Mountain biking is a precision sport and it requires perfect handling and balance in order to maneuver through tricky trails and risky slopes. That is why handlebars of a mountain bike are much wider than any other type of bicycle to provide maximum stability to the rider. Some mountain bike handlebars are as wide as 800 mm which is almost as wide as some motorcycle handlebars. But not everyone needs a super-wide handlebar on their mountain bike especially if you are using your bike mostly for riding in a forest through narrow spaces between the trees. You might have noticed that mountain bike handlebars have grown wider and wider during the past decade. So what are the reasons behind the increase in the width of mountain bike handlebars in the recent decade?
The short answer to why mountain bikes have wider handlebars is simply because when it comes to mountain biking, the wider the riders grip is on the handlebars, the easier it is to transfer input from the hands to the wheel as it takes much less power to move a wider handlebar. But at the same time, you have to move the handlebars a lot more to make it go in a certain direction because wide handlebars require a lot more rotation than narrow handlebars.
Mountain bikes are designed for a very specific purpose and that is to navigate rugged terrains with speed and agility. Maintaining control while going downhill on a rocky trail is a matter of safety for the rider which is exactly what wider handlebars are designed for. But the reasons for wider handlebars on mountain bikes are much more deep-rooted and technical and we are going to walk you through each and every one of those reasons in this article so keep reading.
Reasons why mountain bikes have wide handlebars
It is certainly true that wider handlebars are a great way to improve the handling of your mountain bike on any terrain. Below are some ways wide handlebars can improve your mountain bike’s performance.
- Provides a better riding position: When a rider grips the handlebars at a wider distance it allows the rider to be in a more controlled position on the bike as compared to a narrow grip. Especially when the rider is not sitting on the saddle while paddling intensely during an uphill climb or in the middle of a jump. Wider handlebars allow the rider to be in a better position to control the bike and keep the bike straight using just the hands.
- They simply look better: Imagine a mean Enduro mountain bike with the narrowest handlebars you have ever seen. Doesn’t paint an attractive image in your mind right? Well, that is something mountain bike manufacturers take very seriously because the looks of a mountain bike matter. One of the main reasons why 750 mm wide handlebars on mountain bikes have become so common is simply because of fashion and trends.
- Improves the uphill capabilities of the mountain bike and the rider:
Trying to go uphill on a mountain bike with a narrow handlebar will make the rider tired way faster. The reason wider handlebars improve uphill climbing is because they open up the rider’s chest for better breathing. In addition to better breathing, uphill riding requires stability which is one of the main advantages of a wider grip.
- Improves the downhill capabilities of the rider
You need to keep the handlebars pushed down when going downhill and wide handlebars provide a lot more pushing capability to the rider as compared to a narrow handlebar. The amount of pushing power you can generate is going to decide how well your mountain bike will stay planted to the ground and how safe you as a rider feel.
- Helps conserve the energy of the rider
A wider handlebar will absorb the majority of the force when riding over rough terrain, allowing the rider to feel less tired and conserve energy for riding over long distances. Another way wide handlebars reduce fatigue is by reducing the amount of strength rider has to exert in order to keep the mountain bike from shaking.
- Engages bigger muscles of the body and reduces the risk of injuries
When you are riding with a wide stance, your body uses the bigger muscles of your shoulder, chest, and torso which make riding on rough terrain a lot easier. This reduces the chance of injury as the terrain feedback is absorbed by the body in a more evenly manner and there is less stress on the shoulders.
How to know the ideal size for your mountain bike handlebars?
Knowing exactly how wide your mountain bike handlebars should be is a bit tricky because there are so many factors that affect the right width for each rider. Knowing the right width according to your riding style and requirements is extremely important because a handlebar that is not correctly sized is going to make the bike handle very poorly. If your handlebars are too wide for the type of trail you are riding on, you can even hit trees or other obstacles. Similarly, if you are a taller rider, short handlebars can end up making your riding position uncomfortable no matter how good your bike is. So here are some ways you can find out the correct width for your mountain bike handlebars.
- Ideal handlebar width for different mountain bike styles
- For cross-country riding: Cross-country riders prefer to have narrower handlebars compared to other riding styles because it is ideal for keeping balance especially when the rider is standing while riding the bike. Due to the fact that the stem on a cross-country mountain bike is usually longer to keep the rider’s center of gravity on the front side, a wider handlebar cannot be used because it will put the rider in an uncomfortable position when making turns.
For a shorter cross-country rider, a 680 mm handlebar should do fine while for the taller cross-country rider, 750 mm or above is the recommended handlebar width.
- Downhill Riding: Downhill Mountain biking are where the wide handlebar trend originated and you will see 800 mm and above width handlebars on downhill bikes. But going too wide on a downhill mountain bike can make maneuvering through tight trails tricky as it gets difficult to avoid obstacles when riding with wide handlebars.
For a short downhill rider, a handlebar of around 750 mm is a good place to start while the handlebar width for taller downhillers is around 800 mm.
- Enduro Riding: Professional enduro riders enjoy the sweet spot of handlebar width between two extremes of cross- country and downhill riders. Enduro style riding is all about proper paddling and making your way through tight trails lined with trees and bushes. So the ideal handlebar width for enduro riders is supposed to be one that provides enough leverage to the rider while being convenient to navigate the trail without hitting your hands on a tree.
The best width to start with for short enduro riders is around 750 mm with 780 mm being the maximum recommended width for handlebars. A handlebar above 780 mm is more suited for downhill mountain biking and it can become difficult to use such a wide handlebar for enduro riding.
- Optimal elbow position
When riding, a mountain biker uses his/her elbows a lot and this makes elbows a great indicator of whether your mountain bike’s handlebars are at the correct width or not. You might have seen that most professional riders have their elbows aligned directly with their hands when they are going straight. This alignment provides the highest level of maneuverability to the rider without putting too much strain on the elbows. Old school riders argue that “elbows out” is the better riding position but this logic has been proven false as elbows in or out put unnecessary strain on the arms of the rider.
So one of the ways you can find out the ideal handlebar width using your elbow position as a reference is by gripping the handlebars of your mountain bike at the grip point and have someone take your photo from the front in the same position. After that, you can analyze the photos to see if your grip is in line with your elbows or not. If your grip is wider than your elbows than your mountain bike’s handlebar is too wide for your riding position. Similarly, if you notice that your elbows are pointing outward and your grip is narrower than your elbows than it is an indicator that your mountain bike’s handlebars are too narrow. But if your elbows are nicely aligned with your hands when you grip the handlebars then congratulations you have a perfectly sized handlebar.
- The push up method
Not all mountain bike riders can be comfortable riding a bike with a standard width handlebar because every rider has a different body size which greatly affects what width will best suit them. A taller rider would need a wider handlebar to feel comfortable on the bike while a shorter rider will be more comfortable on a narrower handlebar. Therefore one simple and easy way to find out the ideal handlebar width for your mountain bike is by measuring the distance of your hands during a regular push up position with your hands directly under your shoulders. You can go online to find out the correct push up position. To get a more accurate measurement you can get up and go back to the push up position in order to repeat the process three times and if you do this correctly the measurement will be same all three times.
Now that you have assumed the push up position ask a friend to measure from the outer side of one hand to the outer side of other. The measurement that you get is the ideal width of the handlebar for your mountain bike.
How to trim the handlebars of your mountain bike?
If the handlebars for your mountain bike are narrower than the width that suits you than unfortunately there is no way to increase the size of the handlebar to make it wider. Your only option will be to buy a new handlebar that provides a better fit. But if the handlebars on your mountain bike are wider and you want to narrow them down then this can be done easily using some simple tools. We are going to walk you through the process of trimming your mountain bike’s handlebars:
- Step 1: Mark the point where you want to cut the handlebar and make sure this point is at the exact width that you want for your mountain bike’s handlebar. You can use a simple marking tape to mark the point where you want to cut the handlebar from.
- Step 2: Get an adjustable saw tool to make sure you make the cut at the precise point where you need to and use a saw blade to start cutting at the marked point. Once you have made the cut on one side repeat the process on the other end of the handlebar. There are specially designed carbon saw blades that are meant for cutting carbon so it is wise to use a carbon blade when dealing with carbon handlebars.
Note: You can take the handlebars off the mountain bike to get a cleaner cut. You should wear gloves in order to avoid getting any splinters if you are cutting a carbon handlebar.
- Step 3: Now that you have done the cutting part, it is time to smooth out the edges of the handlebar to avoid getting any damage. For this purpose, you can use a file to smooth out any rough edges.
- Step 4: Put the handlebar grips and assemble back on the bike and test out the new handlebar width.
If you are not sure what width handlebars you want on your mountain bike you can experiment using a second hand or an aluminum made handlebar of maximum width and cut it down a few inches at a time until you find your ideal width. Most handlebars come as extra wide so you shouldn’t have any problem finding a cheap handlebar to experiment different widths. Once you have found a handlebar width that provides the most control, you can move on to a more expensive handlebar within your ideal size range.
How to counter the effects of a wide handlebar changing stem length?
Stem and handlebar of your mountain bike work together to provide the right combination of stability and control. A stem’s basic function is to connect the handlebar with the steering tube but it can have a lot of effect on how your bike feels. If you have a wide handlebar on your mountain bike your body mass will be leaning forward onto the handlebar of your bike. That is where the length of the stem comes in to counter the large width of the handlebar and keep the rider from leaning too far forward. So a great way to use the stem length to your advantage is by reducing the length of the stem as you add width to your handlebar. You will be surprised how much difference in stability and handling you will feel if you adjust stem length according to the handlebar width.
Some general recommendations for stem length according to the handlebar width are as follows:
- A narrower handlebar that is around 700 mm wide will be most stable with an 80 to 90 mm long stem.
- An average width handlebar with a width of 730 mm goes well with a shorter 65 mm stem.
Adjusting your mountain bike’s step length will provide you with an instant improvement in stability which is just not possible when using stock stem length in combination with wider handlebars. So the rule of thumb here is as you increase the width of your mountain bike’s handlebars, you are supposed to reduce the length of the stem accordingly to avoid compromising on stability and riding comfort.
Handlebar width is one aspect of mountain biking that takes time to master and the more you experiment with different handlebar widths the better fit you will find. The odds of a stock handlebar being the ideal width for you are slim and you will always have to make some adjustments to the handlebars to make it suit your size and needs. That is why buying the widest handlebar you can find something in the 800 mm territory is the safest bet because then you can fiddle around with its width and find out the sweet spot of handlebar width that all riders want to achieve. Remember, you can always cut and trim a wider bar but once you get a narrow one you are going to be stuck with it forever.