When it comes to bicycle handlebars, you have two main choices. This list outlines all of the pros and cons of drop bars vs flat bars to help you decide which style to go with for your next bike. I’ll also outline a few other popular handlebar options and accessories.
I also made this short video to outline the main points.
Pros of Drop Bars
- More hand positions- Drop bars offer 3 distinct hand positions: on the hoods, on the bars, and in the drops. When going for a long ride or riding day after day while touring, you will want multiple places to grip the bars for comfort and variety. Riding on the hoods and bars give you a very natural hand position.
- Drops offer an aerodynamic advantage- Aerodynamics play a major role in your speed and energy use while cycling. In fact, according to this article on Aerodynamics from Bicycling.com, air resistance becomes the main force acting against you once you reach 9 mph (around 14.5 km/h). 15.5 mph (around 25 km/h) seems to be the sweet spot when aerodynamics really make a difference. The faster you cycle, the more aerodynamics comes into play. Drop bars allow you to crouch down and reduce drag. This position can greatly increase your speed and efficiency. This comes in handy when you’re descending a hill, riding a long flat section, or riding into the wind. For more technical info, check out this guide on aerodynamics and cycling.
- Better for climbing hills- When riding up a steep hill, you want to shift your body weight as far forward as possible. This makes climbing easier. The brake hoods offer a firm place to grip the bike. As an added benefit, while leaning forward you give yourself more leverage for pedaling. This allows you to apply more power to your pedals on every stroke.
- Drops can fit through more narrow spots in traffic- Standard drop bars measure around 40-46 cm in width. Typical flat bars measure 58-60 cm wide. On average, drop bars are around 20 cm narrower than flat bars. This difference comes in handy if you spend a lot of time weaving through tight traffic while commuting in a busy city. You can fit through gaps that you couldn’t with flat bars.
- Drops are more efficient- While riding through a headwind, downhill, or at speed, you have the option to crouch down in the drops to become more aerodynamic. Riding in this position is energy efficient. You aren’t wasting as much energy fighting against wind resistance. While sitting in an upright position, like you are on a flat bar bike, your chest acts like a sail and slows you down.
- You can cover more ground faster- With drops, you can ride faster while spending the same amount of energy as you would on a flat bar bike. This is possible due to the aerodynamic advantage that you gain. Over long distances, the energy-savings adds up. For example, maybe you can ride an extra 1 mile per hour on average with drops. Over the course of a one month bicycle tour you may be able to travel 200 miles further than you would with flat bars. This is significant.
- Drop bars look cool- This is just a personal preference, but I think drop bars have a really classic and iconic look. After all, curves are sexy.
Cons of Drop Bars
- Parts are more expensive- Drop bar bike use different shifters and brakes than flat bar bikes. Generally, drop bar brake levers and shifters cost more than flat bar components. In some cases, gear will cost up to three times more. I don’t know why this is. My best guess would be because drop bar bikes tend to be higher-end so companies may charge a premium for components.
- The brake levers are not as easily accessible- If you need to stop quickly in an emergency, you may need to move your hands to a different handlebar position in order to use the brakes. For example, if you are riding with your hands on the top of the bars and a car pulls out in front of you, you will need to quickly slide your hands down the bars to grab your brakes. This is an extra motion that would not be necessary with flat bars. Every moment is valuable in an emergency situation. Also, some riders simply find the brake position on drop bars to be uncomfortable. There are solutions to this problem. For example, you can mount brake levers on the flat part of the bars. You can also buy dual brake levers or brake lever extenders.
- Drop bars don’t offer as much control as flat bars- Because drop bars are so narrow you just can’t get the leverage to quickly or accurately turn them like you can with flat bars. Another problem is that you put more of your weight on your hands when riding drop bars. This makes you less maneuverable. Particularly at slow speeds. Drop bars aren’t great for those who need to make slow and precise turns.
- Drop bar components are generally more fragile- Especially if you are using integrated or STI levers. Modern gear is pretty reliable but I have had more problems with drop bar components.
- Drop bar parts are slightly harder to come by- If you tour in remote regions outside of the developed world, you will have a harder time finding replacement parts if something breaks. The reason is that most of the components you find at department stores and small bikes shops in the developing world are made for flat bar mountain bikes. Drop bar bikes use mostly road components. These are a bit harder to come by. Examples of some components that will not be compatible are brake levers, some front derailleurs, and shifters. Of course, with globalization these days it is becoming easier and easier to find any parts that you may need. You can usually have parts shipped in if they are not available locally.
- Changing brake or shifter cables can be more difficult- When you need to replace a cable on a drop bar bike, you may need to remove the bar tape to replace it. When this happens, you will need to apply new tape after replacing the cable. This is a hassle and an additional expense that you wouldn’t have with a flat bar bike. Having said this, usually, you can just slide a new cable through the old housing without removing the bar tape.
- There is less capacity to mount items to the handle bars- Many cyclists like to mount a light, GPS, bell, cycling computer, phone, bags, harnesses, and more to their handlebars. There just isn’t space for all of this stuff on narrow drop bars. One solution is to use a handlebar extender to mount additional accessories. For example, this Yizhet Handlebar Extender would work well.
- Visibility can be poor with drop bars- Drop bars tend to force your body into an aggressive position where you’re leaning on the bars. While this is great for aerodynamics, it isn’t great for visibility because your head is angled down. You can look up but that puts your neck in an unnatural position. The solution is to ride with your hands on the top of the bars. This gives you the most upright possible position. Even then, you’re still leaning further forward than you would be with flat bars. The solution to this is to raise your handlebars up. You can do this with some spacers or a riser stem. This will cost you some aerodynamic advantage though.
- Drop bars are not good for off road riding- Because you cannot as quickly or accurately turn narrow drop bars, it is more difficult to avoid a stump or hole in your path when riding off-road. Drop bars with flared drops are available to make them a bit better for off road riding but they will never be as good as flat bars for this purpose.
- Not ideal for riding in some types of clothing- Drop bars force you to stretch your arms out a bit further than flat bars. Some clothing doesn’t allow for this. Particularly formal clothing. If you have to commute to work in a dress shirt, drop bars might not be the best choice.
- You have to tape the bars periodically- This is a maintenance thing that takes a bit of time and money that you don’t have to deal with if using flat bars.
Flat Bar Pros
- Flat bars give you much better control- Because flat bars are wider, they give you better leverage. They also allow you to steer more easily and accurately. This is particularly important while traveling at slow speeds or navigating technical terrain off-road. You can precisely steer your bike where you want to go.
- Flat bar components are cheaper- You can run whatever low end mountain bike components are available. These are generally cheaper than road components.
- Parts availability is great- No matter where you are in the world, you can find parts compatible with flat bars. Every bike shop will carry compatible cables, brake levers, shifters, derailleurs, etc. While these parts may not be of the best quality, they will keep you on the road and save you from the expense of having new parts shipped in from abroad. In some places it is not even possible to have parts shipped in due to customs and importation laws.
- Changing cables is easy- The cables and cable housings are all exposed. There is no bar tape to deal with.
- The brake levers are easily accessible- In case of an emergency, the brake levers are right at your fingertips at all times. No need to move your hands. The brake lever position is also more convenient for stop-and-go city riding where you’ll need to brake often.
- There is plenty of space to mount everything you want to your handlebars- On my last tour, I mounted a light, mirror, cycling computer, and handlebar harness. The harness held my tent and a dry bag filled with all of my clothes. There was space to mount a GPS, bell, my phone, etc. This wouldn’t be possible with drop bars.
- Flat bars are more comfortable- Flat bars allow you to ride in a more upright position which puts less stress on your back, arms, and neck. They are also more comfortable for the hands to grip. You can fit comfortable ergonomic grips which put your hands in a more natural position than thin drop bars wrapped in bar tape. I like the Ergon GP1 grips.
- Visibility is better- Because flat bars put you in a more upright riding position, you are looking ahead of you at all times rather than looking at the ground or bending your neck to look ahead. This allows you to keep your eyes on traffic and the road ahead of you at all times, improving safety.
- Grips last forever- You very rarely have to replace flat bar grips. Drop bars require tape that needs replacing periodically. For more info, check out my guide to grips and tape and my guide to lock on vs slip on grips.
- They are better for non-cyclists and new riders- Many people find flat bar bikes easier to ride due to the riding position, easy handlebar control, and excellent visibility.
Flat Bar Cons
- Flat bars offer only one hand position- This is the biggest drawback to flat bars. If you commute further than10 or so miles or ride long distances or touring, you could experience numbness in your hands or pain in your wrists after keeping your hands in the same position for too long. The best way to solve this issue is to install bar ends. I like these Profile Designs Boxer Bar Ends. They are easy to install and weigh just 170 grams. Pay close attention to your hands. If you feel them going numb, take a break and let them regain sensation. Upon returning home from my last tour, I had some numbness in one of my fingers that lasted for a few days. I have heard of people losing some of the feeling in their fingers for weeks or even permanently after ignoring numbness. Be careful with this.
- Flat bars are less aerodynamic- Flat bars put you in an upright riding position. In this position, your chest acts like a parachute and creates a lot of drag. This can slow you down significantly when coasting down hills and riding fast. At slow speeds, the resistance isn’t really noticeable. Once you reach 15-20 mph, the drag slows you down significantly. You can crouch down on flat bars to get a bit more aerodynamic but this position is hard to maintain.
- Flat bars require a wider gap to pass through- The widest part of most bikes is the handlebars. The average flat bars measure around 200 mm wider than drop bars. If you are commuting in a city with heavy traffic, you won’t be able to squeeze through as tight of gaps as you can with a bike with drop bars. One solution is to hack off a few centimeters from each end of your bars. This will cost you some control and you will lose real estate for mounting accessories.
- Flat bars are inefficient- Flat bars put you in a riding position which creates a lot of wind resistance. If you’re traveling at speed or into a headwind, much of your energy is going toward fighting wind resistance rather than pushing you forward. This is inefficient. You can crouch down into an aero position but after a few minutes your arms, neck, and shoulders will tire out and you’ll have to go back to your upright position.
- You can’t cover as much ground as quickly- With flat bars, you travel at a slower average speed than you would with drop bars but you spend the same amount of energy. The reason is that you are facing an aerodynamic disadvantage. Over long distances, the inefficiency adds up. For example, maybe you travel, on average, 1 mile per hour slower with flat bars. Over the course of a full day of riding, you might cover 6-8 miles less than you could with drop bars.
- Not as good for climbing hills- You can’t shift your weight as far forward with flat bars. You also can’t quite get the same leverage on the pedals in an upright riding position. This makes climbing long steep hills a bit harder.
- Not as cool- This is a personal preference but I don’t think flat bars look as good as drop bars.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where the Road Forks
- Flat Pedals Vs. Clipless
- 700c Vs. 26 Inch Wheels
- Disc Brakes Vs. Rim Brakes
- Tube Vs. Tubeless Bicycle Tires
- Internal Gear Hub Vs. Derailleur
- Belt Drive Vs. Chian Drive
- Bikepacking Bags Vs. Panniers
- Steel Frame Vs. Aluminum Frame
- Presta Vs. Schrader Valves
What Kind of Cyclist Should Choose Drop Bars?
Drop bars are ideal for long-distance on-road riding where you don’t have to turn or brake often. Riders who maintain an average speed of over 15-20 miles per hour or those who often face headwinds will benefit most from the aerodynamic advantages that drop bars offer. They are also great for those who ride for more than an hour or so at a time and need multiple hand positions.
One thing to keep in mind is that not all drop bars are the same. Not all drop bar bikes are aggressively designed road bikes. For example, touring bikes and gravel bikes often come with drop bars with relaxed geometries. These designs put you in a more upright position. You have a lot of options to choose from.
Drop bars are defined by three measurements:
- Reach- This measures is how far forward the bar curves.
- Drop- This measures how far below the top bar the drop is.
- Width- This measures the distance between the drops.
What Kind of Cyclist Should Choose Flat Bars
Flat bars are great for cyclists who want a more upright riding position. This is generally considered to be more comfortable. Flat bars are also ideal for those who ride off-road, through a lot of stop-and-go traffic, or through areas that require frequent tight turns. Flat bars offer great control and are very nimble.
Just like drop bars, not all flat bars are the same. Some offer a more aggressive geometry which puts you in a forward leaning position. This is the case with flat bar road bikes. Some flat bars, like riser bars, put you in a very upright riding position.
Other Bicycle Handlebar Options
Drop bars and flat bars are the two most popular handlebar options. In fact, pretty much every bike comes from the shop with one of those two installed. To make your decision even harder, I’ll outline a few other popular handlebar options below. I’ll also outline a few handlebar accessories that can help you overcome some of the drawbacks of drop bars and flat bars.
For even more on handlebars, check out my guide: 17 types of bicycle handlebars.
Clip-on Aero Bars
These attach to either drop bars or flat bars as an accessory. They allow you to lean over your handlebars and tuck into the most aerodynamic position possible. With aero bars, you grip them with your hands out in front of you and rest your elbows on the built-in rests.
The main benefit of aero bars is in aerodynamics. They also allow you to rest your hands and wrists. If you’re traveling straight, you don’t need to grip the bar. Just lean on your elbows. I like these Profile Design Legacy II Aerobars.
Trekking or Butterfly Bars
These unique bars are kind of a variation of flat bars. The biggest benefit of trekking bars is the multitude of hand positions that they offer with their unique figure 8 pattern. They also offer plenty of space to install all of the lights and bags and accessories that you could ever want in your cockpit. They use the same shifters and brakes as flat bars.
The main drawback to trekking bars is that they are heavier than other handlebar types. The reason is that they simply use more material to make. Some riders also complain that they look a bit goofy.
These are basically drop bars with the drop part cut off before it curves down. Some varieties of bullhorns curve up at the end. They use the same shifters and brake levers as flat bars. Bar-end shifters are also compatible.
The biggest benefit of bullhorn handlebars is aerodynamics. They allow you to tuck down into the wind. They are also great for climbing. You can get excellent leverage by gripping the horns while powering up a steep hill. They really allow you to manhandle the bike. They also simply look cool.
The drawback is that they aren’t great for frequent or tight turns. These narrow bars don’t give you much leverage to accurately steer with.
These are basically flat bars that curve up and back from the stem. Cruiser bars are designed for comfort. They allow you to sit completely upright. All of your weight is on your butt and off of your wrists and hands. If you experience wrist pain or hand numbness, cruiser bars are a good option. These bars use the same shifters and brakes as flat bars. These are popular on beach cruisers like my OP Roller.
The biggest drawback to cruiser bars is that they put you in an inefficient riding position. Your chest is facing straight out like a sail and your arms are spread wide. If your seat isn’t soft enough, your butt may tire out quickly while riding cruiser bars.
These attach to your flat handlebars add extra hand positions. Most riders attach them to the ends of the bars angled up and away from the bars but you can get creative with these to suit your preference. For example, you can install them toward the center of the bars to give yourself a more aero position. Angle them straight up to give yourself a cruiser like riding position. Wrap them with bar tape for added comfort.
I like the Profile Designs Boxer Bar Ends. They are made of durable aluminum and weigh just 170 grams. They measure around 6 inches long so they have plenty of space to grip.
These are kind of a mix between flat and cruiser bars. The H bar is a popular choice among bicycle tourists and bikepackers. They include an extra bar that can provide both extra hand positions as well as extra space for mounting accessories like GPS, lights, and luggage. You can also use the loop in the bars for storage. These bars use the same shifters and brakes as flat bars.
My Handlebar Choice: Drop Bars Vs Flat Bars
After writing this list, I can conclude that I prefer flat bars. The pros outweigh the cons for me. My choice is partially because I grew up riding flat bars so I’m just not as comfortable on drops. It’s really a personal preference kind of thing.
Another big factor for me is cost. My budget is fairly tight at this tie. The fact that replacement parts are cheaper, easier to come by, and more likely to be compatible with my setup is a nice bonus.
In the past, I have owned 2 drop bar bikes. I had a 2017 Fuji Touring bike. Before that, I had a Centurion Ironman Dave Scott from the 80s that I rode to school. Over the years, I have owned many flat bar bikes. I grew up riding mountain bikes and BMX bikes. Currently, I ride a Schwinn High Sierra from the 80s that I converted into a touring bike.
Final Thoughts: Drop Bars Vs Flat Bars
Handlebars play a major role in the comfort and handling of your bike. The choice between flat bars and drop bars comes down to your riding style, where you ride, and personal preference. You have an endless number of handlebar variations to choose from. Hopefully, this guide helps make the choice just a little bit easier.
Where do you stand on the drop bar vs flat bar debate? Comment below to share your preference and experience!
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