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Bit of tech this time. A couple of months ago I was following the early rounds of the EWS, as well as discussing bar width and height with a couple of friends who were playing around with making their bikes fit and handle a bit better. 

One noticeable thing from the EWS in Tasmania (which had a really narrow rock gap to squeeze through on Stage 2) was that the top riders almost all ran relatively narrow bars compared to what a lot of us here were running, and what the current fashions dictate. Add into the mix and interesting take on this from Chris Kilmurray that my mate Chris Hall from Downtime Podcast got when chatting to him in the run up to Ep1 of the podcast, and it got me thinking about how much thought I had really put into my own setup recently.

Over the last year or so I have moved to wider bars. From around 2013 to early 2016 I was on 740, running a 60mm stem on a size large Cotic. As the XL bikes came online I have moved to this size with a slightly shorter stem, as I felt I wanted something a little wider. I like the shape of the 785 Race Face bars we offer on the production bikes, but often they're a little low rise for a tall chap such as me. Our mates a Hookit Products sorted me out some 8-Bit Alloy 38mm rise bars last year and they come 800mm wide as standard. Expecting to cut them down, I put them on and gave them a go, and actually really liked them! I pulled them up a little higher on a spacer and when I was testing over a Revolution Bike Park last year I loved the feeling of stability and control they gave in the steep terrain at Revs.

The key thing that made them work for me was the shorter 45mm stem. With a 60mm stem anything wider than 740 felt odd to me, like there was too much movement required to make a steering input. When we first got the Race Face bars I was still on my Rocket26, and I really struggled with them. I liked the width, but the 15mm rise (compared to my usual 38mm) meant they were really low, coupled with the low front end of the 26" bike and with them being wide as well, I would tip into a corner and my elbow would lock out, arm fully extended because the bars swung so low when I angled the bike. This would then mean I would load the inside grip, and steer in the opposite direction to where I was leaning the bike because I'd automatically steer the opposite way when my arm fully extended. I spent a week crashing as I counter-steered into the undergrowth. Not ideal! 

I've noticed my ability to run my bars higher as my bike has got longer. With a longer bike you stand up in the middle of the bike, without your weight being pushed back as your limbs extend. I have now realised that low bars counter the shorter bike by pulling you down and forward again so you can weight the front wheel. However, on the XL RocketMAX I can easily weight the front wheel so I don't need to compensate with lower bars. I had got to the point where I was running 38mm rise bars on my RocketMAX 29er, which is a pretty tall front end, but it seemed to work when combined with the stem length and bar width. I had trimmed the bars a little, and also cut them to work with my favourite WTB Padloc grips.

Then this EWS got me thinking, and something Kilmurray said about being able to move well if your arms are in the right place. I remembered how it felt to have bars too low, and also that with the shorter stem I wanted wider bars, but had I gone too far the other way? 

First off I tried going back to 740s. We have some of the Race Face 740 x 38mm rise bars we used to offer on the bikes so this would be a direct comparison to my existing 38mm rise wide bar. Same height, just narrower. I cut the angle on them for my Padlocs and measured across the ends of the grips. 760mm. Hmmmm.....20mm wider than stated. Measured my Joystick bars across the Padloc grips. 805mm, despite being trimmed down from 800mm bar width. Clearly my Padloc grips were spreading the bars out much further than I thought. Lesson learnt! 

Rather than trimming narrower bars, I put some regular Cotic grips on and they measured 745 across the ends. Off I set for a couple of laps of Blue Steel at Lady Cannings to get a handle on this - no pun intended! Bar height same as I'd run for months, just 60mm narrower (a big step, but 740 isn't exactly road bike width). The bike felt horrible! I suddenly felt like I couldn't lean the bike over enough, the steering was light and vague. In short they just felt too high! Astonishing difference.

As I had a spacer under the stem I took this out and dropped the bars and it made a pretty big difference. It still wasn't brilliant, but I definitely felt I could weight the front wheel a bit better. Interesting.....

Next thing to try was my current bars, slightly lower, and slightly narrower. Given that I had been surprised at how wide they were across the grips in reality, I was keen to bring them in a bit and check the effects. I took them down to 790mm across the ends and left the stem in the lower position. This definitely felt better in the flick/flack back-to-back berms of the Blue Steel trail where previously the long old 29er could feel a bit of a handful. I did a couple of runs on some rockier terrain and whilst not quite as confidence inspiring as the big, wide position I previously had, it wasn't much different and the step forward in tighter, flatter terrain was a fair improvement. 

Next I think I would try lower bars again. Grabbed some of our stock 15mm rise Race Face bars with regular grips. These were again 790mm across the ends, but I'm now 20mm lower at the front again. I didn't have any of the 'running out of reach' problems of before as the front end of the XL RocketMAX - even with no spacers under the stem - is about 40mm higher than my old Rocket26. It did feel low though. Neck-a-bit-sore low. Blimey I've changed!! Front end was super-positive in the bermed trails, but I did feel pulled a bit too far forward on rockier, steeper terrain. Still a compromise to be found.

The final bit of testing I did was on the sample handlebar we received which will become the new Cotic handlebar later in the year. This is 25mm rise, 780mm wide. Similar back sweep to the Joystick, but with more upsweep. They immediately felt comfortable (which was good!), and the slight extra height really helped find that middle ground for me. I decided to creep the width in to see how that worked using some open ended, double clamp grips. What I found was that going about 10mm narrower was, for me, the sweet spot. It made the bike easier to initiate turns and flick from side-to-side, but still enough width that I can run them at a reasonable height for confidence in rougher, tougher terrain. Once I'd cut them for my Padlocs and got it all sorted they are 780mm across the grips, so with Cotic grips installed I'd have trimmed them to around 775mm. Just a touch narrower than they will be coming in.

Aside from the fact that I'd proved the new shape of the upcoming Cotic bars is spot on for what I want, I have also ended up with a better handling compromise for most of my riding. It's about 15mm lower and 25mm narrower than I had before. I still have the option to put spacers under the stem to lift the bars which I think I would do if I was heading to the Alps or something equally steep and fast. It's worth considering having this as an option for when you visit big terrain. Taller front end when it gets steep can really boost your confidence and keep you in the right place on the bike.

The other conclusion from all of this is that there definitely seems to be a "Golden Area" for bar height and width where you bar position relative to the contact patch of the tyre means that when you lean the bike over you can properly load the front wheel. I haven't worked it out as an absolute and it will definitely change depending on all sorts of human factors, but just as back in the day having my bars too low effectively overloaded the front tyre and shot me off the opposite way to which I wanted to turn, having the bars high but too narrow meant that when I leant the bike over I couldn't get the bar low enough to put load into the front tyre. Think about it: The wider the bar, the lower it will get to the ground for a given lean angle on the bike. When I switched my previously usable high bar positions from 805mm width bars to 745mm width, the narrower bar leaves my inside hand 15mm higher than before for a 30 deg angle on the bike. Doesn't sound like much, but the difference was stark. My new bar height puts my hand 7mm lower than my old wide/high setup, but as it's also narrower the distance from my shoulder is the same, so I can reach it easily, get that slightly more positive front end and also with the narrower bars bring my arms back from being too externally rotated (meaning my bars aren't so wide that they start pushing my elbows in towards my body) so I can move better on the bike. 

Like I say, bike dynamics and the variety of human shapes are far too complex for this to have a 'one size fits all' answer, but I think my point is that there is a sweet spot there to be found, and it's not necessarily about getting the widest/lowest/highest/raddest position as trends dictate.
Pretty wordy one that, but it's been a while since I've written an essay. I hope you get something from it. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions or thoughts. Always good to hear from you.



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