If you’ve been researching flared drop bars for more than a minute, you’ve surely encountered at least one of Salsa’s cleverly named Cowbell, Cowchipper, and Woodchipper handlebars. The lineup offers three distinct shapes intended for different riding styles, all with a focus on mixed-terrain and off-pavement adventures.
It just so happens that I’ve used all three of these handlebars on my bikes over the years, each for thousands of miles. I wasn’t necessarily trying to complete the collection, but they’re popular handlebars in the bikepacking and touring space, which is where I spend a lot of time.
So, based on a combination of research and thousands of miles of personal experience riding with each of these handlebars, here’s a comparison of the Salsa Cowbell vs. Cowchipper vs. Woodchipper and how to decide which will best suit your adventures.
If you’re in a hurry and already understand the basics of handlebar geometry, here’s your quick answer:
- The Cowbell is best for pavement and smooth gravel.
- The Woodchipper is intended for rugged off-road riding (but some people don’t like it).
- The Cowchipper is a popular middle ground ideal for gravel and light trails.
Still have questions? There’s more to it than that, so read on!
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For another view, here’s a really useful diagram from whatbars.com showing all three of the Salsa bars overlaid to scale:
These images show that the Woodchipper has much wider drops, especially at the ends, than the Cowbell, and the Cowchipper is somewhere in between. If we want to get technical about it, this comes down to flare and outsweep.
Flare and Outsweep
When someone (who isn’t a handlebar geek) casually says a bar has “a lot of flare,” they might be talking about a combination of two things: flare and outsweep.
Flare is the measure of how much wider the bars are at the drops (technically the start of the drops, right below the hooks) than at the top outer corner where the bar starts to curve downward, measured as an angle. Because the hood area (where the brake / shifter attaches) is between these two points, flare creates angled hoods with vertical axes that aren’t parallel to each other.
Imagine sitting on your bike and grasping the bars at the hooks, then pulling outward like the start of a bent arm lateral raise. If you were strong enough to bend the bars near the uppers where the bar begins to curve downward (you beast!) you’d be adding flare.
Outsweep (also called drop angle) is often combined with flare to make bars even wider at the ends of the drops and to create a more ergonomic wrist angle. It’s the angle between the line that points straight back at the rider and the angle of the drop as it sweeps back. Outsweep results in drops that are not parallel to each other.
Imagine sitting on your bike and grabbing the drops at the very ends, the part pointing back at you. Now pull outward. If the bars were rigid at the hood area but malleable near the bottom of the hooks, you’d be adding outsweep / drop angle.
Here’s an example of both on the Salsa Cowbell, which has 24 degrees of flare and 12 degrees of outsweep:
Why Flare and Outsweep?
At the risk of oversimplifying, flare and outsweep make the bars wider in key hand positions. More width offers more stability and control. Think basic physics: the wider your hands are on the bar, the less force it takes to influence the bike’s side-to-side balance.
Traditional drop bars have no flare; the hoods are right above the hooks and drops. This allows the rider to tuck into a narrow aerodynamic position but doesn’t offer much side-to-side leverage if the going gets rough. Flared drop bars came into fame during the rise of the gravel cycling scene. They aim to strike a balance between the traditional road cycling posture and gravel’s greater demand for stability.
Flared and outswept drop bars also feel more comfortable to many people because they allow for a more neutral wrist angle when riding in the hooks or drops. During repeated long days in the saddle, for example when bikepacking, this reduces pesky issues like hand pain and numbness.
Reach and Drop
Really quick, two more things: reach and drop.
Reach is the horizontal distance between the center of the stem clamp area and the forwardmost part of the hook bend. More reach leads to a more forward-leaning posture, which is generally better for speed but worse for long-day comfort and control on rough terrain.
Drop is the vertical distance between the center of the stem clamp area and the lowest part of the drops. More drop leads to a more forward-leaning posture, better for speed but generally worse for comfort. Smaller / shallower drops are also easier to transition in and out of, a consideration for off-pavement riders who switch often between hoods and drops as terrain varies.
Reach and drop aren’t defining features of the handlebars in question here, so I won’t say much more about them. All three have a similar drop. The Woodchipper’s reach is a bit shallower, but the bar has some setup idiosyncrasies that make it hard to compare this aspect directly with the others.
For those who like numbers more than pictures, let’s move on to a comparison table of the Cowbell vs. Cowchipper vs. Woodchipper:
|Bar||Price||Weight||Flare||Drop||Drop Angle||Reach||Widths||Other Versions|
|Salsa Cowbell||$58||314 g||12 deg||115 mm||12 deg||68 mm||38 – 42 cm in 2 cm increments||deluxe, deluxe silver, carbon|
|Salsa Cowchipper||$58||322 g||24 deg||116 mm||12 deg||68 mm||38 – 52 cm in 2 cm increments||deluxe, deluxe silver, carbon|
|Salsa Woodchipper||$55||357 g||25 deg||114 mm||38 deg||56 mm||42, 44, 46 cm||deluxe, carbon|
A few notes on those numbers for the detail-oriented:
- Width is the distance between the hoods, where the brake levers go
- Weight is measured at 44cm width
Now that you have a sense for how all this is measured, here’s more about each handlebar individually.
The Salsa Cowbell is a lightly flared handlebar designed, according to Salsa, to “blend speed, comfort, and efficiency for high performance efforts on gravel and paved roads.” In other words, it’s the narrowest and raciest of the three handlebars.
The 12 degree flare and 12 degree drop angle provide slightly more leverage and ergonomic comfort compared to traditional drop bars. If you’re coming from traditional road drop bars you’ll probably notice the difference. But compared to the more dramatically flared gravel bars popular these days, the Cowbell is fairly traditional.
The Cowbell comes stock on a number of road touring, all-road, and gravel bike builds including the Surly Straggler commuter and gravel bike, Salsa Journeyer all-road and gravel bike, and Salsa Vaya all-road touring bike. In all these cases the Cowbell is a nod to long days and variable road conditions without going too far toward the drop bar MTB side of the spectrum.
My experience: The Salsa Cowbell was the first drop handlebar I ever owned. It came stock on my Surly Long Haul Trucker and I hauled it around Southeast Asia, Patagonia, and across the US before finally swapping it out for Cowchippers.
I wouldn’t call my bike tours “high performance efforts,” and maybe that’s where the problem was, because I didn’t find the Cowbell all that comfortable. It was “ok” for 7500 miles without any major issues, but I sometimes struggled with wrist soreness and hand fatigue on big descents or long days. (For context, I have relatively small hands.)
Eventually I switched to Cowchippers because I was starting to ride my LHT off-pavement and wanted more stability on gravel and dirt. The Cowchippers felt more stable and also more comfortable, and I was very happy with the switch. I donated my Cowbells to the local bike co-op because I was sure I’d never put them back on, so unfortunately I don’t have good recent pictures of them.
Who should consider the Cowbell:
- You’re accustomed to traditional road drop bars but want a wee bit more stability and comfort.
- Speed is a priority, and/or you find traditional drops plenty comfortable.
- Your definition of rough terrain is a gravel road.
The Salsa Cowchipper handlebar is squarely in the gravel bar category with 24 degrees of flare (twice that of the Cowbell) and width options all the way up to 52 cm. Salsa says it “provides comfort, control, and efficiency for long days in the saddle, whether road touring, crushing mixed surfaces, or conquering the Great Divide.”
The Cowchipper is equally at home on adventurous gravel bikes and drop bar mountain bikes. It comes stock on the new Surly Grappler, Salsa’s Marrakesh touring bike, and more recent (2021+) versions of the Salsa Fargo. It’s also a good choice for anyone who prefers the comfort of a dramatically flared bar on their road bike.
Interestingly, in 2021 Salsa changed their Fargo spec to Cowchippers from the more controversial Woodchippers. Having ridden Woodchippers extensively on my 2018 Fargo, I suspect this change is a nod to the Cowchippers’ more widespread appeal (more on the unique Woodchippers below).
Side note: Have you figured out the name yet? Those of us who bikepack in the American west know that this bar is perfect for those gravel and dirt roads through public land used for cattle grazing, where you need to check for cow chips before laying down your tent. Hats off to the Salsa employee who came up with this naming scheme!
My experience: I put Cowchippers on my Long Haul Trucker (a pavement touring bike) when I was trying to transform her into a bikepacking bike. I rode about 1800 miles on them before eventually getting a Fargo for my bikepacking adventures, but the Cowchippers are still on my Long Haul Trucker and likely to see more road touring action in the future.
When I first made the switch from Cowbells to Cowchippers, I immediately felt more comfortable when riding in the hooks and braking on descents. The ergonomic outsweep angle works better for my small hands and I find these bars very comfortable for long days.
Though I’ve logged fewer miles with them compared to the Cowbell and Woodchipper, the Cowchipper is my favorite bar of the three, and the one I most recommend to folks looking for a general-purpose flared drop bar.
Who should consider the Cowchipper:
- You ride a variety of road surfaces and can’t be confined to pavement.
- Comfort and stability are top priorities.
- Your definition of rough terrain is a gnarly gravel road or light singletrack.
Price: $55 (aluminum)
Specs: 114mm drop, 56mm reach, 25° flare angle, 38° drop angle
Widths: 42, 44, 46 cm
Materials: aluminum alloy, Deluxe aluminum alloy, carbon
The Woodchipper is a bold effort by Salsa, long-time innovator in the bikepacking scene, to design the ideal drop bar for off-road riding. It might be a bit much for gravel but it’s totally at home on drop bar mountain bikes. Salsa says it’s their “signature drop bar for off road riding, where its unique shape delivers comfort and control no matter how rough the terrain.”
The Woodchipper goes beyond just cranking up the flare and outsweep angles; it also rotates the entire bottom section inward a bit. This splays the ends of the drop lowers out even wider, and makes for a nicely ergonomic wrist angle in both the hoods and hooks.
The unique shape is designed to work best with the drop lowers pointing about 20 degrees downward from level. This creates a flat-ish hand rest at the hoods, and also gives excellent leverage when climbing with hands on the drops.
Handlebar comfort is always a matter of personal preference, but the Woodchippers are more love-it-or-hate-it than most bars. Some riders have trouble getting them aligned for comfort in both the hoods and the drops, and there does seem to be a narrow sweet spot for ideal positioning. I’ve heard people say Woodchippers are meant to be ridden in the drops most of the time, which is true if you want to take advantage of the extra width and leverage.
Woodchippers used to come stock on the Fargo, Salsa’s classic adventure-mobile designed for bikepacking on rugged gravel and dirt. In 2021 they switched the Fargo to Cowchippers, perhaps because the Woodchipper’s radical design is a little too polarizing for such a popular and versatile bike.
My experience: My 2018 Fargo came with Woodchippers, and I put about 4000 miles on them during a variety of bikepacking routes including the Great Divide.
I never had obvious problems with the Woodchippers. With a bit of fiddling I could adjust them to be comfy in both the hoods and drops. I found them comfortable enough for 20 hour bikepack racing days and multi-month gravel tours.
It wasn’t until I eventually tried the wide gravel-oriented PNW Coast on my Fargo that I understood my primary complaint about the Woodchipper: much of the width in those extra-wide lowers isn’t usable most of the time.
While shifting or braking, hands need to be in the hooks or hoods. This makes the widest part of the bars – the ends of the drop lowers – useless at the exact time when extra stability is often needed. When cruising it’s nice to sit upright with hands on the hoods, which again are much narrower than the drops. The only time it’s possible to have hands on those extra-wide drop lowers is when cruising flats or climbing a consistent grade.
In contrast, the PNW Coast is designed to be wider at the hoods than a traditional drop bar. Its narrowest version of 48 cm is actually wider than the Woodchipper’s widest option of 46 cm. That extra width in the hoods and hooks makes me feel noticeably more stable on rough terrain. To bring this full circle, the PNW Coast is more similar to the Cowchippers in the Salsa line, suggesting once again that the Cowchippers may be the ideal middle ground in Salsa’s lineup.
My Woodchippers currently sit in the garage. Though I don’t hate them, I don’t have a good reason to put them back on any of my bikes. But some people love them – to each their own!
Who should consider the Woodchipper:
- You’ll ride anything on your drop bar mountain bike.
- You’re comfortable riding in the drops for extended periods of time.
- Control on rough terrain is a top priority.
- Your definition of rough terrain is… rough terrain: jeep tracks, singletrack trail, and rutted dirt roads.
For all their differences, the Cowbell, Cowchipper, and Woodchipper have many things in common:
- 6061-T6 aluminum alloy construction in the base model
- Deluxe version uses 7050-T6 series aluminum alloy construction which shaves off about 30 grams and adds about $20
- Carbon version shaves off about 85 grams, adds about $185, and helps damp vibration for increased comfort
- 31.8mm clamp diameter with 120mm width for handlebar cages, light mounts, and other accessories.
Any discussion of flared drop bars is incomplete without mentioning bar width. All three of these handlebars come in several width options, as measured between the hoods. If the goal is to have wider bars, why not just… use wider bars?
Comfort and control are the two biggest factors. Bar width (as measured between the hoods) is usually determined based on shoulder width, with the goal of aligning your arms and shoulders in a comfortable and stable position. But there’s a range of options for most people, and within that range you can choose narrower (for a more aerodynamic position) or wider (for more stability and control, and more bikepacking cargo space as a bonus). Ultimately it’s the combination of bar width and shape that determine how comfortable and stable it feels for a given rider.
Nuances can depend on individual handlebar design. For example, as mentioned above the Woodchipper is actually not all that wide at the hoods. If you prefer to ride in the hoods and want stability there, you’ll want a bar with a larger hood-to-hood width and some flare, and you may not care as much about outsweep unless it makes your wrists more comfortable.
All else equal, a wider bar causes the rider to lean further forward. If this is undesirable, it’s usually compensated for changing to a shorter stem. If you like your current riding posture but want wider bars, shorten your stem by roughly 10mm for every 20mm of increased bar width. Don’t stress too much though unless your fit is really dialed in; it’s a small difference and you might not even notice it.
That’s a lot of details about handlebars! If you made it this far, hats off to you. If you made it this far because you’re still undecided on which handlebar you want, here’s my recommendation:
Get the Cowchipper. Unless…
- You really care about speed and don’t ride off-pavement much. In that case, get the Cowbell.
- You mountain bike with your drop bar rig and want to experiment with something different. In that case, try the Woodchipper.
There are, of course, many other makes and models of flared drop bars out there in case none of these three make the cut. But as handlebars go, these three models from Salsa are affordable, span a wide range of use cases, and have stood the test of time.
I wasn’t born knowing the intricacies of flares and outsweeps, so thanks to these sites for helping clarify the details:
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