I remember the day I finally accepted that something had to change.
We had arrived into a campground after a long day of touring. While John set up our tent, I stood quietly watching. My arms were curled up, nestling my hands in front of my chest as I tenderly guarded my right hand with left. My precious children – rambunctious 8-year-old twin boys – were running and playing happily.
As my boys ran and tumbled around our campsite, I watched carefully, protectively. When one of them ran toward me to show me a flower, I turned my back on him.
I wanted to welcome my baby boy. I wanted to reach out my arms and grab him, hugging him tight. I wanted to rejoice that he saw beauty in the flower. I wanted nothing more than to be Mom.
But instead, I turned away. I saw my baby running toward me with that big proud grin on his face, and I turned my back. I had to protect my hand. I couldn’t risk him bumping into me. The pain was just too much.
I stood there looking away from my son and tears fell from my eyes. Is this my life now? Will my sons grow up having to tread lightly around their mother lest they accidentally bump into her hands? Is this okay?
That was the day my quest for perfect handlebars started. As I stood there with tears dripping off my nose, I knew something had to change. There HAD to be a way to make this work. And there was. It didn’t happen immediately. It took several years of fiddling to figure out all the pieces, but it worked. Here is what I learned about handlebars for bike touring.
The handlebars should be at different heights for different purposes. Racers want their bars low in order to ride in a more aerodynamic position. That is not a consideration for bike tourists – we need comfort.
In general, your handlebars should be level or slightly above your seat. The lower your bars, the more pressure will be on your hands. As you take your bars higher, the pressure shifts to your bum. Each one of us is unique and comes to the table with different body geometry and tolerances, so it’s impossible to say precisely where your bars should be. Experiment and see what’s most comfortable for you.
I have a big problem in this area because I’m tall, but my height is in my legs. As you can see in these photos, I rode for years with my handlebars six inches below my saddle – that’s just how the bikes were made.
When I learned how important the relative handlebar/saddle height is, I started playing. I bought a handlebar riser, but could only find one to take my bars up 4”. It wasn’t perfect – I would have liked another couple inches – but I made it work.
Many hand positions is good
When you are in the saddle all day, you need to be able to vary your hand position. If you don’t, you’ll compress the nerves, leading to numbness. There is no one right answer in this category, and much of it comes to personal preference. You will have to experiment and see what works for you.
Butterfly bars: A big favorite of many bike tourists is Butterfly bars. This is what I switched to when I realized I needed to change things up. The beauty of this type of bar is that it allows for a nearly endless number of hand positions – you’ll quickly find the two or three that work best for you.
Some cyclists find these bars too unstable. I’m not exactly sure what they mean by that, but I will trust them at their word. If that’s you, then by all means, use something else.
Drop bars: Drop bars are another favorite among bike tourists. These have the advantage of being able to drop down into a more aerodynamic position when going fast. Personally, that is not an issue for me, but you want to go fast it might be for you.
Straight bars: These are the bars that created my problem. Although some tourists use them, and they are good for use on rough single track, I would suggest that anybody pondering a long tour steer clear. They provide only one hand position, and that position is not ergonomically correct – which leads to problems as I discovered.
Straight bars with bar ends: This is an option if you cannot afford to swap out your straight bars for something else. However, one of the most comfortable hand positions for most of us is right at the bend – and because of the bolt holding the bar end to the bar, that is not a viable option here. It’ll work in a pinch, but aim for something else.
How do you know which bar is right for you? Here are some tips:
Natural hand position: Hang your arms by your side and just let them hang relaxed. Keeping your hands in a natural position, slowly raise them out in front of you. Look at the position your hands are in – that’s what you want to achieve on your bike. That position will be the most natural and comfortable for you. Which type of bar will give you that position?
Width: With your arms raised out in front of you, have someone measure the distance from hand to hand. That’s the width you will want to find on your bars. Typically, handlebars come in various widths, so get the width that corresponds with your shoulder width. Either too wide or too narrow will put additional stress on your arms, shoulders, and hands.
Shifting is critical
Once upon a time, I believed that all shifters were equal. I learned in a hurry just how wrong I was.
There are all kinds of shifters out there – bar end, integrated brake and shifter levers, thumb shifters, twist grip shifters and a few more. This choice comes down to personal choice and what works on your bike. The only one I would advise against is the twist grip.
My bike came equipped with straight bars and a twist grip shifting system – both of which were completely ergonomically wrong. My arms and hands were held in a very unnatural position on the bars, and then I had to grip the handle tightly and twist to shift. Over time, that proved a deadly combination.
Overuse injuries happen as a result of doing the same (usually small) movement over and over. While touring, you’ll be shifting a lot – a whole lot. While it doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal when you take your bike for a test ride, that motion of gripping tightly and twisting – over time – can lead to big problems. I was stunned at how many people told me they had suffered the same thing.
Consider ergonomics in all things
You’ll be spending a lot of hours on your bike. Day after day after day. Comfort is key, and so is ergonomics. Consider all ways and manners of adjusting things so your bike works for you.
Tilt your handlebars up. Tilt them down. Push your seat closer to your handlebars. Or farther away. There are thousands of tiny adjustments that can be made, and it’ll take time for you to figure out exactly which configuration works best for you.
One thing that I had never thought about was the diameter of my handlebars. The manufacturer made them one way and, I assumed, that size was the best. Until another cyclist suggested that maybe it wasn’t…
Go back to the exercise above. Stand with your arms hanging my your side. Slowly raise your arms out in front of you and look at the position your hands are in. Are they curled a bit? That position is your natural position – and that’s what you are aiming to get on your bike. I found I needed to wrap my handlebars in five layers of bar tape to get the thickness that fit my hands; my son needed 3 layers.
Overall, I would say don’t be afraid to play with things. Just because your handlebar was manufactured one way doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Make it fit YOU. Because, after all, YOU are the one riding your bike.