RSL_Handlebar-Stem_XC-Trail_Stacked_Wide.jpg
Launch & Mini Review

Bontrager RSL Trail Handlebar-Stem

Words Deniz Merdano
Photos Deniz Merdano
Date Jul 8, 2021
Reading time

Keith Bontrager

There was a time where innovation came from within all the holes of the mountain biking industry. The year was 1978 and there were some hungry Californians trying to make shitty bike parts better for off-road use. Around that time Keith Bontrager was also cutting up 700c road wheels to re-roll them to fit 26" mountain bikes. Bontrager's self-sufficiency meant that he could experiment with different materials and production methods to streamline and increase product strength at the same time.

Keith set up testing parameters and procedures to study the effects of TIG welding on tubes. There was a constant strive to find flaws and improve on them. He knew that bike parts could be lighter and more durable. Trek saw the potential in him and his testing procedures. The Bontrager name was purchased in 1993 and Keith was hired to run production at Trek's Waterloo Factory. Bontrager became a TREK house brand in the 90s, but it was also a testing and innovation hub for the brand. A great way to test new technologies without attaching Trek's name on them gave the Bontrager line the freedom to do some crazy things with materials.

Bontrager Race Shop Limited MTB handlebar/stem

The Bontrager name lives on Trek bikes as handlebars, stems, wheels, droppers , etc quite successfully. The componentry can be found readily on everything from $500 city hybrids to $16,000 super bikes. Although the quality, fit & finish, and purpose of those parts differ, there is very little done to the branding to distinguish the low from the high-end. The RSL series fills that gap nicely as the high-end option on mountain and road bikes.

DSC06729-denizmerdano-bontrager-rsl-handlebars.jpg

RSL Trail bar 35mm 'virtual' stem, 27.5mm rise, 5deg up, 7deg back sweep, 820mm wide.

tOcoBa6Q.png

There are 5 version of the combo. 3 for XC, 2 for Trail use.

Right around the same time Keith was working on pretzeling perfectly good road rims, Tom Richey and Charlie Kelly were working on a stem that wouldn't let the bars slip from its grip on rough descents. Anything available at that time had too much leverage and not enough clamping power. So they went ahead and welded 2 quill stems to a steel cruiser bar, then called it the Richey Bullmoose. The Bullmoose was the first once-piece mountain bike handlebar stem combo on the market and was still somewhat available until about 4 years ago as a Carbon XC product.

Scott came up with the Syncros Hixon bar, and Gemini Components (former UNNO employees) are making slick one-piece bars in Barcelona. The demand for space-age cockpits is here.

DSC06978Sbontrager-rsl-handlebars-denizmerdano.jpg

I find the lines to work nicely with a smooth carbon bike.

Trek has done their research. With the human power they have at their disposal and all the data they have access to, it is no surprise that this product came out of the molds as they intended it to. I received the Trail Version of the bars at 820mm wide and 35mm stem length. The bars were cut to 780 as soon as possible after I weighed them on the scale.

The backsweep is 7° and upsweep is 6°. Just about where I enjoy my bars at in traditional ways. Sweep geometry was similar to my daily driver Chromag OSX 31.8 bars, which made the switch extremely familiar and uneventful. Going up to 27.5 mm rise from 25 meant that I would drop a small spacer from the steerer to keep the stack height consistent. A 5mm shorter stem length difference did not bother me on the first ride, although I had initially asked for 45mm option which was not available at the time.

The aesthetics of the combo looked right at home on my Forbidden Druid as the lines of the bars matched of the bikes perfectly. It may look a little out of place on a full metal welded bike.

Having some experience with the Syncros Hixon one-piece bar stem combo, I was braced for a harsh ride on this ultra slick and stiff looking setup. I find the Hixon bar to be less forgiving than the aluminum ones on my bikes. I dropped in to the first descend with a little caution hoping I had remembered to tighten all the bolts I loosed on the swap. The difference to the feel of the front end of the bike was immediately noticeable. A muted, comfortable ride was on the platter and steering felt fast, precise and familiar. My hands seemed to be in the position I am most comfortable with on my traditional Chromag bars with Deity stem combo.

DSC06718-denizmerdano-bontrager-rsl-handlebars.jpg

The 0° refers to the stem rise not the sweep numbers here.

After that successful first ride, I came home to "feel" the flex on the bars in the bike garage:

  • Chromag OSX 31.8
  • Race Face Next R
  • Spank Vibracore Spoon 35mm
  • Syncros OEM 31.8 alloy

The flex I could generate with my fingers on the stationary bikes was obvious. The Bontrager RSL bars flexed visibly the most, followed by the Syncros OEM bars, followed by the Spank, and finally the RaceFace Next R being the stiffest. All these bars are attached to bikes hanging on the wall. So the flex I observed was not pushing down on the suspension, but bending back as you would do to snap a twig to start a camp fire.

Yes! Very scientific I know, but I hoped Trek had done their homework on the comfort, while leaving the riding and the experience advising to me. Being an occasional hack, I managed to put a few dents in the ol' body of mine over the years. The multiple broken wrists and separated shoulders do not like overly stiff setups for anything short of a full on race. I will take engineered compliance in my touch points wherever I can. These Bontrager bars felt positively soft without being wet noodles.

Although I don't weigh my bikes that often (dreams do get crushed on the scales) I do own a digital scale where I measure to see if I was served the equal amounts of pasta on my lady's plate, every so often. I tossed the Chromag OSX 31.8 and Deity 40mm Copperhead stem on to the scale for starting point: 463 grams.

DSC06734-denizmerdano-bontrager-rsl-handlebars.jpg

My Chromag OS X 31.8 bar and Deity 40mm Copperhead stem came in at 463 grams for the combo.

The RSL Handlebar combo was next on the dinner equalizer (kitchen scale): it read 268grams. The 200-gram weight savings was appreciated on the 34.5-lb Druid. I can't say I've noticed this change in riding weight but I will gladly take the psychological boost.

DSC06732-denizmerdano-bontrager-rsl-handlebars.jpg

268grams for the RSL uncut at 820mm... a little less when trimmed to 780mm.

There are 2 shims included with the kit to fit Trek bikes or any other bike. As the trek knock-block headset has notches to lock into the stem, one must use the corresponding stem shim that fits into a slot in the clamp. I used the simpler, non-knockblock shim to fit on my FSA headset. The aluminum shim I believe increases the stem clamping forces as I find some carbon only stems tend to slip on the aluminium fork steerers unless over-torqued. The Bontrager RSL combo tightened to 5.2Nm smoothly and stayed slip-free since the day of the installation. Congrats for doing what you are supposed to!

If you don't roll your bars forward or backwards for any particular reason, I imagine you'd enjoy the feel of these bars and the geo numbers they are built to. The trail chatter is muted through OCLV Carbon layup.

There is also the super cool looks that you can get behind. If you are wondering how you are going to run your Garmin or night-time riding lights, there is a mounting hole with an aluminum insert on the front that will take numerous Bontrager Blendr light or GoPro mounts. The bars didn't come with one but any Trek dealer will be able to get you the $5 mount so you can run gadgets on the bars in the most integrated way possible. Hey, it's a threaded 4mm boss, so you can bolt just about whatever you want on there.

tOcoBa6Q (1).png

How the lights will attach on the Blendr mount. Photo : Bontrager

DSC06727-denizmerdano-bontrager-rsl-handlebars.jpg

Titanium Hardware is nice!

DSC06731-denizmerdano-bontrager-rsl-handlebars.jpg

Blendr Mount.

DSC06990Sbontrager-rsl-handlebars-denizmerdano.jpg

Excellent looks.

DSC06992 1Sbontrager-rsl-handlebars-denizmerdano.jpg

A very familiar, comfortable cockpit.

An engineering project like this does not come cheap: it'll be 450 CAD // 365 USD to get behind these bars, however a nice carbon bar plus a nice stem is also not too far off this price tag. With that, you get a 2-year warranty...and you can tell people RSL stands for Ride Secret Loamers.

Get it at Trek Bikes.

Related Stories

Trending on NSMB

Comments

craw
+5 Tjaard Breeuwer 4Runner1 Allen Lloyd DancingWithMyself Tremeer023
Cr4w  - July 8, 2021, 7:25 a.m.

Man I love the idea of these things. So tidy! But not being able to adjust your bar roll is a total dealbreaker for me. This is definitely one of those products aimed at a very select few.

This is one of those products that would be particularly cool to offer custom, maybe if one of the additive/3D printing technologies were suitable? I think there's enough nerds out who know their perfect specs and are willing to spend $600CAD.

Reply

denomerdano
+2 Cr4w RNAYEL
Deniz Merdano  - July 8, 2021, 7:41 a.m.

Custom would indeed be great! Although i feel like I'd prefer a long sheet of carbon layup to micro particle printed layup. Based on no scientific data whatsoever.

Reply

ackshunW
+1 Velocipedestrian
ackshunW  - July 8, 2021, 7:32 a.m.

It looks totally awesome. My preferred combo is a used stem and a new aluminum handlebar on sale, so I’m not the target customer. But even if I was, I don’t love the notched steerer clamp design. Might be fine! But my inner armchair engineer doesn’t like it.

Reply

Tjaardbreeuwer
+1 Deniz Merdano
Tjaard Breeuwer  - July 8, 2021, 7:39 a.m.

As a bike fitter, I was always totally  against these sort of integrated stem-bar combos. I must say, as stems on mtb’s have become ultra short, there is no longer any rise to be gotten there, and the biggest rise in bars is about 0mm-50mm, so it might become more viable for these.

Still, you lose sweep and roll adjustment.

Reply

denomerdano
+1 Allen Lloyd
Deniz Merdano  - July 8, 2021, 7:47 a.m.

The desire to roll the bars forward or backwards is a really interesting one for me. I think most people get it wrong most of the time. 

Even oneup bars have marks on them corresponding to the head angle of the bike they are going on. 

What if, thats is a big IF, trek engineered these to have the ideal trail manners and ergonomics for a 65deg angle front end? I mean they have the data and the computing power. 

They know what every trek dealer anywhere on the world doing and how they are setting bikes up...

Reply

craw
+1 Deniz Merdano
Cr4w  - July 8, 2021, 8:12 a.m.

For sure people get bar roll wrong often. But consider how many factors feed into wrist comfort and that these bars address one single permutation among millions.

Reply

denomerdano
0
Deniz Merdano  - July 8, 2021, 8:36 a.m.

Im sure the angles are more often wrong than right with these bars.. but.. does it really matter? Is my question...

Reply

craw
+1 Andrew Major
Cr4w  - July 8, 2021, 11:52 a.m.

I switched to a 12' backsweep bar and I love it. I don't think I've ever been happy on the standard 5'/8' bar and this proves it. Though with the 12' bar more than ever the roll is important. I've had to do a lot of experimenting to get it right.

Reply

fartymarty
0
fartymarty  - July 9, 2021, 12:48 a.m.

I'm also on 12s after using 16s for a while.  I align centre of grips with centre of steerer as Paul Astons G1.

I'm running 50 rise on my FS and 70 rise on my HT - completely agree that roll has a massive difference with high rise bars.

just6979
+4 AJ Barlas Pete Roggeman Cr4w Andy Eunson
Justin White  - July 8, 2021, 8:45 a.m.

They literally can't engineer "these to have the ideal ... ergonomics" for _any_ head angle. Because upsweep and backsweep are as personal as bar width or saddle width. Everyone is different, and roll can help to tune that. Yes, many many people use roll on high-rise bars to adjust reach, and that's doing it wrong, but a good number of other people use roll correctly, which is to tweak the sweeps to fit their body. I mean, that's the entire reason SQ Labs' bars exist with 12 and 16 degreee backsweeps.

But if these combo setups happen to match your body on your bike, that's great and you get to do the dollars to grams computation! Yay!

Reply

Flatted-again
+2 Cr4w Tjaard Breeuwer
Flatted-again  - July 8, 2021, 11:33 a.m.

Edit: first version of this comment was a bit harsh. 

Good mini review and I’m looking forward to hearing about long term impressions. There are some solutions to the inevitable bar roll stuff that pops up in comments. For example, it’s not perfect, but production privee made an adjustable sweep rise grip that gives a bit of adjustment: https://production-privee.com/products/cr35-grips

It’s not perfect but it’s definitely a start.

Reply

craw
0
Cr4w  - July 8, 2021, 11:54 a.m.

Wow those grips are a neat idea. And for all that they don't offer them in multiple diameters because of course all people have the same grip size. Duh.

Reply

ackshunW
+1 Cr4w
ackshunW  - July 8, 2021, 12:30 p.m.

In a 4 years old review I found, they DID used to offer two diameters...?

I would love to try them out, but doesn’t matter much because the shipping to USA for me is $35! I can’t do it! 

If they got NA distro I’d definitely give them a  shot

Ceecee
0
Ceecee  - July 9, 2021, 12:48 p.m.

If I were going to try this bar I'd need a new frame--more stack--to accompany it. My 50mm riser fits in a five degree roll range, but the window for getting the desired steering characteristics is probably < two degrees. Too far forward, steering feels square; too far back--not square enough. This should be independent of fit, presuming one is in the ballpark of reach +/ stack. Try using bar roll to tune steering. 16d backsweep isn't a fair comparison as its backsweep is measured further from center--you know this

Reply

xy9ine
0
Perry Schebel  - July 8, 2021, 8:14 a.m.

i'm envisioning this on the new carbon stumpjumper as the start of a silly light aggressive trailbike build.

Reply

denomerdano
+1 LAT
Deniz Merdano  - July 8, 2021, 8:35 a.m.

Feel free to swing by to see if these will work for you..

Reply

xy9ine
+1 LAT
Perry Schebel  - July 8, 2021, 7:02 p.m.

alas, said build is purely hypothetical. no new bikes on the horizon for me.

Reply

just6979
0
Justin White  - July 8, 2021, 8:39 a.m.

Where did you get the sweeps from? They're not listed on Trek's site anywhere that I can find.

Reply

denomerdano
+1 Justin White
Deniz Merdano  - July 8, 2021, 8:44 a.m.

From the PK material I was sent weeks ago...

Reply

just6979
+1 Pete Roggeman
Justin White  - July 8, 2021, 8:47 a.m.

Nice. Some other sites are claiming that those numbers weren't provided, haha.

Reply

Suns_PSD
0
Sun Hester  - July 8, 2021, 10:03 a.m.

Personally, I'm not picky on the roll of my bars and I'll likely buy these for my new WW DC build once I can find them for 15% off or something.

Had been waiting for an integrated set up that had good compliance and looks like it's finally here.

Also that headlight mount could be quite useful because it's tough to get those things pointed straight with a clear shot of the trail.

Thanks for the review.

Reply

craw
0
Cr4w  - July 8, 2021, 11:55 a.m.

How are you assessing compliance? It's not like there's an actual standard for that. And wouldn't compliance vary wildly depending on rider height, weight, strength, ape index and riding style?

Reply

denomerdano
0
Deniz Merdano  - July 9, 2021, 12:21 p.m.

2 weeks ago i had a serious arm wrestling match with 2 tires and inserts( 5 install/ uninstalls)

And my hands were absolutely roached for a week.

It was still very possible and comfortable riding on these bars. Not so much on the RF Next Rs

Reply

kos
0
Kos  - July 10, 2021, 5:43 a.m.

Excellent, real world, observation. If you tested them in a lab, there would be complaints about that not being truly indicative, either. Sometimes you're fiddled if you do, and fiddled if you don't!

Reply

Gbergevin
+1 Velocipedestrian
Gbergevin  - July 8, 2021, 12:53 p.m.

2.5nm on the steerer clamp bolts makes me nervous.... I just had an (aluminum, obviously) I9 stem fail at the clamp bolt torqued (with a real deal torque wrench) to 8Nm.... getting super precious with torque on something I throw off ledges makes me nervous, I'll take a little weight for a little extra process tolerance...

Reply

denomerdano
0
Deniz Merdano  - July 8, 2021, 5:34 p.m.

Thats 5.2Nm

Its plenty!

Reply

DBone57
+1 Deniz Merdano
DBone57  - July 9, 2021, 11:20 a.m.

I would buy this on one condition, I could take my bike to a Trek dealer and quickly install it so I could verify bar fitment.... No way I'm just adding it to the cart and Buying-It-Now.

Reply

denomerdano
0
Deniz Merdano  - July 9, 2021, 12:19 p.m.

Most bike shops will let you do something like this normally.

If they stock it and don't have to special order it for you specifically..

Reply

kos
0
Kos  - July 10, 2021, 5:44 a.m.

And this takes a bit of the risk out of giving something like this a try (not sure if this is just USA, or CD also):

https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bontrager/guarantee/

Reply

ohio
0
Marc Fenigstein  - July 13, 2021, 11:16 a.m.

I can appreciate the aesthetics, esp the Blendr integration, but just not seeing the utility. A carbon 31.8mm protaper + 30mm or 40mm syntace megaforce 2 come in at 300g even, uncut, are pretty compliant (31.8mm for carbon 4eva), and give the adjustment everyone mentions above. MSRP totals $255 and the combo is DH warranted. Unless I'm going for dangerholm levels of integration, I can't see spending an extra $100+ to save 35g (about the weight of one wheel's worth of disk rotor bolts) on a setup that isn't rated for as much abuse, reduces adjustments. and is probably similarly compliant.

Reply

Please log in to leave a comment.