The case for rethinking one of cycling's oldest and most misused components
Nearly as old as the safety bicycle itself, the humble drop bar (or what laypeople refer to as "those curly-type handlebars like they use in the Tour de France") is arguably one of the most iconic bicycle components. And while the design has been tweaked and modified over the past 100-plus years to include a wide variety of shapes and bends to suit different hands and riding styles, the basic concept remains unchanged. Clearly it has stood the test of time.
Nevertheless, just because something's been around for as long as we can remember doesn't mean we shouldn't scrap it (pennies, marijuana laws, and Ovaltine leap immediately to mind), and modern materials and manufacturing techniques mean we are free to configure our cockpits in pretty much any way we might imagine and break with tradition like never before.
So isn't it time we ditched these damn things already and moved on?
Well, in order to answer that, first we have to understand why drop bars exist in the first place. The answer, of course, is that in the days of the pennyfarthing, handlebars were designed mostly to facilitate bailing. However, as soon as Homo Velocipedus climbed down from the trees and onto the safety bicycle, she realized she could use some more hand positions to really rip around on those symmetrical wheels, and thus the drop bar was born.
To this day, there are three (3) canonical drop-bar hand positions, and they are as follows:
- On the tops.
- On the hoods.
- In the drops.
Collectively these are known as the Holy Hand Position Trinity.
Additionally, there are all sorts of sub-positions of varying degrees of insouciance, including but not limited to: palms resting on the curves just above the hoods (used when eating); forearms resting on the bar tops like a professor at a lectern (pros only); hands wrapped around the pivot of the brake lever with the blade held between your fingers like a cigarette (used when climbing vigorously).
Really, the number of hand positions available to you with drop bars is limited only by your imagination and flexibility, and the benefit of this versatility is two-fold: you can reposition yourself periodically for comfort on long rides, and you can orient your hands for maximum leverage and control depending on what you happen to be doing with the bike at any given time.
So in a purely theoretical sense, the answer to the question "Is the drop bar obsolete?" is an emphatic "Nope!" However, this is cycling we're talking about, and in practice here's the fact of the matter: the only thing more underutilized than the drop bar is the "off" button on Donald Trump's phone.
Consider: On what sort of bicycle is the drop bar most commonly found? Why, on the road bike, naturally. Indeed, in many ways the presence of a drop bar is what defines a road bike. However, it's a scientific fact that when you factor out the professionals, at least 90 percent of road-bike owners have never, ever placed their hands below their levers (reaching for the water bottle excluded). At best, they're using maybe two-thirds of the Trinity.
Don't believe me? Before your next group ride, surreptitiously put some ink on your palm and shake everyone's hand. If by the time the ride is over even one of those riders displays so much as a smudge on their drops, I'll give you $100.*
Oh sure, it wasn't always like this. Back when bikes had downtube shifters, riders were accustomed to interacting with the front end of their bicycles on multiple vertical axes. But as integrated shifting took over, their once-wandering hands grew lazy and complacent. Now you'd be hard-pressed to find a rider who doesn't keep her hands on the hoods pretty much all the time.
The upshot of all of this is that the typical road bike is set up for maximum comfort while riding on the hoods, and the entire drop zone of the bar has become vestigial. This is why you'll often find them set up so askew, with the bars canted upwards in a manner that brings the levers closer to the rider and completely obviates the presence of the drops—now pointing fang-like at the floor and wrapped in unsullied bar tape that has never known a rider's touch.
Of course the bicycle industry recognizes this, which is why over the years they've offered bikes variously branded as flat-bar road bikes or hybrids for the rider seeking comfort. The real irony is that it's in a comfort-seeking application that the drop bar really shines. With raised bar height and reduced reach, any rider can take advantage of all those great hand positions, and it's only riders who fancy themselves fast who position their handlebars virtually beyond their reach. In a sensible world, these more ambitious (read: delusional) riders would instead be using some kind of flat bar or bullhorn, while the stop-and-smell-the-flowers types would all be riding drops.
But as long as consumers continue to equate drop bars with speed this much-needed flat/drop inversion is unlikely to happen. In fact, it's only going to get worse as the gravel bike brings the drop bar further off-road. So unless bar-end shifters suddenly come back into fashion and people rediscover the joys of riding in the drops, I'm afraid they're destined to become the bicycle's coccyx, whether we like it or not.
Oh well, it was a good run.
*Disclaimer: I don't have $100 and if I did I wouldn't give it to you.