Tips to Choose Mountain Bike Handlebar Sweep
The primary components that define your handlebar geometry are the handlebar rise and sweep. These factors ultimately determine your handlebar shape and affect your riding comfort and performance. There are two types of mountain bike handlebar sweep, namely upsweep and backsweep which are measured relative to the handlebar rise. In this article, we talk about the different tips to consider when choosing a sweep:
Choose a handlebar with a 4 to 5-degree upsweep and an 8-degree backsweep for better aerodynamics, ergonomics, enhanced performance, and easier steering. A larger upsweep will lead to elbow pain.
The handlebar rise relates to the vertical distance between the center of the handlebar and the bar end, which translates to how high your handlebar height is. On the other hand, the handlebar sweep relates more to your hand and wrist position. If you need information about adjusting your mountain bike handlebar height, be sure to take a look at our step-by-step guide.
Upsweep can range from 4 to 6 degrees, while backsweep can span from 0 to 45 degrees, with MTB backsweep falling within the 7 to 10-degree mark. Adjusting your handlebar sweep to a certain degree affects your riding ergonomics differently. However, even with appropriately measured handlebar sweeps, it’s crucial to consider and adequately set other mountain bike components.
A European Journal of Sport Science study indicated a significant association between proper bike fitting and riding comfortability. The result showed that a properly fitted bike dramatically reduces the risk of musculoskeletal injuries while riding. Having your bike components like saddle height, handlebar width, and so on fit your specific body anthropometry will improve riding posture, increasing comfort, and riding performance. Check out our article on mountain bike sizing for a step-by-step guide on adequately adjusting your bike components.
You might also be interested in learning how to choose the right mountain bike handlebar upgrades to fit your needs. If so, be sure to read our related article for some tips and tricks.
What Is Mountain Bike Handlebar Sweep?
As mentioned earlier, the sweep refers to the angle at which the handlebar bends, or rather ‘sweeps’, relative to the handlebar rise. This factor is crucial when considering handlebar choices as it is of significant ergonomic benefit. Getting a handlebar with the appropriate sweep can reduce the risk of developing musculoskeletal riding injuries, the most notable being ulnar neuropathy called handlebar palsy.
The two types of mountain bike handlebar sweep are upsweep and backsweep. Each sweep plays a part in cycling ergonomics, and comfort indirectly contributes to riding performance.
The nerve tracts in hand, specifically the median and ulnar nerves, are responsible for transmitting sensory and motor signals. The median nerve supplies the thumb, index, and ring finger, while the ulnar nerve supplies the pinky and ring digits. The nerves get compressed when constant pressure is applied to any side of the wrist. This compression leads to tingling sensations and numbness called paresthesia which are not only pretty uncomfortable but could develop into something painful that results in nerve injury. That said, choosing a handlebar with a good sweep is vital to encourage proper upper limb ergonomics and abate such unwanted musculoskeletal conditions. Our article with tips and tricks for choosing mountain bike grips for numbness also has some great ideas for alleviating hand discomfort.
Before you decide to get a handlebar sweep or upgrade your current, you need to consider your cycling needs, which are relative to the riding you do, e.g., the type of sweep used by a downhill rider wouldn’t be as effective for an uphill cyclist. Additionally, it would be best to consider your body dimensions and anthropometrics.
Regardless of these factors, here are the two types of sweeps you need to consider before choosing a handlebar:
The handlebar upsweep is the angle between the line drawn parallel to the clamping surface and the line perpendicular to the rise of the handlebar. Nearly all handlebars have an upsweep of 4-5 degrees, but typically, mountain bike handlebars accommodate a 5-degree upsweep like this one.
Upsweeps have a lot more to do with where your elbows are in relation to the handlebar when riding. The more upsweep on your handlebar, the more your elbows point outward. While this position contributes to managing aerodynamic drag, assuming an elbow-out posture while riding long distances isn’t something you’re used to, you’d likely develop shoulder pain and injury in the long term.
However, the effectiveness of your handlebar sweep also relates to the appropriate fitting of other dimensions. For instance, when paired with a broader handlebar, upsweeps significantly help manage wrist pain and make things much more comfortable when riding. Also, rotating your handlebars for more upsweep and an appropriate rise will give better control when riding downhill. This is because your weight is more adequately distributed, which makes for easier maneuverability.
The angle between the imaginary line drawn from the mounting surface to the back of the bike is the backsweep. This sweep is best observed from the top view or looking down at your handlebars. The backsweep plays a significant role in proper wrist positioning.
Proper cycling ergonomics warrant a neutral position while holding the handlebar. This is because a lateral bend or “kink” in the wrist pushes the forearm bones in an awkward position that compresses the present nerves, affecting nerve conduction and leading to handlebar palsy. The best way to think of this is with a water hose analogy.
Think of your forearm as a water hose, the nerves, and impulses they transmit, as the water, and your hand as the nozzle through which the outpour is to occur. If there’s a kink in the hose, there’d be limited water flow. This is what happens when you constantly assume improper hand ergonomics while riding. According to a study by The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, left unmanaged handlebar palsy could lead to impaired sensation in the affected hand or develop into a more severe condition called claw hand. Prevention, they say, is better than cure. Getting a handlebar like this with an ideal backsweep is the first step to a better riding experience.
The preferred degree depends on your body’s anatomy and ergonomics. Conventionally, however, MTB handlebar backsweeps fall between 7 to 10 degrees, with 8 degrees being the most common. The reason is that the 8-degree backswing is the sturdiest and offers the best support for navigating rugged terrains.
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Tips for Choosing Handlebar Sweep
As mentioned earlier, several factors must be considered when choosing a handlebar sweep. Different options appeal to the needs of various riders. And if you’re unsure whether or not you need to consider a handlebar sweep, the most crucial pointer to keep in mind is your riding comfort.
Once you start to feel significant pain and discomfort in your upper limb areas consistently during and after riding, it might result from an improperly fitted saddle or the positioning of your hands as we explain in our guide on where to hold mountain bike grips to maintain proper posture. However, before considering your handlebar sweep, a few other factors contributing to your hand discomfort are having a handlebar with the wrong grip size, width, or shape.
The handlebar grip is where you hold on to the handlebar and control your bike’s movement. If it is too large, then you cannot completely hold onto the surface, which could lead to cramping of the hand, and a grip that is too narrow could compress vital tissues due to assuming a clenched fist position. Our suggestions will prove helpful if you’re interested in some tips for choosing mountain grip sizes.
As for the handlebar width, wider bars offer a more comfortable grip feel, but a handlebar that’s inappropriately sized for your hand could lead to inappropriate pressure distribution across your palm, which could cause musculoskeletal issues in the long run.
With regards to grip shape, you want a handlebar that encourages proper hand and wrist ergonomics. As explained earlier with the water hose analogy, it’s vital to prioritize appropriate hand placement consistently as this eliminates the risk of developing injuries and improves your riding experience. And this is why considering a handlebar sweep is vital in your riding journey.
Here are a couple of tips on how to choose the right handlebar sweep:
Tip 1. Increasing Backsweep Improves Upper Arm Comfort
As highlighted earlier, if you do a lot of downhill riding, a handlebar with an adequately angled upsweep could significantly improve your steering control. We also suggest that you read through our tips on how to buy downhill mountain bike armor to learn how to keep your body protected at all times.
A handlebar backsweep will do you a lot of good regarding upper arm comfort. With an appropriate backsweep, your body tends to assume a more natural position while riding, reducing the likelihood of developing bodily pain and injuries, and improving biking control and performance.
For instance, a handlebar like this is designed to accommodate various riding types, from trail to downhill riding. Additionally, this particular handlebar comes in a variety of options. It comes in two clamp diameters: 31.8mm or 35mm. Each has rise options: 10mm, 20mm, 30mm, or 40mm. Each of these eight combinations comes with a 5-degree upsweep and 7-degree backsweep. Each angle promotes a comfortable wrist position, encouraging comfort and better riding performance.
Tip 2. Flat Bars Are Great For Beginners, Cruiser Bars Are For Recreation, and Drop Bars Offer Many Riding Positions
The importance of having a handlebar sweep explicitly tailored to your physical features cannot be overemphasized. Different handlebars come with pre-designed sweeps but still offer their intended purpose. The standard mountain bike handlebars are rider bars, flat bars, cruiser bars, and drop bars.
Riser handlebars are best for cycling beginners and encourage proper cycling ergonomics. Riser bars promote an upright position, so options like this are suitable for riders who prioritize back health. The con with risers is that they offer limited hand positions and poor aerodynamics.
Flat bars are the most common MTB handlebars. Similar to the riser bars, flat handlebars are beginner-friendly and pretty flexible. Flat handlebars like this also alleviate back pain by encouraging an upright riding position, and their versatility makes them a popular choice for most mountain bike riders. However, like the risers, flat handlebars aren’t the best choice for cyclists who wish to improve biking aerodynamics. It isn’t easy to cycle into headwinds in an upright position.
Cruiser handlebars may be your best bet if you prioritize comfort and convenience. The cruiser, also called upright handlebars, offers many ergonomic benefits. Cruiser bars like this encourage an upright back position, and their build reduces wrist fatigue by keeping your joints in a neutral position. The downside is that cruiser bars are pretty heavy and, quite like their flat and riser bar counterparts, offer poor aerodynamics.
Finally, drop bars are the best option for riders who wish to assume multiple wrist positions and prioritize cycling aerodynamics. Since you take a “tucked in” position with drop handlebars, there’s reduced cycling drag which translates to improved aerodynamics. Another thing is due to this aerodynamic property, drop handlebars like this are a lot more efficient. You’re able to travel a longer distance in short time frames. However, when it comes to cons, these options are a bit pricey. Finally, owing to the forward-leaning riding position, it’s harder to see the road ahead, meaning they aren’t the best option if you prioritize visibility.
To find the correct handlebar sweep, bend forward, and move your arms in a medial/inward and lateral/outward direction with relaxed wrists. Take note of your wrist rotation, knuckle angle, and hand-to-forearm alignment at different widths. This video tutorial from Joy of Bike with Alex Bogusky highlights the steps to take the necessary measurements. These values will be helpful when choosing an appropriate handlebar sweep for your mountain bike.
Tip 3. Handlebar Rise, Width, Drop, and Reach Need To Match Your Biking Posture and Bicycle Size
There’s nothing quite as disheartening as splurging on a bike accessory and finding out that it’s in no way compatible with your mountain bike. Even though it’s possible to interchange handlebars, it is advisable to invest in a proper handlebar from the get-go rather than constantly going through the stress of changing them out.
To avoid this, measure your mountain bike dimensions precisely, including your handlebar width, rise, and saddle post. Our article that provides a mountain bike sizing chart will prove helpful in clarifying any measurement issues.
When you have your bike dimensions, be sure to double-check the handlebar specs before going ahead and purchasing an option. Critical dimensions to consider are the handlebar rise, width, drop and reach. As these dimensions equally affect your upper arm position when riding. And if not correctly sized, getting the right sweep will likely prove ineffective.
How Does Handlebar Sweep Affect Handling?
If you’re struggling on your mountain bike, investing in a handlebar with a sweep is more cost-effective and relatively effortless to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal illnesses.
Handlebar upsweep affects elbow angles, wrist position, and steering control. Handlebar backsweep affects cycling ergonomics, back health, and hand position when handling a mountain bike.
Constant use of flat bars forces you to assume a position that improperly distributes pressure across your wrist and hand. Prolonged compression of vital nerves in the stated areas could yield various musculoskeletal conditions, including handlebar palsy, claw hand, shoulder stiffness, and so on. However, by investing in a handlebar with a good sweep, you invariably improve your bike handling posture and lessen the occurrence of unwanted bodily discomfort.
Handlebar sweep is one of the factors related to handlebar geometry. A dimension that immensely affects the shape of the handlebar. However, the effectiveness of the handle sweep significantly relates to how well the handlebar is positioned. Choosing your handlebar sweep to your specific body measurements and riding needs significantly affects your handling quality.
Here are a few ways that your handlebar sweep impacts handling:
Impact 1. Better Wrist Position
As explained earlier, if you wish to have a more comfortable riding experience, it is imperative to prioritize proper wrist ergonomics.
As far as handlebars are concerned, if your bars are too straight or too curved, you’re likely to subject your wrist to improper handling angles. Constantly assuming such inadequate postures could lead to nerve compression, which could, in turn, yield anatomical severe and physiological consequences.
A handlebar with a sweep tailored to your upper arm anthropometrics would set your health and mountain bike riding for success in the long run. For instance, a backswept handlebar encourages your wrists and elbows to assume a neutral, more natural posture while riding. This neutral position allows for an adequate transfer of your body load through your forearm and hand bones. However, a wrist that is awkwardly bent puts more stress on the tendons and ligaments, which leads to discomfort, pain, and injury in the long run. With that said, investing in a handlebar like this with a sweep that sets you up for good health and an enjoyable riding experience, in the long run, is advisable.
Impact 2. Improves Handlebar Comfort
A flat or minimally swept back pushes the elbows out and the shoulders up, allowing the rider to assume a “power” stance.
A study by the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics highlights how different bike dimensions play a significant role in musculoskeletal health. The article also highlights how a properly swept handlebar increases rider comfort for better performance and overall health.
Unlike the ‘elbow out’ posture encouraged by flat handlebars like this, with a properly backswept handlebar, your arm assumes a better posture which invariably improves riding comfort and makes handling your mountain bike a lot less tedious. It’s much easier to handle and control your bike when you feel comfortable riding.
Impact 3. Improves Back Health
Interestingly, apart from improving wrist posture, a handlebar sweep also contributes to better back health. For instance, with a 17-degree handlebar backsweep, your wrists are more relaxed, and your elbows are positioned in a more natural, downward plane.
The Lat muscles have an attachment to the lumbar spine and pelvis. Engaging this muscle with an appropriate handlebar sweep improves load transfer and provides better stability through the back and pelvis.
Impact 4. Improves Steering Control
A handlebar upsweep like this one has, comes up pretty naturally into your hand. An upswept handlebar that’s adequately sized to your body anthropometry and riding needs gives your steering input a little more power. In other words, the bike becomes a little easier to navigate around corners and over rugged terrains, which can be helpful when riding mountain bikes.
Riser handlebars tend to come with a bit of an upsweep. This addition makes it easier to assume proper cycling ergonomics, meaning less risk of having injuries and a more pleasant riding experience.
MTB Handlebar Sweep Summary
|Type of Sweep
|Impact on Bike Handling
|Amazon Handlebar Example
|Improves steering input, back posture, and increases steering control.
|Renthal FatBar Carbon V2 bar
|Swept Back Handlebar
|Improves upper arm ergonomics, reduces arm fatigue, and lessens the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.
|Teyssor Mountain Bike Handlebar
Relatedly, our article explaining how to choose a mountain bike extended seat post may provide you with all the additional information you need.
Does MTB Handlebar Width Impact Sweep?
Handlebar width describes the horizontal measurement between the bike grips. The width is principally based on personal preference. Like other dimensions, the rider’s body mechanics should fit the handlebar width as different lengths are suitable for different riders.
Handlebar width does not impact upsweep, but a more expansive bar brings the rider’s hands back with increased backsweep.
For instance, a short rider will have a better riding experience on a slightly narrower handlebar like this than a taller rider. Additionally, a wider handlebar like this could provide more stability. When considering the handlebar width and sweep, the combination of different measurements yields different effects.
When looking for a handlebar’s width and sweep dimensions, it’s best to consider your shoulder width and riding terrain before buying. Our article on choosing between drop bars and flat bars highlights certain factors to consider for a handlebar width.
Wider handlebars are more sensitive to steering input. Also, because wider bars make turning more manageable, you will have less upper body fatigue. However, the downside with wider bars is you lose some feel of the front wheel, which can make navigating through rough and slippery terrain a bit difficult. This is why narrow handlebars are sometimes preferred by more rough riders like road and mountain bikers.
What Are Common Mountain Bike Handlebar Sweep Angles?
Generally, most bike handlebar sweep combinations are the 8-degree back and 5-degree up sweep. However, due to the rugged nature of most mountain trails, mountain bike handlebars need to be tailored with sweeps that make navigating such terrains easy and provide adequate comfort and support to riders. Similarly, it’s not just about how well your handlebar feels but also how compatible it is with your body biomechanics.
Common mountain bike handlebar sweep angles are between 7-10 degrees. Custom handlebars may have a backsweep of 12 degrees, 15 degrees, or 16 degrees.
As highlighted throughout this article, deciding on your mountain bike handlebar sweep angle boils down mostly to personal preference. However, as much as you’d like to get something you’re most comfortable with, you want to ensure the handlebar is equally compatible with your body biomechanics. Hence, it’s pertinent to get yourself appropriately measured before you decide on a sweep handlebar like this.
A DIY hack on knowing your handlebar sweep measurement involves the following tools: a sweep-o-meter, which is essentially a pair of dowels like this or pencils connected by a string, a wide piece of paper to mark your wrist position and a ruler and protractor from a set like this to measure your handlebar sweep angle.
Your upper arm should extend about 20 degrees from your body and your elbows, and your hand should extend straight from your elbows while keeping your wrists in a neutral position. Note that this position should feel most natural to you, meaning you shouldn’t feel any discomfort on any part of your upper limb joints. If you feel pain, keep adjusting your wrist until you hit that sweet spot.
Once you’ve got the most comfortable angle, have a friend mark the curve on either side of your sweep-o-meter bar on the sheet of paper. After this, rule a straight line between the two points and measure the angle with a ruler and protractor. This tutorial highlights how to find your handlebar sweep following this method.
Here are the different angles that are available:
Angle 1. 10-Degree Backsweep Handlebar
The 10-degree-sweep handlebar is usually the lowest angle on mountain bike handlebars. If you have narrow shoulders and shorter arms, this option will make handling a lot easier so that as your arms extend out to the bar, your wrists will be equally straight.
Additionally, straighter and lesser-angled sweeps put your shoulders up and bend your elbows outward, putting you in an ‘attack’ position. This position makes it easier to navigate trickier terrains and makes cornering through bends much more seamless.
Angle 2. 12-Degree Sweep Handlebar
The 12-degree handlebar is the least common on most mountain bikes. However, this angle is the best for gravity bike riders. An ergonomic 12-degree backswept handlebar like this encourages a more upright riding position, providing a natural load transition from the lower arm to the hand, thus protecting the wrist from extreme strain and providing a better cushioning effect against vibration.
Angle 3. 15-Degree Sweep Handlebar
Handlebar sweeps set at 15 degrees or more reduce pressure on the wrist and alleviate shoulder tension. This ergonomic characteristic makes them more advantageous for long-distance and rough terrain riders.
Angle 4. 16-degree sweep handlebar
The 16-degree backswept handlebar is mainly suited for long-distance rides, especially marathons and long mountain bike tours. This angle puts the rider’s wrist in a more natural position and allows for a more appropriate load transfer through the forearm and hand bones rather than through the tendons and ligaments.
Additionally, a 16-degree backsweep, like this ergonomic SQlab bar, offers three different heights, allowing individualized riding positions, which is a valuable option for riders who like to assume multiple wrist positions.