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Close-up of red road bike handlebars with black hoods and silver brake handles

How To Set Up Your Handlebars for Maximum Cycling Comfort

Handlebars are an obvious part of the bike. So obvious, in fact, they’re almost an afterthought for many cyclists. You need a place to put your hands. What more is there to say?

As it turns out, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to your handlebars. More than just a place to rest your hands, they’re integral to your comfort on the bike. And if they’re not adjusted correctly, you could be in for some long rides (and not in a good way). 

To help you get a grasp of how to maximize your handlebar comfort, we talked with longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie about how they’ve evolved and the three key adjustments they require. Read on to learn more about what he had to say about bicycle handlebars.

A Word About Mountain Bikes

Before we dive into the deep end with handlebars, though, an important clarification is in order. We’ll focus here on handlebars for road bikes, as mountain bikes are an entirely different animal. 

While road bikes have three distinct spots for your hands — the tops, the hoods, and the drops — mountain bikes only have one. This makes for a completely different riding experience and approach, and it totally changes your posture on the bike. The adjustments we’re discussing here, on the other hand, make the most sense for long-distance road cyclists who need to move their hands into other positions besides the tops. 

A Brief History of Handlebars

Turning our attention toward road bikes, then, it’s important to note that their handlebars have evolved toward greater levels of comfort over the past several decades. On older, vintage road bikes, the area around the hoods (where the brakes and shifters connect), was more rounded. The hoods curved away and downward, making it awkward and uncomfortable to rest your hands there.

This led cyclists to favor resting their hands farther down the curve, which was dangerous because it moved their fingers away from the brakes. Over time, then, bike makers reshaped the hoods, bringing the brakes and shifters together and making the brake levers larger so they would form a natural resting spot for the hands where the rider could also brake quickly. 

“It’s hard to overestimate how much comfort this has added for cyclists,” says Coach Darryl.

Meanwhile, other parts of the handlebars evolved alongside the hoods. Today’s handlebars are much thicker than older ones, with much more padding for comfort. On the top, some bars have also become less rounded, creating a more comfortable top section for those occasional times when a road rider wants to relax and sit upright.

The point of all this history? If you’ve been away from cycling for a while, maybe you got out of it because you found those old bikes and handlebars too uncomfortable. It’s understandable! But bikes have changed a lot, and it may be worth revisiting your riding days to see what you think of modern-day handlebars.

3 Handlebar Adjustments for Maximum Comfort 

Just because you’ve got a new bike with fancy new handlebars, though, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be comfortable. To ensure your rides are enjoyable, there are three handlebar adjustments you may need to make. 


This first adjustment is one that most cyclists are familiar with. If it’s wrong, you need to replace your handlebars entirely. 

Essentially, your handlebars should be set up so that your hands are shoulder-width apart when you have them resting on the hoods. If they’re much farther apart, you’ll be reaching too far, causing you to lean forward. It can even lead to discomfort in your pectoral muscles. Too close together, and you’ll compress your chest and impede airflow to your lungs, which can weaken your climbing ability.


This describes how far your handlebars extend forward, and it’s measured from the center of the stem where your handlebars connect to the steering column out to the center of your handlebars at their farthest point forward. Road racers (and younger cyclists) tend to prefer a longer reach of 120–140 millimeters. As you shift toward endurance cycling (or you become less flexible with age), you’ll want to shorten that reach by 20–30 millimeters or more so you’re not leaning as far down. 

Similar to handlebar width, a new reach calls for new handlebars, as you’ll need ones with a shorter reach. Darryl recommends nothing shorter than 60 millimeters, as this can make your handlebars unstable. 


Last — but most certainly not least — comes a simple adjustment you can make without replacing your handlebars. You’ll sacrifice some aerodynamics but gain a lot in terms of comfort. This is one of Darryl’s most widely appreciated adjustments that he makes for cyclists during bike fits. 

To make this change, you simply need to rotate your handlebars up toward you. You’ll just need to locate the four bolts on the stem at the center of your handlebars and loosen either the top two or the bottom two. Once those are loose, you can rotate the handlebars toward you, then retighten the bolts. You’ll know you have it right when the pressure feels even across your hands.

Comfort Should Always Be a Priority

These adjustments may seem like fine-tuning points for only the most serious cyclists. But Darryl emphasizes that comfort on the bike is essential for every rider. It’s the difference between trying cycling as a fleeting habit and making it a long-term lifestyle. Trust us, we wouldn’t devote ourselves to making the most comfortable cycling saddle in the world if we didn’t agree with Darryl 100%. 

When it comes to handlebars, though, he puts it much better than we could: 

“You spend a lot of time behind bars. Make yourself comfortable.” 


Find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by SnapwireSnaps from Pixabay