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When it comes to the cycling industry, ‘conventional’ is a word that applies to almost everything that we do. 

The bikes we ride are all built to meet stringent standards and regulations.  Frame sizing is based on generic top tube/seat tube lengths. The cranks we ride, range in length by about 10mm and stem lengths vary by about 4cm. The list goes on.

Is it just me, or does this baffle you too? Human beings differ greatly in size. There are tiny riders and there are enormous riders and yet almost all riders use equipment that varies by just tiny increments. Why??

‘Conventional’ is a term best described as, ‘being based on, or in accordance with what is generally done or believed.’

A rider who is 6’6 is some 46cm taller than a rider who is 5’0 foot and yet they use cranks that are almost identical in size. It doesn’t add up.

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I spend long hours on the bike, day after day and I am obsessive about comfort and mechanical efficiencies. If you look to the pro peloton, riders will make drastic changes to their position to save just hundredths of a second over a four-hour stage.  Why then, do riders who are partaking in ultra-events that last upwards of three weeks, not look to make changes to their position that will also increase efficiencies?

We all have our favourite position on the bars. For some it’s the hoods, others the drops and for others it’s the flats.  There’s no right or wrong position.  I personally spend a lot of time in the drops and in the hoods, if I’m riding at a more relaxed pace.  What I started to notice when riding for long periods of time is that I was longing for a ‘narrower’ position on the bars.  A position that would allow my upper body weight (the portion that tilts forward and grasps the bars) to be channelled directly in front of me as opposed to ‘at angles’ to my body.

For the last four years, I have been riding handlebars that are either 42cm or 44cm in width (Centre to Centre C-C at the hoods).  The width has generally been dictated by the bars that came on the bike when new, and I’ve never thought to alter this.  42cm seems like a reasonably ‘conventional,’ middle of the line width bar, so why would I want anything different? 

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About 6 months ago I switched to 36cm bars, and immediately felt a sense of relief.  Relief, not because I was ever in pain, but because I never quite felt compact and secure.  The switch to 36cm bars was a lightbulb moment in my cycling career. My comfort on the bike increased, I could spend longer periods of time in the drops, in an aggressive position and my power also increased as I now adopted a more streamlined position on the bike.  I felt great.

It’s common knowledge to most, that I suffer from an obsessive personality.  The 36cm bars felt so good, that I began to fanaticise with the idea of even narrower bars…

Whilst up in Japan completing my North to South crossing in October this year, I became adamant that I would find 34cm bars in one of the local stores. The Japanese / Asian population is generally smaller in stature to European’s and so If I was going to find ‘narrow’ bars, this would be the place. I searched long and hard, but had no luck? The narrowest bar that I could find was 36cm. How could this be? At 6’2 and relatively broad across the chest I was already using the narrowest bar available, how was this possible? 

This started my search.  I spent hours researching online, looking for bars designed for children and small women, but I could find nothing.  I came across a children’s bike manufacturer in the UK who produced 34cm bars, but they would only sell them as part of a complete bike.  I certainly wasn’t going to spend 750 pounds on a children’s bike just so that I could test the 34cm alloy bars…

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I tracked down a set of cracked carbon bars online (42cm 3T Ergonova) and took them into John Ilett, a carbon specialist with a small workshop just South of Perth. We decided to experiment and chop out a 12cm length of the bar to create a 30cm wide handlebar (C-C at the hoods.)  In order to create enough structural integrity, John used a portion of the carbon that he had cut from the bar to create an internal ‘rib.’  You can see from the images where the rib is inserted and although this doesn’t match the original aesthetics of the UD Carbon, it is hidden below bar tape, away from the eye.

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I’ve been riding the 30cm bars for two weeks now and can confirm it’s been another ‘lightbulb moment.’  My connection with the bars feels so compact and so powerful, that I can’t fathom how I ever rode anything wider.  When I switch across to my second bike and the 36cm bars that provide the steering, I feel as though I’m riding bullhorns. Furthermore, when I swap across to a mates bike, typically with ‘conventional’ 42cm bar and allow them to ‘joy ride’ on my setup, I feel as though I’m operating a parachute! The wind captured by my chest proving to be an obvious disadvantage.

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Track riders have been using narrow bars for some time now, the likes of Chirs Hoy riding bars as narrow as 22cm in instances. Some will argue that the ‘closed off’ chest position has the ability to reduce  oxygen intake into the lungs and decrease performance.  I haven’t noticed any disadvantages to date.  One thing worth noting is that when I first started riding more challenging terrain (gravel/sand) on the narrow bars, it required more concentration. The bars are certainly a little more ‘fidgety.’  I’ve had to increase the length of my stem by 20mm to a 150mm stem so as to achieve the same reach, but aside from this, I am now fully adjusted to my new position and won't be making the change back.  

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What’s the story behind this little experiment?  Don’t settle for what is ‘conventional.’ Just because components such as handlebars, cranks and stems only come in ‘normal’ sizes, doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘normal’ is right for you.  Look outside of the box when it comes to your bike fit and perhaps you will stumble across a lightbulb moment too.

Note: The problem with my obsessive disorder and always having to optimise things is that I’m now toying with the idea of even narrower bars…who knows where this will end up!!