When you first roll up to the trailhead, it’s hard not to look around and compare. Seeing bikes of all brands, styles, and levels may either intrigue you or intimidate you depending on your confidence and experience level. You might notice that even some of the same bikes, can look very different depending on the components that they are outfitted with. Front and center, the handlebars always seem to catch my eyes. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what size their handlebars should be. It might make you wonder, “What is the correct size of handlebars and why are mountain bike handlebars so wide?”
Why are Mountain Bike Handlebars So Wide?
Over the last several years it appears that the general trend of mountain bike handlebars is wider is better, but what is the purpose of this increasing trend? There are three main reasons behind this widespread fad.
– More Control of the Mountain Bike
A wider bar will give you better steering and control over the bike. It will give you more leverage over the bike which means you’ll be able to move it with less force. Just think, a push up with your hands closer together is much harder than a push up with your hands further apart. Not only will this save you energy, but it’ll increase your ability to navigate technical terrain.
The wider bar will also be less twitchy than a narrower bar. This means it will be easier to control and stabilize the front wheel through rough and bumpy terrain. With a narrow bar very small movements will result in bigger turns, thus requiring you to spend more energy holding a straight line.
Pro Tip: When testing out a handlebar, make sure to try it on a variety of terrain. You may find that what is comfortable on one type of terrain is uncomfortable or inefficient on a different type of terrain.
– Better Balance on the Mountain Bike
A wider bar will result in a body position with greater balance. Just like a wider stance on the ground gives you a stronger balance and base of support, a wider bar will give you better balance in the front of your bike.
A wider bar will also increase the length of your bike. In order words, the wider the bar the further you will need to extend your arms in order to reach the grips. This means that in order to maintain the same body position on the bike, a wider bar will require the use of a shorter stem. Shorter stems will allow you a better feel for the bike and will allow you to move your weight forward and backward more easily. Wider bars and a shorter stem are really a win-win combination.
Pro Tip: When switching over to wider handlebars or a shorter stem it’s best to consult with a fit specialist. They will be able to advise you on the adjustments that you need to make.
– Less Fatigue While Riding
Not only will wider bars allow you to maneuver your bike and stabilize the front wheel with less energy as described in the first two points, but it will also open up your chest and allow you to breath more easily on the climbs. A wider bar might literally give you a breath of fresh air while climbing.
What MTB Handlebar Width is Best?
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for the best handlebar width. Generally, handlebars will range somewhere from 700 mm to 800 mm. Even within that range, though, you’ll experience a significant difference. When determining your width of handlebars, there are several factors to consider.
Mountain Bike Riding Style
The gnarlier your riding, the wider you will likely want your bars to be. A downhill rider will usually have a wider bar than a cross country racer and an enduro rider will have a bar somewhere in between. Consider your style and the type of bike that you own and that will help you discover a handlebar width that is right for you.
Pro Tip: If you have more than one type of bike and like to experience different types of riding then you might have a different handlebar width and stem length on your different bikes. For example, the bike you take to the bike park might have a shorter stem and wider bars than your cross-country bike. Both bikes should fit your body in a similar way, but the step up of your bike will vary.
Read how to cut your handle bars to fit perfectly. This article details two methods of measuring and provides direction for testing handlebar width before cutting. Check it out – How to Measure and Cut MTB Handlebars
Rider Height Related to Handlebar Width
While your height isn’t always an indication of how wide your bars should be, it can certainly factor into the equation. If you are on a smaller bike and already have a short stem in order to reach the bars, then having an even wider handlebar will make it difficult to find a stem short enough to accommodate that extra reach.
Pro Tip: In situations like this you may want to consult with a fit expert and consider trying things like a riser bar or spacers under the stem.
Personal Preference of MTB Handlebar Width
At the end of the day, the width of your handlebars is a personal preference. Just make sure that before you advocate strongly for your choice, that you have experienced a variety of options. It’s easy to find comfort in what you have always done, even if something different, or new, would be better.
When are Narrow Handlebars Better?
Narrow handlebars are definitely going out of style and you will see them less and less out on the trails. Narrow handlebars are now usually only seen in niche locations or situations.
If the trails are extremely tight and the trees are close together throughout the trail system then you might need narrower bars just to be able to navigate the trail. A wider bar is more likely to snag a tree, or in some cases might not even be able to make it in between two trees that are close together.
Learn how to make your Mountain Bike more comfortable in this article – 10 Ways to Make Your Mountain Bike More Comfortable
Another instance in which you might want a narrower bar is if you plan to race your mountain bike on gravel roads. A narrower bar would then allow you to have a longer stem and assume a more aero position on fire roads and less technical terrain.
Pro Tip: When in doubt go with a wider bar. It will serve you better in a wider variety of locations.
What is the Rise on a Mountain Bike Handlebar?
The rise on a mountain bike handlebar is the difference in height from the center of the handlebar to the grip. This allows the bars to come up closer to the rider without impacting the geometry of the bike. For example, if you add spacers under the stem in order to raise the bars, then you will move the bars both backwards and upwards slightly. A riser bar will only move the handlebars upward. A riser bar has several functions that may impact a rider.
Decreases Reach on the Mountain Bike
Raising the bars up slightly will actually bring the bars closer to your body and allow you to sit up straighter while riding. Many riders find that this more upright body position is more comfortable. It can help to ease low back pain and make breathing easier while riding.
Pro Tip: If you have been experiencing low back pain while riding or find it difficult to ride for extended period of time due to the discomfort of leaning over then you might want to look into a mountain bike handlebar with a rise.
Improves Control of the Mountain Bike
A higher handlebar will help you gain control on steeper trails, and may even allow for better visibility since you will be in a more upright position. Since you are more upright and your weight is off of the front wheel, you will be able to lift the front wheel more easily while descending as well.
Requires More Body Position Awareness
A higher bar will push your weight back a little bit, which may help you to navigate steeper trails, but it will also take weight off of the front wheel. While many riders know that you don’t want excessive weight over the front wheel, a little bit of weight is needed in order to give the wheel traction. This is especially true when turning. If you have a high or riser mountain bike bar you will need to be more aware of your body position to make sure that it is centered over the front and rear wheels.
Be Open Minded – Stay Comfortable on Your Mountain Bike
With technological advancements at the front of the cycling industry, mountain bikers are known for their friendly debates over equipment choices. Handlebar width is no exception. With so many personal factors weighing in, remember that there is no hard and fast answer. Gather the facts, apply them to your personal comforts and riding style, try out a few options and then commit. It’s important to be confident in your own equipment. Don’t allow yourself to be swayed by every bike that you see at the trailhead. Instead, think of the choices that you have made as a fully custom build.
Hannah Finchamp is a professional mountain biker for the Orange Seal Pro Team. When she isn’t riding her own bike she is coaching others to reach their goals as a Certified USA Cycling Coach and Certified Athletic Trainer. To learn more about the author please visit www.hannahfinchamp.com and follow Hannah on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/hannah_finchamp/?hl=en