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Is there a verifiable reason for the ubiquity of flat bars on bikes these days?-- if so, what is it? It seems that 90% of the time I see people riding a newish bike that isn't a Dutch bike/roadster, they are holding their arms straight out in order to grab onto some flat piece of metal covered in rubber. Moreover, if it's a typical "hipster" bike (i.e. an older frame possibly with newer components), even if it has drop bars, the brake levers are not typical "drop-bar-style" brakes but are rather mounted horizontally along the bar tops, meaning that the hooks are more or less useless because you can't brake from them, and the drops are even more dangerous because it's just not possible (for me at least) to quickly move from the drops to the tops quickly while keeping myself stable (My Google-fu doesn't seem to be good enough to find a photo of this phenomenon online).

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    I think a verifiable answer will be nearly impossible, so with a heavy heart I am voting to close. I hope I am shown to be wrong. – Rider_X Apr 18 '16 at 20:03
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    How does this question get marked as "primarily opinion-based" while ["Why so few mountain bikers with spandex?"]( bicycles.stackexchange.com/q/30690/8685) doesn't? – errantlinguist Apr 18 '16 at 20:11
  • That question (IMHO) should have been closed as well. Again, as I said I hope an insightful answer proves me wrong, if/when that happens I will remove my vote to close. – Rider_X Apr 18 '16 at 20:13
  • Yes its quite opinion-based, but those opinions can be backed by cited facts. On that basis I'm voting to leave open. However I agree with @rider_x that a verified answer will be unlikely. – Criggie Apr 18 '16 at 22:48
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    @Criggie - okay I have decided to retract my vote to close. – Rider_X Apr 18 '16 at 22:51
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Caveat: This answer features rampant personal speculation and anecdotal evidence.

I personally the current dominance of flat bars in mainstream cycling is the result of two main events:

  1. The flood of cheap 10 speed knock-offs entered the market in the 70's and 80's.
  2. The explosion of MTB bikes in the 80's and 90's (which featured flat bars).

Event 1: Low end 10-speed market dominance

Chasing the popularity of road racing and riders, such as Eddie Merckx, the 70's and 80's featured a flood of cheap 10 speed road bike knock-offs that had the primary goal looking similar to the types of bikes that Eddy Merckx et al. were riding at the time. These bikes featured drop bars with poor ergonomics and frames that likely had too low a stack height for mainstream riders. Because these bikes did not fit most people very well, the general public was left with the impression drop bars were uncomfortable and should only be ridden in very aggressive positions.

Event 2: Explosion of MTB bikes in the 80's and 90's

The mountain bike explosion of the 80's and 90's further maligned drop bars. These bikes featured more upright riding positions due their off-road nature which most people found more comfortable. While early incarnations of mountain bikes featured drop bars (Figure 1), straight bars quickly became a fixed feature (likely for the improved leverage - although this is speculative on my part).

enter image description here

Figure 1. Charlie Cunningham riding an early mountain bike featuring drop bars.

As a result, many people associated comfortable with a bike featuring straight handle bars and as a result you essentially have historical contingency determining the current market dominance of flat bars. If you have a background in either evolution or genetics, this is can be view similar to how an an allele can become fixed in a population by random chance (i.e., genetic drift).

Finally, I find it fascinating that "dirt drops" have been making a come back in recent years. What is old, is new again... either that or we are still experiencing genetic drift!

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Flat bars are easier to learn on than drop bars (unless the latter have interrupter brake levers). At this stage low speed manoeuvrability matters more than efficiency. Some people with small hands apparently have trouble braking firmly from the hoods and getting into the drops is tricky for a novice (I dismiss starting in the drops as I've never got on with it). Then people like what they're familiar with if they lack a pressing reason to switch. Drop bars - as you said - need to be right to be comfortable, and the riders who get even the most basic bike shop fitting (not good enough for road bikes really) are in the minority.

Some people (e.g. me) like the extra height of flat bars for seeing and being seen over cars.

Cruiser bars (apart from being a horrible angle for your wrists if the top tube is on the short side and/or you have broad shoulders) lead to odd handling on some frame geometries, and make it hard to stand up on the pedals. So they don't work for MTB use. And MTBs have sold well since they went mass market (including in BSO form as evidenced in a recent question here). This may have something to do with the forgiving geometry - including the hands position. Don't underestimate the value of a bike that doesn't need much fitting (just saddle height) to be adequate.

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    So it might be possible that the '70s bike boom got tons of people riding bad-fitting bikes, and then the MTB boom got those tons of people riding bikes which were both easier for beginners and easier to buy, and this combination of events led to the apparent "death" of non-flat bars compared to their status in their heyday? – errantlinguist Apr 18 '16 at 21:55
  • I suspect so, but I don't know enough of the history to be sure (learnt to ride as an adult on an MTBSO in the nineties) and so I didn't want to over-conclude from my observations. – Chris H Apr 19 '16 at 5:49
  • Even now most of my miles are on a tourer with drop bars, I haven't changed my mind on any of this – Chris H Dec 28 '18 at 17:24
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OPINION Drop bars should never have been popular.

There was a surge in popularity for the "ten-speed" in the 70s and 80s, and part of that look was drop bars. This artificially made drops seem like a common thing and a good idea.

As the MTB arrives in the 90s, flat bars re-exert themselves for the added width and leverage, returning drop bars to their less-common status, where they should have been.

Exacerbating this fall-from-cool is that road bikes are getting more slammed or aggressive, with higher seats and lower bars. Compare Fignon in the 1980s:

enter image description here

...with a more recent Contador ride, this is a TdF bike from the last couple years: enter image description here

http://bikeretrogrouch.blogspot.co.nz/2013/10/changing-positions.html is a great read on the subject.

Personally, I am on the hoods most of the time, moving to the tops for a steep climb, and pretty much never on the drops - My thighs hit my stomach while pedalling which is horrid, plus the other crunched things complain.

Edit: after a couple years my belly no longer hits my thighs while on the drops, so I can stay there for a good 10 km if its windy.

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    The problem you are experiencing is a frame with insufficient stack, not necessarily drop bars. The real issue too many road bikes have too little stack for the majority of riders. Not everyone is or wants to be a Euorpean pro. With sufficient stack you will find that hoods and drop position can be quite comfortable, drops especially under power as the force generate by your legs supports your upper body weight (through core muscle engagement). – Rider_X Apr 18 '16 at 21:09
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    +1 to @Rider_X: Although only tangentially related to my question, I only started to enjoy riding bikes with drop bars after raising the bars significantly and adjusting the angle of attack so that my arms and wrists are largely straight when in the hooks. Perhaps, after the advent of MTBs (see Chris H's answer), no one cared about the pernickety art of adjusting drop bars any more and they died out via lack of knowledge regarding such? – errantlinguist Apr 18 '16 at 22:10
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    @errantlinguist - I personally think the main problem was the flood of cheap 10 speed knock-offs entered the market in the 70's and 80's. They featured drop bars with poor ergonomics and likely too low frame stack. Their only goal was to look like the what Eddie Merckx et al. were riding and I think this turned off many people to drop bars. Follow this by the explosion of MTB bikes in the late 80's and 90's (which featured flat bars) and you have historical contingency determining the current market dominance of flat bars. Similar to how an allele can become fixed by random chance. – Rider_X Apr 18 '16 at 22:26
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    Yeah, I noticed the bars getting lower and lower starting maybe 20 years ago. I strongly suspect it's because a bike with a lower (drop) bar looks "meaner" on the salesfloor, and hence is easier to sell to someone who has more testosterone than common sense. This was not a super big problem back in the days of quill stems, but with threadless headsets it's a lot harder to raise the bar to any substantial degree. The result is that the bike gets ridden twice and set aside, which is a shame (and a crime on the part of the bike vendors). – Daniel R Hicks Apr 18 '16 at 22:45
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    Other things to consider about drop bars getting lower: In old photos you see people riding on drops all the time. With modern brake levers you can keep your hands on the hoods for most of the time and reserve the drops for sprinting. – ojs Apr 19 '16 at 18:41

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