Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Not too long ago in one of our Quick Tips stories, we answered the question, “Are drop bars better?” Here’s a link if you’d like to read the original Q and A: Are drop bars better?
I want to add a little to the original answer because dropped (also called “drop” or “racing”) bars are often misunderstood. For example, people new to them can assume the only way to use the curly bars is to ride on the lowest positions – because that’s where it’s easiest to brake and shift. Then, if they feel uncomfortable down there all the time, they may decide the only solution is to swap out to flat bars. You’ve probably seen people riding with them turned upside down, too!
The 2 Benefits of Dropped Bars
I think that’s a shame because these new riders never had the opportunity to experience the two biggest benefits of dropped bars: more comfort and efficiency.
Dropped bars boost comfort by providing multiple hand positions. This lets you move both your body and hands to relieve pressure on all your contact points, stretch out and stay comfortable on even the longest road and gravel rides.
Hand pain and numbness are among the most common roadie complaints. The ulnar nerve runs through the hands and it’s susceptible to constant pressure. Riding with dropped bars the pressure can usually be relieved simply by moving to another hand position every 10 to 15 minutes. If you suffer from hand numbness, pain and nerve issues, check out our helpful tips in these articles: https://www.roadbikerider.com/avoid-hand-numbness-bicycle/.
And in the same way they boost comfort, drop bars optimize your riding efficiency. Again, you change your hand and body positions to do it, such as gripping the brake hoods when standing to climb, riding on the drops where it’s more aero and you can cheat the wind, and gripping the tops when sitting up to relax and drink or eat. Those are just a few examples.
Handlebars Must Be Set Right For You
It’s important to understand that these benefits are only available if the dropped handlebars are the right size and shape for you. And only if they are correctly positioned on the bike for you. But, before we get into how to know if the bars are right and in the best position, we should look at the many ways you can hold on to drops because that knowledge helps in evaluating how your drops are set up on your bike.
Always Hook a Thumb, Wrap Fingers or Hang On
Also important to know is that as you move your hands to different grip positions on the dropped bars you always want to maintain a good hold of them with at least one hand. Otherwise if you hit a bump or hole, your hands can slip off the bars, which usually causes a crash. I lost it and broke an elbow this way by letting go of the bars and trying to reset my cyclometer with both hands – stupid!
To stay holding on and in control, always be sure you’ve hooked at least one thumb beneath the bar, wrapped your fingers around them or have a sure purchase with your palms. That way, that rut, hole or wobbly rider next to you won’t cause a crash.
Mixed Hand Positions
Next I’m going to go over 9 hand positions on dropped bars. I don’t include mixed hand positions you might see and use, like having one hand on the brake hood to do the shifting and braking while the other is holding onto the top of the bar. As long as you like it and can still maintain control of the bike it’s fine to grip however you want – that’s the beauty of having so much handlebar!
I’m not sure every roadie will agree on this list of hand positions, so feel free to comment with your take on the number of positions drop bars have (or that you use) and which you would add or delete. Keep in mind that these are for the latest road bikes that have aero brake levers – no cables protruding from the tops.
From my experience, though – and based on observing this year’s professional ranks, I’d say there are 9 commonly used positions on dropped handlebars. Note that position 3 here may not be available on smaller, compact handlebars.
Note on the “Faux Aero Bars” Position
I’m not including the forearms-on-the-handlebars position that mimics riding with aero bars because in my opinion having tried it now and then, I think it’s the riskiest of all positions since you’re not holding onto the bars at all. I believe the UCI (the governing body of pro racing) recently outlawed it, too. But they have no jurisdiction over anyone else.
Here’s my list with photos – that were incredibly challenging to take!
1. On the top with hands palms-down holding on right next to the stem. The highest position, great for sitting taller to see, and good if you need to turn to look back since you’re less likely to swerve with a hand so close to the center of the bike.
2. On the tops with hands palms-down holding on in-between the stem and brake levers. The second highest position and a popular one for extended climbing while sitting since it opens your chest and diaphragm for breathing. Keep reading for the favorite position for climbers who prefer standing.
3. Hands rotated with palms facing in, holding onto the bars just above the brake hoods. As mentioned earlier, this position is usually only available on large size bars with big curves. This grip puts you a little lower and rotates the hands which relieves any pressure on the nerves.
4. Hands rotated with palms facing in, holding on and resting partly on the bars and brake hoods. Nice cruising position because you’re a little more aero, have easy access to the braking and shifting and the palms face in relieving pressure. It’s also good for standing to climb if you like to grip both the bars and hoods.
5. Hands rotated with palms in and hands fully on the brake hoods to be able to brake from there and stand and climb. This position has the benefits of position 4 and a little better grip since you can wrap your fingers around the hoods. It’s the preferred position for roadies who like to do long climbs while standing because it lets you relax your hands and upper body as you rock the bike to weigh and drive each pedal.
6. Hands palms-down and resting on the front of the brake hoods. This is done in different ways. Some roadies put their hands so that the hoods’ ”knobs” are in the thumb/forefinger crotches as a way to get a better grip. Others, as shown in the photo, put the knobs centered under the palms and let their fingers dangle over the front. NOTE that this is the one position that’s a little dangerous because a bump could knock your hands off. Still, it’s popular because it lets you stretch out your back and with the hands punching holes in the wind out front it’s a semi aero position without going all the way down to the drops. And you can brake and shift without moving your hands much, too.
7. Hands rotated with the palms in fingers wrapped holding onto the hooks/the bends right below the brake levers. The first of the lower, more aero/efficient positions. Provides maximum grip for braking and shifting so it’s the preferred descending position. Sprinters love this position since they’re as low as they can crouch and have a great draft: can pull on the bars for max power; and can hit the exact gear needed fast.
8. Hands rotated with the palms in and fingers wrapped holding on in the middle of the drops. Another lower/efficient/aero position that’s good for cruising when you don’t need to shift or brake that much. You sit a little higher than position 7. Popular for time trialing and descending when it’s safe and you won’t be hitting the brakes much.
9. Hands rotated with the palms in and fingers wrapped holding on the ends of the drops. The same benefits and use as position 8 with the hands are a little closer to the knees, more under your shoulders, which can raise your upper body and head a little higher than position 8. See the next paragraph for another benefit of this position.
Ride in the Drops for Safety in the Group
Another wonderful benefit of drop handlebars, specifically when using position 9, is safety when riding in a group of cyclists. If you grip the ends of your drop handlebars when you’re in a group of riders, your arms block access to your bars. Then if someone bumps into you from the side or if you bump into them for some reason, their handlebars cannot “hook” onto your handlebars (because your arms prevent it). And, if you can’t get hooked by another rider, you have a good chance of just “bouncing” off them and continuing riding rather than crashing. It’s one of the first rules they teach in road racing classes for riding in close proximity to others and especially if you don’t know if the group you’re with is made up of good, safe bike handlers.
How You Know Something’s Wrong With Your Bars
At the beginning I said in order to enjoy the benefits of dropped bars they have to be the right size for you and also positioned correctly. The giveaway that you might need a different size or shape handlebar or have your bars repositioned (such as with a shorter stem or higher stem position), is that you can’t get comfortable when you try to ride in the different positions.
When the bars are right you’ll be able to use all the available positions and none will feel like they cramp you or make you reach or bend too far. You can try shooting a video of yourself on a trainer and moving around on the bars to find and address issues. Or have a professional bike fitter do it. Getting it right will be worth the fee.
If you’re new to road riding or gravel, I hope we’ve made a good case for giving drop handlebars a try. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll reply and if you’re an experienced drop bar rider with additional tips, please drop a comment and share. Thanks!
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He 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 out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.