Many mountain bikers don’t give a lot of thought to handlebars; after all, bars don’t have any moving parts and they all basically function the same way, right? Well, yes and no. In this buyer’s guide I’ll discuss what to look for when picking a set of bars and will also offer some specific handlebar recommendations from more than a dozen manufacturers.
There are two main numbers to consider when looking at MTB handlebar geometry: rise and sweep.
Rise is essentially the height differential between the center of the bar where it attaches to the stem and the center of the 22.2mm diameter just after the taper and transitional bend (thanks to Mike at Thomson for explaining this). Mountain bike handlebars are typically configured with zero rise (flat bars) all the way up to 100mm (roughly 4 inches). Bars with 100mm rise aren’t very common anymore and these days, “high-rise” bars are usually in the 40-50mm range (about 1.5-2 inches).
Choosing the right amount of rise usually comes down to rider position on the bike. If the cockpit feels too low (for a taller rider, for example), a riser bar can get grips up into a more comfortable position. A riser bar will naturally have a bit more flex than a straight bar, assuming both bars are of the same material and have identical diameters and widths. Flat bars tend to be found on XC-oriented bikes while riser bars are used on more gravity-oriented rigs. Since gravity bikes are optimized for riding downhill, a riser bar keeps the rider’s head and torso slightly higher on the bike for better control on the descents. Finally, some riders just prefer the look of one style over the other–go figure!
There are two measures of sweep: upsweep and backsweep. Upsweep is the vertical angle of the bars at the grip. Upsweep does affect the overall rise of the bars, but it’s a separate measurement and is designed for rider comfort more than anything else. Most bars, if they list an upsweep measurement at all, will fall between 4° and 6°. This tends to be a good, neutral position for riders, in terms of wrist angle.
Backsweep refers to the angle at which the bars swoop toward the back of the bike. This angle can range from 0° for a completely straight bar to 45° for a specialty bar like the Jones H-Bar. Again, sweep comes down to rider comfort and preference ahead of any other considerations like performance.
Thankfully, mountain bike bars come in just one width at the grip: 22.2mm. This means grips are interchangeable with any bar on the market.
At the clamp, we’re not so lucky, and today there are three main clamp diameters on the market: 25.4mm, 31.8mm (most common), and 35mm (quickly emerging). (The clamp diameter is the diameter of the bar in the middle where it is clamped to the stem.) Bars with a larger clamp area tend to be stronger and more stiff. Larger clamp diameters also provide increased surface area with the stem, resulting in lower required clamping pressures, which is important for carbon bars.
Bottom line: if you’re upgrading your bars but keeping your stem, make sure the new bars will fit your stem clamp diameter.
This is the biggie that everyone talks about and by now, you’ve probably heard the mantra that wider is better. That’s actually true for most modern riders, as wide bars slow down steering for added control (especially when paired with a short stem) and can even make breathing easier on the climbs. (Think about taking a deep breath with arms wide vs. arms crossed in front of your chest.)
These days, mountain bike bars are available in widths ranging from less than 600mm all the way up to 840mm or more. When shopping for mountain bike handlebars, it is important to note the width of the bars but keep in mind, you can always cut the bars down–but you can’t safely add length. Cross-country riders will usually prefer narrower bars compared to trail and downhill riders.
Beyond control considerations, wider bars can make navigating dense forest trails more difficult. Also keep comfort in mind. If you have short arms, you may not want the widest bars available, even if you are a super aggressive gravity rider.
These days, mountain bike handlebars are made from either aluminum alloy, titanium, or carbon fiber. Aluminum bars are generally the least expensive but are also the heaviest. Titanium bars can be more expensive than carbon, and are generally heavier too.
Titanium offers the least “harsh” ride feel in terms of impact and vibration, with carbon bars providing some forgiveness as well, and aluminum bars being the stiffest and harshest. Some aggressive riders shy away from carbon bars, thinking they’re not as strong as aluminum bars. The fact is, carbon bars are often as strong or stronger than their aluminum counterparts, but aluminum fails in a much more predictable manner (bending or yielding, as opposed to snapping and cracking). Carbon bars also have a much more finite lifespan than aluminum or titanium bars from repeated flexing.
Most mountain bikes utilize a standard straight bar but these days, mountain bikers are experimenting with other shapes like the Jones H-Bar, road-style drop bars, the Titec J-Bar, and BMX-style riser bars. Many of these choices are based on extreme use cases like bikepacking and ultra-endurance riding where riders need to utilize multiple hand positions throughout the ride to avoid fatigue. In general, these types of bars trade comfort over trail handling.
Ok, armed with this information you’re ready to choose the perfect handlebar for your mountain bike. Read on to see which bars we have reviewed in-depth and for specific recommendations.