Gear Check–Why “Shallow Drop” Bars Aren’t Just for Gravel Bikes

Gravel bikes are all the rage but you don’t need to be a gravel cyclist to benefit from the trend. “Gear Check” is a new feature where rather than reviewing a specific product we discuss a category of bike parts or gear that we like or find particularly suited to the “all surface” mixed terrain riding of Sonoma’s West County. In this inaugural “Gear Check” we’re talking about the advantages of drop bars with a “shallow drop.”

What is “drop” and what does it have to do with gravel bikes?

Before we start talking about why we like handlebars with “shallow drops” it might be useful to review Bicycling’s glossary of terms in A Complete Guide to Road Bike Handlebars:

  • Bend: The curved section of the bar.
  • Drop: The vertical distance from the center of the bar top to the center of the deepest part of the bend. A drop of 125mm or less is considered shallow; 125-128mm is medium; more than that is deep.
  • Drops: Straight portion of the bar that extends back toward the rider.
  • Hooks: Section of the drop just below the brake-lever clamp that is used during descending and cornering.
  • Ramp: The segment that transitions from the top to the hooks. It is sometimes measured by the steepness of the angle to the point where brake hoods are installed.
  • Reach: Horizontal distance from the center of the handlebar top to the center of the furthest extension of the bend, where brake hoods are mounted. A reach of less than 80mm is short; 80-85mm is medium; 85mm or more is considered long.

So “drop” is simply the vertical distance between the highest and lowest points on your drop bars. In industry terms any handlebar with a drop of 125mm or less is considered shallow.

Another industry category for handlebars is “compact.” But don’t be confused. Even though compact handlebars, in theory, have a combination of shorter reach and shallower drop than traditional bars, bars described as compact may only be compact relative to traditional road racing bars. For example, ENVE’s Road Compact Handlebars have a 79 mm reach and 127 mm drop. Yet recall that a drop of less than 125mm is considered shallow. For comparison, ENVE’s Gravel Handlebar has a reach of 80mm and drop of 120mm.

“Much of bicycle design is driven by the needs of racing cyclists–even though the vast majority of cyclists are not racers.”

–Sheldon Brown

Gravel cycling’s spillover effect

Why all the fuss? First of all, deep drop bars were the only option for recreational cyclists up until relatively recently. That’s because, as Sheldon Brown pointed out years ago, “Much of bicycle design is driven by the needs of racing cyclists–even though the vast majority of cyclists are not racers” (see “Hands Up (Or Down)! Adjusting Handlebar Stems”). Deep drops allow racers to get into a more aerodynamic position. But most of us don’t need to get so aero, not to mention that the deep drop position can feel uncomfortable and unsafe. As a result, many recreational cyclists spend little or no time riding in the drop position.

Until I put some Salsa Cowbell handlebars on the first real gravel/all-road/adventure bike I ever owned–the Black Mountain Cycles Monstercross pictured below–I didn’t know what I was missing. I had been spending all my time on the hoods or the bar tops. But with the 115mm of drop the Cowbells offered, I would even find myself occasionally climbing with my hands in the drops. Simply adding another hand position made a huge difference, especially on long rides when the fatigue of riding in the same position all day builds up.

That was 12 years ago and shallow drop bars have come a long way. I still have the original Black Mountain Cycles Monstercross and the Cowbells are still on that bike. On my other bike, a newer Black Mountain Cycles called the MCD (or Monstercross Disc), I’ve been riding Redshift Sports’ new Kitchen Sink handlebar with 110mm of drop. For a while I experimented with the Ritchey Comp Venturemax Handlebar, a bar with a very shallow 102mm of drop, but found it a bit too shallow. Diagrams of the Kitchen Sink and Venturemax are below next to the Ritchey Neoclassic road handlebars for comparison.

There’s no way to know what amount of drop is best for you other than experimenting. And this can be a hassle because of the work involved in removing handlebar tape and shifters, cable and housing every time you want to swap bars. But if you have been riding bars in the 125-130mm of drop range, I would recommend first trying something in the 115mm range.

salsa cowbell handlebars on Black Mountain Cycles bike for gravel cycling

Gravel bikes’ influences can benefit all cyclists

“OK, so what’s to gain?” you might be asking. And what’s this have to do with gravel cycling? Even though gravel racing has become a huge part of gravel cycling culture–a trend resulting in bike manufacturers developing race-specific models that unfortunately limit some of the cargo carrying and other capabilities that make gravel bikes so versatile–gravel cycling is a crack in the old school road racing armor that prioritized reducing weight and increasing aerodynamics and speed.

Unless the gravel you’re riding is as smooth as pavement, more technical terrain means gravel bikes need to allow a rider in the drops to grab the brakes quickly as well as move efficiently and fluidly between the drops, the hoods, and the bar tops. Shallow drops provide all of these benefits. And, of course, this benefits riders who never felt comfortable in the drops on handlebars with deep drops because now with an additional usable hand position they can use all of the real estate on the handlebars.

But wait, there’s more! The accessibility and usability of the additional hand position also has the following benefits:

Decreased fatigue

With one more position to move your hands to, and the subsequent subtle shifts this causes in your body’s position and the muscles that are activated, you can stay comfortable on the bike for longer.

Better braking

In the drops is where you can get the most leverage on your brake levers so you’ll gain confidence in your ability to control and stop your bike. And even with your hands placed at the very ends of the drops, your brake levers are easily reachable so you always feel ready to grab a handful of brakes if needed.

Increased safety

With the bar tops, hoods and drops all closer together, changing hand positions –whether to grab a drink, shift gears, or gain leverage on a climb–is smooth and seamless. As a result, you can become more efficient on the bike by not having to think about where your hands are or how to safely get them from one position to another

Improved maneuverability

We’re getting a bit nuanced and subtle here, but for mixed terrain riding where you might find yourself climbing slowly while needing to steer around rocks, roots, potholes or other obstacles, you actually gain a bit more responsiveness in your steering when in the drops. This has to do with your hands being closer to the axis on which your steering pivots than when your hands are out in front of the axis (i.e., steerer/headtube) on the hoods.

Gravel bikes and beyond–shallow drop bars just make sense

Already feeling comfortable and confident? Keep riding what you’ve got. But the majority of riders will benefit from shallow drops whether riding gravel or pavement or anything in between. The problem is that with so many shallow drop options on the market these days, it can be challenging to figure out which ones are best for you. For example, you’ll have to factor in a few other characteristics–like overall width, reach, flare and even sweep–that we haven’t discussed. Stay tuned for future editions of Gear Check where we’ll address some of these considerations. Or jump over to All-Day Bike Touring Comfort with Ergonomic Bar End Grips for the next Gear Check installment.