Thinking about buying a bike? Lucky you! A bike can be a freedom machine, fitness tool, transportation method, and much more. But choosing a bike comes with many decisions to make, and one of the biggest is the choice between flat or drop handlebars.
Some people know right away whether they prefer the racey feel of drops or the stable leverage of a flat bar. They see themselves in a certain way as a cyclist or know which feels better for their body. But if you’re new to cycling or considering a switch in bike style, you might need a little help choosing your handlebar type and this article is for you.
In this post I’ll explain which types of bikes feature each handlebar style, their most significant pros and cons, and other advice for making your choice. I personally ride both drop and flat bars on different bikes for different purposes and love them both. I’m not biased one way or the other, but I’ve found that each has its own unique advantages, distinct flavor, and ideal style of riding. My goal is to help you choose the bike, and with it the handlebars, that will bring a smile to your face for mile after mile.
What Are Drop Handlebars?
Really quick, if this is all new to you: Drop handlebars are the curvy ones with the sides that “drop” downward and curve back toward the rider. They’re found on almost all road bikes, most gravel bikes, and some bikes in other subcategories like touring and commuting bikes.
The original idea behind drop bars was to encourage an aerodynamic forward-leaning posture that reduces wind drag at higher speeds. As you’ll see below, they also have benefits for casual riders who aren’t focused purely on speed.
Here are some examples of drop handlebars:
What Are Flat Handlebars?
Flat handlebars, sometimes called straight bars, are the wide straight-ish bars you see on most mountain bikes and hybrid bikes. Then can also be found on some bikes designed for touring, commuting, and general recreational riding. Flat bars are gripped toward the ends with your knuckles facing forward, resulting in a strong posture with plenty of leverage for a stable ride.
Here are examples of flat handlebars:
Know Your Riding Style
I’ll cover the pros and cons of drop versus flat bars next, but the truth is that you may not even need to consider them.
The first question you should be asking yourself is: what kind of riding do you want to do? Are you most excited about pounding pavement, grinding gravel, or shredding singletrack? If you answered “all of the above,” I’m sorry to say you’ll need to pick a priority or two, at least for this particular bike. Perhaps your answer is “I just want to commute to work” and that’s fine too — I’ll get to that below.
Once you have a vision for the kind of cycling you see yourself enjoying, it may point you in the direction of a particular handlebar style. Here are the broad categories.
Road: Almost all road bikes come with drop handlebars; the aesthetic is woven into the sport. At the faster paces associated with pavement riding the aerodynamic position of drops helps with efficiency, speed, and endurance.
Gravel: A majority of gravel bikes come with drop bars, usually a bit wider and more flared than those on road bikes. You can find a few gravel bikes with flat bars though, especially where the category starts to bleed into rigid mountain bikes, and they can be a good choice for riders who like to push the limits of rougher terrain on their gravel bike.
Mountain: Most mountain bikes come with wide flat bars because the additional leverage makes it easier to control the bike on rough trails. You can find a few mountain bikes with drop bars, but it’s a quirky niche that appeals to a small minority of riders.
Commuter, city, hybrid, touring: Here’s where things might get tricky when bike shopping. You’ll find bikes in these categories with both drop and flat bars, so you’ll need to understand more about their pros and cons to make your choice. Keep reading!
Advantages of Drop Bars
Aerodynamic riding position: If you like riding fast, drop bars give you a slight edge when hunkered down in the drops (holding the lower extensions) at higher speeds. They’re also handy when being clobbered by a headwind, heaven forbid. Of course you can always add aerobars to a flat bar bike, or choose a creative flat bar design with bullhorns, for a more streamlined position. But drop bars have better aerodynamics out of the box.
Multiple hand positions: Long hours in the saddle can cause back and neck fatigue and even hand numbness, but switching postures and hand positions helps stave off these problems. Drop bars provide four distinct hand positions to rotate between depending on the terrain and your body’s state of (dis)comfort. Most flat bars offer just one position out of the box, though they can be modified with extra gizmos (most commonly aerobars or bar ends) so this isn’t a deal breaker for flat bar lovers.
More neutral wrist angle: Every body is different, but the most common hand position on drop bars (thumbs pointing upward) is closer to natural alignment than the typical hand position on flat bars (thumbs pointing inward toward each other). Riding for hours with wrists pronated in the flat bar position can cause discomfort in your hands, shoulders, and even back, especially if the bars are wide and very straight. Fortunately many flat bars are now made with backsweep (ends sloping back towards the rider) for better wrist and shoulder alignment, and you can add bar ends for an additional neutral position while climbing.
Better in tight spaces and urban environments: Most drop bars are narrower than most flat bars, which is an advantage if you do a lot of city riding. When my partner and I bikepack through crowded city streets, my drop bars can sneak through narrow gaps in traffic where his flat bars can’t fit. While not a factor for most riders, if you plan to do a lot of urban commuting or carrying your bike through narrow doorways you should add a few points in favor of drop bars.
Putting all that together we can see that drop bars are a natural choice for people with more intense cycling aspirations (farther or faster) who plan to ride a lot of pavement or smooth gravel. If that’s not you and you don’t feel particularly drawn to drop bars, you should consider flat bars.
Advantages of Flat Bars
More stability and control: If you’re comfortable on a bike and mainly like to cruise smooth pavement, you’re unlikely to have bike handling challenges with drop bars. But if you’re drawn to chunky gravel detours and the occasional dirt trail, or simply want a more confidence-inspiring bike as a new cyclist, you might prefer the wider span of flat bars.
Note that the current trend of wide gravel-focused drop bars is closing this gap somewhat, so don’t give up on drop bars if you really want them. Some people ride all sorts of crazy shit on drop bar bikes these days, and you can always switch to a wider flared bar for more stability if you want to join them.
Simpler brake and shift controls: On drop handlebars the brake and shift levers are generally integrated into a single unit, or “brifter.” On flat bar bikes the mechanisms are more often separate and therefore a bit simpler mechanically. This allows for easier and cheaper maintenance or replacement if something goes wrong with one part or the other.
Easier cable maintenance and no bar tape: If you learn to do your own bike maintenance (and you definitely should!) it’s easy to replace your own cables, but drop bars require an extra step of unwrapping and rewrapping the bars with tape. It’s not hard once you get the hang of it, but I’ve definitely put off replacing my cable housing because I liked my bar tape and didn’t want to deal with the cost or work of replacing it. On the other hand though, bar tape is kind of fun; you can choose a different color every time.
More confident and ergonomic braking: Ergonomics are subjective (more on this below), but despite trying a number of different drop bar styles and brake levers I still prefer flat bars for long steep descents. Braking in the drops requires more hand involvement and can lead to hand fatigue faster, especially for riders with smaller hands.
Cheaper, all else being equal: Perhaps because of the difference in brake and shift controls, and because drop bar bikes are considered a bit “fancier,” you can often find flat bar bikes at lower prices for comparable specs. If budget is a big factor and you want the best parts spec you can get at a given price, it’s likely to come with flat bars (road and gravel bikes excepted).
More room for handlebar bags: If you’re into bikepacking (and you should be, because it’s awesome) drop bars limit the cargo space in your handlebar bag and the space for gadgets on your handlebars. I bikepack with both and it’s not a huge deal, but I do prefer the ease of my flat bar bike for hauling cargo and keeping a streamlined cockpit.
Putting all this together, one could argue that flat bars are a better choice for new cyclists and anyone who doesn’t have a specific reason to choose drop bars. If you’re choosing a bike for short-distance transportation or light recreational riding, especially if you have dirt bike paths in your area, there are few reasons not to get a bike with flat bars.
Other (Subjective) Factors
If you’re into a particular style of riding and like the aesthetic that goes with it, roll with that! Race-ready roadie lyrca? Dusty MTB baggies? Though function is at least as important as form, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your sense of identity as a cyclist. Chances are you’ll be more motivated to ride the style of bike — and handlebars — that matches the cyclist you see yourself as in your mind’s eye.
Are drop bars or flat bars more comfortable? This has more to do with your individual body and the specific model of bar you’re using than with the overall category. People often say drop bars are more ergonomic because of the neutral wrist alignment and multiple hand positions, but with a little experimentation the right flat bar setup can work just as well for most people.
During many thousands of miles on both flat and drop bars I’ve actually found that flat bars — with plenty of backsweep and bar ends — cause me less hand discomfort than a variety of drop bars. This might also be due to my mountain bike’s more upright posture, which highlights another very important point: your overall bike fit is likely a bigger factor than handlebar type when it comes to comfort in the saddle.
Lastly, creative takes on handlebar design are proliferating like never before. Both drop and flat bars come in such a wide range of designs that it’s impossible to call one entire category more comfortable than the other. Which brings me to this last point…
Bridging the Gap: Flare and Backsweep
If you expect all handlebars in the same category to feel similar, think again. There have never been so many creative handlebar options available! Clever designers have found ways to minimize the classic drawbacks of each style, in effect narrowing the gap between them. For those on the fence, this is good news.
Like the idea of drop bars but want something a bit more stable? Grab a set of wide flared drop bars like the Salsa Cowchipper. They’re intended for gravel riding, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy them on your city bike too.
Want the stability and simplicity of flat bars but need a more comfortable position? The Salsa Bend is a flat MTB-style bar with 23 degrees of backsweep for a more neutral wrist and shoulder position.
To get a sense for the impressive variety of handlebars, I recommend playing around with whatbars.com. You can overlay to-scale diagrams of many handlebar models to see how their shapes compare.
Alt Bars: Best of Both Worlds?
If you really can’t decide between drop and flat bars, a bike with alt bars may be right for you. These typically take the place of flat bars but provide more hand positions and better ergonomics. You might get lucky and find them stock on a small number of bike models, or you can swap out your bike’s flat bars for alt bars in the future.
Two popular examples of alt bars: Surly Moloko and Jones Loop HBar. Both aim to combine the stability of flat bars with the multiple hand positions of drop bars.
Can You Change Bars Later?
You’ve done all your homework and made your decision, but you don’t like the way it feels. Can you switch bar styles later? It depends.
Switching between bar styles — from drop to flat or vice versa — is often complicated. You’ll also need to switch brake and shift controls, which often leads to drivetrain compatibility issues and yet more part swaps. Depending on the geometry of the bike’s tubes and angles, it may not handle as well with bars it wasn’t designed for.
Don’t despair though, because it’s usually possible to change from one model to another within the same category: flat bar to another flat bar, or drop bar to drop bar. As mentioned above, both styles come in a wide range of shapes and sizes to suit all kinds of bikes and riders. Chances are there’s a handlebar out there that will work for you.
The Importance of Test Rides
Whether your preference is now crystal clear or you still can’t decide between drop and flat bars, I highly recommend you spend some time riding with each. Test ride at your local bike shop, borrow bikes from a few friends, or rent from a local shop.
Note that many other factors impact how a bike feels, so don’t write off a style of handlebars completely just from a single test ride. Ideally try a few different models with each bar style, and keep in mind that bars can usually be swapped later within their same category (drop to drop, flat to flat) or made more comfortable with adjustments to bike fit.
Though handlebar style is an important decision, don’t stress too much about getting it wrong. After all, either way you’ll have a bike!
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