Determining Optimal Handlebar Width

Do handlebars this narrow really give a performance benefit? Credit: YouTube

Handlebar width is an often overlooked optimization. Some people don’t even realize it’s an option to adjust, but finding the correct width can give a rider an edge in their preferred discipline. For road riding, values generally range from 44cm to 36cm and there is some dispute in how handlebar width should be measured. Most manufacturers will denote either ‘O-O’ or ‘C-C’ for ‘outside to outside’ and ‘center to center’ respectively.

Handlebar width: O-O or C-C

The old time philosophy of handlebar width was that a rider’s handlebars should be as wide as their acromioclavicular joint, the distinctive bump on the top of the shoulder. There may be some anatomical justification for this standard, but it has been shown that riders have been successful with a variety of handlebar widths.

Let’s start with some high level real world examples of differences in handlebar width:

  • Climbers will generally use wide bars to act as ‘bullhorns’ to get as much pulling leverage on during low cadence riding. During long climbs in the Tour de France, an exhausted climber will be seen with significant upper body movement and a vigorous pull on the handlebars. The added width gives a little more space to pull and get the rider’s foot over the top of the pedal stroke.
  • Criterium riders will opt for slightly narrower than recommended bars to facilitate easier movement in the pack. Narrow bars allow for getting into gaps and can help the rider protect their front wheel and handlebars a bit easier.
  • One day classics riders will opt for a narrow handlebar to maximize aerodynamics. If a rider is racing for 6-7 hours, every calorie matters. It has been shown in numerous studies that a rider’s width is the key factor in cycling aerodynamics.
  • Road sprinters should be using a ‘normal’ width bar because of the trade-off between needing the leverage during sprinting and aerodynamics of a high speed race. When sprinting, if the right leg is in the downstroke, the left arm should be pulling upwards to resist the lateral force of the offset of the pedal relative to the center of the bike. Having greater bar width means less force is needed to resist the lateral force.
  • Track sprinters use very narrow bars (34cm, maybe even 32cm!) because they are jacked. Unlike road sprints who have some concern for overall weight and low upper body mass, track sprinters are huge all over with defined shoulders and back. This extra upper body power allows them to get sufficient leverage on even the most narrow bars.
  • Mountain bikers tend to choose bars as wide as they can go. The balance is making sure the rider can fit through gaps in trees and using the extra width to provide more leverage and control of the bike.

Speaking to the leverage and control of the bike: handlebars need to be wide enough to control the bike. A good analogy here is: imagine if a car steering wheel was the size of your cell phone. There would be no way to control the car! The size of the steering wheel must be large enough to allow sufficient leverage to spin it to propel the car in the right direction. A small steering wheel would also be unsufficient to resist obstacles in the road (such as a rock or pothole) as the driver doesn’t have enough leverage to resist the movement of the wheels caused to the obstacle.

Some riders complain about their chest feeling too tight when they have excessively narrow bars, as if they can’t take a deep enough breath. The simplest solution to this is to go up 2-4cm. Another noteworthy issue riders run into with excessively narrow bars is wide elbows. When bars are too narrow, the rider can’t tuck their elbows in because there isn’t enough space without contacting the knees. As a result, their elbows stick out wide, especially during hard efforts. The wide elbow position (like the title photo of Van Schip) is the opposite of aerodynamic and causes greater losses than if the rider just chose an appropriate bar width for their needs.

The Right Bars for You

The simplest way to determine the right handlebars width is to look at manufacturer suggested widths and adjust according to your riding style. But if you really want to get the most comfortable bars, look into purchasing a cheap set of aluminum bars in a few different widths. Other configurable areas include:

  • Reach – how far the bar extends forward relative to the center clamp
  • Drop – how far the drops ‘drop’ below the center clamp
  • Flare – how much the drops flare out to the sides

It’s all a game of experiments and personal taste. With that being said, we can use other similar riders as benchmarks to help narrow down the search.

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