When choosing a handlebar, first consider your riding style. Do you prefer XC, DH, Enduro, or are you a cruiser? Are you a petite female who prefers riding DH, or a tall lanky man who races XC?
Flat vs. Riser Bars:
Bars vary from a flat bar (0mm rise) to a medium rise (20mm), to hi-rise (35/40mm). Generally speaking, a flat bar will pull your body low and to the front. Your steering will be very precise at lower speeds and on flat trails, as more weight is distributed over the front wheel. However, on steeper trails, riding can become challenging due to the forward biased body position over the front wheel.
On a high rise bar, your weight is more evenly distributed as the body position is more open, and torso more vertical, shifting weight rearwards, in comparison to a flat bar. This allows for easier unweighting of the front wheel, and generally better descending than a flat bar. However, at lower speeds and flat trails, steering is less precise, lending the rider to actively ride farther forward to weight the front wheel, and maintain maximal control.
Bars vs. Spacers:
Overall bar height is affected by the rise of the handlebar, but also the number of spacers under the stem.
To break it down, riser bars affect vertical height only. Adding or removing spacers (under the stem), on the other hand, affect vertical height as well as horizontal reach. Better said, if you go from zero to four spacers under your bars (keeping the same stem length), your reach distance will decrease, while total bar height (ground to bars) will increase. If you go the opposite direction, from 4 to 0 spacers, your reach distance will increase, and bar height decrease.
Generally speaking, wider bars are for more aggressive riding, while narrower are more of a standard on XC bikes. Wider bars generally mean greater leverage and stability, however, may be uncomfortable for smaller riders as the grip is wide (mind your shoulders too!). Not to mention, wider bars can be a challenge for narrow trails.
Sweep is relative to wrist and shoulder positioning. A brand will generally have the same sweep across the entirety of their handlebars. Don't overthink this one. Pay more attention to rise when choosing the bar.
Aluminum or carbon? Carbon is generally lighter, stronger, and much more stiff than aluminum. This translates into increased vibration dampening, and precise control. Nick and I have been running carbon bars for years, and are big fans!
So we've talked about a lot -- how do I choose a handlebar? Mountain biking is a very dynamic sport, across varying terrain. Everyone has a personal preference regarding comfort -- on a mid-rise bar, if you generally run a tall spacer stack, and are on a longer DH bike, perhaps try a hi-rise bar and shorten the stack. This will push your grip position horizontally away from you (increase the reach) putting your weight more over the front of the bike (greater traction!), while keeping same bar height. Or keep that mid-rise bar and play with spacer stack height. If you're racing XC, start with a
Generally speaking, there's no one rise that's recommended for everyone, as its truly personal preference, and much related to your riding style. Moral of the story... next time you need a new bar, try a different rise. Play with spacer height as well and ride a variety of trails.
Our Favorite Handlebar:
Our go to handlebar is Race Face's SixC 35mm carbon bar, 35 mm rise. It allows for a wide range of versatility in terms of bar height. If we're riding a longer bike, we can have a smaller spacer stack as well as the ability for the grip position to shift forward (longer reach) as we remove spacers, while maintaining an aggressive riding position. Realistically, we could go to a 20mm rise, and add more spacers under the bars to get the same vertical bar height, however, the reach would be shorter than our current setup, not our preference.
The SixC carbon bar currently comes at 800mm, however, both of us prefer a 760mm bar. The bar comes with graduated cutting marks on each end for cutting purposes. We measure twice, and cut once -- the bars were noticeably more stiff at 760mm compared to 800mm, but not so stiff they are uncomfortable or bother the joints.
We've been running the SixC for 4 years now, and have never broken a bar. They are lightweight, strong, and offer a good "feel" while riding. Regardless of our riding and racing, we put on new bars every year as they are our main connection to the bike outside of the pedals. Not worth it for a hairline crack or a weakened bar, albeit we have never had any issues or seen any hairline fractures. We've beaten and abused these bars over the years, and they are without a doubt the best on the market for feel and longevity. Not to mention they come in a variety of colors so you can color match your bike!
Next time you're shopping for bars, give the SixC a try. If you have a 20mm rise already, try a 35mm rise and ride a variety of terrain. Learn what you like, and take into consideration your riding style and preferences.
See you on the trail,
Kim and Nick Hardin