Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Off Road Drop Bars 101: Why Radius Matters

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? 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.

Charlie Cunningham with one of his drop bar equipped bikes. Image from MOMBAT
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. 


Unknown said...

Great post - pretty much sums it all up with the angle that the extension sits at being the most important. Your hoods are not the focus - your drops are!

Unknown said...

Very interesting and nicely done! I love my Jones Bar so far...

bostonbybike said...

All this makes me think - why we can't have off-road drop bars that run top and drop sections parallel (or nearly parallel) to each other? In other words, you could install such bars the way that tops with hoods would be nearly parallel to the ground and the drops wouldn't dramatically point downward. No such designs exist, I think.
Let's say that you take Maes Parallel bars ( ) and bend the drops outward a lot (plus you would have to extend them somehow as those bars are too narrow, but that's another problem).

youcancallmeAl said...

And yet when I look a pictures and videos of the many gravel races being held these days, I can't remember ever seeing many folks riding with their hands in the drops.

scott said...

Thanks for this post. I have always wondered how a bar like the salsa woodchipper is supposed to work. Take a look at a picture of a stock fargo on the salsa website. The lower portion of the drop points down to the ground at a VERY steep angle. Is that really the position the bar was designed for?

Guitar Ted said...

@bostonbybike: There was the Ragley Luxy Bar, which did what you are suggesting, but other than that, no- You are correct. The Midge/June Bug comes closest currently.

My favorite bars right now are the Salsa Cycles Cowchipper and Cowbell. Constantly varying radius bars that are easy to set up to get all positions usable.

@Evan Baird: This post is valid despite what stem you use. The stem has no influence on the radius of the bend to the drop, and thus, no influence on lever placement/ergonomics of that relationship. Stem length/height only determines the position of the bar relative to the other touch points of the bike. Important? You bet. But that has no bearing on what I am discussing in this post.

@youcancallmeAl: A small sampling of some recent Trans Iowa images where you can find some folks using their drop positions:

So, yes. It happens out there. ;>)

Daniel said...

I have two favorite bars. One is the Salsa Cowbell, the drops are really comfortable and have flair to them but its still easy to figure out where to put your shifters.
Also the 3T Ergonova. The drops don't have the flair like the Cowbell (they flair a little but not a lot) but the tops are oval shaped not round. They feel more comfortable to me then round tops do. If the Cowbell had oval shaped tops and still had the flair like they do now that would be the perfect bar for me. Also maybe carbon?

Jon Steinhauser said...

Good article, I wish they would make the luxy bar again! I tried the jones h-bar last year. The hand positions are nice, but it was harsh over bumps compared to the midge. Probably due to the fact that it's built to mtb standards.

Smithhammer said...

I feel like this post is the culmination of a number of thoughts you've been posting for some time, GT. However, it gets right to the point, and is the first thing I would recommend people read who are considering dirt drop bars.

I think the source of a lot of continued confusion/frustration in regards to using dirt drop bars, and setting them up properly, is that people don't seem to be able to get past pre-conceived ideas based on road/touring bars. You really have to come at the dirt drop bar thing from a different approach, and quit making the hoods the place of emphasis. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people trying to adapt dirt drop bars to general touring applications, etc, when this is not what these bars are actually designed for, and these folks would likely be better served by going with a more conventional drop bar instead. A dirt drop bar is meant for riding dirt, and it's primarily meant for riding in the drops. This doesn't preclude comfortable hood placement, and the best drop bars - as you point out - accommodate this, but it really isn't what these bars are primarily designed for.

I've been on a Junebug for about two months now and it works for me in a way that the Woodchipper never did.

kev said...

excellent post. i've just begun riding a Fargo, two decent rides on it so far. it's a fun bike but i'm still getting the cockpit dialed in, this post will help expedite the process. i had the ramps and hoods in line and horizontal, this had the drops pointed forward of the crankset. this has been adjusted per your recs, looking forward to the next ride.

Michael_S said...

Good topic, I've tried a number of dirt drops, including Midge, Newer WTB's, Origin8, and the Luxy. I just couldn't get used to riding the hoods when climbing/flats when they are so narrow. The drop position on the Luxy was very great for descending and technical stuff but just didn't work for all around riding for me. I just got Cowchippers for a dropbar 27.5+ build and think they are the bees knees!
Still love riding Nitto Noodles most of the time on my monster cross bike but I'd love to try the new Ritchey Evomax which seem like a cross between a Noodle and a Cowbell.

hank said...

G.T. Howdy;

Have decided to do a MTB Dirt-Drop conversion. Bike for the project is a 1995 Stumpjumper FS
The biggest question that I have had so far is getting the correct/proper Stem height and length. I've used one of those online inter-active calculators and plugged-in my bikes measurements (floor to top of fork tube cap = 830mm, distance from top of Fork tube to front axle = 245mm. Came up with an angle of 73.5º), Stock stem is 135mm in length and is approx. -14º. I AM getting a different front fork (Surley Troll)as the Mag-21 is shot. So that may slightly change the Headtube angle slightly. So the following may need to be re-calculated but I don't think it will have to much effect(?).

After researching several different sets of dirt drop bars I'm thinking of the On-One Midges. Plugged the Sweep/Reach (88mm), and Overall Drop (136mm), dimensions into the calc. What I've found is ... interesting to say the least.
Fork tube above the Head tube will need to be 148mm tall. and a stem of 81mm long with -17º will have the drops at the same height as the flat bars that are stock on the bike.

Is this what you have been suggesting for a compatible fitting?
Think I've read all the articles you have written on this and think I have the concept correct.

Thanks for any thoughts, corrections or comments.


Guitar Ted said...

@hank h: Essentially what you are giving me here as a result is a super long steer tube, a bunch of spacers, and you extension to get the reach correct. Did I get that right?

I don't like that set up, and I'll tell you why. A long steer tube with a stem and handle bar is essentially a long lever with a short handle- basically you are setting up the steer tube to flex a lot under load, which is really hard on the head set, and obviously stresses that steer tube more than maybe it should be. I've actually seen bent steer tubes from set ups like this.

To get to the same place in space with the handle bars, I suggest a shorter steer tube- just enough exposed to maybe only need a few spacers at most, and a stem with a RADICAL rise which also would incorporate the reach necessary. This means something custom for your set up. It would be far more trail worthy, as the lever on the steer tube has less affect on bending it, the stem, (which should be designed for off road), takes the stresses, and the handle bar is right where you need it.

Same result in terms of position, just a better, more trail worthy way to get there.

YES- it is more expensive and perhaps harder to get the conversion done, but it is the right way to do it.

Good luck!

hank said...

G.T. Howdy;

Ok, so plugging in the new concept to get reasonable reach and drop numbers I get a stem that would be 151mm long and have a rise of +53º. That's mounted to a standard 30mm headtube. Does that sound about right? Where would you suggest I look for something like that?
Thanks for the reply above and any other ideas you might have.


Guitar Ted said...

@hank: Try Clockwork Bikes:

They are a custom shop that does a custom stem for applications such as yours.

Unknown said...

Modern shifter hoods are so big and curved that they're almost like riding in the drops with lots of hand room and a forward upswept curve to brace against, but Ted's points about optimizing for the actual drops are good. The drops can offer a lower center of gravity and a better supported position.