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I've never had a bike with drop handlebars, but may get one for commuting in busy London (likely a single-speed with mechanical disc brakes).

This would mean riding with my hands mostly on the hoods, but it seems like a slightly awkward position to use the brakes from:

Braking with hands on the hoods of drop handlebars

Riding on the drops seems to offer better access to the brakes, but is apparently "less stable due to narrower hand position" anyway — so when talking about cycling with cars, vans and busses around, doesn't seem like the best choice either (for a non-proffesional).


Overall, is that just all in my head, or is there some cause for concern?

Hands on hoods while biking

Also, is there any reaction speed data compared with flat handlebars, or other such studies, for this?


Personally, I'd be most worried about situations where I need to react quickly, as well as situations that are usual but I need to be consistent in my braking.

Flat handlebars are like second nature to me, would those be safer?

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Don't worry, it's the most natural feeling. You'll probably spend far more time with your hands on the hoods than the drops, its more comfortable and very convenient to use the brakes. –  PeteH May 16 '13 at 18:30
    
If you watch all the pro cyclists, they mostly ride on the hoods. If your reach on the brake levers is correct for your hands you shouldn't have any issues braking. –  sevargdcg May 16 '13 at 18:33
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@Baumr I ride on the hoods of my bike through traffic in Phoenix. Granted it's not as traffic heavy as London, but I would say that as long as the reach on the brake levers isn't so much that you can't reach the levers from the hoods you should be fine. I have never once had an issue stopping from the hoods and prefer it to trying to stop from the drops as it's a longer reach for me when in the drops. Your fingers should rest on the brake levers while on the hoods, so I would think faster response time. –  sevargdcg May 16 '13 at 18:42
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If you ride responsibly, riding on the hoods in traffic is way safer than riding in the drops. Having your head up makes you more visible and makes it easier to see. The only time it'd be an issue is if you were darting between cars and whacking your handlebars on side-view mirrors (a decidedly unsafe thing to be doing...) –  WTHarper May 16 '13 at 18:48
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You may find that you want to reposition your brake levers slightly, to get the best compromise between hand comfort and the ability to grip the brakes, but in general riding on the hoods is stable and provides excellent braking ability. (But note that people with exceptionally small hands may have difficulty, at least unless they purchase special brake levers.) –  Daniel R Hicks May 16 '13 at 19:14
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8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

TL;DR: Position: drop bars can be set up to match almost any reasonable flat-bar body/head position and hence visibility. Braking: if you can squeeze your front brake from the hoods hard enough to initiate rear wheel lift-off on dry flat pavement - you're good.

The long answer: Position: Higher body/head position will generally give you better visibility. An average drop bar bike (properly fitting) will give you considerably lower body/head position than average flat bar bike (properly fitting), but this is not because of the bars per se. Rather, the manufacturers know that drop bar bikes are perceived as more "sporty" and so a bike with relatively high drops (hence less aerodynamic position) will not sell as well. Still, road bikes with high-ish drop bars are available (look for touring or "relaxed" road bikes). If you want still higher body/head position, you can use stem risers and/or adjustable stems. I can't think of any reason for reaction time to be different between drops and regular bars if body position is the same.

It's important to note, however, that higher body position means more drag and less speed; also, any position higher than touring will be less comfortable on longer/regular rides, and comfort affects safety.

Braking: Whether some particular braking setup is safe enough depends on how quickly you can stop the bike in an emergency. Because a bicycle/rider system's combined center of gravity is so high and close to the front wheel, on clean dry pavement the most braking you can get is when the rear wheel is about to lift off. Unlike with a car or even a regular motorcycle, clean dry pavement always provides enough traction to do that on a bicycle while still not skidding the front tire. BTW, that also means that rear brake is useless in an emergency on dry pavement - so don't use it!

Now, whether you can initiate rear wheel lift-off from the hoods depends on several factors - your hands' strength, your fingers' length, what type of brakes you use and, perhaps most importantly, how well tuned your whole braking system is (levers, cables, calipers, pads, rims/discs). If you can initiate that lift-off with conventional rim brakes, you can choose any bike you want (or keep existing one). If you can't, you can always upgrade something. Longer fingers are probably out of the question, and developing strength takes time, but better brakes are readily available. As of now, the most powerful solution would probably be SRAM RED 22 hydraulic hoods/levers and matching RED 22 disc brakes; much cheaper but probably just as powerful solution is TRP HY/RD hybrid (cable/hydraulic) disc brakes; there are also less integrated hybrid systems. The cheapest (and good enough for most) would be just giving your existing brakes a tune up.

Sources: Sheldon Brown, personal experience and research.

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TL;DR: is correct. –  Daniel R Hicks Sep 15 '13 at 13:08
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I commute every day in SF with drop bars. It's not an issue for me. You quickly adapt to the hand position, if you bike is set up in a way that is comfortable for you.

The real safety issue you should be worried about, IMHO is not braking itself, but rather the "heads-down" position you can be in on the bike itself. You have to get used to looking around you/behind you for cars, etc. That's why your position/comfort on the bike is so important.

You can also install cross/interrupter levers for a second braking position option, usually at a nominal cost (not sure if this works with your particular breaking system).

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Thanks for the reply! Sorry, what do you mean with "heads down"? –  Baumr May 16 '13 at 18:46
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@Baumr - When you're leaning forward, you need to lift your head up higher to compensate. –  Neil Fein May 16 '13 at 18:54
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Yeah, "heads down" gets to be extreme when you're on the drops -- fairly hard to even look straight ahead, much less look beside/behind you. –  Daniel R Hicks May 16 '13 at 19:17
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It's an understandable feeling...

As a matter of fact I had the same which is why I got flat bars to begin with.

I switched to drops some time later which cost me a lot.

Still, the braking is awkward to begin with but you get used to it. I won't lie to you, it's never better, nor even is "as good" as on flat bars, but it's more than enough to react fast.

When you know you need strong braking (riding very fast downhill for example), you go down on the drops a have better leverage on the levers...

But the pros of drops are way too strong to use flats... The biggest is the multiple hand positions.

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I have a touring bike which has a much more relaxed posture, while still having drop bars. This allows me to ride with my hand on the drops most of the time. It's a little less aerodynamic than a road bike, but a lot more comfortable. –  Kibbee May 16 '13 at 19:09
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It's a question of ergonomics. Ensure you try out the levers before you buy them. Depending on the size of your hands you may find braking awkward from the hoods. I tried Shimano brifters and found I couldn't comfortably operate the brakes from the hoods (I have smaller than average hands). It felt like the pivot point was too low, so that unless I reached far down the lever with my middle finger I didn't get much, erm, leverage. The top part of the hood is also fatter with Shimano, so this might have been a factor too. This was the main reason I chose Campagnolo brifters, which I found much more comfortable on the hoods.

I doubt there is a difference in reaction speed to apply the brakes, but bad ergonomics may affect how hard you can apply them.

It's certainly true that you get more power when braking in the drops, but that isn't a comfortable position for long periods.

I prefer not to take my drop-bar bike in traffic and generally take the hybrid (flat bar) if towns are involved.

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To complement the other answers here, I want to add that the only time I've ever felt that braking from the hoods is inadvisable is when doing fast mountain descents.

In those cases, you can be going anywhere from 35–50mph and braking hard just before turns. If you're riding on the hoods, not only is your center of gravity higher, but you're also at a bad angle for braking your body with your arms (the brakes stop the bike, and it's your connection to the bike that slows you down). Because of this, any time I'm descending I'm in the drops. This reduces the likelihood of going over the handlebars when braking hard by allowing me to push straight against the drops of the handlebars, rather than down and at an angle against the hoods.

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You mean "the only time I've ever felt that braking from the hoods is inadvisable", right? –  amcnabb May 21 '13 at 18:09
    
Yep. Indeed I did. –  Stephen Touset May 21 '13 at 18:47
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OTOH, if you're going downhill and not trying to set any speed records it's best to maximize your wind resistance, which means sitting up higher, on the hoods or on the top bar. This reduces the need for braking. (Just sayin') –  Daniel R Hicks May 21 '13 at 21:12
    
Yes, but descending as fast as possible using flawless technique is fun. :) I also suspect that on most types of curvy mountain descents, wind resistance won't slow you down enough to make braking from the hoods safe. –  Stephen Touset May 21 '13 at 21:14
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Riding «on the hoods» give you advantage viewing all around.

I commute every day through the hard Moscow traffic with speed of 20mph (32kph) and I always have enough time to stop if I need.

However, braking is often needless — only at the traffic lights and if some driver had decided to change a line and forgot to look into mirrors — rare situation.

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Do you have a helmet camera? You probably should have multiple, judging from YouTube videos of Moscow drivers. Stay safe! –  Baumr May 21 '13 at 9:20
    
I'd agree - riding on the hoods is fine so long as your hands are big enough to get around them. The only time I ever go to the drops for reasons of braking is on steep descents where your grip on the levers is more sure; braking on the hoods isn't so comfortable when sustained but is fine for momentary use. –  Unsliced May 21 '13 at 9:32
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I have a harder time braking from the drops. I have to slide my hands all the way forward and awkwardly onto the curve to reach. It's a motion that can be done in half a second, but on the drops your hands are there already. (Of course a lot depends on the specific geometry of your bar and the position of the levers.) –  Daniel R Hicks May 21 '13 at 11:21
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On the question of safety, hoods are safe. The levers on brakes provide mechanical advantage enabling the rider to apply breaking power through the levers, even when hands are placed on the hoods and might seemingly be at a disadvantage in terms of applying power (vs. say the drops).

Breaking power will not be the same as with the hand position on the drops. I would recommend the drop position be used when descending or going fast on the flats where you might anticipate the need for rapid breaking.

The hoods position may be unsafe if your set-up and positioning on the bike is not good and reaching for the hoods causes you to extend the body, become unbalanced, unstable or compromised because of bad bike fit.

Many amateur and professional riders use the hoods precisely because of comfort, safety, responsiveness and ability to control all aspects of the bike (speed and direction).

Wishing you safe and happy riding!

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I do find that when I am riding in wet conditions, I don't get as much leverage when riding on the hoods, compared to riding in the drops. Other than that, I don't have any issues with stopping while on the hoods.

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