The problems with “gravel” versions of drop handlebars and some better solutions

There is a major recent trend for gravel bikes to be equipped with non-standard shapes of drop handlebars: flared bars, riser bars, and dual-level bars. The bike brands emphasize how their special bar design improves comfort or other criteria, but it’s also just an effort by the brands to better differentiate gravel bikes from road bikes and to make their gravel bike stand out from the crowd.

I explain why I wouldn’t recommend any of these odd handlebar shapes over using a standard drop handlebar of the preferred width and an appropriate-height stem. I instead give better solutions for how to achieve each of the goals of these oddly-shaped bars (improving control, position and comfort) while using standard drop handlebars (which look better and are more practical).

Flared bars – Wider gives more control

This is the most common non-standard shape of drop handlebar. The drops flare out wider than the hoods, sometimes subtly and sometimes extremely. The idea is that it gives a wider, more stable position when descending technical unpaved sections and gives more room for bar bags. Here’s a list of things that I dislike about flared bars:

  1. A lot of people keep their hands on the top of the brake lever hoods when they get into technical sections, which are the same width as normal, so the flared drops give them no advantage.
  2. The drops should be the most aerodynamic riding position, but making the drops wider has a big negative effect on aerodynamics. Therefore, the drops shouldn’t be any wider than the hoods position.
  3. The flared drops makes the brake lever hoods point outwards at the angle of the flare, which puts them at a less ergonomic angle for the hands. One or two brands make flared bars that don’t flare out until below the lever clamp, but this is not the case for most flared bars. The angled lever hoods can actually make the position of riding on the hoods be narrower than it would on a bar with a non-flared bar of the same width, which totally defeats the point.
  4. Handlebar bags or rolls still don’t fit well because the width of the hoods and hands are normally the limiting factor.

Better solution: If you want a wider riding position or more space for a bag then use a non-flared handlebar that is wider at both the hoods and the drops.

Personally, I ride 52 and 54 cm frames and use a standard 40 cm drop handelbar on most of my bikes except that I use a 42 cm non-flared bar on my gravel bike. 2 cm of extra width is all that I need and I don’t find I’m lacking in control on technical sections.

Riser bars – Higher is more comfortable

Specialized equip their popular gravel bike the Diverge with a “Hover bar” that rises up just after leaving the stem. The biggest disadvantage is the prime space for mounting accessories is lost, but it’s also quite ugly.

The riser bar is supposed to give a slightly higher riding position which is more comfortable and gives more control, but the same position could easily be achieved with a stem that has less drop. The stem could even be flipped upwards or it might be possible to put more spacers underneath it. People will complain that these solutions look less cool, but to me I think the riser/Hover bar looks far less attractive and is certainly less practical for accessory mounting.

I’m a big fan of the Diverge gravel bikes and ride one myself and often recommend them to friends, but I always recommend requesting that the shop fits a standard bar instead of that unpractical and ugly Hover bar.

Dual-layer bars – Vertical flex is comfortable

Canyon’s Grail carbon gravel bike has a bar with two levels, with the stem integrated into the lower level and you hold the upper section. This should add some vertical flex to make the ride more comfortable, but there are major disadvantages:

  1. The geometry and how the frame is measured is non-standard so buying the correct frame size is more complicated than normal. This can be a serious problem due to Canyon being an online store with no personalized sizing advice and it’s quite complicated/expensive to change the frame size if it’s wrong.
  2. The possibility of modifying the position is extremely limited due to the integrated stem and bar and it would be expensive to buy a different model, meaning people are less likely to have an appropriate riding position. Again this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the bike was sold by a local shop that could make sure your bike was delivered with parts that fit you properly, but Canyon can’t do that.
  3. Again, that’s a super-ugly looking bar that I wouldn’t want on my bike.

Canyon make some decent bikes for very good prices and I have no problem recommending their aluminum gravel bike to some people, which uses a standard bar and stem. However, I wouldn’t recommend the carbon bike to anyone simply due to the handlebar and the fitting issues that it can create. I’d be far less hesitant if buying the bike from a knowledgeable local shop with a stock of bar/stem sizes, but that isn’t the case.

RedShift ShockStop Stem

Better solution: You can greatly improve front-end comfort by switching your rigid stem for one with integrated suspension, like the RedShift ShockStop stem (see image). I’ve used one for a couple of years and find it to be fantastic (see my review). The Specialized Diverge is also an excellent bike with integrated front suspension (which I also reviewed). There are also some shortened MTB forks now sold for gravel bikes, but they change the bike’s geometry and aesthetics and are often overkill.

Summary of better solutions

In summary, if you want more control in technical sections then fit a wider bar, but choose one that is wider at the hoods as well as the drops instead of a flared bar that is only wider in the drops.

If you want a more upright riding position then change your stem, flip your stem, or move the spacers around. Only if none of these options are possible should you consider a riser drop bar.

If you want more front-end comfort then add it to any bike by using a RedShift ShockStop stem or get a gravel bike that has integrated front suspension like a Specialized Diverge. Avoid the fitting and aesthetics issues caused by Canyon’s carbon Grail.

16 thoughts on “The problems with “gravel” versions of drop handlebars and some better solutions”

  1. Yes, you nailed it. Couldn‘t agree more. In addition also to the missing real estate to mount things I‘d like to mention of important bit of such things are aerobars. That‘s also a main disadvantage of Canyons ugly solution for the Grail. You may have even a second bar to mount things on, but you couldn’t. Because the shape and function won‘t lend itself for most clamps and fastening methods in the first place and the structure forbids adding a load like that from aerobars. And given the system integration you simply can‘t exchange the handlebar for a normal one at all. A classic case of trying to be unique and polarize for the pure sake of advertising purposes to the detriment of the potential customer.

    1. Erm, sorry but this is merely an opinion piece and entirely subjective. On the drops, you get the most leverage on the brakes (like the End of a lever) and so I always descend on the drops. Flare drops I personally find incredible in this regard, with loads more control over the front wheel. This is also probably a matter of core flexibility, so stack height should always be considered! Buy the bike that puts you in a comfortable position in the drops, aero is also largely not a consideration of the average gravel rider, racing I can understand.

      1. I agree, it’s opinion and subjective. How can handlebar choice be anything else?
        My gravel rides also include lots of roads, so having the option of a proper aerodynamic riding position is important. If someone is using a gravel bike as a MTB replacement then maybe they have different needs. I want my gravel bike to be a road bike that can handle some unpaved/dirt exploration. Everyone has different needs, but I don’t like the fact that bike brands are turning gravel bikes more and more into pseudo-MTBs and further and further away from road bikes.

  2. I’m a fan of flared bars, the Ritchey Venture Max in particular. Regarding the positioning of the levers I find that angling them to match the flare of the bars is actually a lot more comfortable and leaves my wrists and hands in a far more natural position riding on the hoods with less ulnar flexion which helps with pressure on the ulnar nerve, a common cause of numb hands.

    I use the 46cm version of the bars so it also gives a wider stance on the hoods than a conventional 38 or 40cm drop bar would. Riding on the drops descending on anything other than badly broken surfaces is also more comfortable for me and gives more control and confidence. The position again is more natural for the wrists and makes reaching the levers easier as well.

    The aero impact is going to be minimal and the most aero position for long distances is going to be on aero bars not on the drops anyway.

  3. For road riding I agree, wide flared bars don’t have a point really, but they do have their place.

    The hoods at a slight angle put your wrist in a comfortable position, when the bar is a bit wider than your typical road bar, wider than your shoulders. On rougher gravel, I also like to put my palms firmly on the hoods, instead of just the base of my thumbs while most of the palm is hanging on the side closer to the levers like on a more traditional drop bar. The levers at an angle are easier to reach with a good grip this way. And it’s not about the reach adjustment of the levers and my hands are average or large in size.

    The drops have other functions than being aero on road too, the having your hands slightly further back and wider feels stable and relaxed on rougher ground or when your tyres loose some traction. It gives more options on grip width. On narrow bars, slipping front or rear tyre is more difficult to control, while the wider stance is stable like you were on all fours and can control the slide better.

    The difference is not that huge though and sure I’ve been happy on narrower bars too.

    I’d probably take a narrower bar for something like TCR and everything more road oriented in the future too, but enjoy the wide flared drops for mixed use now. I’ve used mostly 40 and 42 cm bars for the past years and now have one with the hoods at 46 and drops 53.

  4. I converted my mtb to a gravel bike as the condition of country lanes made it impractical to use my road bike. I just love the set up of the tour devide bikes so modelled it on those. I retained the rock shocks forks and fitted Richie venturmax and aero bars. I know it’s not trendy but I kept the 26 inch wheels and fitted schwalbe 50mm tour tyres. The cassette is 9 speed 11-34 with a triple on the front. I fitted second hand shimano tiagra brake/shifters £40.It’s the most comfortable ride ever and it can go anywhere. I don’t use my road bike anymore. The total cost including the bike was under £600! I am 72 and have been riding bikes since I was 9 and also rode time trials on my now vintage Raleigh 531c.

  5. I recently fitted a Humpert Comfort ‘butterfly style’ bar. They extend out to about 55cm, then forward maybe 8cm them back toward the centre where I’ve added two bullhorns to provide an aero tuck position. Very different, definitely not sexy looking, but pretty effective! I get said aero position, a hoods like position (though I use the standard mtb brake / shifters), a full wide position and even a full upright position too. They’ve been a revelation.

  6. Additional important disadvantage to Canyon Grail two-level handlebar: interferes with thumb and hand placement in the drops, reducing control and increasing discomfort.

  7. There should be more internet content with these observations about gravel and handlebars. Bravo Chris
    One tip: look at the bar set-ups used for long-distance events and see the trend as they have been worked out. In the Tour Divide the majority of the front runners are now using traditional mountain bars with add-ons (aero and bar ends) Bailey Newbrey has done a great job on the “bikesordeath” podcast Ep. 48 -34 min describing why this set-up is best compared to drop bars.
    I will point anyone attempting a thoughtful bike build to read this post and listen to the advice of Mr. Newbrey.

  8. Absolutely right approach. I ride long steep gravel 4 to 5 days a week and have done a few thousand kilometers on my Giant Revolt. After many tried approaches the flared bars have been replaced with standard shape with short drop and reach. The stem has been replaced with a red shift. Your reasoning is correct on every point. The flared bars thing is more limiting rather than liberating.. not a useful marketing ploy. Redshirt stem is a huge enabler allowing you to tackle more diverse gravel roads.

  9. Fortunately, Specialized dropped the “Hover Bar” for 2021. I have the Pro and I like the flared bars and tilted hoods, they’re quite comfy. The shape of the Diverge drop bars are quite a bit different than my road bike bars. I have the two setup very close. Seat to bar centers are the same but reach to the hoods is 1cm shorter on the Diverge. The drops project less forward making the hand position 3cm shorter than the road bike when in the drops. Seat to bar height difference is also less on the Diverge.

    Road bike bars are designed to stretch you out and drop your shoulders when in the hooks. Gravel bars give you more comfort and control at the expense of aero, but they don’t abandon it all together. I like my roadie on the road and gravel on some roads but also everywhere else. I think the Diverge drop bars enhance the off road capabilities without abandoning the road altogether.

    1. That’s interesting, it appears that Specialized are now selling the Pro and S-Works Diverge without the Hover Bar, but the other versions of the Diverge still get the Hove Bar. I bought a 2021 Diverge Sport Carbon for my wife as soon as it was released (in Spring 2020) from the shop where I used to work; that definitely came with the Hover Bar, but I immediately changed that as well as most of the other parts (she got GRX Di2 with super-wide range gearing, handbuilt wheels, etc.).
      Maybe Specialized decided that S-Works and Pro riders would appreciate a lower and more aggressive position than people buying the other models, or maybe they agree with me that the Hover Bar makes the bike look silly and you shouldn’t have something that ugly on such expensive bikes.

  10. You are correct. It is more marketing hype at making bars that apparently function for one part of the market. The truth is they end up ruining the basic functionality that one needs.

  11. Does anybody use 40cm for gravel? My new “city gravel bike” (pre-equipped with lights&rear rack) has 44cm + flare which feels too wide. I have narrow shoulders, my road bike has 40cm. I don’t do much offroad, >90% is city commuting. Would 42cm be a better choice to be slightly more flexible with bags and maybe steer safer when it’s slippery/snowy? Or would i regret the slight aero penalty the additional 2cm bring?

    1. Personally, I ride a 40cm on my road bike and have used both a 40 and 42 cm wide, non-flared bar on my gravel bike. I’m happy using either – if I do many consecutive days on one bike and then switch to the other then I notice the slight change in hand width, but the difference in handling is not really noticeable to me, so I wouldn’t make a change unless you have a specific need/goal.

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