Thursday, May 05, 2022

Before There Was "Gravel": Flared Drop Bars

 Continuing on with this series about the 'pre-gravel' days, I wanted to touch on the subject of the flared drop bar for bicycles. Now this one is a bit tricky, as it can be seen as a thing which grew out of the early 29"er scene. However; I think it has direct ties to the gravel rider, and I hope that this little historical ramble will bear that out for you. 

Going back to the early 2000's, 29"ers were the new thing which had been capturing the imaginations of the new internet forum folks. These big wheeled beasts were so odd that breaking conventions was part and parcel to the group of folks attracted to such things. So, the whole Pandora's box of ideas were open to discussion at the time. Old ideas, new ideas, dumb ideas, and some smart ideas were all bandied about back then. One of the old ideas which gained some traction again was the idea of drop bars for off-roading.

I won't get into a detailed history of that idea, but suffice it to say that those few who were into the 'dirt drop' back then had to scour the ebay, Craigslist, and local flea market newspapers for WTB RM-2 "Dirt Drop" handle bars. They were the only game in town for a mountain bike worthy, ergonomic drop bar for off-road pursuits.

A WTB Dirt Drop handle bar (Image courtesy of Mike Varley)

The idea got hatched then for a copy-cat bar to be made by On One. Some mountain bikers who were intimate with the WTB version were consulted. Most notably Don "Shiggy" Person, who along with On One's Brant Richards developed the first alternative drop bar, the venerable On One Midge Bar.

The Midge was essentially a modified WTB Dirt Drop bar which satisfied Person's desires for a perfected version of that handle bar. This allowed many would-be off-road experimenters to taste and see if dirt drop bars for off roading would be a thing for them. I happened to be one of those experimenters. I bought my first 29"er in 2003, a Campstove Green Karate Monkey, and I don't think I had it a year before it was fitted with Midge Bars. 

My Karate Monkey, circa 2006, set up with the On One Midge Bar.

Once the Midge became somewhat of a cult favorite, it didn't take long for Origin 8 to introduce the very similar, but wildly flared "Gary Bar". These early attempts at the drop bar for off road kept 'sweep' and 'flare' as part of the shallow drop, short reach formula for the off road drop bar. One thing some, including myself, complained about with these early flared drops was that the extensions were too short. Well, the next big moment in off road drop bars addressed this bit quite nicely.

The next 'big' moment for flared drop bars came when Salsa Cycles introduced the Fargo in late 2008. With its original use of the cyclo-cross inspired "Bell Lap" bar, it was okay, but Salsa folk claimed a purpose-designed bar for the Fargo was forthcoming. It took a little while, but at a Fargo Adventure Ride in 2009, I saw a prototype flared drop bar which was to be for the Fargo. It ended up becoming the polarizing Woodchipper Bar. It borrowed the flare and sweep ideas, but it added significant extension length to the design. However; Salsa's designers fell foul to choosing a poorly (my opinion) thought out radius to the drops, which made setting the bars up a royal challenge. 

Martin Bunge's Fargo displays the extensions issue caused by the poor radius of the Woodchipper Bar.

To get the ramps to hoods transition comfortable for riding, one had to rotate the Woodchipper in such a way that the brake lever body sat correctly for that. This, in turn, rendered the extensions useless since that generally pointed them down so steeply it would be uncomfortable to ride there for very long, or at all. Plus, many were turned off by the swept extensions, thinking them too goofy for fast paced riding. Had Salsa stopped here, I think they would have fallen off the radar from the perspective of flared drops for gravel.

But Salsa engineers solved this problem when they introduced the Bell Lap's replacement, the Cowbell Bar. With its minimal flare and nearly no sweep, it quickly was adopted by gravel riders as the perfect flared drop for faster paced gravel travel. Within a year of the Cowbell's release, there were several copy-cat bars which came about with between 12° and perhaps slightly less flare. But then Salsa Cycles was considering a replacement for the Woodchipper Bar, and at a Frostbike show in 2014 I was asked, along with Ben Witt, what that bar should be. We both agreed that a bar with longer extensions and a bit more sweep and flare than a Cowbell would be perfect. By 2015, the Cowchipper, a 'more Cowbell' bar, was out, and then that kind of spawned a slew of bars in a similar vein. 

By 2015, the 'gravel thing' was a thing, so I count the Cowchipper as being the last, real flared drop bar evolution 'pre-gravel' days. But it wasn't really a 'gravel thing' at first, as you can see from this brief history. 

Easton carbon drop bars introduced earlier this year.

Now we have carbon bars with flare and sweep with ergonomic moldings and thinned out sections for more flex leading to more comfort. A far cry from 2005 when this 'modern day gravel' scene kicked off. 

Back then many riders just used road drop bars, or maybe Salsa bell Lap bars, or Nitto randonnuer bars. But things swung to the flared drop bar side as Salsa started pumping out the Fargo, and even more so when the venerable Cowbell became available. The advent of the gravel bike, kicked off by Salsa Cycles, and then Raleigh and others, made the flared drop bar a standard issue item for gravel travel. 

There have been notable off-shoots along the way, but I count this as a main 'timeline/evolutionary' line from the WTB Dirt Drop to the myriad flared drop bars available now. What Salsa designed into the Cowbell, and then the Cowchipper, informed the flared drop bar offerings from almost every other company. It is hard to deny that Salsa Cycles had a huge influence on gravel handle bars. It also is hard to imagine a time when we could count how many flared drop bars you could get on three fingers, but it wasn't all that long ago!


KC said...

I didn't realize how weird it was to get along with a Woodchipper until I started recommending them to others. I've managed to be comfortable on mine with level extensions & hoods just a little below level with the bar top to get the clamps to tighten properly.
I've always wondered why the Woodchipper didn't have any accomodation for lever mounting Maybe it was impossible in aluminum, but I was hoping the carbon version would address it.

Guitar Ted said...

@KC - The Woodchipper Bar was really an effort to get the brake levers to be sat in a more traditional way (levers pointed straight down at the ground0 but they wanted to retain that 'kicked-out' sweep of the WTB/Midge extensions, and maybe go further with that.

You very well may be on to something with your thought on how all of that maybe was not possible to do in aluminum and keep the radius tighter for the drops.

Interestingly, the designer of the Midge, Brant Richards, also designed the Ragley Luxy Bar, which solved all the radius issues that the Woodchipper had and was a much better solution. But by that time the Cowbell and its ilk had taken the gravel scene by storm and mountain biking with drop bars fell out of favor again. So, the Luxy Bar only was produced for a short time and is not well known or common. Too bad, because it is a really great design!

teamdarb said...

Let us not forget the original wide dirt drop bar Nitto's RM-013 Dirt Drop. I remember the jump from the Midge to the Gary OS which had a deeper drop. Then tossed on the RM-013 which was wide as all heck and had a tiny bit of flare.

Admin said...

Here another thumb up for the Nitto bar, however not the RM-013, but the RM-03 which is much similar to the original WTB RM-2, which for what i know was indeed produced by the Japanese company.
Thanks a lot for your take about dirt drop bars in the gravel scene.