Ride Upgrades - Wide and Low 29er MTB Handlebars

Ride Upgrades - Wide and Low 29er MTB Handlebars
In my 'Ride Upgrades' series I look at changes you could make to your bike that make a real difference to comfort and performance.

In this post, I consider the trend of using wide flat handlebars and negative drop stems on 29er mountain bikes.

About 'Ride Upgrades'

Nobody can accuse me of shying away from gradients; in 2018 I rode over 400,000 metres of elevation gain—the equivalent of climbing Everest from sea level 45 times. Yet, I have never been a 'gear geek—I am happy to ride last year's bikes, and I ride components into the ground rather than replace them prematurely.

It would appear I am an ambassador for "don't ride upgrades—ride up grades". However, I know full well that there are upgrades that make a notable difference to comfort and performance. This blog series looks at those enhancements that could provide you with a notable marginal gain.

'Wide and Low'

I am a huge fan of 29ers. I remember when the big wheeled machines raised scepticism and doubtful abuse—"it's a tractor!". Now, they are accepted to be the faster, more comfortable, and more efficient wheel choice for a cross country mountain bike.

The issue with the 29 inch wheel size from an aerodynamic viewpoint is that it raises the front end significantly; naturally positioning the rider in a more upright position than the 'racing tuck'.

The solution is to adjust the cockpit set-up to provide the most efficient racing position. This typically involves the introduction of flat handlebars, and a negative drop stem angle.

There interesting side development in cross country bike cockpits over the last five years has been the growth in the popularity of wider handlebars. Wider bars offer greater leverage, better control, and often improved comfort compared to the narrow bars previously found on cross country race bikes.

The combination of the negative drop stem and flat wide handlebars is what creates the 'Wide and Low' phenomenon.

To test the position myself I fitted a pair of Ritchey WCS Carbon Flat Bars (710 mm wide), and a Ritchey WCS C220 25D Stem (100 mm long – 25 degree negative drop).

The Verdict

The change in position and feel compared to my previous 'narrow' (650 mm) bars and 6 degree drop stem is notable.

The wider hand position provides greater control, and improved steering responsiveness.
The lower front end promotes a flatter back, which brings into play the powerful lower back muscles; those used in time-trials and road bike racing.

The small sweep of five degrees, and the flat bar profile also provides a more comfortable hand position; it reduces the wrist twist that has always been an area of weakness for my forearm tendons, and subsequently reducing arm ache on long endurance rides.

Finally, it is worth saying that the superb quality carbon lay-up in the Ritchey WCS Carbon Flat Handlebars is a wonder at reducing vibrations from the trail. I honestly think there is less hand fatigue than with the riser bars (normally more compliant) that they replaced.

For me, the 'Wide and Low' cockpit development is a significant upgrade—it positions you in a lower, more powerful, and indeed more comfortable position on a 29er.

I spend much of my riding time on a cyclocross/gravel bike, so the lower front end feels more natural. The wider stance handlebars were surprisingly easy to adapt to as well, and undoubtedly provides a more stable and controlling stance.

The move to a flat handlebar and short stiff stem could mean a less compliant and more bone-rattling ride. That has not been the case with the Ritchey WCS Carbon Flat Handlebars; I attribute this to the vibration dampening benefits of the carbon fibre.

Comfort leads to performance, and the 'Low and Wide' upgrade certainly provides both.


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