Flat Bar Gravel Bike vs Drop Bar Gravel Bikes
Gravel riding is often about long and epic exploration rides. For the majority of riders, a priority on long rides is, unsurprisingly, comfort. Significant time on the bike, especially on rough and uneven terrain, amplifies what might otherwise be minor issues. Discomfort takes away from the fun and enjoyment of riding. One of the most straightforward ways to optimize bike fit and comfort is by choosing the right type of handlebar. In the case of gravel bikes, the two most common types of handlebars are: drop bars and flat bars.
Gravel bikes inherited drop bars from their road bikes predecessors. Still, many modern gravel bikes are starting to have more mountain bike DNA in their design, including high volume tires, single-chainring drivetrains and cockpit components that give a more upright riding position, most notably flat handlebars.
Like wheel size and 1x vs 2x drivetrains, the handlebar type debate can be quite a polarizing topic in cycling. Similarly, there is no “one handlebar fits all” answer. Drop bars and flat bars both have their applications, and the choice of one over the other will depend on many variables. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons offered by flat bars and drop bars for gravel riding:
Drop Bar Pros:
- This is the classic choice. Diehard gravel enthusiasts, especially coming from a background in road cycling, will refuse to acknowledge that a gravel bike can have any other type of handlebar.
- Drop bars offer more multiple positions, which means improved palm and forearm comfort
- Drop bars offer an undeniable aerodynamic advantage over flat bars by allowing the rider to be in a position with a reduced “frontal area” less aerodynamic drag. For riders who are able to maintain faster average speeds such as in racing (>15mph), the aerodynamic advantage of drop bars is significant.
- They just look great! One could argue that the classic curvature of traditional or even modern gravel-specific drop bars is visually very appealing
Drop Bar Cons:
- Compromised handling and control on rough and technical terrain
- Less leverage at the brake levers
- Limited room for bar-mounted accessories
- More difficult to replace cables & components (you have to unwrap and re-wrap handlebar tape)
Bottom line: if you care about aerodynamics, classic bike aesthetics and have the fitness and core strength to benefit from riding in the drops, then drop bars are for you.
Flat Bar Pros:
- Flat bars offer a more upright riding position, which – for most riders – puts less strain on their arms, back and core.
- Flat bars allow better handling on rough and technical terrain.
- Replacing cables & bar-mounted components is easier; there is no handlebar tape to unwrap and rewrap.
- There is more space to mount accessories such as lights, cycling computers and navigation devices.
- Better brake lever leverage, useful in emergency stopping situations.
Flat Bar Cons:
- Limited options for hand positions. The palm real estate is as big as your handlebar grips offer.
- Less aerodynamic efficiency at faster speeds and/or headwinds.
- This is highly subjective, but they don’t look as cool as drop bars!
If your priority is a more upright riding position, similar to a mountain bike, for better comfort and improved off-road handling, flat bars are for you.
Some bike manufacturers offer weird and unique handlebar designs, like Canyon’s multi-level handlebars on their Grail gravel bike. Some bikes are offered with both drop bar and flat bar options from the factory, such as Specialized’s Diverge range of gravel bikes. From road bike style narrow drop bars, to gravel-specific wide and flared drop bars to flat bars and beyond, the latest crop of gravel bikes on the market offers a diverse range of choices for gravel riders.