Flat bars vs drop bars: Should we rethink gravel bike design?

We put a bespoke gravel bike to the test to find out whether there’s a future in flat-bar gravel bikes

Clock10:56, Saturday 2nd December 2023

As the gravel discipline has grown to encompass a wide range of surfaces and terrains, so have the bikes that are designed to tackle them. This has led to varying designs, but one thing has remained consistent throughout: they virtually all have dropped handlebars.

At this point we almost take it for granted that a gravel bike has to have dropped handlebars. It’s become one of those unquestionable truths, but there are some murmurings within certain pockets of the cycling world that gravel bikes are doing it all wrong.

According to these nay-sayers, flat bars are the way to go, but are they right?

There was only one way to find out, so we sent GCN’s Si Richardson - a man accustomed to dropped bars - and GMBN’s Andrew ‘Doddy’ Dodd - a man who certainty isn’t - out for an experiment to find out if swapping handlebars between bikes can improve the feel and performance.

Dropped handlebars: The history

We should start by answering one all-important question: why does it matter?

Make no mistake, it’s an important question that reaches into the deeper recesses of partisanship within cycling. Depending on who you ask, a gravel bike is a very different object.

To roadies it’s a machine that allows them to take their riding off-road, where they can explore new terrain and escape some of the performance shackles that often dominate the tarmac world. For mountain bikers they’re a pointless fad, encroaching on terrain where dropped-bar bikes simply don’t belong.

Rubbing salt in the wound, mountain biking can fairly claim to be the birthplace of the modern gravel bike. Far from being restricted to flat bars, there was a period between the 1980s and 2000s when dropped-bar mountain bikes were a common sight. Legendary athlete John Tomac won multiple World Championship medals during this period, some of them atop such bikes.

Things have since changed and dropped bars now dominate the mountain bike scene, but should that technology pass over to gravel bikes, creating a flat-bar off-road monopoly? Or on the complete flip-side, could mountain biking learn a thing or two from gravel and its history by using dropped bars?

We wanted to look beyond common disciplinary boundaries to see if the gravel world could learn something from mountain biking, and vice versa, by adopting different bars.

The bikes

To do that, we sent Si and Doddy out for a series of tests on a section of trail to compare a gravel bike and a mountain bike, except these weren’t standard bikes.

The gravel steed was the Grizl, Canyon’s adventure-focussed gravel bike which was released in 2021. It has wide 50mm tyre clearance, more mounts than you can count, and some builds feature a suspension fork, making it a pure off-road machine. The only thing you won’t find on Canyon’s website are the flat bars that Si has attached - you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a standard hardtail mountain bike.

Over in the other corner, Doddy created a replica of the dropped-bar mountain bike Tomac rode to fourth place in the downhill event at the 1990 World Championships. The wide suspension fork and geometry give it away as an imposter, but it doesn’t look too dissimilar to bikes you would find on the adventure end of the gravel bike spectrum.

Test 1: Fun

Of course, a manufacturer’s decision to spec a certain handlebar on a bike is driven by performance and control. But cycling is about more than that, which is why we decided to start with a ‘fun’ test on a section of trail featuring a gravel drag and some windy trail, although nothing that isn’t within the remit of a gravel bike.

‘How can you measure fun?’ we hear you ask? Well, here at GCN, we’ll go to any lengths to master our scientific research, which in this case meant a quick Google search. According to the internet, fun can be measured by the percentage of time spent smiling, occasions of laughter with another person, or differential of joyful minutes, minus painful minutes, divided by total minutes. That’s still fairly hard to quantify so we relied on our two test subjects to provide their feedback, and there were some interesting results.

More importantly, there was a clear consensus that the gravel bike was more fun to ride and, influencing the decision somewhat, much safer.

“There’s a novelty factor,” Si reflected after riding the mountain bike. “Sitting in a saddle, going in a straight line, it just feels like a gravel bike, because that’s what the position is. But then I got out of the seat and the whole front side of the bike completely changed into some scary, jelly-like substance. There’s no response to it.”

Put more bluntly by Doddy: “It’s just not fun, it’s terrifying."

That ride feel wasn’t replicated on the gravel bike which received a ringing endorsement from both, although Doddy was noticeably impressed.

“I hate to say it, it was fun!” he said.

Things were much more even on a straight fire track, although this is to be expected on untechnical terrain where steering is less of a factor.

“Both bikes are certainly comfortable,” Si observed. “In a straight line on the gravel track, the mountain bike feels like a steamroller. But the gravel bike is comfortable too. That shorter, more upright position is more relaxed than the upright position.”

The early signs are good for a flat-bar gravel bike then, although the prospects of future dropped-bar mountain bikes appear to have taken a hit. That could all change after the speed test.

Test 2: Speed

As much as we try to avoid it, speed generally creeps into the thinking when performance is mentioned in cycling. That’s understandable as, ultimately, performance and racing go hand-in-hand and the only way to win races is by being the fastest. The question is, can a flat-bar gravel bike get the better of a dropped-bar mountain bike?

To find out, Si completed a short time trial on each bike. The course consisted of the aforementioned gravel track followed by some single track, meaning there were elements suited to both bikes, but which would come out on top?

Considering the first test, it won’t be too surprising to hear that the gravel bike triumphed, but only by nine seconds. Eight of those seconds were gained on the gravel drag, with only a single second taken on the singletrack.

“It’s not that it’s massively faster, but we both said that it felt faster,” Si said afterwards. “It was really responsive and it was a handful, but not in a bad way."

Should gravel bikes have flat bars?

The test ended two-nil to the bespoke gravel bike then, but what does that mean?

It’s important to acknowledge at this point that, just because the flat-bar gravel bike proved to be fastest in our tests, it doesn't mean that it’s better than its dropped-bar cousins. Nor does it mean that it’s more fun, but it also shouldn’t be completely dismissed.

Both Si and Doddy were surprised and impressed by how it performed, suggesting that the concept shouldn’t be completely ignored.

“I felt like, when you were going really fast, it wasn’t quite as easy and as fun to go fast on as a normal dropped-bar gravel bike,” Si said.

“The position is just slower, it’s going to slow you down on road, it’s going to slow you down off road. Aerodynamically, it’s not as good as a normal gravel bike. But if that’s not your bag and going super fast isn’t your bag, it is fun. I think there is a point to a flat-bar gravel bike.”

“I’m ashamed to say it, but I’d ride one. One hundred percent,” Doddy agreed.

So, will we see the gravel market inundated by flat-bar gravel bikes soon? Probably not, but in a discipline that is constantly evolving and establishing itself among its more established rivals, there is certainly scope in the future.

For more buying advice and tech features, head over to the GCN website, linked here.

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