7

I'm considering getting my first gravel bike, and I'm wondering how much more difficult/limited (if at all) the maneuverability of a drop bar bicycle is, compared to a flat (riser) bar.

I've gone to relatively challenging terrain with my current hybrid bike and I consider having decent handling skills, with the flat bar at least, and I find it easy to lift the front wheel over obstacles and to "hang" on the brakes when "negotiating" rougher terrain. The only limiting factor with my current bike is my ability to move weight back in downhills, and I think it's due to the saddle height and frame geometry.

Thus my question is: will I likely find a drop bar more difficult to handle in such scenarios? Is it easy to lift the front while having control of the brakes?

1
  • 5
    Just a comment because subjective: I think there is a good reason why bikes for hard terrain (MTBs, indeed) have flat bars. Gravel bikes might be a good choice to ride fast in light to moderately challenging terrain but in order to get a good grip (on both the handlebars and brakes), riders go to the drops but that's not the the #1 position for slow riding or, as you say "negotiating". Lots of videos of experienced riders show that you can smash hard trails but I think, that's more like the upper boundary of what these bikes are made for than their sweet spot.
    – DoNuT
    Feb 28 at 11:51

5 Answers 5

5

As others already answered, the answer to "are drop bars more difficult for off-road riding" is pretty unequivocally yes. This shouldn't really be surprising.

But I would qualify it. Drop bars are actually quite ok in the sense that

Is it easy to lift the front...

– it is, actually! In general, reasonably wide drop bars are pretty good for controlling what the front wheel does, that's not the problem. I can do uphill rock scrambling on my gravel bike almost as good as on a mountainbike. The hoods are a good position with lots of leverage and movement freedom. Bunny hops also work ok, the main limitation there tends to be the saddle (more on that later)

...while having control of the brakes

that's more of a problem. Gravel bikes tend to have weaker brakes than the hydraulic discs that are now standard on mountainbikes, and the only position where they can be pulled as well as on flat handlebars is deep in the drops. But that's a position that offers very little movement freedom and is particularly awkward for steep downhill, because is also pulls the whole upper body and head down.

With brakes in good condition you can also brake enough on the hoods, but this sacrifices grip strength over the actual bars. The bike goes quite wobbly when doing this, again really not something you want on downhill segments.

Still, the brakes of drop bars aren't the biggest problem with downhill riding. That would be that they drop bars it far more difficult to control what's going on at the rear part of the bike/rider system. Because drop bars pull you so far forwards, it becomes almost impossible to use the legs to move the body weight around, in particular behind the saddle. A dropper post would help a lot there, but you will still never have as good movement freedom as with a short stem for flat handlebars. You say you already have problems with this on your flat-bar bike - it would definitely be worse with drop bars!

I'm not sure whether a drop-bar bike with dropper post would be better or worse than a flat-bar bike with fixed post, but the only thing that really works well is a flat-bar bike with dropper post.

A different problem with riding a gravel bike off-road is the low bottom bracket and large chainring, which make for bad ground clearance. Easy to accidentally grind some teeth of the large chainring! Furthermore you have to content with toe overlap, which is quite annoying when you're not used to it and can even lead to crashes.

Of course, the real question is whether the technical-ride disadvantages of drop bars and the other features of a gravel bike are outweighed by their advantages on flat ground. And that depends mainly on what proportion of each type of riding you're doing, and how steep the downhill sections are. When I was living in Bergen, I used my gravel bike almost exclusively for tarmac riding - even the gravel roads felt sketchy on the descents, and usually I'd go straight for the full-sus MTB. Now I live in Stockholm, and here I basically do everything with the gravel bike - it works for all but the most gnarly off-road sections here, and those are so brief that I can always just carry the bike no trouble. And the drop bars of the gravel bike and its large gears make long, mostly flat rides quite a lot more enjoyable than on a mountainbike, though the actual efficiency is actually less different than you might think (depends more on tyre choice).

tl;dr drop bars are horrible for downhill, but actually quite ok for all other kinds of riding.

9

The question relatively hard to answer because there are a lot of subjective elements, and the kind of trail you are riding is also not known.

The range of "drop bar" bikes is also wide: from the "race gravel bikes" with road position and 42cm wide handlebars to the "monster gravel bikes" that have a much more upright position and wider handlebars. Gravel bikes can also have front suspensions (some have real MTB suspensions, some have suspensions only meant to lower "road buzz").

But on the other hand, there are some generalities can be said:

  • narrower handlebars are harder to control on technical terrain, that is true regardless of the kind of bars. They provide less leverage in case of shock, but also cause bigger fork rotation for the same "hand movement" than with a wider bar.
  • flat offroad handlebar bikes usually have upright positions, drop bar bikes have more aggressive positions, even on the hoods. Descending technical terrain on the drops (where gravel bikes have wider bars and the best control on the brakes) requires some training to be done safely and confidently.
  • the absence of suspension lowers grip and control on rough terrain.

So yes, generally speaking, riding a typical drop bar bike on technical terrain is more difficult than a flat bar bike. But it's difficult to pin point where a drop bar will be limiting, as it depends on skills, and skills can be learnt.

Note that you can find some people on internet claiming that gravel exist because MTBs have become in fact too capable and remove the thrill on riding on not technical terrain, so having a less capable bike is a way to work on your skills, and gravel bikes are taken as example of such bikes.


I'm personally usually riding a front-suspended hybrid with gravel transmission and wheels/tires, and my attempts at riding off-road more technical segments with a drop bar confirm that impression of being more difficult, but it can also be a matter of habit/training/guts as well: I was not at ease of going in a 7-8% descent with rocks and roots "head first" (on the drops), as I had the impression that I could go over the bar very easily.

2
  • 3
    I think you can write your last sentence more self-confidently. When riding steep(er) technical terrain even on a MTB with good back suspension, the normal, regular, bog-standard active riding position is with the behind behind the saddle, standing on the pedals with flexed knees, for good reasons. This is the exact opposite of the "head-first" position. It's not only "you".
    – AnoE
    Feb 29 at 13:58
  • @AnoE Totally agreed on the "physics" (and gravel droppers typically have less travel than MTB the ones). The reason of my "caution" is just that I'm taking part to gravel group rides with my hybrid, but there are people that are faster than me with drop bars in technical downhills, so skills matter a lot. But with a drop bar, I would just not be able to keep the pace.
    – Rеnаud
    Mar 1 at 8:37
6

As a point of comparison, I've taken my tourer (drop bars, 35mm slick tyres, very long wheelbase) round some of the local blue trail and had no trouble at all. But the climbs on that aren't technical, and it's technical climbing where I think you'll struggle if anywhere.

I've also taken both my tourer and my newer gravel/endurance bike on some cross-country stuff that would have been more comfortable on a hardtail; control wasn't an issue on either, except for running out of grip on mud (even with my gravel tyres).

Like you, I used to take my no-sus hybrid off road, at least on gravel rides and forest tracks. I wouldn't say it handled any better than my drop-bar bikes - and that wasn't what finished it off either.

1
  • 1
    Concur - I've taken an older road bike up an uphill offroad climb track, and the bar width wasn't a problem (32mm tyres sinking into mud was) And on the other side there's a local road descent, where my top speed of 70 km/h was reached on an old rigid MTB with flat bars. In ~8 years I've not come close to that speed even on a road bike. So the leverage offered by a wide flat bar has some advantages.
    – Criggie
    Feb 28 at 18:39
3

The theoretical reason I have heard for wide, flat MTB bars is that in MTB terrain, your front wheel can get knocked off course by a hit on a rock, for example. Wide bars give you leverage against that sort of impact.

On a road-oriented gravel bike, you are in a slightly different position. You’re more crouched. It is not as natural to lift the front wheel. And of course, the handlebars are narrower.

Now, gravel bikes span a range from pretty road-like to nearly as capable as a hardtail MTB. On some types of terrain, you should ask if you would do better on a hardtail. The sensation of being about to go over the bars on a descent is an interesting indicator. In general, you could learn to shift your weight aft, even on a drop bar bike without a dropper post. Or you could put a dropper post on a gravel bike.

However, while I haven’t seen where you ride, the terrain that is challenging for a hybrid bike is probably fine for a road-like gravel bike. You have to consider how frequently you ride in singletrack and how frequently you’re on dirt or paved roads. Do you know riders in your area? What types of bike do they ride?

2
  • Some hybrids are closer to MTBs in terms of handling (hybrid is a catch-all category, with some being the closer descendants of 90's MTBs - with entry level components, and others that are literally drop bar bikes fitted with flat bars), so are at ease where a gravel would struggle. Shifting the weight aft is also harder when you are on the drops, compared to a flat bar hybrid, that would be closer to the tops of a drop bar.
    – Rеnаud
    Feb 28 at 14:17
  • "In general, you could learn to shift your weight aft, even on a drop bar bike without a dropper post" given the state of some of our roads, I do that quite a lot on tarmac, whether on my tourer or my gravel/endurance (depending on which wheels I've fitted) bike. It's a good skill to have. That's also the bike I'm most likely to bunny-hop. Now you mention it it's possible that's because it's harder to manual on drop bars
    – Chris H
    Feb 28 at 14:26
3

If we narrow it down to the basic question

will I likely find a drop bar more difficult to handle in such scenarios?

... I would say, the simple answer is YES

If you just put drop bars on the same bike, its offroad handling is going to be impaired. Ignoring other factors such as tires, geometry and suspension, it'll be generally harder to ride drop bars on technical terrain.

Mainly because you have to ride in the drops for a solid grip, that will force you in a relatively low position (which might feel a bit scary on technical terrain) and bars tend to be narrower and thus harder to control (we come to flared bars in a minute).

Some of that can be compensated by "skill", as with many things in life, you can make things harder just for the thrill of it, if you will.

Of course, gravel bikes are evolving from mostly being relaxed CX bikes into all directions, including front suspension, dropper posts and the availability of flared bars that'll probably give you similar effective bar width as flat bars, but you could argue that is all done to fix/offset the initial problem that these bikes were not meant to be mountain bikes in the first place.

There's nothing wrong with the approach to diversify bikes and segments, you still have the option to choose the bike that fits your riding best, if that happens to be a gravel bike, despite occasional trail usage, why not?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.