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I've done most of my cycling with flat handle bars on a mountain bike. I'd like to start commuting to work though and am considering getting a road bike with drop handle bars.

The thing is though, I tried a bike in the past that had drops and didn't really find them comfortable. I hardly used the drops because it felt uncomfortable. This meant I usually kept my hands on the tops of the bars, and then that has the problem that I couldn't get to the brakes as quickly as I could with the flat bar bike I had.

Perhaps I had the drops set up at the wrong height when I tried them. What height should the drops be relative to the saddle?

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If drops handlebars don’t make cycling more enjoyable for you, then don’t use them. I always considered conform more important than speed when commuting. –  Ian Oct 3 '10 at 20:48
    
Whatever happened to those old style brake levers where you could brake both from the top of the bars, as well as in the drops. Seems they have dropped out of fashion lately. You should still be able to find some with a little looking. It might just give you what you are looking for. In terms of braking at least. –  Kibbee Oct 4 '10 at 0:49
    
You can always have your drops set up so that the top part is level (or slightly above) the seat, like the height of the bars on most mountain bikes. The increased choice of hand positions is nice, as is the ability to lean forward for less wind resistance. –  freiheit Oct 4 '10 at 1:24
    
@Kibbee: those extension levers had some good reasons for going out of style, I believe. However, you can get interrupter (aka "Cross" or "Auxiliary") levers that add a second set of brake levers on the top part of the bar. –  freiheit Oct 4 '10 at 1:28

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There is no single official accepted guidance. Typically the more you ride, the lower you will tolerate your bars, drops or straights. Pro cyclists have them as low as 10-15 cm below saddle, while amateurs tend to have them level or slightly higher than the saddle.

Don't worry that you cannot spend all your time in drops. Even pro cyclists prefer the more upright position with hands on top of the bars, and will typically go to drops only in critical moments (when in the front, in a breakaway etc.)

The thing with the brakes -- well, that's just the way it is with road bikes and drop handlebars. For giving up immediate access to brakes you gain more hand positions on the bars, which helps immensely on long rides. With your hands in the convenient "on the horns" position, typically you will be able to apply enough pressure to the brakes to slow down, though for emergency braking you'll need to get down to the drops.

You can get an adjustable stem to experiment with handlebar height. Just change it for a normal stem once you decide, or other road cyclists will look down on you -- an adjustable stem is pretty much the mark of a "Fred" :-)

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Seems worth emphasizing that higher bars are more comfortable. Also, interrupter levers can help the brake issue by adding a second set of brake levers on the top flat part. –  freiheit Oct 4 '10 at 1:31
    
Higher bars are more comfortable only up to a point. Too upright a position places relatively more weight on the saddle. And while you can change hand positions to relieve stress on the hands, you cannot really change position on the saddle... This is one of the reason people who ride longer distances prefer their bars about level with the saddle; some a bit higher, some a bit lower. Also higher bars = more aero drag = less speed. –  ttarchala Oct 4 '10 at 9:59

The first rule is seeking comfort: adjust height until it fits for your body. Generally, drop bars are used for road bikes to optimize the biker's preformance, because they provide an aerodynamic position. Most bikers adjust them about 3/4 cm below the saddle. Try different heights until you find the right height that fits you.

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This is sound advice. I'd add that drop bars are also useful for long, slow rides, where one wants to be able to shift hand positions. And it's my experience that most riders spend most of their time on the hoods and not in the drops. –  Neil Fein Nov 8 '11 at 19:55
    
Right -- I think standard drop bars are really a better choice for more casual rides (or touring), with the fancier aero bars being the choice for "performance" riding. The drop bar gives you multiple hand position choices, and the drops can be used when beating into the wind or when you need a burst of speed. It should be noted, though, that there are many variations of the drop bar, with different spreads, drops, and relative angles. Unfortunately there's no good way to try and choose a particular style you like. –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 8 '11 at 22:56

I'm a road cyclist with a bit of experience, and like most of us, without ever having been a champion, so I trust my thoughts may be useful.

If you find the position of the drops uncomfortable, this is perhaps due to your bike setup being wrong for your particular body shape. It could also be the result of a bike that is the wrong size for you, i.e., too big, forcing you to stretch too far. The shape of the bars may also be at fault, some angles suit and some don't. I've changed handlebars in the past to ensure a comfy fit. Most of your riding will be on the tops, only some in the drops. From both positions you must be able to firmly engage the brakes. You must be comfortable when riding, injury can potentially result otherwise.

Saddle position fore/aft may also be a factor in your stretch limitations.

I'd recommend seeing your local bike shop, and getting a bike fit. But remember everyone is different when it comes to flexibility, leg, arm and back length, and riding style and position preference. There are guidelines, but no one rule fits all. For example, I've got short legs, and a long back, so typically buy a frame 1-2cm larger than an otherwise a 'normal legged' person would, to get the frame length right. I compromise as a result in that my drop from the saddle to the handlebars is only 6cm instead of perhaps 8-10cm, but it helps me on hills, and is easier on my back, which at age 48, is useful as I'm not as strong or as flexible as I was when I was 22.

Once you are set up, some minor modification of your position can be found with experimentation, and some miles under your belt.

I trust this helps. All the best with the riding.

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