the cranks, or even closer to the front wheel, that is a bar that is set up, or designed completely with disregard to the entire reason for having an off road drop bar. Again- why bother if that is the case?
|Examples of the Jones Bar. (Image courtesy of Jones Bikes)|
Finally, an off road, flared, swept drop bar is not for everyone. I get that, but if you think that a design with an extension pointing downward radically is a good thing, consider the Jones Bar. Do you ever see anyone pointing the extensions of a Jones Bar so radically downward? I have not. You may say, "It's a completely different handlebar.
" Well, it is, but it isn't. I think of a Jones Bar as a "flat plane off road drop bar". There is sweep, multiple hand positions, and a definite component of reach, which drop bars have as well. Jones Bars are designed with multiple hand positions in mind, just like a good off road drop bar should have as well, but it is obvious that the "primary" position is where the grips and levers are. Just like a good off road drop bar should have. Again, if the radius of an off road drop bar precludes any of the aforementioned traits, and doesn't promote the ergonomic features that Cunningham and Jones promote, it is the antithesis of an off road drop bar design.
That's my opinion, and with the above explanation, I think it is apparent why I feel that way. You have to decide for yourself what is right for you.