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Misguided nostalgia: Changing positions on handlebar style

  • By Lennard Zinn
  • Published Nov. 15, 2013

I have long been a stickler about only riding with a classic, round handlebar bend. I knew that there was no need to even try anything other than the “Merckx bend,” because Eddy Merckx knew how to grip a handlebar better than anybody.

Of course, having part of my job the past 30 years be testing bike equipment, I’ve certainly had plenty of “ergo bend” bars on my bikes. But I was always eager to go back to the classic round bend. I also avoided road bars with a back sweep, flare, or raised tops; how could you establish the same position you had before if the bar came back toward you or bent upward from the stem clamp? You’d have to drop the stem around accordingly for the raised sections, and it couldn’t do anything about the sweep or flare …

A couple of things happened recently, however, that caused me to rethink my position (pun intended) on the subject. One is that the bends on the bars got better. I must not be the only one who thought that early ergo bend bars, with the big reverse bump in the drops, were a bummer, because you don’t see any of them around anymore. And when Lance Armstrong started showing up with his brake levers sticking up super high, I cringed at it just like I did at his tall, black socks. But other riders followed, and the bar bends adapted so that they accommodated high brake levers.

The other thing that happened is that I became older, and while that may be a gradual thing, I find that the changes seem more abrupt, almost from one day to the next. One day, you find that your hands, back, shoulders, and neck can’t take what they used to, just like you suddenly find yourself looking for reading glasses when you want to read the length stamped on a crankarm, the recommended bolt torque imprinted on a stem, or the label on a wine bottle.

I never questioned having the drops of my handlebars level and the brake levers clamped well down on the curve of the bar. It seemed fine that my hands slid down the drops to land on the top of the lever hoods, just like Eddy’s did.

Now, however, my hands go numb when they get pinched for a long time in the smooth curve of a classic-bend bar where there is no support under the center of the palm. And I find that I’m happier when the top of the forward projection of the bar is horizontal (rather than having the drop be horizontal), giving my hands a nice platform behind the lever. The lever, which I set to angle up from this platform, I can grab like a handshake, rather than having my wrist bend as my hand slides down the curve to land on the lever hood.

And where I always wanted the deepest drop and greatest reach I could find in a bar, now my back, neck and shoulders are happier with less reach and drop. And I don’t sprint in the drops anymore in a way that causes my forearms to hit the tops in a shallow-bend bar.

To keep up with the times, I of course end up with carbon bars on many of my bikes, but I bemoaned their shapes. I was pleased when Deda came out with the Merckx-bend Campione bar in carbon, and I used that for many years. Now it seems kind of silly to have a bar molded in this shape, because the reason for the shape of a classic bar is that the tube benders back in the day were not very sophisticated and could only bend an aluminum tube in a constant-radius curve.

I had a similar experience of misguided nostalgia when cycling shoes with rigid soles and three threaded cleat holes began appearing. Nostalgic for my old lace Sidis that had always fit like a glove, I got some lace Marresi Eroicas that accepted modern cleats. I was sorely disappointed to discover that laces just don’t do the trick nearly as well as modern straps, buckles, and/or twist closures. I once again recalled that even back in the day, I couldn’t tighten my beloved lace Sidis as much as I wanted to over the instep, because then they would be too tight around the ball of the foot.

After a few pedal strokes, the tension on all of the laces is the same, but if you like some parts of your foot to be constrained more tightly than others, you don’t have that option with a lace shoe unless you lace different sections of the shoe separately, using multiple laces. I smile when I see the current resurgence of lace shoes (in bright colors, no less) in the pro peloton. For fit and performance reasons, I don’t see that as likely to be more than a passing fad.

If you still love classic-bend bars, don’t despair; there are still plenty made in aluminum (here and here)and as well as some in carbon.

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Lennard Zinn

Lennard Zinn

Our longtime technical writer joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a framebuilder, a former U.S. National Team rider, and author of many bicycle books, including Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance and Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance, as well as Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes and Zinn's Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics from Colorado College. Readers can send brief technical questions to Ask LZ.

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