As I write this, an exciting Tour of California has concluded, and the Giro d’Italia is into its second week. As much as I enjoy the race action (bravo Peter Sagan for hanging on to win the TOC!), I feel for the overworked mechanics.
One of their most important jobs is making sure all the bicycles remain showroom-clean throughout the race. This keeps the team sponsors and racers happy. And, for this to happen, arguably, the most important job is rewrapping handlebars with new tape as often as needed.
Think about it. Every race comes down to a huge finish. And, after the rider, the most visible thing in all the videos and photos is the handlebar tape. Plus, besides looking great, nice, new tape feels great, too.
Luckily, unlike those poor team wrenches, you don’t have to rewrap a whole team’s worth of handlebars after a race (and before you can eat your dinner!). You only have to deal with yours. And, you can choose when to do it, too.
Here are some tips and tricks to make the job go smoothly and result in a pro look for your finish-line photos.
Depending on how long the tape’s been on the bars, if it’s a tape with adhesive (the most common type today), you might end up with a mess of small pieces still stuck to the bar when you peel off the old stuff. This will cause a lot of extra cleaning that takes time. Try to avoid this by peeling the tape off more slowly so that the adhesive doesn’t separate from the tape and you can unwrap both together as one.
If it refuses to come off in one piece, a trick is to drip some isopropyl alcohol (“rubbing alcohol”) underneath the tape as you unwrap it. It’s cheap and won’t hurt anything it drips on, and it will loosen the adhesive and help you get the tape off in one piece. Plus, unlike other solvents, it leaves the bars residue-free so the new tape adheres well.
New tape usually comes with new handlebar plugs. But don’t just toss your old plugs until you’re sure you like the news ones. For example, they might not fit into the handlebars as tightly as your old ones. Or, they might not match your bike finish as well as the old ones. For plugs that don’t fit tightly enough, try wrapping electrical tape around the plug to make it a tighter fit.
Tip: In a crash, the bar plugs may slam into you or vice versa. So it’s always a good idea to inspect them for any sharp edges and sand them smooth.
For a nice custom job, the handlebars should be clean so that the new tape sticks, and any cables/housing that will be beneath the tape should run in smooth paths and where they won’t be able to cause any hand pain or numbness.
Some mechanics like to secure cables running beneath the handlebar tape with electrical tape, so you may find that on your bars when you remove the bar tape. It’s also possible to simply hold the cables in place as you wrap the bar tape, which is what I prefer. It saves a gram or two and seems cleaner to me.
Be sure to check the new tape package for 2 finishing strips of wrap that go behind the brake levers to hide the handlebar clamps. If they’re not included as separate pieces, you’ll need to cut your own.
Note: If your kit comes with 2 rolls of tape, you must cut 1 finishing piece from each roll. Because if you cut both from the same roll, you will likely shorten that roll too much for it to fully wrap the bar. Don’t make that mistake.
Now, take those two pieces and put them on the brake lever clamps and tuck them into the rubber brake hoods for now. That will help stick them in place and ‘train’ them to stay bent. If the strips are so long then extend into and bulge the hoods on the sides, cut the strips shorter to fit.
Start at the bottom of the handlebars and wrap to the top. That shingles the wraps so that the normal downward pressure of your hands won’t be able to grip the edges of the tape and roll it over on itself.
It’s your choice how you wrap. I like to start the tape on the inside of the handlebars and pull it toward the outside (away from the bike). But, it’s not any more difficult to do it the other way. I also like to wrap the same way on both sides so that when I look down at the tape, the diagonal lines are symmetrical on both sides. But, you might like them the other way, and that’s fine.
Be sure to overlap the tape 1/3 of the thickness of the tape all the way up the bars. Look beneath to check your work so that you don’t leave any handlebar exposed. (This won’t cause any problems but it’ll bug you if you’re a perfectionist and see it later.)
Also, pull the tape snug with each wrap to remove wrinkles and get it to lay flat and stay in place. Some tape is more stretchy than other. It usually takes a pretty good pull to break the tape, but be careful. If you break the tape, you won’t have enough to finish that side and you’ll have to buy more tape. Or, you can tape the broken seam together and do your best to hide the repair.
When you get to the brake levers, gently fold back the rubber hoods on themselves to make wrapping around the levers easier. The tape strips you put there earlier should stay on now and be easy to wrap around. Once you’ve wrapped past the brake hoods, you can gently roll the rubber hoods back in place to prevent any damage to the hoods (this is a concern if they’re old).
Tricks: It takes a little experimentation, but you can have a lot of fun and get dazzling (dizzying?) results with advanced handlebar taping, such as wrapping 2 different colored or patterned tapes and crisscrossing them. Or tape the top of the bars with one pattern/color and the bottom with another by hiding the ends at the brake levers. Search Google images and you can find some trick wrap jobs to inspire you.
It’s not tricky to finish the tape if you simply end your wrap job the same distance from the stem on both sides and wind electrical tape around the final wraps to hold things in place. That works and looks okay.
But, you may have received two logoed pieces of finishing tape in your new tape kit. They look so professional that you might want to try to use them to finish your tape. You might have even seen a bike in a catalog with the tape finished that way.
Or, even if you don’t have those logoed tape pieces in your kit, you might want the tape to finish perfectly at the top, as if the handlebar was dipped in handlebar wrap the way the pros do it.
For that super-clean finish, you need to: 1. Ensure that the ends of the tape finish flush with where the handlebar bulges (the larger diameter part of the bar where the stem mounts), and 2. Ensure that the ends only wrap once at that point, just like it is around the rest of the bar. These two details keep the tape flat and square so that the finishing tape goes down like that, too.
Top trick: Here’s the secret that makes a pro finish relatively easy. Instead of guessing where to cut the tape, wind it tight past and over that point where the handlebar gets thicker, and right up to the stem, or as close as you can get with however long your tape is. Now, just temporarily tape the tape there with electrical tape. If your tape is so long you can wrap past the stem, just cut it since you have more than enough.
Do this to both sides. Then, take something firm, like a wooden spoon and rub the tape all the way around the bar at the transition point between the smaller and larger handlebar diameters. If there’s an actual step-down between the diameters, the rubbing will make a perfect cutline on the bottom of the tape. If the handlebar diameters transition more smoothly, go head and rub but also make a line with a pencil at that point on the tape - or use chalk if the tape is a dark color.
Now, all you have to do is to unwrap the tape, cut on your cutlines and rewrap the ends and you’ll have a perfect, flat spot to finish with either the supplied stickers or your electrical tape. Be sure to cut the finishing pieces so that the seams hide beneath the handlebars.
It’s only fair to mention that I haven’t had good luck with the supplied finishing tape pieces. They stick at first, but seem to always come loose and I end up removing them and going back to electrical tape. Electrical tape can come loose, too, but it usually lasts a long time if it’s quality tape and you avoid touching the adhesive with your fingers and spoiling it.
If you have a great tip or trick for wrapping bars, please share it in Comments.
Jim Langley has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached 7,808.
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