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Editorial

Going to Wide Bars (and back again)

Words Cam McRae
Photos Dave Smith
Date Dec 30, 2017

A broad-shouldered bruiser I am not, but as bars began to get wider I went along for the ride. At first I took tentative steps towards width with a modest 720, then 760 and finally 780mm DH handles. And then a test bike arrived with truly mammoth 820mm Bontrager bars. I can't remember why I didn't cut them down before the first ride  Maybe there was no time or I thought it would do little harm to try them at full width so off I went, likely looking like I was warming up for crucifixion. But a funny thing happened on that first ride...

The bike was the Trek Shremedy tester that Trek custom built for us with a longer fork and robust rubber. And it was a 29er; my first as a tester. In the past, I had found big-wheeled bikes tippy and sluggish and difficult to corner. Some of these early bikes weren't yet ready for prime time, and before Boost there were geometry limitations as well, but for me, there was also a wagon wheeler learning curve of which I was unaware. As it turns out some of the problem was me and some of it was the bikes but I blamed the bikes entirely. 

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Do I look like I'm about to hug a walrus?

Off I went for a pedal up Fromme, thinking I really should have recruited one of our other excellent testers for this wagon wheeler job. But then something surprising happened; I liked it. Almost right away I enjoyed the way the bike rode in every situation except tight corners. One of our local trails was modified at around that time to include some short radius switchbacks, each flowing into the next without so much as a metre of straight trail for transition. I was flummoxed until one day I went in and rode them slowly, gradually increasing my speed. Eventually I realized I needed to get my weight even further forward to keep the bike rolling smoothly through these confounding s-turns. That was the last piece of the puzzle and everything else fell into place; I was smitten with a niner for the first time. 

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These were a little narrower at 800mm, but I'm still no linebacker.

Because I was riding well* I kept going with the ape hangers, sticking to widths of at least 800mm. And then I began to notice my neck getting sore on long descents and I felt like my riding was stagnating a little so I swapped in a 760 just to see what would happen. At first it didn't feel great. Wide bars are amazing for cornering and I felt a little shaky and imprecise, as though it was a little tougher to hold on. But then things started to click.

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Wide bars force your weight forward - but narrow bars don't prevent you from hanging it out.

Wide bars give you lots of leverage of course and they make it easier to steer more precisely into narrow sticky channels, particularly in rough terrain. More importantly, though wide bars bring your head and shoulders toward your stem, putting you in a more aggressive position. If you have ever watched first tier pump track or dual slalom riders you have likely noticed that it seems their weight is almost ahead of the front wheel. Beginners tend to roll into scary situations with straight arms, pushing all their body weight back and making any sort of control or adjustment virtually impossible. In most situations getting your weight forward gives you more control, better perspective on the terrain and more options.

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I wasn't intuitive or informed enough to realize that I needed to move my ass up on the bike to competently ride a 29er, but the ultra wide bars left me little choice. Holding onto Little John's staff (punchlines welcome below) put me in the correct position and got me rocking on big wheels. 

On my last few rides on narrower bars I have been feeling better on the bike than I can remember and I have begun to notice why. While wide bars have their advantages in terms of forward positioning, they limit your ability to move your body weight back to jump. bunny hop, thrust the bike over an obstacle or to angle bike and body to avoid a collision. Now that I have figured out that I need my weight forward most of the time I no longer need the training wheels big bars provided and, for someone without shoulders like Kyle Strait, wide bars can limit your ability to position your weight fore and aft and side to side and curtail your strength. 

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Short travel trail bike? Must. Have. Wide. Bars.

Today was another first ride on a tester (one that I can't tell you about just yet I'm afraid) and I didn't have a narrower bar to swap so here I was back on wide mofos; 815s. I felt less at home on the climb and while there was a reassuring solidity in some situations, overall I felt constrained and a little uncomfortable. That was the last nail in the wide bar coffin for me. On a DH bike I'll still likely edge towards wide, and I don't regret my wide bar time because of what it taught me, but tomorrow the pipe cutters come out and I'll be back to 760.

*Riding well for me, not by any other standard

Comments

rideitall
0
rideitall  - June 29, 2017, 8:26 a.m.

Very interesting on the comments for the wider bars.  I have been on around 750 wide bars with 30 - 35 rise. M  last bike, has 790 - 800 wide bars (I measured but can't remember) with a slightly lower rise at 25mm.  I haven't cut down the bars as they are carbon and have been too lazy to source another handlebar, but reading this makes me wan't to change back to a slightly narrower handlebar.  I think I will pickup the RF Atlas 35 bar, cut it down to 760mm and see it I notice the difference in shoulder and arm fatigue on longer rides.

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Taz123
0
Taz123  - June 29, 2017, 8:49 a.m.

I've got a few bars at 755 or so that I could easily part with (31.8 diameter). PM me if interested.

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rideitall
0
rideitall  - June 29, 2017, 9:54 a.m.

Thanks Taz123, my current stem is 35mm diameter

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mark-babcock
+5 r1Gel DMRDave AKSHREDFAT mtnfriend Cam McRae Merwinn Joseph Crabtree
Mark Babcock  - June 29, 2017, 10:33 a.m.

Bar width should be treated like shoe size. You don't want the biggest shoe; you want the one that fits.

Reply

Captain-Snappy
+1 Cam McRae
Merwinn  - June 29, 2017, 2:31 p.m.

That said, its' easier to cut a wide bar down than the reverse. Buy wide, ride 'skinny'... or whatever size fits you.

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joseph-crabtree
+5 r1Gel Cr4w ZigaK Cam McRae Merwinn
Joseph Crabtree  - June 29, 2017, 11:16 a.m.

I saw a group of kids on the trail yesterday,all on nice bikes (it is summertime in Santa Cruz) and everyone of them had bars so wide they were practically stuck in one position,unable to move around at all.I think the "wider"is better" trend is inhibiting a lot of smaller people from riding as well as they could. 

Coming from an XC background most of my bikes are 700-720 and even my AM bike has 740's.Being 5'8" it works for me and I can see a big guy with 800's but most would benefit taking a look at what is practical not fashionable.

Reply

pedalhound
+1 Cam McRae
pedalhound  - June 29, 2017, 4:13 p.m.

800 I find a bit wide to feel comfortable on the tight trails on the island, I went down to 780 and I love it!

Reply

Endur-Bro
+1 Cam McRae
Endur-Bro  - June 29, 2017, 4:51 p.m.

Found 800mm too wide on my DH bike, like found it harder to corner as I was too spanned out, 785 is an improvement.  Going narrower doesn't really work as then my hands are resting almost off the bar.  Could also be the difference between a 20mm and a 30mm rise bar plus stem height.  Run 785 on both DH and AM HT currently.

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velocipedestrian
0
Velocipedestrian  - June 29, 2017, 9:56 p.m.

760 on the HT, 785 on the FS. 

This has me tempted to swap for my next ride on the FS as an experiment - I've never tried a narrower bar on that frame.

Reply

zigak
0
ZigaK  - June 29, 2017, 11:43 p.m.

Regarding cutting the bars, couldn't you just move the  brakes and shifters a few cm's inboard? Or do you need to have part of your palm on the edge of the bar?

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neologisticzand
0
Chad K  - June 30, 2017, 12:30 p.m.

If you have grips that do not have end caps built in, you could do that in theory. However, that would lead to exposed bar end, which could be dangerous in the event of a crash. Also, there are some people who are in need to narrower bars for trail clearance so cutting a bar is a must.

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DMRDave
0
DMRDave  - Jan. 9, 2018, 12:28 a.m.

.

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Endur-Bro
+1 Cam McRae
Endur-Bro  - June 30, 2017, 10:28 p.m.

Moving levers, shifters and grips inboard is a good way to test narrower bar width before cutting.

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cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - July 1, 2017, 7:55 a.m.

True, but not a long term recipe for success because we judge the end of our bars by our hand position. Oddly after cutting my bars the other morning I smoked a tree with my left hand and ended up over the bars pinned by my bike. Had a great day on the bike otherwise though. Felt much better after talking off 20mm per side.

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - July 1, 2017, 7:55 a.m.

-

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craw
0
Cr4w  - July 3, 2017, 5:49 p.m.

For sure it would be the easiest way to experiment.

Reply

cyclotoine
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cyclotoine  - Sept. 1, 2017, 9:14 a.m.

Subtitle, a hobbit's tale?

I am currently riding a trail bike with 740s which seem plenty wide. When I started mountain biking 580mm was standard. All bars were the same and some people cut those down. Just over 5 years ago 700 was wide. I had stock 690 on an XL bike (I'm just shy of 6'4" and have broad shoulder (my wing span is 6'7"). I got Easton Haven bars which were 711mm at the time. They were "wide" then I bought a new bike with 725mm stock, the next one with 750mm which I knocked down to 740 because 750 seemed crazy. My partner uses those 711mm bar now and they are plenty wide for here. I don't see how anyone except downhillers needs a bar more than 750 or 760mm, but to each their own.

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heathen
0
Heathen  - Sept. 2, 2017, 7:35 a.m.

How tall are you Cam?

I am 5.8 and 724mm/28.5 feels about right for the tight island trails. I am flirting with the idea of going wider. 

I rented a V10 at SilverStar and it came with 800mm bar.  They were OK for the wide lift access trails but it hurt my shoulders buy the end of the day.

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cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - Dec. 30, 2017, 11:44 a.m.

I'm a little over 6'. One thing you'll notice if you go wider is that a shorter stem will likely be required because you will be moved further forward as your grip widens. 724 is quite narrow by today's standards. Getting through the trees is one thing but overall handling, even on tight trails, may improve with more width.

Good luck!

Reply

Kenny
0
Kenny  - Jan. 2, 2018, 5:30 p.m.

Yeah - bar length, stem length, and frame reach all interact. If your existing bike more-or-less fits you, just making the bars wider will pull you forward and potentially make you too stretched out and unable to move your weight around the bike. 

For wide bars to really really shine, it usually works best to have a frame with enough reach to use the shortest stem possible. Really short stem and really wide bars compliment each other, but you need a frame with a reach that makes it fit your stature. 

The other thing that interacts with all of that is fork offset. 

Santa Cruz for example fit their bikes with wide bars these days and 50mm stems. I don't think it's a coincidence that the most common fork offset these days is 49-51mm. Their frame geometry is progressive but not on the extreme end of progressive (their XL frames have the same reach as Kona or Transition or Chromag's large frames, but they are still longer than Ibis or Specialized). 

I am 5'11" on a good day and ride an XL santa with a 33mm long stem and 800 bars, basically the geo is similar to a Large Transition or Kona (standover/seat tube length is a little longer but a slammed 150mm dropper work out fine). I did about 10 rides with the stock 50mm stem and as an intermediate rider it felt amazing on flowy trails because, like Cam described, the wide bars pulled me forward into a more agressive cornering position. But, I could tell that my position was not very dynamic. In technical situations where I needed to loft the front wheel quickly, and on steep chutes, it was hard to really shift my weight around. It was stable but not dynamic. 

The 33mm stem felt terrible the first 6 rides because I'd gotten into the habit of trying to ride with my weight far rearward since in reality the bike was always pulling me forward before. So - the faster steering due to the shorter stem and lighter front end due to what in reality was actually a more centered riding position, felt super sketchy. It took me a while to manually get my weight forward in the way that the longer stem did automatically. Now that I can do it though it is awesome, because again like Cam was saying - I can have my weight forward, but I have options too. with the shorter stem I can really hang off the back if needed. Climbing is awesome regardless with the long reach, I can sit on the nose of the saddle and really lean over the bars. 

The only slight oddity is I think I can feel that the fork offset is greater than my stem length. Interestingly enough now transition is working with lower fork offsets and the fork manufacturers have gotten behind it. I suspect that is why. A lot of bikes need 20mm more reach, 30mm less stem, and wider bars, and reduced fork offset to match the stem. 

So in summary, wider bars and shorter stem is good, but it helps if you have a frame with enough reach that a 33-40mm stem doesn't turn it into a knee knocker.

Reply

Idaridesayeti
+1 Cam McRae
Mike Anderson  - Dec. 30, 2017, 8 a.m.

Thank you for writing this Cam! I’ve been running 800’s on my 29er FS for the last year because the shop told me they would help the handling (it’s my first 29er). I am in the process of building up a Chromag Surface HT (set up to switch between 27.5+ and 29) and on a friends suggestion am going to be giving 760 a try. Just from the parking lot rides it feels far more comfortable, I am 5’10. Will be interesting to see how they ride on the trail but i’m thinking a trim may be in order on the FS bike.

Reply

alexdi
0
Alex D  - Dec. 30, 2017, 8:50 a.m.

I'm down to about 730mm on my XC ride at 6'1. Unless I'm missing something in the physics, the maximum lean of the bike with your body centered depends on bar width relative to the length of your lower arm. With wider bars, I found I couldn't get the bike over far enough to best engage the side knobs on flat turns.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - Dec. 30, 2017, 11:46 a.m.

Interesting. Are you putting pressure on your upper or lower arm when you are cornering?

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alexdi
0
Alex D  - Dec. 31, 2017, 6:42 a.m.

Erm, I think I'm pressing down with the lower arm. ("Lower arm" here is of course the arm on the inside of the turn, not a forearm.) Working on bringing the opposing elbow higher. Phil gives a nice example of the posture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrHWdScZ0Uo

This isn't every turn or even most of them, just a few.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1 Alex D
Cam McRae  - Dec. 31, 2017, 4:19 p.m.

I know several experienced coaches who would disagree with that. The example I was given is an easy one to replicate. Stand next to your bike with your hands on the bars and pull the bike towards you until it reaches a typical cornering angle. Once you arrive there try putting pressure on your lower (inside) and your upper (outside) hand alternately. You'll likely find that when you pressure your lower hand the bike slips out but when you pressure your upper hand the bike digs in. Give it a try and see what you think!

Reply

alexdi
0
Alex D  - Jan. 1, 2018, 7:19 a.m.

> Give it a try and see what you think!

I will, thanks. Always room to improve.

Reply

fartymarty
0
fartymarty  - Dec. 30, 2017, 9:59 a.m.

There must be a relationship between bar width and shoulder width.  Im 6'1" with fairly broad shoulders (measured at about 19" - 480mm) and 780s fit well.

Reply

kos
0
Kos  - Dec. 30, 2017, 2:29 p.m.

I'm 6'2" (~seventy four metres) with significant shoulders (skate skiing and dirt biking) and still agree with everything you say about 760 bars.

Everything is a compromise, but hands a bit closer together than has become the trend lets your elbows work properly.  Watch an old video of Ricky Carmichael in his prime for a demonstration of how this works for me, when I'm having a particularly good dream.

Reply

JBV
0
James Vasilyev  - Dec. 30, 2017, 2:58 p.m.

6 5 and 780 is as wide as i'll ride. 760 is good. when i demo a bike with 800's i hate it. it's just too wide short of bike park trails IMO. coastal forests play a limiting role, but i agree with everything Cam points out in terms of mechanics as well. the writer/coach who runs Lee Likes Bikes writes at length about the biomechanical downsides of going too wide and shoulder issues for dynamic riding.  but a lot of guys i know love them so....

Reply

Poz
0
Poz  - Dec. 31, 2017, 8:44 a.m.

I’ve always found the drive to stupid wide bars regardless of rider size interesting. Too wide and you run into issues with narrow trails. I recently jumped from 710 to 760 and found a sweet spot for me but still sometimes feel wide for those narrower trails. I’m 6’2” and fairly broad.

Reply

DMRDave
0
DMRDave  - Jan. 9, 2018, 12:38 a.m.

Good article. 

I've been having problems with neck pain (after a trapped nerve smoe years ago) and have started experimenting with different setups, 1st with a more swept bar (SQLab as per the review on hear) and now before I found this article I am narrowing in the grip positions (before I cut the bars).... moving the grips in (out, shake it all about) to work out what fits and if you use lock ons then you can move them during the ride (like I have I started playing with over xmas). 

I agree size makes a difference, at 6'1" and 42" chest I'm quite tall & broad so was expecting a wide bar to be better, but my old injury niggle has different ideas!

I always used to run BMX grips as they are longer allowing different placement of the hand to suit, plus I have BIG (but not massive) hands!

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