Handlebar shape, angle, width, reach, drop, sweep, width, etc., is optimal when hand interface is anatomically correct with regards to differential, shoulder width and drop, elbow angles, han
ds size and wrist angles.
**The following assumes correct saddle placement, reach and bar-saddle differential.
Mountain Bike Handlebars:
Hand/wrist/forearm angles are impacted primarily by handlebar sweep (both back and up), width, and control location. A simple, yet effective method to determine correct sweep and width: Extend both arms from shoulders at +0-5 degrees from parallel. Relax the wrists, and let your hands drop. Note knuckle angle, wrist rotation, and hand to forearm alignment.
Next, with MTB in a trainer, pedal sitting upright on the saddle (no hands) with your eyes closed. Reach for bars, without looking, and observe placement. Are they similar to the current setup or more like the extension-test? Refine by removing the controls, grips, and rotating the bar. The final adjustments will reflect minimal hand discoloration (white=restricted blood flow), maximum contact, and natural wrist angles. Controls should be easy to reach and use without modifying [optimal] hand placement. Inspect and compare hand to forearm angles when on grips and at controls. Adjust the shifters/brake-levers to allow easy transition when under load, riding. Adjust brake-reach and shifter angles (if separate) for maximum hand/grip contact and access under load.
**Explore these modifications on the trail before cutting bars.
Road Bike Handlebars:
Hand/wrist/forearm angels are impacted primarily by width, hood placement, drop, reach, bend, and sweep.
Handlebar width is more complex than matching to shoulder distance (various landmarks), because hip flexion alters musculoskeletal function and spine angles that impact the shoulder/thoracic interface.
A better approach is to observe hand placement at the hoods. I like to see hoods aligned with a rider’s forearm. This tends to reduce wrist strain and unnecessary muscle recruitment from hands, shoulders, neck and back. If i observe hands/thumbs roll towards stem – bars too wide; hands/thumbs roll away – too narrow.
Comfortable hood placement varies, but a smooth continuum between bar and shifter is usually a good beginning.
Increasing numbers of bars and shifters are designed to accommodate this setup, and rider feedback indicates it is here to stay. Old groups can be modified to similar effects with new bars and additional bar tape (1x2cm ; 1x1cm ; 1×1/2cm) adhered at the shifter/bar (under hood) before taping. Bar rotation will increase and decrease pressure distribution between hands and hoods, after continuum is achieved. I suggest a drop range between parallel and rear brakes, with lever access at all contact points.
Drop distance should allow for breathing, head-up, and transition between drops and hoods without crashing – seated and standing.
Drop shape is determined by wrist angle and hand size — hands/arms shoulders in smooth transition from drop; hand, natural — not crushed by the “anatomic” design (yes, seated and standing).
Handlebar tops should provide adequate grip, angle (if flat/anatomic), and sweep, if present (seated and standing).
Triathlon and Time Trial Handlebars:
Tri/TT handlebars come in a variety of designs, with the same basic features: A Base Bar, Extensions, and Arm Pads. There are a few models designed specifically for road bikes, but most purists would argue (appropriately) that no bike can be made to function well for both tri/tt and road. The problem is not just a reach issue. Tri/tt frames have more aggressive seat-tube angles, which moves the weight forward on the bike. This weight is managed by having your forearms on the aero-pads, your upper arms near vertical. Riding one of these bikes with road bars would be hell on the wrists, arms, shoulders, back. Road bikes have more relaxed seat-tube angles, which reduce hip-angle. The reduced angle makes it difficult to lower the trunk to create an effective tri/tt position, without excessive strain on the back.
Brand preference is less important than fit and discipline. The triathlete elbow position is slightly wider than for time-trial, for a more relaxed shoulder/torso position. Why? The upper body gets a chance to recuperate from the swim, and the lower body warms for the run. Diaphragm activity and energy preservation trump aerodynamics and suffering. TT position has elbows closer, shoulders elevated, and back round to maximize aerodynamics and effort. When adjusted properly, the TT cyclist breathes through the (now open) thoracic/lumbar junction, and pedaling furiously, with nothing in reserve at the finish line.
Remember: Time Trialists get off the bike and have a beer; Triathletes get off the bike and run, run, run!
Arm pads should be supporting the forearm equally, from side to side, front to back. Placement varies, longitudinally, based on rider preference and pressure distribution. Shoulder placement is over elbows (approximately), and hands will rest at the shifter part of the extensions.
Elbow width is variable, based on morphology, but rarely – if ever – smart to adjust wider than the pelvis.
Rather than continue to bore you with my thoughts, I recommend visiting Dan Empfield’s website www.slowtwich.com. He is a genius in the field.
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