Drop Bars on Mountain Bikes: How & Why (or Why Not)

It seems you’re curious about this trendy concept of mountain bikes with drop bars. I can understand why! They’re all over the place these days, especially among bikepackers and adventure riders.

Presumably this is due to their versatility. It might also be their distinctive “I defy categorization” aesthetic, and because “dirt drops” is kind of fun to say out loud. (“Dirt drops dirt drops dirt drops dirt…”)

In any case, though not exactly a new concept, drop bar mountain bikes are definitely having their moment in the mainstream sun.

Maybe you’re wondering what the point is exactly (a fair question), or which drop bar mountain bike you should buy, or whether it would work to swap out your flat handlebars for dirt drops.

I’ve bikepacked quite a few thousand miles on a drop bar mountain bike (my beloved Salsa Fargo), and encountered many others and their riders while out in the wild. My general obsession with all things bike has led me to compile this article based on personal experience, trailside conversations, and knowledge that’s seeped into my head from reading too many bike nerd forum posts.

This post will explain what the term “drop bar mountain bike” generally means, what’s so appealing about it, why you might (or might not) want one, what models to consider if you’re buying, and how to approach a drop bar conversion if that’s your style.

If you’re looking for something specific, use these links to jump straight to it:

Or just read on for the whole shebang.

What Exactly Is a Drop Bar Mountain Bike?

Good question, because like many things bike-related these days, lines can be a little blurry.

For purposes of this post, let’s say a drop bar mountain bike is a bike with drop-style handlebars that is designed for off-pavement adventures.

What kind of off-pavement adventures? Anything from gravel to singletrack, though we’re not really referring to smooth pristine gravel here (because that would be the sweet spot for a gravel bike). Think chunky gravel, two track, and dirt trails of light to moderate technicality. Stuff that kindly requests or even demands a 2″ or wider tire. Most of these bikes will sport 29″ wheels these days, but 27.5 can be found here and there.

And what kind of drop-style handlebars? Probably not the narrow ones you’d find on a road bike. Many drop-bar MTBs sport wide flared drop bars with funky curves and angles, generally designed to offer more stability on rough terrain and comfy all-day hand positions (more on bar choices below).

Bike with Woodchipper handlebars leans against national forest sign
Drop bars designed for off-road riding are often extra wide and flared for stability (Salsa Woodchipper shown here).

Suspension?

If you think of “mountain bike” as a front-suspension or even full-suspension machine, you’ll be surprised to learn that most drop bar mountain bikes are fully rigid.

Does that still count as a mountain bike, you may ask? That’s in the eye of the beholder and the preference of the rider, but suffice to say many folks are riding these bikes off-road in the mountains (and desert, and forest…) and having a blast. Features like wider tubeless tires and shock-absorbing frames make today’s rigid bikes more trail-friendly than you might expect.

However, drop bar hardtails (as in front suspension only) are not unheard of. Any setup that’s good enough for Lael Wilcox on the Tour Divide is worth considering! A few manufacturers have been known to offer a drop bar hardtail as a stock option, such as the 2019 Salsa Cutthroat, but I don’t know of any that are currently available (please comment below if you do).

Most drop bar mountain bikes with suspension are DIY builds. Many rigid MTB frames / forks are suspension corrected, meaning the fork is a bit longer so you can swap it out for a suspension fork and the geometry still works out. If you already have a rigid drop bar MTB with suspension-corrected fork and want to add a little extra squish for comfort, swapping to a suspension fork could be a good way to go.

At some point though, one does begin to question why. Suspension is intended for rough trails, as are wide flat handlebars. A use case that demands one but not the other is specialized indeed, and this may be why the combination of drop bars with suspension fork is not very common. But hey, you do you!

Why Drop Bars on a Mountain Bike?

What’s the point, you ask? Classic mountain bikes come with wide, flat handlebars designed to give the rider stability and control when tackling uneven ground. They work well for that purpose, so why mess with a good thing?

Hand Position: This is a huge advantage of drop bars for long-distance riding, such as bikepacking or ultra-distance racing. Without additions like aero bars or bar ends, flat bars offer only one hand position and it’s not the most ergonomic (though flat bars with backsweep help a little).

Drop bars, on the other hand (pun intended), can be grasped on the lowers, hoods, hooks, tops, or various other creative in-between positions. This lets you choose the most effective position for the terrain (climbing or descending, smooth or rough) and also mix up your position to avoid pain and nerve issues on long rides.

Versatility: We can’t all afford to choose between our road bike, gravel bike, hardtail, and full-suspension rig for each ride. Some people have – I know, gasp – just one bike! And on a long and varied bikepacking route like the GDMBR, we’re not going to swap to a different bike when the route changes from pavement to gravel to trail and back again.

We need a “Jack / Jill of all trades” bike that can do almost everything, even if it’s not perfectly tailored to anything. Drop bar MTBs excel here and are often comfortable playing the role of gravel bike, light mountain bike, adventure touring bike, and whatever else we ask of them. Add a second wheelset and the possibilities are almost endless.

Of course much of this versatility comes down to other factors like geometry and tire choice, and alt bars like the Jones Loop serve a similar purpose (more on this below). But as a general signal of a bike’s comfort zone, drop bars on a mountain bike scream “I’m highly versatile!”

Body Position: The idea behind road bike drop bars is that they enable a low aerodynamic position. Many dirt drop bars have been redesigned with shallower and wider drops that negate some of this advantage, which makes a ton of sense. Most bikepackers aren’t interested in being all fast and race-y. But if you’re into bikepack racing or just prefer a more forward riding position, dirt drop bars may still feel most natural to you.

If you’re not looking for a forward-leaning posture, don’t worry, drop bars could still work for you with the right choice of stem and/or stack height.

Bar Tape: Yes, it’s a pain to keep the tape all neat and tidy, but you get to change colors every time you re-wrap them! That’s a plus in my book.

Getting to choose bar tape is definitely an advantage of drop bars.

Why Not?

Are there any drawbacks to putting drop bars on a mountain bike? If it’s really so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? As with everything in life (dramatic sigh…), there are some tradeoffs.

Stability: Even the widest wide drop bars aren’t as wide as wide flat bars (can you tell how important width is?), especially at the hoods where many riders like to spend time. The wider the bar the easier the bike is to control on rough ground or at slow speeds, so this can be a drawback to using drop bars on more rugged terrain.

On the other hand, if fitting through narrow spaces is a priority for you, those wide bars are risky anyway.

Handlebar Space: For bikepacking, there’s no beating the real estate of a wide flat handlebar for cargo space and gizmo mounting. Most handlebar bags can be made to fit between drops and some tents even come with short “bikepacking-style” poles for this reason. It’s just a little harder to get the fit right, and your handlebar bag will have less capacity.

Handlebars of loaded bikepacking bike
When bikepacking it can be hard to fit all your handlebar-mounted gear between the drops.

Reach: As mentioned above, drop bars position the torso more forward and down, all other things being equal. Most people can correct for this with choice of stem and stack height, if desired. But for folks on the edge of their bike’s size and comfort range, perhaps smaller cyclists with short arms and torso, it might be a factor.

Compatibility: We’ll get into this more down below (see the Conversion section), but you’ve likely noticed that drop bars and flat bars use different styles of shifters and brakes. Since each type of shifter and brake lever is only compatible with certain types of derailleurs, cassettes, brakes, and so on, your choice of handlebar also influences the rest of your build.

If you’re buying a stock build, you likely won’t care about this too much. But if you have something specific in mind or are doing the conversion yourself, it can be a factor.

So is a drop bar MTB right for you?

  • Do you like long days (or weeks) in the saddle?
  • Does your house or budget only have room for a single “Jack / Jill of all trades” bike?
  • Are fast and light bikepacking missions part of your idea of fun?
  • Do you have trouble deciding whether you love gravel, doubletrack, or light singletrack the most?

If you answered yes to at least two of those, you’re probably a perfect candidate for a drop bar mountain bike.

Popular Drop Bar Mountain Bikes

If you’re in the market for a new mountain bike (lucky you!) and think you want drop bars, you have some great stock options to choose from. Here are some popular classics on the more affordable side of the spectrum:

Salsa Fargo: One of the original drop bar mountain bikes and a cult classic in the bikepacking scene.

Salsa Cutthroat: A lightweight carbon machine designed for comfort, gear capacity, and covering serious ground.

Bombtrack Beyond 1: Simple and reliable, the most affordable bike in the adventure touring lineup from Bombtrack.

Kona Sutra ULTD: Classic and well-loved adventure touring bike souped up with even wider rims and a dropper post for dirt-focused adventures.

Surly Ghost Grappler: Brand new to the scene as Surly finally adds a drop bar mountain bike to their lineup. Initial reviews seem positive and the price is good.

If your budget is flexible and you enjoy analysis paralysis, bikepacking.com has a full list of 29er drop bar mountain bikes here.

Converting Your Mountain Bike

If you already own a perfectly good mountain bike and are considering swapping out the flat bars for drops, there are some important factors to consider.

I’ll be clear and say it up front: for many people this process is not worth the money and hassle. Skip ahead to the section on alt bars for a much easier conversion with similar benefits.

MTB Drop Bar Conversion: Changes Required

Stem and Stack

As mentioned above, drop bars cause a more forward-leaning posture. To compensate for this you might want a shorter stem, or if you have the space on your steerer tube, a higher stack.

Shift and Brake Controls

Here we get to the meat of the issue when doing a drop bar MTB conversion. Drop bars require road brakes/shifters, and your flat bar brake and shift levers won’t fit (different bar diameter and some obvious ergonomic issues). You’re going to need new brake and shift controls.

While most people go with brifters (integrated brake and shift levers) for their drop bars, bar-end shifters are an option too. Personally I find them awkward for off-pavement riding – they require moving a hand to shift which impacts stability, and on flared drop bars they’re easy to bang up – but some folks don’t mind them.

Drive Train

Generally speaking, mountain bikers want mountain bike drive trains. Wide and low gearing is the biggest benefit, but other features like a clutch and a bit of extra durability can factor in too.

Here’s the catch: how is your MTB drive train going to interface with those road brifters on your drop bars? Different cable pull ratios and various other compatibility nuances make this harder than seems reasonable.

Combining road levers with an MTB derailleur and cassette is called a mullet drivetrain, and leads us deep into a compatibility rabbit hole that some never emerge from. For those who like to tinker, this Guide to Mullet Drivetrains will get you started. Welcome to the strange world of terms like Goat Link, Tanpan, Shiftmate, and Gevanelle.

Long story short, you may need to replace your cassette and derailleur during your drop bar MTB conversion.

Brakes

Since road brakes and shifters are generally integrated, your choice of shifters impacts your brake caliper options. If you want hydraulic brakes, options are especially limited since hydraulics tend to be a MTB feature. There are workarounds (see the guide to mullet drivetrains linked above) but you’ll need to plan carefully.

Long story short, you may need to change your brake calipers as part of your drop bar conversion.

That’s a Lot of Parts

So which parts will be needed to convert your mountain bike to use drop bars? Depending on what you have and what you want, you could be looking at a new stem, brake and shift controls, derailleur, cassette, and brake calipers. Oh yeah, and the bars, bar tape, and new cables and housing.

Two stem bags on bikepacking handlebars
Bar end shifters (shown here on Salsa Cowchipper bars) are one way of getting around the brifter compatibility issue, but they can be awkward for trail riding because you’re always moving a hand to shift.

Consider “Alt Bars” Instead

If you’re having second thoughts about that drop bar conversion after seeing all the new parts required, I don’t blame you! That’s why some folks decide to switch to “alt bars” instead.

At their most basic, alternative bars are flat bars with some backsweep for a more natural wrist angle. Many go a step further and offer similar benefits to drop bars (ergonomics, multiple hand positions, versatility) without requiring road controls. They’re very popular among tourers and bikepackers, but they can work for your standard MTB riding too.

Here are three popular alt bars to consider instead of drop bars for your mountain bike:

Surly Corner Bar: A weird and wonderful innovation that mimics a drop bar but takes mountain bike controls. I don’t know why nobody thought of this sooner!

Jones Loop Bar: Lots of backsweep and available in a ton of options, including fancy carbon and titanium.

Surly Moloko Bar: Tons of hand positions and space for gadgets.

Choosing Your Drop Bars

If you’re set on drop bars and want something designed for off-pavement riding, you have a lot of choices.

Honestly, the current proliferation of drop bars designed specifically for gravel and mountain bikes is a bit overwhelming. The things seem to be multiplying like bunnies! If you’d like to consider ALL the options, I can’t possibly do better than this long list from bikepacking.com.

Here are three dirt drop recommendations from personal experience:

  • Salsa Cowchipper: Versatile classic in a wide range of widths.
  • Salsa Woodchipper: Distinctive design with very pronounced flare; often a love-it-or-hate it situation.
  • PNW Coast: Designed to run wide, with a shallow drop and comfy ergonomics.

I’ve run all these bars on various bikes and I have my preferences. You can read here about my latest favorite and what the switch was like.

Different models come in different widths, and many models even offer a choice. So besides choosing the shape, choose the width that suits your riding preference (narrower for smoother terrain, wider for rougher). Even riders with narrower shoulders might prefer a wide dirt drop bar as long as you pair it with a suitably shorter stem.

Personally I prefer shallow drops (bars where the lowers don’t extend down quite as far below the top of the bar) and think they work better in general for smaller riders with smaller hands. Most mountain bikers and bikepackers don’t really need the aggressive aero position offered by deep drops anyway.

It’s worth saying again though: If you’re thinking of swapping your flat bars for drop bars, see the section above on Alt Bars before taking the plunge.

Coast handlebars pointing down red dirt road in central Oregon
PNW Coast Bars are a wide, somewhat flared, shallow drop bar designed for gravel and light singletrack.

Setting Up Your Drop Bars

Whether they came stock or you swapped them yourself, many dirt drop riders find that fiddling is necessary to dial in the ideal tilt of the bars and position of the hoods.

Off-road riding involves a lot of different body positions which, when combined with all the hand positions offered by drop bars, can lead to some big differences in comfort and effectiveness. There’s also the issue of brake and shifter access, two things mountain bikers need often, that aren’t equally available in all hand positions.

Ideally you’ll find a sweet spot that gives good access to brake and shift levers while keeping an ergonomic wrist angle in the hand positions you use most often. In practice, you might need to sacrifice a bit in one hand position to get the ideal fit in another.

Your preferences may vary, but this video does a good job of showing various hand and body positions and how they interact with bar tilt.

He prefers to tilt the hoods a bit downward so that the lowers are flatter, making for a more stable grip with a straight wrist. Some people (probably those who spend more time in the hoods) like to tilt the hoods upward to reduce the reach. There’s no substitute for experimentation.

Where to Ride Your Drop Bar Mountain Bike

Now that you’ve got your sweet rig, where to ride it? Well, anywhere you want. That’s kind of the point of drop bar mountain bikes.

But to leave you on an inspirational note, here are a few bikepacking routes that run especially well (in my opinion) on mountain bikes with dirt drops due to their variety of roads and trails:

Have fun!

More Bike Resources

If you like riding and tinkering with bikes, you might also enjoy these:

For many more helpful guides, visit the bikepacking resources center.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve traveled over 15,000 miles (enough to stop counting) by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride. Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more or say hi.

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4 thoughts on “Drop Bars on Mountain Bikes: How & Why (or Why Not)”

  1. Hey Alissa. Looking into purchasing the PNW Coast bar along with a shorter stem. Something I’ve been aware of in my years of riding is how the nature of narrow bars keep your shoulders hunched forward, so wider bars does allow the chest to open up a bit more. What kind of bar tape did you use for the wrap? Do you go with at least a 3mm thickness for comfort or whatever is cheapest-some of these tapes are getting expensive. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi John, that’s a very good point about riding posture, and I totally agree. When we’re on the bike for hours that kind of thing really makes a difference.

      I hope you like the Coast bar! I’m still enjoying mine. For tape I often grab whatever is cheapest and comes in a fun color, but last time I splurged a bit on this tape and I’m really liking it: https://amzn.to/3oAvhvz It’s thicker, longer (so can be wrapped thicker even on wide bars), more durable than I’m used to (hasn’t torn yet) and I like the texture.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this excellent article – answered exactly the questions I had on this subject and saved me a lot of pain to realize the benefits of going with an alt bar rather than going down the rabbit hole of figuring out how to convert the more intricate components from MTB to Road. Cheers! Bruce

    Reply

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