Getting a Grip on Handlebars: Why I Like ’em Wide

Unless you buy a bespoke bicycle built to your exact requirements, chances are that the off-the-hook bike you buy will not fit quite as you like. If the misfit is little more than an inconvenience, you can live with it. But if the bike’s components cause pain, chances are you can put that to rights by swapping for a different part. When Tamia bought a stock-built Surly Long Haul Trucker, it fit pretty well right out of the box. Except for the handlebars. They were too narrow. How’s that? Read on and you’ll find out.

by Tamia Nelson | January 30, 2018
Originally published in different form on February 13, 2010

Several years ago I bought a complete-build 42-cm Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike by mail from JensonUSA. From the start it was a perfect choice. Right out of the box I knew I’d swap out the saddle with a model I knew worked well for me, and I supplied the pedals. (Despite the “complete build” description, pedals are not usually included with better bikes.) But it wasn’t until I’d ridden the LHT a couple times that I realized the stock handlebars would have to go. They were too narrow, and the geometry led to numbness and tingling in my hands and wrists. (From nerve damage due to too many episodes of frostbite from ice-climbing, skiing, and early-spring whitewater canoeing.)

Some cyclists prefer narrow bars, but not me. I like them wide, whether they’re straight bars on my utility/mountain bike, or they’re drop bars on my road bikes. So when I chose new handlebars for my LHT — 42-cm Nitto Noodles, as it happens — I wanted them wide, quite a lot wider than the stock bars. Here’s a photo showing the difference in width between the original handlebars and the Noodles, shot (with a flash, unfortunately) after I’d made the swap:

Handlebar Comparison (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

The original handlebars are the bare ones, and their hooks fit between the brakes on the Nittos. The wider Nittos allowed my thumbs more room between the handlebars and the handlebar bag, thus avoiding the pinching my thumbs experienced with the stock bars.

Wide handlebars might not be as aerodynamic as narrower ones, but unless you’re a racer, will you notice? My handlebars are at least as wide as my shoulders, and this offers several advantages:

  • Better steering control
  • More stable for riding out of the saddle
  • Improved breathing
  • Improved comfort in wrists, shoulders, and neck
  • More real estate for hand positions and accessories
  • Offers protection in sideways falls

Wider handlebars provide more leverage and therefore better control when steering, and this control also makes riding out of the saddle less twitchy. I don’t climb out of the saddle for long periods of time, but I do stand on the pedals when I take off from a dead stop at traffic lights and stop signs, and when I climb short steep hills. To further improve control, I’ve mounted bar-ends on my mountain bike’s straight bars.

Wide handlebars (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

There’s more. With hands more widely spaced on the handlebars, it’s easier to breathe, because the wider stance opens up the thorax. Widely spaced hands also mean less strain on my wrists, shoulders, and neck. And the increased amount of real estate allows more positions to grip the bars, reducing the risk of hand and wrist tingling, numbness, and fatigue. As a side benefit, there’s also more room on both straight and drop bars for accessories like my cyclometer, a bell, a GPS, and a canister of HALT! in its bracket.

One last benefit of wider bars isn’t apparent unless you’ve hit pavement. Wide handlebars can help break the force of a sideways fall, and this can prevent serious injury to the shoulders and hips, elbow and wrists — as long as you keep hold of the bars and don’t stick your hand out to break a fall, that is. That doesn’t mean that wide bars will always (or even often) prevent injury, but it’s possible, and that’s a welcome bonus, don’t you think?

Read more: The Bike Cockpit | Bike Modifications | Bike Stem Swap

Nitto Noodle Handlebars and LG Handlebar Bag (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

Questions? Comments? Then click here to send Tamia an e‑mail!

This entry was posted in Bike Maintenance & Repair, Bike Touring, Bikes & Cycling on by .


For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.