MTB handlebar (flat) vs gravel handlebar (drop): which is better?
The debate is always heated even if it is relegated to the small and restricted niche of us cycle travellers: is an MTB handlebar (flat) or a gravel handlebar (drop) better? I will try to answer, trying to be as objective as possible and without being influenced by subjective considerations. Let's then proceed by examining the advantages and disadvantages of both types of handlebars, contextualized in their use for cycle tourism.
In this article
What are the differences between flat MTB handlebars and drop handlebars?
As almost always happens with these questions, even the question is better a flat handlebar or a drop handlebar turns out to be incomplete. The scope should be better understood. Evaluate the type of use, the purpose and the user himself.
The more precise question could be: is a flat handlebar or a drop handlebar better for mountain biking? or is the drop handlebar better for gravel?
But even the questions posed above could be incomplete if, as we want to do in this context, they were referred to cycling tourism. So the question: MTB handlebar or gravel handlebar for cycle touring? is still too general a question to have a single answer.
Cycling trips are so different from each other and travelers have subjective and specific needs that just giving a straight answer would be impossible. To give you an example, the guys at Bikepacking.com a few months ago did a survey asking which handlebars their users preferred: the result is practically equal (53% flat and 47% drop). The answer depends very much on the type of terrain, load requirements, physical characteristics, travel destination and other elements that I will try to bring out in the following comparison.
So let's analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of handlebars, the MTB/flat one and the gravel/drop one. At the end of this list you can decide which handlebar is best for you. But before continuing, if you want to learn more about the topic, I suggest you read the article I wrote some time ago: handlebars for travel bikes: which ones exist? where you can find an overview of products on the market (not only flat or drop but also some different alternatives).
MTB handlebar (flat): advantages
- Better control
Flat handlebars, i.e. straight handlebars, are traditionally used on mountain bikes because they provide for a position of the hands on the ends of the same. This feature guarantees a very large leverage which results in greater control of the vehicle, especially on rough terrain where there are rocks, roots or obstacles in general.
The width of the lever also translates into more accurate and precise steering which is also useful when traveling at low speeds and on technical sections.
- A lot of space for accessories
Having a wide handlebar also means having more space to hook it on accessories: on these types of handlebars there is space for the GPS, the front light, a mobile phone, a bikepacking or classic handlebar bag, a bell and even a mirror if you want.
- MTB handlebar components have lower prices
Yes, it's true, the prices of components have skyrocketed lately, but components for MTB are generally cheaper than those for racing or gravel bikes, starting from a very economical entry level.
- The brake levers on MTB handlebars are more accessible
There is no doubt that braking is much more comfortable, quick and precise with MTB brake levers than with those of a racing or gravel bike. The position of the hands does not require any movement in the event of an emergency and in city stop&go's the MTB handlebar hands-down wins the competition from the drop one.
- Spare parts can be found anywhere in the world
The cheapest and most popular bikes in the world have a flat handlebar and therefore wherever you are, in any town or remote village you've stuck yourself in, if you find spare parts they will be for flat handlebars. Sure, often you'll have to shut your eyes and not think about the quality of the spare parts, but if you're in an emergency and the choice is between a poor quality component and the premature closure of the trip, what do you choose? You will be more difficult to find components for drop handlebars.
- The driving position is more comfortable and guarantees greater visibility
Bikes with flat handlebars in most cases have geometries that guarantee you a more upright position on the saddle, partially relieving pressure from your back, neck and arms. The higher head position also allows you to have greater visibility of the context in which you pedal. useful both from a tourist point of view, because you can look around, but above all from a safety point of view because any dangers will be identified in time.
MTB handlebar (flat): disadvantages
- Only one hand position
A traditional MTB handlebar has the defect of having limited variations in the position of the hands which can lead to premature fatigue of the arms and torso if you spend many hours in the saddle, as often happens when traveling .
To overcome this defect you can install special grips equipped with appendages (such as Ergon GP or similar) or specific extensions to be installed on the ends or in the center of the handlebar itself.
- The MTB handlebar takes up more space
The size of an MTB handlebar, especially of the latest generation, is much greater than a dropbar. In general the width varies between 70 and 80 cm (in most cases it remains between 74 and 78 cm) while in drop handlebars the width usually varies between 44 and 48 cm (not considering the flare of a gravel handlebar which widens the curves, sometimes even a lot). This width can create problems in specific contexts: for example in city traffic or in some passages of narrow Italian cycle paths as well as when parking the vehicle.
- Flat handlebars are less efficient and aerodynamic
A natural consequence of the fact that the position is often more upright on the saddle and the hands are wider, is the loss of aerodynamics and pedaling efficiency: if you want to pedal hard and fast (the Italian pedaler has this vice, often even when travelling), the flat handlebar is not ideal.
Gravel handlebar (drop): advantages
- The drop handlebar allows you to vary the position of your hands
While special grips or extensions have to be installed on MTB handlebars, on the drop handlebar it is possible to vary the position of your hands while pedalling, without having to think about adding specific components. You can place your hands on the brake levers, on the horizontal tube or on the curves, also changing the position of the torso and consequently varying the muscles worked. This feature is essential when you spend long hours in the saddle.
- The aerodynamics of a gravel handlebar are better
The position in the saddle, if you have a drop handlebar, is more forward and the torso is leaned more forward. The possibility of increasing this protrusion by moving your hands on the curves of the handlebar guarantees a higher level of aerodynamics and lower air resistance when pedaling on bikes with drop bars. On long flat journeys on asphalt this feature certainly comes in handy!
- They allow you to cross narrower passages even in city traffic
As I pointed out earlier, the width of a drop handlebar is much smaller than that of a flat handlebar even if with the introduction of flared handlebars (with the curves also inclined outwards, to be clear) this distance is it is filed. In any case, in traffic and in narrow city passages, having a narrower handlebar is sometimes convenient.
- They perform better uphill
Uphill, the weight of the body must be shifted forward to adjust the center of gravity and counteract the slope. The drop handlebar comes in handy in this case because it offers a very comfortable and stable position of the hands on the brake levers to be able to push hard on the pedals, even when getting off the saddle.
Gravel handlebar (drop): disadvantages
- The control when riding with a drop handlebar is less
The position of the hands and the width of the lever cause a considerable deterioration in the handling of the drop handlebars, especially on uneven terrain and where the changes in speed and direction are considerable and sudden. Downhill, the hands are loaded much more and therefore control over the brake levers is reduced, especially at low speeds.
- Pedaling comfort is less
As it is quite intuitive to understand, the qualities of the MTB handlebar become defects of the drop one: pedaling comfort with a gravel handlebar is reduced because the center of gravity of the torso is moved forward and the arms are narrower, leaving less breathing space for the Chest. The back and hands undergo greater stress which could be felt during the day after long hours in the saddle.
- The brake levers are less accessible
The brakes are positioned on the front part of the drop handlebar and this implies that, especially in the event of an emergency, they are less accessible than those of a flat MTB handlebar. To reach them you could lose precious hundredths of a second.
- The cost of components is higher and they are more fragile
The components used for a drop handlebar are those of racing bikes (today there are also specific components for gravel bikes but the situation does not change). These bikes are more expensive and so are their components, at least in the entry level lines. In addition to the cost, being designed for journeys on asphalt, the components are more fragile and exposed to breakage or damage.
- It can be more difficult to find spare parts in remote countries
This point is closely related to the previous one: bikes with drop handlebars are bikes born to compete or for fun. They are not "work" bikes and therefore popular. For this reason, in remote areas and countries it can be difficult to find spare parts that would be useless to local citizens.
- The maintenance and replacement of brakes, cables and sheaths is generally more complex
Maintaining drop handlebar components is slightly more complex than doing it on MTB handlebars. Nothing insurmountable, just a little patience, but the presence of the tape under which the cables are often hidden and the most sophisticated technologies in the realization of the components could discourage many from doing do-it-yourself maintenance and force them to rely on a good mechanic.
There would be other elements to evaluate when comparing MTB handlebars and gravel handlebars, but I'll stop here because I believe that those listed above are the characteristics with the greatest impact on the choice. As you will have understood, the decision is entirely up to you but if you want my biased opinion, well, I much prefer flat handlebars for the types of travel I do and lately I've been using an alternative that allows remedy some shortcomings and which I will tell you about in a future article.
And you, are you a flat or a dropbar type?
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ITA - Cicloviaggiatore lento con il pallino per la scrittura e la fotografia. Se non è in viaggio ama perdersi lungo i mille sentieri che solcano le splendide montagne del suo Trentino e dei dintorni del lago d'Iseo dove abita. Sia a piedi che in mountain bike. Eterno Peter Pan che ama realizzare i propri sogni senza lasciarli per troppo tempo nel cassetto, ha dedicato e dedica gran parte della vita al cicloturismo viaggiando in Europa, Asia, Sud America e Africa con Vero, compagna di viaggio e di vita e Nala.
EN - Slow cycle traveler with a passion for writing and photography. If he is not traveling, he loves to get lost along the thousands of paths that cross the splendid mountains of his Trentino and the surroundings of Lake Iseo where he lives. Both on foot and by mountain bike. Eternal Peter Pan who loves realizing his dreams without leaving them in the drawer for too long, has dedicated and dedicates a large part of his life to bicycle touring in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa with Vero, travel and life partner and Nala.
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