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Mountain bike handlebar width is one of the most important factors to consider and, getting it wrong may change your entire ride quality significantly.
You’ve heard the age old saying, “Look mom, no hands!” Well, while we don’t recommend this, we especially don’t recommend riding with the incorrect mountain bike handlebars, because you may as well be riding with no hands on them in such a case.
When mountain bikers typically look at upgrading or swapping out their handlebars, the most common notion is that the material is the most important factor; for example, choosing between traditional aluminum bars or perhaps lighter, sleek new carbon fiber bars.
Or if you’re like a lot of people- your new choice of handlebars can even depend on what they look like, aka the aesthetic factor.
Why Worry About Mountain Bike Handlebar Width?
First and foremost, it is important to establish that the concept of mountain bike handlebar width is completely subjective, and ultimately boils down to many personalized factors such as: bike stem length, elbow length, gender, age, the terrain you’ll be riding in and so the list goes on.
Ultimately it all comes down to a rudimental estimate of what will be best for you and your circumstances/preferences, as well as a little trial and error. So why is this factor so significant, and what difference does it make anyway?
Well, the width of the handlebars on your setup directly influence the following: Your riding strength and endurance. If your bars fit you well, it will allow your arms to relax and be significantly more comfortable, eliminating the need to use the smaller supporting muscles used to keep your arms propped in odd positions during riding.
Both pushing strength, necessary for downhill impacts and hard turns, and pulling strength, used for pumping and gaining speed, are both greatly diminished if the bar size isn’t right for you. Range of motion for tight turns is limited more and more the further off your ideal mountain bike handlebar width you are. It’s not just your riding that’ll be messed up.
Finally, and most sinister of all, the strain of riding the wrong sized handlebars overtime can seriously damage and injure your shoulders, contribute to arm pump, and even cause accidents and falls because you can’t take big impacts or make sharp turns in time.
So, to conclude, you can see why it is so vital to ensure that you are riding the correct width mountain bike handlebars.
Does Terrain Impact Handlebar Width?
The short answer to this question is no and yes. No, because terrain doesn’t play as much of a significant role in the ideal handlebar width as factors like the geometry and the dynamic fit (which consists of bottom bracket height, reach, as well as the aforementioned stem length.)
Yes, because the type of terrain you ride most often, can mean you have to limit handlebar width. This is for the obvious reason that some single-track paths tend to narrow as they naturally wind and follow the terrain.
This means that some sections could pose a risk for clipping a handlebar against a tree, or other terrain feature which can result in injuries to the fingers or hands, or even completely knock you off your bike, which isn’t ideal.
This in conjunction with the fact that when riding down steep hills, you are often making sharp turns or taking heavy impacts. These factors definitely limit mountain bike handlebar width because the narrower your handlebars, the more pumping strength and range of motion you have. However the less stability and impact absorption capability you’ll have.
In addition, wide handlebars open up the chest to allow for better breathing, so if the terrain is treacherous, or the course is very long, wider bars are better. This is the trade-off you’ll have to make to fit through the eventuality of a narrow piece of track.
In conclusion, it is again a personal issue between finding the balance of stability and control/power, and what will work best depending on what terrain you’ll be riding in.
When Is A Handlebar Too Wide?
With the advent of mountain bikes frames lengthening to accommodate more stability when riding, there is most certainly a place for wider handlebars.
However, there is most certainly such a thing as a set of handlebars that are simply too wide for the rider. As a generalization, the average handlebar size is around 750mm, with modern enduro championship riders opting for the balanced option of 760mm handlebars. Going much higher than this is rather uncommon, although some manufacturers produce bars exceeding 800mm.
These can be said to be akin to size 13 shoes, they definitely exist and are out there, but are uncommon because not many people have such large feet. Similarly, these 800+mm handlebars really only cater to extraordinarily tall or broad-shouldered riders, or certain disciplines and preferences of riders.
If riding bars that are too wide, studies have linked shoulder deterioration due to rotation issues, as well as placing some riders in a weaker position while riding. Bikeradar says the wider the better.
Watch This Video For More Insight:
Does Rider Height Influence Handlebar Width?
As a general rule of thumb, if you are a smaller person, you shouldn’t be riding the biggest bars you can find, and if you are on the larger side you may want to consider the larger sized bars, all within your realm of riding comfort and control of course.
However, at the end of the day it still boils down to personal preference and what feels most comfortable to the rider. Comfort and personal preference doesn’t have much to do with height or even the widths of the shoulders, although of course these factors do come into play.
This is because when you push the bars, your elbows are drawn inwards, and on the contrary when you pull the bars your elbows naturally flare inwards. Thus, it stands to logical reason that if you have broad shoulders, you may need a slightly wider set of handlebars and visa versa.
Ultimately though, rider height itself doesn’t play a huge role in determining mountain bike handlebar width.
How Tire Pressure Impacts Handlebar Width
In the past, tires were flimsy and easily punctured, thus a high tire pressure was always mandatory. Nowadays, with the advent of stronger rims, hardier tires and sturdier casings, a much lower tire pressure can be used which in turn generates better grip.
It does this by molding and adhering to the terrain more, absorbing impact where hard tires would bounce and skid off the ground. This lower pressure means higher cornering speeds can be achieved naturally.
Thus an accommodating increase in mountain bike handlebar width size needs to happen to support the balance and weight transfer of the rider. So, in conclusion, the tire pressure does indeed affect the mountain bike’s handlebar width requirements.
Getting The Best Mountain Bike Handlebar Width Fit
Now that it has solidly been established that mountain bike handlebar width is an overarchingly important concept that affects nearly all aspects of riding and your body, the burning question is, “So how do I find the ideal bar width for me?”
Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news, is that a big part of selecting the right size for you is trial and error, discovering your preferences and what works for you.
To test it out, you can change the position of your grips to get a pseudo-feel for what longer/shorter bars would be like. There is no exact science however, because there are so many variables amongst riders, terrains, disciplines and bike setups.
The good news however, is that there is a rough way to work it out. The average sweet spot is between 750mm-800mm, but to calculate roughly what yours is according to RideLogic: If you’re male, multiply your height in millimeters by 0.440 and if you’re female, multiply your height in millimeters by 0.426.
If you’re a smaller rider or have shoulder injuries, go for narrower bars and if you’re bigger, make sure the bars are wide enough. Besides this, just the common-sense points that if it feels comfortable and rides well try it out and have fun!
I’m James Duff, a 29-year-old from Orange, California, fueled by a lifelong passion for bikes. From childhood pedaling to exploring BMX tricks and tackling mountain trails, biking has been my constant. Now, I’m translating that love into words on this blog. Join me in discovering the thrilling world of biking, as I share insights, gear essentials, and personal adventures. Let’s journey together through the exhilarating realm of cycling.