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Monday, February 6, 2012

A case for the "alternative"

Fads in component design have come and gone, but handlebar style has been fairly rigid in this modern age of the bicycle. A proper road bike has drop bars, and a proper mountain bike has straight bars or risers. Any other bar belongs on a "city bike", a "commuter", or a "cruiser"; those third bikes that we wouldn't dare take on a serious ride.

These old standards aren't without merit. They are single-purpose bars optimized for certain specific uses. Drop bars place the hands in a position parallel to the bike frame, allowing the large biceps and triceps muscles to maintain posture over the long term, while relieving muscles in the chest and shoulders. Flats and risers do the opposite, engaging the chest and shoulders with the arms to make technical moves easier, such as lifting the front wheel.

As long, varied-surface rides are becoming popular, the weaknesses of these single-purpose bars are becoming more apparent. Epic mountain bike rides end sloppily when fatigue sets in, making proper posture difficult to hold. Road routes must avoid long sections of trail or gravel due to the difficulty of technical riding.

Enter the "alternative" (or 'alt-bars' to forum dwellers). There are three strains, all sharing the same mutation: split the difference between the parallel and perpendicular hand positions and share the work more evenly between muscles.

First is the off-road drop bar. Thicker-tubed and heavier than a road drop, these feature a large amount of outboard sweep in the drop position. The Salsa Woodchipper and WTB Mountain Road Drop are the mainstream models, with similar products by Soma and On-One rounding out the options.




Second is the 45 degree sweep riser. On-One created the original Mary Bar, which spawned similar designs from Origin8 and Ragley. Recently, Surly joined in with the Open Bar. These bars take a typical mountain riser and add both forward and backward sweep, giving a middle-of-the-road angle for the rider's hands without moving the overall position forward or backward.




Third is the Jeff Jones H-bar. Unlike the others, this bar is fabricated from mulitple tubes, giving the rider many places to grip in the "alt" position. The "cut" model allows for forward mounting of controls, while the "loop" model provides additional space to mount lights, GPS, or a handlebar bag.




Which one will work for you? The deciding factor for me is headtube height.

29er's with tall headtubes seem to suggest off-road drops, where the top of the bar can be set above the saddle easily and the drop position is near and comfortable. The hood position, being high and forward, approximates the effect of aero extensions without putting the brakes out of reach. (The Woodchipper, for example, was developed on the Tour Divide where many riders use flat bars with extensions mounted).

Bikes with a more neutral headtube height would do well with Jones bar, which performs in much the same way.

Road bikes, or older mountain bikes with horizontal top tubes and short headtubes are really only suitable for the swept high-risers. My personal trail/gravel bike falls into this category. After experimenting with WTB off-road drops using a myriad of super-long high rise stems, I could never get the bars high enough or close enough to work well. (Voodoo makes the Nakisi stem for just this purpose, but it's hard to find and somewhat pricey.) In the end, I went with Origin8 Space ORII bars and have been very happy. My first longish gravel road ride with the new bars left me feeling relaxed and comfortable in my upper body, with no apparent penalty in technical capability.

So, if long rides over varied terrain are your cup of tea, consider the "alternative".

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