It’s been like The Holidays around here lately. I’ve gotten package after package from some of my favorite retailers: Velo Orange, Rivendell, Pedro’s tools, Modern Bike.
All these shiny new toys serve a purpose, however: I’m finally ridding myself of the drop bars on my bike. I’m taking a stand, eschewing the peer and retail pressure to ride in an uncomfortable position to hold up the false pretense that I could, one fine day, try out for the Olympic team.
I’m switching to a swept-back “grandpa” bar. I can’t wait to finish it.
Drop bars are the epitome of what U.S. bicycling has become in one twisty, ram-like package. The Bicycle Oligarchs sell these bars on, I’m gonna say, at least 90 percent of the road bikes out there and have since the 1970s. Remember those neato 10-speed Schwinn Varsity bikes you may have coveted, the ones you saw as the “grown up” bike, because they had gears and drop bars? Yeah, I think that’s about when it started. “Real” bikes have drop bars. If you’re a “serious” rider, you ride with drops. Anything else is a toy for kids. Or worse, the elderly.
That’s the message the Oligarchs send. It’s pervasive, it’s intentional and it works. And it has transformed U.S. bicycling into a sport, a sport for which you need to spend copiously, a sport for which you need to suit up, take seriously, be dedicated and for god’s sake, grimace a little.
The Oligarchs sell drop bars on the premise that they offer the most amount of hand positions. This is lapped up unquestioningly by bicycle writers for every publication you can think of, and seals the myth that everyone who rides the roads needs drop bars. They’re not wrong, exactly. Drop bars do offer a plethora of hand positions — up top, on the hoods, and two positions, if you’re creative, in the drops. That’s a lot of places to put those paws.
One thing, though. Almost no one ever uses the drop portion of the drop bar. Ever. Nearly everyone uses the top of the bar and the hoods of their brake levers the vast majority of the time, saving the drops only for Kilimanjarian ascents while facing gale force winds and falling toads.
This makes a full ⅓ to ½ of the hand positions of drop bars useless in every practical sense. Most people may as well have a straight mountain bike bar with some extensions to mimic the brake hoods. It’d be cheaper, if nothing else.
You know when drop bars are useful as hell though? When you’re racing. They come in real handy then, shave full seconds off each mile of that climb up Kilimanjaro.
But if you’re not chasing the guy in the yellow jersey, what’s the point?
I’m big enough to admit it: I’m simply not comfortable using a drop bar. The two up-top hand positions aren’t cutting it for me and the drops are out of the question.
I’ve tried shortening my stem to bring the bars closer, as conventional wisdom dictates. I have the arms of a Tyranasaurus, though. There isn’t a stem short enough to help me out. And I’ve tried the 30mm w(Right) stem from Analog Cycles. Not even that helped me.
I’ll save you the whole nerdy saga, (but I detailed it here for the component nerdz and illustrated the process with lovely pictures) but after several tries, I’ve finally found my handlebar setup: Nitto North Road bars, mounted upside down. All the reach a person could want, two solid hand positions (three if you’re a little creative) and a steering control I’ve never experienced with drop bars.
I fully support anyone who wants to throw off the yoke of peer pressure and swap their drops for comfortable, cool-looking swept back bars. I’m telling you, it’s pretty amazing the comfort the right handlebar can bring. My North Roads put my hands at a reasonable hand position, and keep my hands near both the brakes and the shifters, where hands should be, with enough of a reach up top for a hill climb.
If you’re comfortable on those drops, by all means, keep them. But don’t be afraid to look outside conventional road bike setups. You might find something that suits you better.