In this MTB Handlebar Buyers Guide we are going to break down everything you should consider before buying a new set of handlebars for your mountain bike. Handlebars are arguably the most important contact point on your bike. With so many different handlebars available from a variety of different brands, mounting up two different handlebars on the same bike can drastically change your experience on the trail. We are here to unpack some of the details that play into those different handlebars so you can find the right set of bars for your bike!
When it comes to handlebars, they are typically made from either alloy, carbon, or titanium. With mountain bikes in particular, the most common handlebars are made from either alloy or carbon. Keep in mind that all manufacturers have their own approach, but in general, carbon handlebars have different damping characteristics than aluminum. The flex pattern designed into the bars can be more methodically placed, they weigh less, but they cost more to manufacture, and they are usually less durable when it comes to nicks and scrapes than aluminum. On the contrary, aluminum handlebars are extremely durable, and if they do fail, it's not typically a catastrophic failure. They won't hurt your back pocket quite as much as carbon, but can sometimes be overbuilt and too stiff with a 35mm clamp diameter. Carbon bars are lighter as well, so if you are concerned about weight then carbon bars would be the way to go. Each of the different materials have their strengths and weaknesses and their pros and cons. For more information on comparing different materials used for mountain bike handlebars, check out our recent article Carbon vs Aluminum - Which Bars Should You Ride? as well as our video testing different carbon bars, OneUp Carbon Bars | Is The "Compliance" Legit?
Left: Alloy handlebars Right: Carbon handlebars
The handlebar rise and sweep are what define the shape of your handlebars. There is a sea of different handlebar options with way too many different rise and sweep configurations to count. For starters, the rise of the handlebars is the vertical rise measured from the center of the bar to the bar end. Some different mountain bike handlebars will range from a 0mm rise to around a 40mm rise and even taller. The more the handlebar rise, the taller the handlebar will feel. If you are someone constantly riding extremely steep terrain, you might benefit from a handlebar with a higher rise. What higher rise does is it allows you to get more of your weight over the back of the bike, something that is crucial when the trail gets steep. On the other side of the spectrum, if you are riding a purebred XC bike, having a lower rise bar will help keep weight over the front of the bike on those steep climbs. We have a full video going over handlebar rise, Should You Run High Rise Handlebars on your MTB?
Left: Flat Bars Right: High Riser Bars
On the other hand, sweep is effectively the bend of the handlebar and is broken down between up sweep and back sweep. Check out the two illustrations below of a front view and a top view to help understand the difference between up sweep and back sweep. Up sweep, which can be seen from the front view, is the angle measured from an imaginary line drawn parallel to the clamping surface and perpendicular to the direction of rise up to the handlebar. Back sweep, which can be seen from the top down view, is the angle measured from an imaginary line drawn from the clamping surface back to the handlebar. Typically the up sweep for a mountain bike handlebar is about 5°. The back sweep for mountain bike handlebars usually ranges from 7° to 10°, with 8° being the most common. The different handlebar sweeps available is very much a comfort thing. With more back sweep, naturally your upper body is in a bit different position than with a flatter bar. Finding what is comfortable for you is what's most important here, and you might get used to a specific up and back sweep, and changing that might feel weird. So when upgrading your handlebar it might help to check what you currently have on your bike.
Handlebar width is another personal measurement, and is a little different for everyone. Because of that, we have a video going into detail, How Wide Should Your MTB Handlebars Be? It normally comes down to a combination of body dimensions, riding style and local terrain. A rider that is 5 foot 5 inches will probably not want to run the same bar width as someone who is 6 foot 3 inches. Typically a shorter rider or a stalky rider will ride a slightly narrower handlebar than someone who might be tall or lanky. Then there is also riding style. An XC rider often runs a more narrow handlebar than a DH or freerider. As bars get wider, they often become more stable to a certain point. A narrow bar is not as stable but could put you in a better position on the bike for endurance and long miles. The last factor to consider is terrain. If you live in an area with tight trails and trees you might opt for a more narrow handlebar, whereas if you are in the desert with few obstacles that are handlebar height, a wider bar might not be an issue.
Left: 800mm Right: 760mm, a slightly difference but noticeable
Once you put all these together, you can kinda find a sweet spot for what you might want your handlebar width to be, but until then it takes a little trial and error to figure that out. Personally, I would start a touch wide and then cut down, since you can always cut more but you can't add more after the cut. While I am about 5ft10/11, I actually ride a bit more narrow handlebar than most. I ride 760mm handlebars, which I like because I tend to ride with my hands on the very edge of the grips. It usually feels like the edges of my hands are a little bit off the edge, but I feel I have enough control and I can still squeeze around trees or rocks and not worry about a wide handlebar. Plus, when I travel to places with more trees I am already used to my bar width. I would say the most common handlebar width is about 780mm wide. Now, most modern handlebars either come at 800mm wide or 780mm wide, so you might have to cut a little bit off, but they are designed to do that. You often have a bar with cut lines that already tell you where to cut down in 5mm increments on each side.
Something you might find interesting is how wide most EWS (enduro) and World Cup (downhill) pros ride, and it's probably more narrow than you think. Often it's rare to find a pro running a full 800mm wide handlebar and even 790mm is rare. I would say 770-780mm wide is the average. But there are plenty of pros who ride 760mm, and some even 750mm wide, and they are much faster than I could ever dream to be. So experiment a bit, take those factors into account and find what works best for you as it will very well be different from your buddy.
Over the last couple of years, we have seen the industry pushing more 35mm clamp diameter handlebars and stems over the classic 31.8mm option. The two different standards certainly have tradeoffs. 35mm clamp diameter handlebars and stems can potentially increase overall stiffness and durability. Keep in mind that more stiffness isn't always the right answer! Having a handlebar and stem combination that is also compliant to the vibration of the trail is important. The 35mm diameter handlebars, when done correctly, can actually be lighter than their 31.8mm counterpart while maintaining the same strength. On the contrary, it is possible that the two handlebars could be the same weight, one being stiffer than the other. In the end there are a lot of variables that come into play with new mountain bike "standards" and everyone has their own preference as to what works and what doesn't. OneUp Components have taken a different approach to 35mm handlebars. We did a video comparing some different 35mm handlebars to see if we can really feel the difference in what OneUp has tried to do by adding in a patented shape to allow for more wanted flex but none of the unwanted flex. Check out OneUp Carbon Bars | Is The "Compliance" Legit?
35mm clamp diameter on the left and 31.8mm clamp diameter on the right
While there is no cut and dry handbook on which handlebars you should run on which bike, here are some guidelines that will hopefully steer you in the right direction. Everyone has their own bar width preference as well, but a good rule of thumb is the more aggressive the bike, the wider the handlebars should be. Keep in mind your personal factors that were mentioned above. For myself, all of my handlebars are cut to 760mm wide and I also make sure the back sweep and up sweep are the same at 5° up and 8° back. But then between my light trail bike and enduro bike I run different rise bars. On the trail bike I run a 15-25mm rise bar, depending on the brand I choose to run. For the enduro bike I run a 35mm handlebar, reason being that I like to try and get my correct handlebar height from the rise in the bar and not the stack under the stem.
From Left to Right: Cross Country flat bars, Trail mid riser bars, Downhill riser bars
The goal for the new OneUp Carbon Handlebars was to make the best feeling bar possible, something which would let you ride harder for longer. The solution is OneUp's patent pending oval shape which combines the best ride characteristics of 31.8mm and 35mm bar standards into one package. This is the most comfortable bar we’ve ever ridden, period. It's strong, lightweight, minimizes arm pump and vibration, and maximizes steering response. 35 done right.
The OneUp bar profile minimizes the length of the 35 diameter clamping area as this is the stiffest portion of any 35 diameter bar. The 35mm clamp diameter quickly changes to a flattened, oval shape in the transition zone and then to a standard 22.2mm clamp diameter towards the bar ends.
Enve designed the M6 handlebar to be a lightweight and expertly tuned carbon fiber bar for trail riding. Enve claims that the M6 handlebar is a dream combination of responsiveness, compliance and high strength. The M6 uses a 31.8mm clamp diameter, a modern mountain bike handlebar width of 780mm, and a proven 9 by 5 degree geometry. The unidirectional carbon layup gives the M6 excellent vibration and damping. Enve is known for their top notch quality with a no compromise mentality when it comes to material, layup processes, and performance.
Race Face claims that their Next R 35 handlebar meets the same dh strength standards you will find with the Race Face SixC handlebar but delivered at a weight competitive with other trail/enduro handlebars. The 35mm clamp diameter is what allows Race Face to achieve this strength to weight ratio. The R in Next R stands for Rally and that is exactly what the full lineup of Next R components are designed to do. The Race Face Next R handlebars are a strong and powerful set of handlebars ready for anything you throw at it.
The Renthal FatBar Carbon V2 handlebar is designed for anything from all mountain to downhill. One thing Renthal does better than most other handlebar manufactures is the variety of offering they have. The Fatbar Carbon handlebar is offered in either a 35mm or 31.8mm clamp diameter, both with 10mm, 20mm, 30mm, and 40mm rise options. Each of those 8 different combinations use a 7° back sweep and 5° up sweep, the bend you will see across the board from Renthal. The Fatbar Carbon is the handlebar you will find on the front of Aaron Gwin and Gee Atherton's race winning bikes.
When Deity jumped in to the 35mm clamp diameter game, the Skywire handlebar has been their centerpiece for the trail and enduro category. The Skywire is Deity's approach to a handlebar that balance both strength and bump compliance. This is a no compromise handlebar with a focus on performance and long days in the saddle. The fact the Skywire is number 5 on this list doesn't mean it can't hang with any of the other handlebars we have mentioned above.
The PNW Range Kyle Warner signature handlebar takes a unique approach to the ongoing evolution of modern bike geometry. The Range handlebar features a unique 10 degrees of backsweep in an attempt to keeping a more ideal body position with how long bikes have gotten these days. The 2014 aluminum alloy is lighter than 6061 and more supple than 7075 series alloys. In an effort to get more kids stoked on bikes, PNW has pledged to give 5% of its Range handlebar sales to NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. How cool is that?
The Race Face Chester handlebar is an extremely durable and fatigue resistant handlebar that can take any beating you throw at it. The Chester is made from a triple butted 6061 aluminum alloy and offers two different bend options. The Chester is a strong and robust handlebar that won't hurt your back pocket.
The Renthal Fatbar has proven itself as a race tested and race winning handlebar. With 8 world championship gold medals under its belt, the Fatbar has certainly earned the great reputation it has. Renthal designed the Fatbar to be lightweight, durable, and strong. Just like the Fatbar Carbon, the aluminum Fatbar is offered in both 31.8mm and 35mm clamping diameters in 4 different rise options from 10mm t0 40mm. There is a Fatbar for every bike and rider combination out there!
The Spank Spoon handlebar is a freeride inspired bar with geometry suited for trail and enduro bikes as well. The Spoon is a simple but still great upgrade for your bike. Just like the other aluminum handlebars on this list, the shot peened and anodized finish increases overall durability of the handlebar. With 4 different color options available, the Spoon handlebar might be a great your next handlebar.
The Blacklabel handlebar from Deity has been the centerpiece of their product lineup for years now. The Blacklabel features a 31.8mm clamp diameter and 800mm width. The Blacklabel is best suited for aggressive enduro and downhill bikes and is available in three different rise options. The Blacklabel is a handlebar that looks good and just flat out performs out on the trail.