Wider mountain bike handlebars allow you more steering control but it is possible to go too wide, here’s why.
Mountain bike handlebars are wider than they’ve ever been. In the early days of the sport, so much of bike design and spec was influenced by road bikes and that included their narrow handlebars.
Wider bars have become more popular due to the increased control that they offer in technical riding situations, 720mm to 800mm is the standard range for most new handlebars at the moment, but have they gone too far? Are your handlebars too wide for you? Let’s find out.
How your mountain bike handlebars affect the ride experience
Your handlebars affect several aspects of your riding experience. Width affects your steering sensitivity, control, stability, the amount of available extension in your arms, and a bit of your weight distribution. The rise (how much higher the grips are than the centre point of the bars) affects your weight distribution mostly and the amount of available extension in your arms.
Wider bars make your steering less sensitive, give you finer control over the front wheel and more leverage for turning it (and less leverage for the wheel to turn your arms in technical terrain). The wider the bars are the more stable your platform for interacting with the front wheel is, essentially. So it would seem that the wider the better right?
Negative effect of your handlebars being too wide
Well aside from making it difficult to sneak past trees and other obstacles, there is another drawback to having a handlebar that is too wide. As the handlebars get wider the more they want to pull your chest towards the bars and also reduce the amount that you are able to extend your arms as the front wheel drops away from you.
This means that when you encounter a small drop off, or a hole or a significant undulation in the terrain, you have a limited capacity to extend your arms before the bars tug you forward (the cause of many an “over the bars” crash).
How to know your ideal mountain bike handlebar width
So how does one figure out their ideal bar width? Smaller riders with shorter arms and narrower shoulder widths will obviously require narrower handlebars and the converse is true for taller riders with wider shoulders and longer arms. The precise width will be based on personal preference for each rider but using a tool such as Bike Faff’s calculator can help get you in the right ballpark.
Once you’ve got somewhat of an idea of your ideal bar width, one way to fine tune things is to try and slide your grips slightly inwards on the handlebars (ensuring that the ends of the bar are still properly covered). Pay attention to the feeling that you get while riding. Have you got sufficient flex available in your elbows to extend the front wheel into holes without compromising too much on your steering stability and control? There’s your sweet spot.
If you’re lacking stability and have plenty of elbow flex, go wider. If you are lacking elbow flex and don’t mind sacrificing some stability, go narrower. Unfortunately making your handlebars wider requires a purchase to be made. Thankfully going narrower can be done by sawing off a little bit from each end (ask your local bike shop for help if this is something you aren’t confident to do).
Handlebars form part of the whole cockpit system typically made up of the grips, handlebars, brake levers, and stem that together make your ride more or less comfortable and impact your bike’s handling. To learn more about how to get your cockpit system setup correctly, click here.