Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Soma Gator Bar Review

The Soma Gator Bar as seen on my Karate Monkey
The "world" of off-road drop bars is a weird, strange one with freak show bars and bizarre stems joining together to make for an often "hit or miss" component selection for gravel and off road riders. The bars are often times so out of the ordinary that, even though the design may be brilliant, the bars do not sell due to their massive departure from the norm of road racing bred drop bars. Sometimes that is frustrating to me, and in other cases, it makes a lot of sense. Case in point- The Soma Gator Bar.

The Soma Gator Bar is definitely one of the oddest drop bars I am aware of. At first glance, it looks vaguely similar to a Salsa Cycles Woodchipper Bar, but the resemblance is only cursory. The reality is that the Gator Bar stands alone with no known drop bars even coming close to its unique features. And just what are those, you may ask? Well, for starters, the extensions are mountain bike control compatible. What that means is that you could mount brakes and shifters right off your mountain bike to the longish extensions, as Soma made the diameter of this part of the bar 22.2mm. Here's a short bullet list from Soma's site on the features of this bar:

  • - 6061 butted aluminum
    - Size/Width: 655mm at ends, center-to-center
    - Width: 505mm at front of drops, center-to-center
    - Width of flats on top: 340mm
    - Center: 31.8mm
    - Drops flare out at 20° angle
    - Drops are 190mm long and have an OD of 22.2
    (i.e. they can take flat bar grips)
    - Reach: 65mm / Drop: 112-160mm
    (Reach and drop is relative to the angle you install these bars at. On these types of bars, you want to angle the drops down, not have them parallel to the ground as with road bars)
    - Weight: 400g
    - No cable grooves
    - Shotpeen finish
    - Black or silver

The Gator Bar has narrow tops, a lot of flare, and a deep drop.
My initial reaction to the bar was that it had too deep of a drop. In fact, I have had this bar for over a year now sitting in the Lab, waiting for a suitable bike/set up to try it on. Every time I thought I could use it, I found that the extensions would end up so low that they would be unusable. Finally, I tried them on the resurrected Karate Monkey I have and the fit was......hmm.....okay? It was far better than anything else I had been able to try it on, so I thought I'd give it a go, despite its deep drop.

Those extensions are really long!
From the top the Gator Bar looks somewhat inviting. The long extensions could certainly be trimmed back, but the tops, despite being narrow, are nice. I'm not a big fan of the Cinnelli-like "rounded" section from the tops to the ramps, but a lot of people dig that sort of classically inspired bar shape. It isn't a deal killer, but in conjunction with how that corner also slopes downward to the brake hoods, it makes for a difficult to love position for cruising on the tops/hoods. Besides this, I felt the reach was a hair too long, but I suppose one might be able to adjust for that with stem length. Well, that is if the drops didn't have such the depth that these bars' drops have. I was stuck with one stock option for a stem from Dimension. Otherwise it would have to be mated up with a custom stem, and you'd have to be pretty sold on the rest of the bars' attributes to go to that expense, in my opinion.

The radius of the drop section suffers from what I call "Woodchipper Syndrome". Hey- if you like Woodchippers, that's great, but that radius makes lever placement tough.

The drop radius is what really tanks this bar, in my opinion. It is a similar beef I have with the Woodchipper. If you want your hoods to come off the ramps at an angle parallel to the ground, you have no choice but to have the extensions pointing downward at such an angle I find many people won't use them. (Based on experiences setting up Woodchippers for others.) This isn't at all what off road drop bars are about. In fact, it is the antithesis to the whole reason for a flared, swept drop bar. In the case of the Gator Bar, I had to compromise my ramps/hood position to get a usable extensions grip that, in the end, meant that neither position was suitable for my tastes. Well, not when you have Midge Bars, Cowchippers, and Gary Sweep OS bars that do the job so much better and afford one all the grip options with little to no compromises. So, yes......I ended up taking these off my Karate Monkey.

My final verdict on this bar is that it is so odd that it may only work for a very few folks. Soma makes the June Bug, a Midge Bar knock-off, which, in my opinion, is three times as usable as this bar is for most people. If a highly swept, angled extension bar is your cup of tea, I would point you toward the Woodchipper before taking a chance on this one. That said, this could be the bar you've been waiting for. In that case, I'd jump on this quick. In the fickle world of off road drop bars, you never know how long you'll be able to get such an odd handle bar.

Note: Soma Fab sent me this bar ages ago for test/review and I was not paid, nor bribed for this review. I strive to give my honest thoughts and opinions throughout.


Guitar Ted said...

@Evan Baird: And then please tell me what happens to the extensions?

See what I'm saying? You lose the effectiveness of the extensions, and the most important part of an off road drop bar. If "like a pursuit bar" was the goal, why not just start there? Know what I mean?

It's all in the drop's radius, which is wonky, and it is what makes this bar completely weird and not one I cotton to.

Adam said...

The Satori Boondocks bar (also Velo Orange Dajia Far/Origin 8 Gary Ergo Sweep/others?) may be worth looking at - it's a lot easier to get the drops and hoods in simultaneously useful positions. Still not as good as the Luxy looks (someday maybe I'll find one on eBay so I can try for myself), but these seem to be serving me well as a less drop/more flair bar than the Cowchippers for rougher terrain.

I have the 44cm width of the Velo Orange version, but the OEM is clearly Satori - stamped right on the tip of the left extension. The bottom of the extensions ends up a little wider than on my 46cm Cowchippers, but due to the steep flair/sweet, the hand position up in the hooks is definitely narrower. The tops are really narrow, so if you like riding on the tops, maybe think about the 48cm version...

Guitar Ted said...

@Adam: Thanks! Actually, I have just received the Origin * version to try out of this bar. I first saw it from Koga-Miyata where they called it the "Beach Racer" bar. These I have are also marked "BOONDOCKS" on the tip of the right extension, so they are the same bar.

Stay tuned......

Adam said...

Ah yes, I forgot about the Koga Beach Racer! I also have some notes about it being for sale somewhere as a "Genesis Digest". I'm very interested to hear what you think about them.

Quick tip: After trying a few things, I ended up using a bubble level to install them with the little extension "nub" level to the ground. While the ramps aren't level, the short reach works in the bar's favor and I found that the hoods are still quite usable, and the drops are at a shallow enough downward angle to still be comfy. I wasn't sure what to think about the little extension nub when I bought them, but it turns out the bend at the bottom is a really comfortable spot to rest the bottom of my hands when I'm not forward in the hooks.

Unknown said...

I tried this bar with road brakes at first and also found it very aggravating. However once I put my mountain bike shifters and brake levers on and raised it up so the drops were the primary position, it completely redeemed itself and is now my favorite bar for city and rough road riding.

Adam said...

@Ryan: When used with mountain bike grips/levers, what's the advantage over a swept flat bar, like a mustache bar, Jones H-bar, or perhaps an On-One Mary? It seems like you'd lose most of the best positions of a drop bar - high & wide up on the hoods, or locked into the hooks for rock stable descents. The only thing I can imagine gaining is the high position on the tops, and at the cost of needing a weirdo stem or a giant spacer stack.

Unknown said...

@Adam: I feel like the main advantages over swept flat bars are the tops and the psuedo-hood postion which allow you a cycle of climbing up and down and around the bars in the positions it offers instead of just around the bars. The tops: so I can sit up and straighten my back on longer rides, and the psuedo-hoods so I can climb more comfortably. I come from a bike touring background so my Soma Saga already has a weirdo stem and a giant stack of spacers. lol

The High and wide position is definitely not quite as nice on the gator as a true and proper road setup but still a hand position I use quite often. I think this position is much better with no brake hoods in the way on this bar, since they have to be slanted and rendered useless IMHO. My biggest surprise was that when climbing hard I actually find it better suited to the task than actual brake hoods (although you can't easily brake while climbing this way though there is rarely the need to brake while climbing).

The drops are much wider on this bar so its even more stable in a descent (although obviously less aerodynamic) and when the MTB brake levers are mounted there you have excellent control over them even at even the farthest ends of the bars. They are such long bars that there is also a bit of compliance at the ends which is nice for choppy stuff. I have always found braking from the drops on a road bar to be awkward at best unless the levers are so far down as to make the hoods position too uncomfortable to use. With the MTB shifters there I can shift, brake and steer much more quickly and confidently than I could when I had brifters.

Overall its less aerodynamic and looks goofy (it will make your bike seem very wide and suddenly more difficult to get into doorways) but for me the comfort and confidence it affords me in the types of riding I do is worth it. I also like that MTB levers and/or shifters are more affordable and easier to obtain

Peter Malacarne said...

I found your review one of the best on this bar. Clearly this bar is not really suitable for a dedicated road bike and that style of riding. This bar absolutely works for me. I have a XC bike and want to swap out the flat bars. Classic style drop bars are not good option with the expense involved and change in riding position being the major drawbacks.

These bars are a good replacement bar for mountain bikes/off road bikes. When set up, the leverage and riding position that is associated with flat bars is pretty much retained, the cost of converting is reduced because the grips, brake and shift levers are simply transferred.

Riding on the hoods (which I like) is more of a road bike riding position and usually not as much of necessity for riders switching road/off road.

Currently enjoying commutes, trail/gravel and occasional bike-packing rides with my bike.

Guitar Ted said...

@Peter Malacame- Thanks for the comments. Glad that the bar works for you, but I didn't review it as a bar I used on a road type bike. (A Karate Monkey, pictured, can hardly be seen as a "road bike") In my opinion, this bar is not generally suited to any type of bike. YMMV

Peter Malacarne said...

Mmmmmmm.....OK. I totally agree with you. Looking over your setup, I am sure that I would find that very uncomfortable and awkward. I never thought that they would be that bad. I just got them, and the main appeal, for me, is that I can use my current grips etc without the expense of replacing all that gear.

I doubt very much that a hood and lever combo is workable with this bar. I do appreciate
very much that you took the time to review it, set-up as it is, because you offered and opinion that included the how's and why's and saved me a lot of hassle.

Thanks again, working my way through your other blogs.

Greg said...

Sorry for resurrecting and old post, but would these be ill suited for a touring bike, like a LHT?

Guitar Ted said...

@Greg - The easy answer? For me- yes. Very ill suited. But for you? Ehhhh..... That's hard to say. Like I've said here- the Gator Bar just has some really strange geometry. If you set it up for a good 'hoods position", the likelihood that the extensions would ever be a good position, or even useful at all, is pretty low. Really low. So......again- what's the point? Get a bar that has geometry that isn't weird, has usable drops AND a hoods position that is comfortable, and you'll have a bar that probably will be a home run on any drop bar bike.

So, unless there are extenuating circumstances that you are not revealing here, I'd say look elsewhere for a better chance at getting a bar that works for you. That's my take.

Unknown said...

I run a Soma Junebug on my long haul trucker. When you make the tops level all around the angle of the drops can work out at around 90 degrees to your forearms depending on other setup. Super-comfortable. I am thinking about getting a set of these and putting some nice foam mtb grips on the bottom with grip locks.

Guitar Ted said...

@Unknown - Yeah, I liked June Bugs except that they were a tic narrower than the Midge bar, which they essentially were a copy of.

I happen to still like Midge Bars, so I can see the appeal of a June Bug Bar.

losssssss said...

I have these on an old full rigid 29 inch mountain bike and I absolutely love them. I am never out of the drops (extensions). For putting normal drop bar controls on these are awful as you’ve noted, but if you want to quickly convert a flat bar bike to drop bars they’re amazing because it’s $65 and everything for your flat bar slips right on. The downside to that is that it still leaves you with one hand position (fully on the drops) but as long as you’ve adjusted the bars to be comfortable that way it’s not a big deal. I always recommend these as the first step for anybody that’s thinking about converting to a mountain bike to drop bars

David said...

Whicb stem is it?

Guitar Ted said...

@DAVID - A Dimension 35¯ rise, 80mm reach stem