Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Handlebar Conundrum

In our bicycle-centered household, I have been dubbed the "Handlebar Queen." The title has come well-earned I would say, as I don't think there's a bike I've owned that hasn't had multiple handlebar changes upon arrival or after a few quick test spins. In part, I am fascinated by different handlebars and the way they can change ride quality, but on the whole most changes take place to try and alleviate hand issues.

When this handlebar switching started years ago, I started to think that there was only one type of handlebar that would work for me, but as I quickly learned, the bicycle itself was a huge factor in what actually worked and more importantly what did not. I was never really able to determine what factors led to a better position for me without changing the way the bicycle rode, but I continued to experiment with handlebars.

As handlebar queen, one would think I'd be an expert by now on what works and what doesn't for me personally, but I still struggle with finding the right fit any time a new bike arrives.  So, it shouldn't be surprising that after riding the Rodriguez for a bit, it was time to experiment with these handlebars as well. I have to say, playing with handlebars on this bike was more than just an effort to get my hands in a proper position to eliminate pain, but I'll get into that as we go along.

When the Rodriguez arrived, it came equipped with a fairly standard drop bar. The builder had recommended a compact FSA K-wing bar, but I couldn't bring myself to drop the $300 USD that it would cost. That's a lot of money to spend on a handlebar, I thought, and I just couldn't justify the expenditure at the time.
*Image from FSA
FSA K-wing Compact
Of course, this recommendation came knowing that I have a lot of hand issues when riding which stem from injuries off the bike. Over the years, these injuries seem to be getting worse instead of better, so any time something will help my hands while riding I should probably take note.

After riding on the standard drop bars for a number of rides, I was still experiencing hand pain and I wanted to attempt to figure out a way to alleviate this as much as possible. Perhaps I needed to pursue the FSA bar that had been recommended. So, I started a second-hand search to find a set that wouldn't cost so much.

As luck would have it, a set turned up on eBay for less than 1/6 the price of new, so I figured it was worth a shot. Everything was set up on the new handlebars and I set off to test these, believing that they were the answer to my pain.

I very quickly discovered that I really did not like these handlebars. After several rides of trying to get used to them, I was beyond annoyed and decided that they needed to come off. Even with the pain I was experiencing with the regular drops, it was not nearly what was happening with these new handlebars.

So, back we went to the original drops.

Then, one day as I was out on a ride, I made the realization that perhaps another recommendation that had been made by the builder was one I should pursue. It had been suggested that I outfit the bike with bar-end shifters, but I had fought this as I am not fond of using them with drop bars. Instead, I pushed for brifters, but was now coming to the realization that having bar-end shifters would likely help my hands as it would force me to move them regularly for shifting purposes. With brifters, I tend to sit in the hoods the majority of the time, but when using bar-ends, I am forced to regularly change position.

This meant another purchase of Campagnolo-compatible bar-end shifters as the bar ends we have would not work - at least not without a lot of experimentation. While the bike's drivetrain is a mix, the rear derailleur is Campagnolo and thus the shifters would have to work with this set up (unless, of course, I wanted to replace the back end of the drivetrain - which I did not).
*Image from Velo-Orange
I was happy to discover an option in Dia-Compe, at which point the brifters were replaced with bar-ends and separate brakes on the tops.

Then, a new problem arose. Being short and wide is not really a good combination for road bicycles. With a shorter top tube needed for proper riding it creates a situation in which I am crammed into a space that feels too small when standing at a stop over the bike. This isn't specific to this bike, but really any bike with a shorter top tube. Since a lot of my weight is carried in my lower body, I was struggling to mount and dismount the bike without jamming my thigh into the bar-ends.

While I can endure the pain of such happenings (after all, bruises will heal), being a less-than-coordinated individual does not combine well with abrupt shifts that were taking place while stopped.  As I'd start to pedal off at signals and stop signs, the chain would suddenly shift and throw me off balance. This really started to unnerve me. I began worrying every time I had to start or stop and that's certainly no way to encourage a person to ride.
*Image from Bike Touring News
Nitto Grand Randonneur
The next experiment was to try my old Nitto Randonneur bars from the A. Homer Hilsen. I did well with these handlebars on that bike after a ride the necessitated using them, and it had been set up with bar-end shifters, so perhaps this would be the solution. They are a bit wider at the bottom too, so it would give me more room to start and stop without having the interruption of my thighs jamming into the bar-ends.

Something just felt off about these handlebars and after a quick spin around the neighborhood on the Rodriguez, I decided to remove them. After this brief trial, another standard drop bar that was much wider overall than the originals was put on the bike. This, we assumed, would provide the thigh clearance I need but still offer the hand positions to move around.

With this alteration, the bike felt a bit twitchy on the front end, which is something I hadn't expected at all. Additionally, I felt as though my hands were too far apart and I started thinking that perhaps I needed to go to my standby or default handlebar: the Albatross bar.
Nitto Albatross bars set up on the Hillborne
So, off came those handlebars and on went a backup set of Albatross turned upside down as is the set up on the Hillborne. This configuration was even worse with the twitch-factor on the front end and they were very quickly removed.

All of the changes were beginning to send me into a tailspin. It was all too familiar as I've gone through this multiple times with bikes while attempting to find the right set up. Maybe I'm just not meant to ride a road bike, I thought. It is very difficult to maintain positivity when everything seems to go awry.
*Image from On One
On One Midge
I am not a quitter though, so I kept looking for possible solutions. One day, as I was browsing the net, I was reminded of another possibility: a set of On-One Midge handlebars. Perhaps this was the solution?

The problem was finding them in the US. The few places I could locate them were in the UK and the shipping costs alone were not worth the effort to try them. But, I soon learned that there is a somewhat close facsimile available with more ease here in the US: Origin8's Gary bar.
*Image from Origin8
Origin8 Gary 2
These handlebars seemed to be a combination of a rando bar and a drop bar, with wider ends, so perhaps they would be the combination I needed. As I quickly discovered, these handlebars had the same problem as my upside down Albatross bars (which should've been obvious had I really thought it through) in that they were too wide to keep the front end of the bike stable. I was also struggling to use the bar end shifters because every time I'd reach down to shift, the entire bike would shimmy out of control, particularly at any sort of speed.

I was giving up now. I couldn't believe that handlebars and shifters were going to be the demise of the Rodriguez in my life. I began to think that this just wasn't going to work. I love my pedaling position on the Rodriguez, but if I couldn't find something to work for the upper half of my body, we were going to have to part ways.

I started lamenting the decision to sell the A. Homer Hilsen, upset that I let it go and wondering why I had to be so concerned with the weight when it actually seemed to serve me well. Really, it had met my needs splendidly, but I had been wrapped up in the idea that I needed to travel faster and because we were in a tough spot with an unexpected and expensive ER visit, I let it go. In retrospect, it was a horrible idea.

As I sat contemplating my decisions, Sam was off thinking up another idea. When he came in holding two bar end extensions like these, I must've looked a little perplexed. His plan was to attach these to the drop bars, kind of like a mini-aero bar set up. He explained that he'd attach the extensions and put the bar end shifters at the end, keeping them away from my legs and hopefully this would make them easier to reach and eliminate the twitch that develops with wide handlebars.
This poor handlebar tape has been wrapped and unwrapped so many times.
From the photo, you can see it was a slightly odd look, but I was willing to give it a try. The set up was an interesting one, and while in some ways it made things better, I still found it an odd position to be in for shifting, since I cannot actually rest on the additional short stubs as one would with true aero bars. Additionally, wrapping the bars created its own snag, and while I would've got over the messy factor, it was very bulky and the set up was just not working properly for my needs.

Now what?

With all of the switching taking place, nothing was feeling right any longer. Even things that sort of worked initially felt strange now - and how could they not? I wasn't giving myself very long to adjust to anything and instead continued to do changes pretty quickly looking for the solution.

I decided that I had to pick something and just stick with it for awhile in order to make a true evaluation, but which one? Since I hadn't really given the Randonneur bars a fair shot, and they'd worked well in the past, these were the pick.

Now, the Randonneur's haven't been on the bike long at this point (a couple of weeks), and I've been riding other bikes because of current Seattle-like weather, so it's not really fair to make a judgment call as to whether or not these will be the answer.

However, I've realized that nothing is going to work if I don't allow time and riding to take place. Although some of the handlebars had several rides to determine whether or not they would work, I realize that there were also a number that were just quick switches without really allowing an opportunity for true testing. With some, there was good reason, but with others, perhaps they just needed a few more rides to see if I would or could adjust.

I also understand that there are other factors that could be affecting my hands (tires are one of these possibilities), and while the pedal position is great on this bike, I need to get my hands settled in order to get everything dialed in properly. Things are coming along, so hopefully the set up is on its way to being great. I'm looking forward to a summer full of long rides that are (at least relatively) pain free.


  1. If you're looking at drop bars, the Service Course 70-Ergo* is my favorite. The ramps transition perfectly with SRAM hoods/levers. Two thumbs up.


    1. Thanks for the link! I am hoping that these will work, but it's always nice to know of another option/possibility (Plus, being the handlebar queen... you know). :O)

  2. Seems like you need to try a recumbent bike. Eliminates ALL of the hand and wrist pain. Plus easier on many other body parts. Truth.

    1. I've actually looked at recumbent bikes at various points, and I think if my hands continue to spiral downward, this may be something I'll have to seriously consider down the line. I have a friend who owns one, so perhaps I'll have to ask to borrow it one of these days just to try it out for a bit. :O)

  3. Instead of the awkward home-made solution (kudos for thinking outside the box, though), maybe try a set of thumbies mounted on the flats of the dropbar by the stem? It may not be glamorous looking, but it may be just the thing for you. You won't have to take your hands completely off the bars, and will require that you move your hands around a bit, rather than stay on the hoods.


    1. That is a great suggestion. I don't really care if it looks odd, I just need to find something that will work properly. I have thumb shifters on another bike and I find that I like those (just as I have found bar ends to work well on other bikes). Any particular suggestions for working with Campagnolo? I've seen the Ergopower version somewhere on the net, but if you know of anything that works well, suggestions are always welcome.

    2. I may actually be mistaken about seeing thumb shifters for Campy drivetrains... For some reason I thought I'd seen them somewhere, but maybe I'm wrong?

  4. Contact Paul Component Engineering to see if their Thumbies are compatible with Campy bar-end shifters.

    Campy also has these:

    Lastly, most of SRAM's mtb and road components are interchangeable.

    1. All very helpful. Gravelbike to the rescue! :O) I thought I'd seen something that would work at some point, but remembering where/what is always the challenge.

  5. Whoa. I feel dizzy....

    Your homemade solution reminds me of the VO crazy bar. I've been curious about that bar for a while. I don't suppose you've tried it out?

    1. Funny that you should bring up the crazy bar. I had been looking at it for a bike build just recently, but decided to pass on it. I do like that there are so many different possibilities for my hands, but ultimately decided it wasn't right for the build. One of these days I'll find a reason to "need" to try it. :O)

  6. There is normally more pressure on your hands with road bikes. I have a high stem on mine, plus compact short reach drop bars. I mostly feel it in my neck and hands on road bikes but this setup has relieved some of the discomfort. Right now I'm contemplating just getting rid of the drop bars on the tourer and replacing them with VO Milan handlebars. That means new shifters, compact brake levers, grips. The back sweep of these handlebars is not near as far back as the albatross but puts your hands in a more natural position.

    1. Agreed. Generally speaking, many road bikes are more leaned over. I am fortunate in that this specific bike was built for me so there is the ability to get the handlebars higher. In many respects, if a person isn't using the "drop" portion of drop bars, then they seem unnecessary. As you've said, often that means changing more than just the handlebars, so it has to be an expense one is ready to take on. I'd be interested to hear if you do change the handlebars and set up how it goes and if it works better for you.

  7. I'd like to add that having a custom handlebar made has often crossed my mind.

    1. That could be a fun (or very stressful) adventure! :O) What would you have made, or what qualities would the bar have that are different from what is available?

  8. Do you have an adjustable stem? It seems like that might be a worthwhile investment at this point, to see if you can get dialed in on the most comfortable bar position. Changing handlebars will probably not be as effective until you have optimized the relationship between bars and saddle. Good luck!

    1. We have adjustable stems (and did use one for a bit on this bike, just to be sure), but the issue hasn't been reach. Of course, changing handlebars can change position too, unless it's a small adjustment from one to the next. The problems stem from actual damage to my hands that is tough to alleviate on any bike that isn't in a bolt upright sitting position. But, this creates other issues with long distance riding. I have found better positions though, so I'm still hopeful that I just need the right spots for my hands.

  9. So sorry to hear about your ongoing hand problems. You can't wish away pain and numbness ... If your hands hurt, if there is pain and tingling, then you are right to explore all possible options. You are not being fussy ... It is important to avoid nerve damage! It seems to me that experimenting with models that have worked for you in the past is a good idea. As you say, it is better to give each experiment some time, and try and approach each experimental ride with a sense of calm. Also, have you seen a specialist about this? My sister- in-law is a physiotherapist who specialises in hand injuries and hand problems, and she is constantly going on courses here in the UK to update her skills ... Seems that new therapies and so on are constantly coming out. It might be worth exploring, a professional might be able to assign specific exercises that can help. You may already be doing this, of course. The only other thing I can think of to reduce pain, inflammation, arthritis and so on is to cut out or drastically reduce sugar. It seems to be linked to joint problems and so on ... It could be worth a try. It is trickier than it seems as it is not just about the usual don't eat sweets or cake kind of thing. It is about avoiding hidden sugars In processed food ... Plenty of stuff on the Internet about this if it appeals to you. Best of luck, I really hope you find something that works well.

    1. It's tough when the problem exists all the time. I never know if it's something I just need to deal with or if there is a fix. At the moment, my hands are particularly damaged because of all the work that has been done (and continues to be done) with the house. The long days of constant hand use (at least in the manner they were being used) didn't do me any favors and I think I'm still dealing with the leftovers of that situation. A visit to a specialist to see if there are things I can do to help wouldn't be a bad idea at all.


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