Upright Handlebars for Smaller Cyclists

With many new cyclists dusting off the bikes hanging in their garages, and trying to get them road-worthy I thought it might be a good time to discuss handlebar options.

Handlebar and stem choices are two of the most important elements contributing to rider comfort.  The above chart from Fred DeLong’s Guide to Bicycles and Bicycling, published back in the 1970’s, provides a nice visual for the effect of hand position on the cyclist’s head and eyes.  Commuting requires attention to all one’s surroundings, so a more upright position is the absolute ideal for a commuter bike.

Velo-Orange Tourist Bars

Don’t be fooled by “flat bars”, often marketed as suitable for commuting.  Flat bars have no rise, the distance which the bar rises above the stem clamp, and no “sweep”, the degree to which the bars angle back toward the rider.  The Velo-Orange Tourist bars, pictured above, have 60 degrees of sweep, and 70 mm of rise.  Depending on your stem selection, that might be just about perfect for commuting.

However, most commuter style bars are too wide for comfort.  V-O’s Tourist bars are 57 mm wide, significantly wider that the drop bars on most road bikes.  For smaller cyclists, I find that it’s best to cut down the bars to the desired width, which will also help prevent the bars from contacting your knees while turning at slow speeds.  The above photos show this process for a Nitto City Bar, which has a slightly higher rise than its V-O counterpart.  These bars are about 52 cm in width, with a long grip area.  After determining my ideal width for these bars, I removed 3 cm of material off of each bar end. I score the bars to the desired length with my caliper gauge, then take a hack-saw to the bars, being careful to cut a straight section off of each end.  I finish that off with a file and then de-burr the inside of the bar.  The result should look clean and even, so that the grips will settle properly on each bar end.  Many commuters do not have access to a vise and the other tools needed to accomplish this.  However, any LBS will accommodate your request to cut down a set of bars to your specs.

The next question is stem choice.  Generally, a shorter stem with longer reach will be needed if you are switching from drop bars to commuter bars.  This Nitto Young stem, pictured above, is an ideal length (height of the stem) for this type of bar conversion.  These stems come in a variety of reach lengths (distance from center of stem to clamp).  Bars come in different clamp sizes, so they need to match the clamp size of the stem.  The two most common clamp sizes are 25.4 and 26.0.

Bars also come in two different diameters – 22.2 and 23.8 are the most common sizes for city and road style handlebars.  Switching from road bars to city bars means new brake levers, shifters, housing, cables, and grips.  Velo-Orange products, shown above, are generally designed for 23.8 diameter bars, but come with shims so that you can also install them on 22.2 mm bars, which is the diameter of the bars shown above.

The number of handlebar options currently available is overwhelming.  From my own experience, I’ve narrowed down my favorite suitable bars for commuting to three options:  V-O’s Tourist Bars, Nitto’s City bars (B483), and Nitto’s Northroad bars (302AA). Other considerations include the length of your top tube.  If you are riding on a too long top tube (something many smaller cyclists must endure), porteur bars are an option when used with a taller stem.

For this conversion, from drop bars, I used V-O’s Grand Cru levers and Shimano bar end shifters mounted to the bars using V-O’s thumb shifter mounts.

You’ll notice that I like to set up the shifters some distance away from the brake levers.  This is so that I can create an extra hand position, shown above, in addition to the position on the grips.  The cockpit area now looks very inviting!

And…here is the end result for the conversion of my 1990’s Georgena Terry road bike to upright handlebars.

10 thoughts on “Upright Handlebars for Smaller Cyclists

  1. Re. Cutting handlebars: a better way than hacksawing is to use a tube cutter, found in every plumber’s tool bag. It cuts cleanly and at right angles to the tube direction.

    • +1. Good for handlebars and seatposts. IIRC, the large-ish one I got from True Value a few years ago cost me under $9. You do have to replace the cutting wheels every so often, but True Value, at least, carries spares in 2-pack blister packs for a couple of bucks. I’m not small, but I like narrow bars, so I very often cut 2 to 4″ off each end.

      Speaking of stem adjustment: I like so-called threadless stems for bikes that I have dialed in the position for; but a relatively recent “road bike for dirt” — drop bar, road geared bike with 60 mm tires and fenders for our sandy tracks — required 4 or 5 different threadless stems, including 2 high-end Ritcheys, to dial in the fit: from 8 cm and 30* up to 10 cm and -17* down. I wanted a higher bar, but also a longer stem than usual on my pavement bikes. Expensive!

  2. I don’t have any of my bikes set up with upright bars, but I do play with stem length to get the right feel. A shorter cockpit is way more comfortable for me and easier to control. It is amazing how much difference can be made particularly on longer rides of 40 miles or so. We are all built a little differently and these fine adjustments keeps us on our bikes more comfortably.

  3. Nola,

    Good on you for experimenting with an upright setup. I came to appreciate this style a few years back and built a few examples that worked well. Most purists turn their noses up when a traditional drop bar bike is re-imaged with an upright cockpit. But, as you noted, city riding requires control, comfort, attention and visibility. This makes an upright setup a natural fit. I do hope the new setup is going well and all the boxes, making this a premier setup, are able to be checked.

    Also, if you are interested in comparing bar sizes, weight, shape, etc. check out whatbars.com. I’ve found it quite useful for studying the nuances between many different kinds of handlebars. (Apologies if you already knew of the site)

  4. Quite true that there seems to be very little variety of narrow width flat handlebars. My wife is 5 ft. 1 so I have had more than my share of customizing bikes to fit her. Cutting the bars to a shorter width is definitely a big help. Also consider using ‘3 speed style’ touring brake levers that may have a screw to decrease the hand reach to pull. ATB flat touring levers are abundant but even with the ‘reach’ adjusting screw may be too great for smaller hands.
    I just built up , from a frame, a 1984 Trek 720 touring bike and used a Nitto Tecnomic tall stem in order to increase the vertical height .. It certainly does not look ‘authentic’ but this stem makes the bike vastly more comfortable for me . As said, it is amazing how small changes make the rider’s bike much more comfortable.

    • Good points. Dia Compe has some “touring levers” that have a very comfortable feel and reach for smaller hands. Also using grips that are not so thick helps greatly.

      • Hi Nola; where have you been all my life? Just discovered you, and plan to read all of your entries.

        I’m curious which levers you’re referring to; I’m 5’4″ with stubby fingers, and while I adore my Pretty Purple Princess Penelope (’92 RockHopper with V-O Porteur bar & Brooks B17), the brake levers are a bit of a reach. Thanks so much for existing!

      • Thanks for the feedback! The Dia Compe lever model I like is model dc135. Velo Orange also makes a copy of this model. These brake levers are much more robust than their flimsy predecessors from the 1960s.

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