How to Choose Between Mountain Bike Drop Bars vs. Flat Bars – Which is Better?
Choosing a bicycle handlebar can be a little bit challenging because of the variety of bar types available on the market. There are two main types of handlebars: a flat handlebar or a drop one. It is crucial to choose the type of handlebar based on the type of terrain you ride on and the riding position you prefer. It is difficult to say that one type is better than the other, as each type has its own set of pros and cons. In this article, we provide the ultimate guide to choosing between mountain bike drop bars vs. flat bars.
Mountain bike drop bars make hill climbing easier and offer aerodynamic positions. However, they offer less control on downhill descents and have limited space for handlebar accessories. Flat bars are more stable and easier to use for technical rides, however, they are less aerodynamic and keep a rider upright.
What are Drop Handlebars?
A mountain bike drop handlebar has the classic look of handlebars but with ends that curl inward. The drop design of handlebars was developed to facilitate different aerodynamic riding positions and to provide comfort and efficiency for riders. They make a great choice for biking over 40 miles and biking in windy areas as they offer better control.
Drop handlebars have a short flat section and then they curve down and away or towards the rider depending on the style. Use drop bars for more hand positions including a more aerodynamic position when riding at high speeds, for shifting body weight while riding up steep inclines, and for changing up positions on long rides.
On a drop handlebar like this, cyclists can place their hands in 5 different positions while cycling—the drops, the tops, the shoulders, the hooks, or the hoods. While the drops allow for a maximum aerodynamic speed and minimal access to the braking and shifting, the tops of the flat part offer maximum comfort and back relief. The hoods, on the other hand, offer a more balanced shift between the two options and easier access to the braking and shifting system. Likewise, the hook and the shoulder positions offer maximum control. To learn more read our article that explains what mountain bike drop bars are and why you need them.
What is a Flat Bar?
A flat bar is the standard type of handlebar that is used for mountain bikes. The design features an almost completely flat bar that doesn't bend upward. Some flat bars have a slightly back-swept angle with a gradual backward bend, designed to provide more comfort and a better grip on the bar.
A flat bar is the standard handlebar that mountain bikes are bought with. It features a flat bar without any bends for alternative hand positions.
Flat handlebars are known for their versatility, and that's why they are popular among cross-country riders. They are a great choice for riders who want an upright riding position and for those who ride off-road. They are wider and offer better leverage, which is great when riding at a low speed. This paper from the University of Wisconsin analyzed the maximal oxygen consumption and other physiological variables of 36 adult male mountain bikers on a five-mile trail. The results showed, amongst other things, that flat handlebars affect the overall performance and comfort of the majority of riders.
Important Factors to Consider When Choosing Between MTB Drop Bars VS. Flat Bars
Choosing between drop bars and flat bars can be confusing for many cyclists. That's why it's necessary to consider many factors like comfort, stability, and maintenance costs to help you choose a handlebar that suits you.
When choosing between MTB drop bars or flat bars consider the comfort of the handlebar, the type of trails, costs of replacing handlebar parts, stability of the handlebar when biking on rough trails and deep slopes, and the capability to accommodate backpacking gear.
1. The Comfort of the Handlebar
When comparing mountain bike drop bars vs. flat bars, generally flat bars allow the rider to be more upright which provides more comfort than drop bars. This position reduces stress on the back, arms, and neck and it keeps the hand in a more natural position than drop bars. As a matter of interest check out our article that explains where to hold mountain bike grips to maintain proper posture. When cycling on rough trails, flat bars are preferable because they are easier to control which will add a lot to the comfort of your ride. However, flat bars offer only one hand position, and this can be quite uncomfortable on long rides. That can be solved by adding a handlebar extension like this.
When it comes to drop handlebars, you have five possible positions to use while cycling, which offers you a variety of options to choose from based on your needs. This will allow you to change your hand positions based on your level of comfort. As this article from the University of Glasgow explains, mountain biking is a dynamic and strenuous sport that requires a frame that is versatile and adaptable to the rider and terrain.
2. Intended Use
Drop bars like these make a great choice when riding on a windy day due to the aerodynamic advantage they offer. They make a great choice for riding downhill as they allow you to crouch down to reduce wind resistance. Riding in this position is more efficient when it comes to saving energy as flat bars keep riders in an upright position with the chest acting like a barrier, slowing them down. If you ride downhill regularly it may be a good idea to check out our tips and tricks for buying downhill mountain bike armor.
Drop handlebars are also great for riding uphill because they allow you to shift your body weight forward to make climbing easier. The hoods offer a firmer grip on the bike and better control, and this helps you to apply more power to the pedals.
When it comes to flat bars like these, they are great options for off-road riding because they can be turned easily which helps to avoid holes or stumps when riding off-road. Drop bars, on the other hand, are more difficult to turn. Moreover, flat bars are great for riding in stop-and-go traffic because they make the bike easier to stop frequently as the brake levers are readily accessible. Flat bars are also great for riding on rough terrain compared to drop bars because they offer better control and are more stable on rough descents.
3. Handlebar Stability
Stability is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing between flat and drop handlebars. Riders can use any of the five hand positions on drop bars, though some of them make steering less steady, especially when positioning the hands close to the stem. Drop bars are not the best choice when it comes to stability, especially on rough descents. Flat bars, on the other hand, offer more stability because they are much easier to control on rough and steep trails. There is only one hand position which offers better stability because of the handlebar width, making it easier to balance.
4. Room for Backpacking Gear
Another important factor you should consider when comparing mountain bike drop bars vs. flat bars is whether they have room for backpacking gear or not. Flat bars are better for backpacking gear because they provide enough room to mount everything you want and still find it easy to steer the bar. This is something that won't be possible with a drop bar. It will be very hard to mount your backpacking gear between the drops, and if you manage to mount them, it will be hard for you to find room for your hands, making steering difficult.
5. Maintenance Costs
Maintenance costs may also affect your decision when choosing between flat and drop bars. Flat bars have a low maintenance cost compared to drop bars. Drop bars use shifters and brakes like this that are more expensive than those of flat bars, sometimes three times more. In addition, drop bars need to be taped periodically, which is an extra cost that you need to take into consideration. Our article about mountain bike grip taping techniques has handy tips on what tapes to use, what direction to tape various shapes of handlebars, and the benefits of grip tape.
You might also want to consider the mountain bike reach calculator when deciding between handlebars. Take a look at our related article to find out more. Similarly, learning how to choose the ideal MTB saddle position may help in finding your ideal riding position. Be sure to check out that article as well for more details.
Are Flat Bars or Drop Bars Better?
Flat bars and drop barsboth have various benefits and it is really up the you to decide which would be better for you.
Flat bars are easier to handle and control which makes them better than drop bars for beginners, but they offer fewer grip points compared to drop bars. While drop bars promote higher speed, less energy consumption, and more aerodynamic effects than flat bars, it’s challenging to access the brake levers.
Advantages of Drop Handlebars
1. Drop Bars Offer More Aerodynamic Advantages
One of the advantages of drop bars, which actually makes them better than flat bars is the aerodynamic advantage they offer. This has an amazing impact on the cyclists' speed and energy. According to this article from The Exploratorium’s Science of Cycling, when you ride fast, the air becomes a force acting against you and that's when the aerodynamic advantage of drop bars comes into play.
Drop bars allow you to crouch down and reduce drag when cycling at a higher speed and this increases efficiency and speed and at the same time does not require more exertion of energy. This advantage is great when you are going downhill or riding against the wind. Unfortunately, riding with flat bars doesn’t have this advantage as flat bars keep you in an upright position.
2. Drops Provide Multiple Handling Positions
Drops allow multiple handling positions as cyclists can place their hands in five different positions while cycling—on the drops, the tops, the shoulders, the hooks, or the hoods. Each position offers something unique that suits different postures and purposes. While the drops allow maximum aerodynamic speed and minimal access to the braking and shifting, the tops of the flat part offer maximum comfort and back relaxation. The hoods, on the other hand, offer a more balanced shift between the two options and easier access to the braking and shifting levers. The hooks and the shoulders positions offer maximum control.
3. They Make Climbing Hills Easier
When it comes to climbing hills, drop bars are superior as they make climbing hills much easier due to the fact that riders are able to shift their body weight forward while riding. It requires less energy to climb a hill with drop handlebars than flat ones. According to this article by High-tech Cycling, research has shown that among the most important factors that affect cycling performance is the position of the body. Riding with drops allow cyclists to lean forward which gives them more leverage for pedaling. This in turn allows the cyclist to apply more power to the pedals.
4. Drop Handlebars are Narrow Making Navigation on Narrow Trails Possible
Another advantage of drop bars is that they are narrow enough to make navigation on narrow trails possible. In general, drop bars measure around 40-46 cm in width, which is around 20 cm narrower than flat bars. When weaving through tight traffic in busy narrow trails, drop bars become very handy compared to very wide flat bars.
5. Less Energy is Used Despite Long Rides and High Speed
When riding with drop bars at a high speed, less energy is exerted due to the position of your body. Drop bars keep the cyclist's body crouched down and leaning forward. This more aggressive riding position shifts body weight forward while cycling and gives them more leverage for pedaling. When doing so, the cyclist applies more power to the pedals and at the same time uses less energy. This results in a higher speed and more efficiency while exerting less effort.
6. Drop Handlebars are More Comfortable
In terms of comfort, drop bars are better than flat ones because of the different handling positions they allow. Although it is generally known that flat bars are more comfortable because of the upright position they allow, which reduces stress on the back, arms, and neck, they still cannot surpass drop bars when it comes to hand positions.
While flat bars offer only one hand position, drop bars offer five different ones. The cyclist has the ability to choose between the drops, the tops, the shoulders, the hooks, or the hoods, which offers more relief during long rides compared to riding with only one hand position. Each position is designed to suit a different need and offers a unique kind of comfort to the cyclist. The different hand positions offer palm comfort and keep the arms and hands in the natural hand positions, especially when riding on the hoods and the drops.
Disadvantages of Drop Bars
1. Less Stable on Rough Descents
One of the major disadvantages of drop bars is that they are less stable on rough descents because they are not as wide as flat bars like this. In fact, the wider the bar, the easier it is to control. Because drop bars are around 20 cm narrower than flat bars, they are hard to control and hence are less stable on rough terrains. Not only does the width of a drop bar like this make the bike harder to control and less stable but also some handling positions make it really hard to control the bike, especially when positioning your hands so close to the stem of the drops.
This problem can be solved by choosing the right type of drop bars for your needs. If you want a drop bar that is suitable for MTB and riding on rough terrain, choose wide flared drop bars like these with funky curves and angles. They are designed to offer more stability on rough terrain compared to the regular drop bars you find on road bikes.
2. Limited Space for MTB Accessories
The wider the bar is the more space it has for the cyclist to carry MTB accessories or biking gear. One of the drawbacks of drop bars is that they are so narrow that they have very limited space for MTB accessories or any biking gear. You can learn more about attaching bags for tools and other equipment from our article on how to choose a mountain bike tool bag that locks.
As mentioned earlier, drop bars are around 40-46 cm in width, which is around 20 cm narrower than flat bars. This makes it hard to mount essential gear on drop bars. Moreover, even if you managed to attach some of your gear to the bar, it will be very hard to steer and control because of the size of the bar. This is something you won't struggle with when riding with flat bars.
However, there is a solution to this problem. You can simply use a handlebar extender like this to be able to mount accessories on a drop bar without having to change your bar. If carrying gear or tools when riding is important to you then our article that provides mountain bike tool bag ideas will also be useful.
3. Drop Bar Replacement Parts are Expensive to Replace
Another drawback of drop bars is that they have a high maintenance cost. Replacement parts for drop bars are usually more expensive than parts of other types of handlebars. This is because drop bars use different types of shifters like these and brakes that are more expensive than regular ones, sometimes two or three times more expensive compared to flat bars parts.
4. Visibility is Poor
Another bad thing about drop bars is the poor visibility. Riding with drop bars keeps your body crouched down and leaning forward. Although this is a great position for aerodynamics, it is not that good for visibility. This is because the cyclist's head in this position is angled down and looking up puts your neck in an unnatural painful position. The result is poor visibility compared to the upright position that flat bars offer.
However, this problem can be solved by controlling your position while cycling. The position of your hands on the bar can be very effective. For better visibility, ride with your hands on the top of the bars. This keeps you in an upright position similar to that offered by flat bars. For an even better result, try to raise your bar to reduce this forward-leaning position by using a stem riser like this or spacers like these.
How to Install Drop Bars
Although many feel that installing drop bars is a complicated task, it is actually not a big deal. All you need to do is to follow some steps that will help you do it right and save you time and money.
To install mountain bike drop bars, first, apply a thread locker or grease to the faceplate bolt threads. Make sure the bar is centered, then tighten the faceplate bolts.
Below are the steps for installing drop bars correctly. Make sure to check out our article where we discuss whether you can put drop handlebars on a mountain bike in detail.
No matter the style of drop bar you choose, the installation steps remain simple. Image Source: Amazon. ALT: Installing drop bars could change the way you perform while riding your mountain bike.
Step 1. Apply Grease to the Faceplate Bolt Threads
The first thing you need to do to install drop bars is to apply grease to the faceplate bolt threads. Make sure that you apply an assembly compound on the part where the bar meets the stem. This is a very important step that you shouldn't ignore because it will create friction between the stem and the bar which will help to prevent rotation. Also, check whether the stem has removable faceplates or not. If it does, make sure the gaps on the top and bottom are equal. This will prevent any added stress on bolt heads.
Step 2. Make Sure the Bar is Centered
The next thing you should do is to make sure the bar is centered in place. Slide the levers on and keep the bar centered in place by positioning it parallel to the ground. Don't forget to check the lever position and make sure it's equal on each side. Now, it is your choice to tune the rotation, lever position, and bar rolls according to your preference. After doing so, tighten the faceplate bolts in a cross pattern to make sure that pressure is distributed equally.
Step 3. Wrap the Bars
This is the final step but before doing it, make sure you secure the housing to the bars with strapping tape. This step helps to prevent any bulky lumps on the bar and gives it a smooth look. After doing so, you can start wrapping your drop bars. Although this is a detailed procedure, it is not as hard as you might think. Check out this YouTube video by Park Tool for a detailed guide to wrapping your drop bars.
Advantages of Flat Bars
1. Good Handling and Better Stability
One of the great advantages of flat bars is the good handling and the stability they offer. Flat bars like these are almost 20cm wider than drop bars, and this makes them better in terms of control and stability. The size of the bar allows for a good handling position and enables the cyclist to remain in control. This makes it more stable than riding with drop bars that are quite a bit harder to control because of their size. Because of this, flat bars make a great choice when riding on rough terrains.
2. More Upright Position
Flat bars are favored for the upright position they allow. This is one of the most comfortable riding positions for cyclists according to this article from the Applied Ergonomics Journal. The upright position reduces stress on the back, neck, and arms and keeps the arms and hands in a naturally comfortable position. This is great compared to drop bars and the crouched-down position they promote.
3. Extra Leverage for Rough and Technical rides
Flat bars are a great choice for rough and technical rides. This is because they offer amazing control and stability that make it easy to ride on uneven terrains. On rough terrain, you might need to avoid tree roots, holes, or stumps and that is where flat bars are most useful as they can be turned swiftly and controlled easily. The size and the design of the bar offer extra leverage for off-road and rough terrain riding, making flat bars much better than drop bars for this purpose.
Disadvantages of Flat Bars
1. Wide Flat Bars Can be Overstretching
One problem with flat bars is that they can cause strained wrists due to overstretching as they are very wide. To have a good grip on them, the cyclist over stretches their arms and wrists, and according to this article from the American Association for Hand Surgery, this can result in hand and wrist injury.
One solution for this is to install bar ends on your drop bars. This will enable you to change your wrist position from time to time and will help to reduce your pain. Another solution is to get a flat bar like this that is not totally straight but that has a back sweep on the bars. This will help you to keep your wrists in a more natural position.
2. Less Aerodynamic Efficiencies
Flat bars offer less aerodynamic efficiency compared to drop bars. Unlike drop bars that shift the body weight forward and help the cyclist to apply more pressure on the pedals to move faster with less energy, flat bars keep cyclists in an upright position that slows them down. In an upright position, the torso acts like a shield that slows them down instead of increasing their speed. This will actually increase drag force and require more energy from cyclists to maintain their speed.
Who Should Use Mountain Bike Drop Bars vs. Flat Bars
Riding with drop bars is a very different experience to riding with flat bars and can actually make a huge difference to your performance, comfort and enjoyment.
Use mountain bike drop bars for better aerodynamics, when riding on downhill trails to maximize speed, and on uphill climbs to improve power and speed. Use mountain bike flat bars when riding off-road paths that are wider, and in traffic that requires frequent stopping. Flat bars are also recommended for beginner mountain bikers because they offer better stability and control due to their width.
It is very important to determine your intended use of the bar to be able to know whether you need mountain bike drop bars vs. flat bars. Use drop bars for riding downhill to maximize your speed and save yourself more energy due to the aerodynamic advantage, also use them when climbing hills to maximize your power and speed while at the same time using less energy due to the fact that drop bars shift your body weight forward and cause you to go faster.
Use flat bars for off-road riding because they are easier to turn and control. Use them if you are a beginner as they offer easier control and more stability. When riding on rough terrain, flat bars are the best choice because they keep you stable. Also, use flat bars when riding in stop-and-go traffic because they are easier to stop frequently as the brake levers are more accessible.
|What kind of riding do you do?||MTB Drop Bars vs. Flat Bars, which are better?||Why?||What features to look for in a bar, to make this riding style most comfortable||Product example from Amazon|
|Downhill mountain biking only||Flat bars||Control of the bike is more important than aerodynamics||Lengthened handlebar for better control||Roadnado Mtb Flat Handlebars|
|Cross country biking||Flat bars||Better control and better brake accessibility for easier stop-and-go||Lengthened handlebar for better control||Bucklos Mtb Flat Handlebars|
|Bikepacking||Flat bars||More bar space to mount your backpacking gear||Straight, long flat bar||D Dymoece Mtb Handlebars|
|Recreational mountain biking and commuting||Flat bars||Easier to stop in stop-and-go areas because of the accessibility of brake levers||Lengthened handlebar for better control||Mtb Flat Handlebars|
|Uphill biking||Drop bars||Allows you to shift your body weight forward making pedalling uphill easier||Shape of handlebar allows for different hand positions||Mtb Drop Handlebars|
|Rough terrain riding||Flat bars||Control is very important when riding on rough terrain||Straight and long bar||Teyssor Mtb Handlebars|
When Should I Use Drops on a Mountain Bike?
The answer to this question depends on your intended use. Flat bars and drop bars each have their advantages and disadvantages and each is better than the other for certain types of rides. Below is a better explanation for when you should use drop bars on a mountain bike.
Use drops when cycling long distances at high speed, on long even roads, and when there is a strong headwind to take advantage of aerodynamic efficiencies and drafting other riders in cycling races.
1. When There is a Strong Headwind
Use drop bars to be able to resist wind force. Because of the aerodynamic advantage, drop bars enable you to go against the wind while saving you energy. It keeps your body crouched down and leaning forward, shifting your body weight forward and helping you to apply more pressure to the pedals. This, in turn, increases your speed and helps you to use less energy at the same time. That's why drop bars are the best choice to avoid resistance from strong wind.
2. Riding Long Distances on Flat Roads
Drop bars are great for riding long distances on flat roads. This is because the aerodynamic advantage they have allows cyclists to ride long distances with less effort. They help increase your speed and efficiency. Comfort also plays a major role in long distances. The different handling positions make it very comfortable for cyclists to ride for long distances while changing their hand positions according to their comfort.
3. When Going to Cycling Races
When participating in cycling races, drop bars are the best choice. Drop bars can increase your speed to a great extent with less effort and energy exerted. The position your body takes when riding with drop bars helps you to take advantage of the slipstream created by riders in front of you. This drafting increases your speed and makes you less tired.
How to Switch Flat Bar Road Bike to Drop Bar MTB
Now that you know when you should use flat and drop bars and you are aware of the pros and cons of both, you might be wondering if you can switch from flat bars to drop bars. The process is possible but you should keep in mind that it might be costly.
To switch from flat bars to drop bars determine if the stem needs to be changed and purchase new shifters, brake levers, and brakes.
Step 1. Check If You Need to Change the Stem
You will probably need a new stem. Most road bikes tend to use oversized bars, and this requires a stem with a larger clamp. However, this is not the costly part of the process. Some drop bars come with an integrated stem adapter like this that helps riders change the handlebar types with less hassle.
Step 2. Get New Shifters and New Brake Levers
Drop bars use different shifters and brake levers than those used on flat bars. As we mentioned before, drop bar shifters like these, and brake levers like these tend to be more expensive than those of a flat bar, sometimes three times more expensive. You will also need new brakes if you are not using shifters.
Step 3. Get New Brakes
It is expected that you'll need new brakes and here comes the most irritating part. You will have to find one that fits your wheel and brake mount combination. In addition to that, you will need to change your brake cables and housings because flat bar cables are usually too short for drop bars.