Biking to work is an awesome way to start the day.
Bike commuting has many great benefits, including:
- Increased fitness
- Reduced carbon footprint
- No parking fees
- It’s fun!
When you ride your bike every day, there are some essential things to keep in mind in terms of design, comfort, and efficiency.
The frame geometry and fit of your bike, tire size, and weight are all critical considerations.
If you’ve never bought a bike before, or you’ve never thought about details like frame type and handlebar style, you probably have a lot of questions about what bike is best for commuting.
One of the most common questions about how to choose the right bike is what type of handlebars are best for your particular kind of riding.
Deciding between flat bar vs. drop bar for commuting on a bike is one of the most important decisions to make to guarantee you have a safe and comfortable ride.
The style of your handlebars will play a massive role in how you sit on the bike, your ability to stay aware of your surroundings while riding, and what kind of accessories you’ll be able to attach (like cargo carriers and lights).
This guide explores some essential features of different handlebar styles (flat bar vs. drop bar) for commuting on a bicycle with a list of pros and cons for each type of handlebar in the context of bike commuting.
Drop Bar Handlebars for Commuting
The classic profile of a road bike has a light frame with curved handlebars dropping down below the rider’s hands.
This notion of what a bicycle looks like has become ubiquitous due to the popularity of road racing in the cycling community.
The reality is that drop bars are designed for a specific style of road riding and are pretty much good for one thing, and one thing only: going fast over long distances.
The primary considerations in a drop-bar road bike are speed and aerodynamics, with comfort usually included only as an afterthought.
There are some benefits for bike commuters in drop style handlebars, but there are also significant complications that can affect safety and comfort.
Pros of Drop Bars for Bike Commuting
PRO: Drop Bars Fit in Tighter Spaces
One of the most significant benefits of using drop bars for commuting is their relatively narrow width.
If part of your commute involves loading your bike on a train or bus, narrow bars offer a considerable advantage.
Fitting into that tight compartment on the train is hard enough with your briefcase knocking into passersby and blocking the aisle.
Narrower bars will make it just a bit less of a hassle. There’s also the benefit of being able to squeeze between cars when you’re lane filtering.
Filtering is an advanced move, though, so don’t try it until you’re very comfortable on your bike!
PRO: Drop Bars Offer Better Climbing Positions
If your commute involves any big climbs, drop bars might be the right choice for you.
When you’re grinding up a big climb, you want to move your center of gravity forward on the bike to put most of your weight toward the front wheel.
This helps you transfer power through your legs and keeps the bike stable under the stresses of climbing. “The road to success runs uphill.” – Willie Davis, NFL Hall-of-Fame Honoree
Drop bars usually have a solid hand-rest that extends out over the brake levers (called the hoods).
You can use the hoods to extend your grip further forward and allow you to shift your weight into a climbing position.
PRO: Drop Bars Let You Move Your Hands for Comfort
Speaking of hand positions. Drop bars allow you to move your hands into several different positions.
You can grip the handlebars in a couple of different spots in the drops, and also on the hoods and the flat part of the bar.
Access to lots of different hand positions lets you adjust your grip when you get tired in one spot.
If you’re riding long-distance, this can be huge because it reduces pain and numbness from pressure.
Of course, if your bike is fitted correctly, you shouldn’t be experiencing too much pressure on your hands anyway.
But even with a professional fit and a well-adjusted riding position, any single position will eventually cause fatigue and potential injury.
PRO: Drop Bars Reduce Wind Resistance
As your speed increases on a bike, so does the wind resistance you have to fight to keep going.
Most casual cyclists ride at slower speeds where wind resistance isn’t a huge issue.
When you start getting around 14-15mph or higher, though, you will begin to feel significant effects from the wind.
This also works when you’re dealing with strong headwinds even at slow speeds.
Whatever the cause of resistance to your riding, whether your velocity or a heavy headwind, wind resistance can be enough to ruin an otherwise fun and relaxing ride.
The aerodynamic shape of drop bars – and the low-profile riding position they allow – do a great job of reducing wind resistance.
By getting low in the bars and tucking your body down to your knees, you present less of a target for the wind and thereby need to put less power into the bike to make it go.
PRO: Drop Bars Look Cool (but who cares?)
Worrying about what you look like on a bike is silly. Worrying about what you look like in general is silly.
You do you, and forget about what other people think!
What makes the difference between a great rider and a poseur is how comfortable you are on your bike and how confident you are in your riding style.
A comfortable and confident rider automatically looks cool. That said, there’s a particular look to a drop bar road bike that just can’t be replicated with flat bars.
Cons of Drop Bars for Bike Commuting
CON: Drop Bars are not Designed for Baskets and Cargo Carriers
If you need to carry a lot of stuff with you on your bike, handlebar bags, baskets, and cargo carriers are an awesome way to do it. The shape of most drop bars doesn’t allow for installing cargo carriers up front. You can still use panniers, saddlebags, and trunk racks, but the shape of the dops will reduce your total storage capacity.
CON: Maintenance of Drop Bars is More Difficult
Most drop bars conceal the brake and shifter cables underneath the handlebar tape. This means you have to unwrap the bars every time you need to do maintenance that involves replacing or repositioning a cable. It’s a hassle if you do your own repairs, and it adds to the cost of paying someone else to do it.
CON: Drop Bars are Less Maneuverable at Slow Speeds
The main reason road cyclists use drop bars is to help them go faster. In fact, the main reason road cyclists do anything is to help them go faster.
Drop bars set you up in a low position that reduces wind resistance.
They’re optimized for going fast over relatively long distances, and they achieve this by sacrificing maneuverability to some degree.
A typical drop bar road bike is designed to be stable, fast, and aerodynamic on long rides.
It’s not intended for dodging rush-hour traffic and making tight turns at slow speed. If your commute has you riding mostly under 15mph in heavy traffic, the reduced steering agility of drop bars could be a problem.
CON: Riding Position on Drop Bars is Optimized for Distance and Speed
The riding position on drop bars feels a bit unnatural for most casual riders, and it poses some significant challenges for commuting by bike.
Can be Uncomfortable in Street/Work Clothes
Getting into a racing tuck in your three-piece-suit might not be the most comfortable thing you’ve ever done. There’s a reason that road racers wear spandex, and that’s to reduce the binding, chafing, and other unpleasant complications of wearing street clothes in a tucked position.
“To me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s raining or the sun is shining or whatever: as long as I’m riding a bike I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world” – Mark Cavendish, Winner of 30 stages in the Tour de France
Reduces Range of Vision
When you’re down in the drops, or even just stretched forward with your hands on the brake hoods, your head will naturally be in a downward-facing position. This is by design.
Drop bars are optimized for aerodynamic road riding, so they intentionally force you to look down toward the front wheel with your neck outstretched to reduce drag.
When you’re riding in the city and need to be vigilant for things like cars unexpectedly dodging into your lane, or other hazards, you want to have as much range of vision as possible.
Drop bars reduce your ability to be aware of your surroundings, and that can be very dangerous in urban riding environments.
Flat Bar Handlebars for Commuting
For many people trying to choose between a flat bar vs. drop bar for commuting by bike, the visual appearance of a flat bar can be a turn-off.
Most people think of kids’ 10-speeds when they see a flat bar, but the truth is that some of the most advanced and professional riders use flat bars.
Mountain bikers, for example, use flat bars almost exclusively. The reason for this is their superior maneuverability and a riding position that allows the rider to be aware of their surroundings.
You may not be stump-jumping or slaying trails on your morning commute. However, much of what makes a flat-bar bike ideal for mountain bikers is also great for commuters.
Pros of Flat Bars for Bike Commuting
PRO: Flat Bars Offer a More Comfortable Riding Position
Flat bars offer a more comfortable and relaxed riding position because you’re not stretched out in aero position like you are when riding with drop bars. There are also other benefits to the relatively upright position of a flat bar vs drop bar for commuting. The most significant benefit of an upright riding position, other than comfort, is the added range of vision it gives you. Unlike on a drop-bar bike where you have to contort yourself to look over your shoulder for approaching cars, flat bars let you sit upright and have a full range of vision the entire time you’re riding. If you’re riding a relatively short distance, like 5-10 miles, flat bars can be a much more comfortable choice.
PRO: Flat Bars are More Maneuverable at Low Speeds
If your commute is relatively short, like less than 10 miles, and you don’t have a lot of high-speed straightaways, speed and stability are not huge concerns.
Flat bars give you more control in steering because they’re typically wider from end-to-end than drop bars, which gives you more leverage and stability as you steer.
This lets you easily maneuver around obstacles and respond to shifting traffic patterns.
For commuters who spend most of their time at lower speeds on city streets, the added agility of flat bars is a significant benefit.
PRO: Flat Bars Easily Accommodate Baskets and Baby Carriers
Flat bars are excellent for accommodating baby carriers, cargo baskets, phone brackets, and all kinds of other accessories. Handlebar carriers are especially great for carrying your young children on the bike. Flat bars allow you to attach a baby carrier to your handlebar so you can keep an eye on your kid while you ride.
Cons of Flat Bars for Bike Commuting
CON: Flat Bars Have a Fixed Hand Position
If you’re riding in the same position for a long time – like more than 30 minutes or so – you will inevitably start to feel fatigued. Fatigue, pain, and numbness in your hands while riding is not just annoying; these symptoms can be dangerous. If you frequently develop numbness in your hands while riding, it can lead to long-term nerve damage and repetitive stress injuries that might be irreparable.
Flat bars are comfortable for short distances, but they don’t allow you to move your hands into different positions like a drop bar does. Shifting from the tops, to the hoods, to the drops can save you from severe complications and will make your long rides more comfortable.
CON: Longer Flat Bars Don’t Fit in Tight Spaces
Especially if you ride in a big city, the need to fit into tight spaces can be an everyday challenge on your bike.
Whether it’s cramming into the bike storage area on a train, or squeezing between a wall and a parked car in a narrow alleyway, you don’t want your ride to be foiled by a bike that just won’t fit where you need to go.
While flat bars’ wider grip gives you more maneuverability, it also makes your bike more cumbersome.
Of course, you can always buy a narrower flat handlebar, but that negates some of the most significant benefits of going with a flat bar in the first place.
CON: Wind Resistance at High Speed is More of a Problem on Flat Bars
As mentioned before, wind resistance is a thing. If you’re sitting in the comfortable upright position of a flatbar bike, you present more of your body to the wind.
As long as you don’t ride very fast, you’ll be okay. Once you get up above 14 mph, though, you’ll be wishing you could tuck down into an aero position.
“It never gets easier. You just get faster.” -Greg LeMond, Three-time Tour de France winner
If you’re new to cycling, and you’re thinking there’s no way you’ll be riding above 14 mph, just give it a few weeks. Your fitness and speed will increase faster than you might think.
Which is Better? Flat Bar vs. Drop Bar for Commuting
You didn’t come here to read a list of pros and cons. You’re looking for answers. So what is the best choice between flat bar vs. drop bar for commuting on your bicycle?
The answer is: it depends on what type of commute you have.
If you live in the suburbs and ride more than five miles to an office complex somewhere else in the suburbs, drop bars might be the right choice. Drop bars are especially useful if you ride on relatively quiet roads or a greenway where you don’t need to be hyper-vigilant about changing traffic patterns. Being able to rest in the drops and move your hands to different positions when they get tired will keep you safe and comfortable on these longer and more relaxed rides.
If you live downtown, or you take public transit into the city and then ride the last mile, flat bars are probably best. In this case, the added agility you’ll get from a wide grip wins out over the space-saving of narrower drop bars. Steering ability is vital as you battle gridlock traffic on the city streets.
Ultimately, your comfort on the bike should be the most significant factor in making your decision. Your handlebar preference might even change after a few months of riding as your fitness and flexibility increase, and you gain confidence in your riding ability.
Whatever style of handlebars you choose for your commuting bike, have fun, and ride safe!