Should you buy a flat bar or drop bar bike?

Here’s what you need to know about handlebars when choosing your next bike.

Clock11:00, Thursday 8th June 2023

Drop handlebars or flat handlebars? It’s a decision that many new cyclists might be struggling with. So to help you decide, we pitted two identical bikes head-to-head – one with flat handlebars, the other with drop handlebars. Here’s what we found.

Riding position

One of the biggest differences between the two types of bar is the position they put you in while riding.

A flat bar bike allows you to ride in a more upright position, which can be more comfortable for beginners because it requires less flexibility. A more upright position works better when you’re riding with a backpack, which is worth bearing in mind if you’ll be commuting or shopping on your bike.

On the other hand, a drop bar stretches you out a bit more. You’ll be reaching longer and lower to the bars, which is more aerodynamic. Consequently, you should be able to ride faster for the same amount of effort. And because your body will be slightly lower, your centre of gravity will be too. This will make the bike more stable at high speeds.

But how much of a difference does that aerodynamic position actually make? To find out, we sent GCN presenters Ollie Bridgewood and James ‘Hank’ Lowsley-Williams out to ride as fast as they could on a 2km course, and the difference was dramatic.

On the flat bar bike, Ollie averaged 37kph and Hank averaged 39kph, whereas on the drop bar bike, they averaged 43kph and 45kph respectively. That’s a pretty substantial speed increase for the drop bar bike, especially considering that Hank and Ollie were putting in the same effort for each of their runs.

Hand positions

The drop bar bike offers three different hand positions: the hoods, the drops, and the tops. Most riders spend much of their time on the hoods, but the drops are used for getting lower and more aerodynamic. The drops are also good for sprinting and descending because your hands feel more secure and tend not to bounce out of position. The tops can be more comfortable and more upright, and can give your hands a break if you’ve been in the same position for a long time.

On flat bar bikes, you only have one hand position. Unless you have special touring bars, your hands will always be on the grips. This is a really safe and stable hand position, but if you’re riding for a long time you might find yourself wanting an alternative position, just to give your arms a bit of a rest.

Agility and control

You might have noticed that mountain bikes all feature flat handlebars. Flat bars give you way more control over the bike, especially at low speeds, making them ideal for tackling obstacles and technical sections on a mountain bike. But that increased control isn’t just useful when the going gets rough. For weaving through traffic, or just for extra confidence, flat handlebars are fantastic. Your hands can easily cover the brakes, and the wider stance gives you a lot of leverage over the steering. Also, the upright position means you’ll have better visibility, and better control. If you’re looking for a bike that will boost your confidence on the road, flat handlebars are ideal.

Having said that, with practice, drop handlebars can feel just as controlled. Once you get the hang of the braking technique, drop bars won’t hold you back at all. To see just how much control drop bars offer, have a look at the way cyclocross and gravel riders use drop bar bikes off-road – they certainly don’t have issues controlling the bike!

Maintenance and upkeep

From a maintenance standpoint, the flat bar bike wins every time. Firstly, this is down to the way the bars are wrapped or covered. Drop bars use bar tape to wrap the bar, whereas flat bars use slide-on rubber grips. Rubber bar grips last for a long time, they’re resistant to scuffs and tears, and they’re easy to swap out for new ones when they do need replacing. Bar tape on the other hand is liable to tearing and can slide out of position over time, leaving unsightly and uncomfortable gaps in your bar tape. Replacing it isn’t difficult, but it takes a few minutes on each side and a bit of attention to detail. It’s far more involved than the simple ‘slide-on’ process with rubber grips.

Then there’s the matter of the gear and brake levers. Flat bar bikes use separate gear and brake levers, but drop bar bikes use an integrated brake and gear lever on each side, known as an STI lever. If you have a problem with an STI lever, most of the time it’s not repairable. Usually, you’re forced to replace the lever – frustrating, since STI levers are expensive to buy and irritating to fit. To remove and replace one, you need to remove and replace the bar tape and both the gear and brake cables.

With flat bars, you can save yourself a bit of cash when something goes wrong by replacing only the part you need, be that the gear shifter or the brake lever. Plus, most flat bar gear and brake levers can be removed without taking off the grips or other levers. It makes flat bar bikes easier and cheaper to maintain than drop bar bikes.

Decision time

Hopefully, that gives you something to chew on if you’re deciding between flat and drop handlebars. Whereas flat handlebars can give you extra control, visibility and confidence, drop handlebars can help you ride faster for the same amount of effort, and can give you some different hand positions, which is essential for long days in the saddle.

Generally speaking, we’d advise that for road riding, drop handlebars are the way to go. They take a bit of getting used to, but that extra bit of free speed is worth it. Equally, for longer rides, having extra hand positions can make you a lot more comfortable. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a bike for relaxed riding over short distances, perhaps through a city or on a commute, flat bars can be perfect. Ultimately, neither is right or wrong, as long as you’re getting out on the bike and enjoying it.

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