Do Mountain Bike Handlebars Really make a Difference?

Mountain bike handlebars make a huge difference in the comfort and performance of your mountain bike ride. As a beginner, I did not realize the differences between different types of handlebars or the importance of having my handlebars adjusted properly, but after developing some aches and pains while riding I learned how important it is to have the right handlebar type and adjustment.

Mountain bike handlebars vary in shape and width. Once you choose a style, the handle bar position can be further adjusted for more fine-tuning in order to maximize comfort.

Flat vs. Riser Handlebars

There are basically 2 different styles of mountain bike handlebars: Flat bars and riser bars.

Flat Handlebars, as shown below, are sometimes also called straight handlebars. They came out before riser bars and are still preferred by some mountain bikers.


Riser handlebars as shown below, are straight in the center, then rise up to become straight where the grips, brakes, and shifters attach.


Riser mountain bike handlebars put the rider in a more upright position than flat bars, which is an advantage because it gets your weight back further. For this reason, they are often preferred by downhill mountain bikers. Flat bars, however, can be adjusted to be in a higher position if that type of mtb handlebar is preferred.

An advantage of riser bars over flat bars is that they have rearward sweep, which means that your wrists can be in a more natural and comfortable position. This also allows the rider to be able to use their arm muscles more efficiently when climbing.

Riders who prefer flat bars sometimes use bar ends to allow for more hand positions. Bar ends also allow you to get your weight back and lower your center of gravity. Bar ends should be adjusted so they are between being parallel to the ground and 45 degrees.

Overall, flat bars tend to be lighter, stronger, and more durable than riser bars because of their more simple design; however, riser bars now use technology like flares, tapers, and butting to increase strength and cut weight.

Some examples of reputable mountain bike handlebar companies include Easton, Ritchey, Race Face, and Crank Brothers. I have the Easton EC70 XC Hi-rise Mountain Handlebar and love it. It feels very stable on aggressive downhills and is light for the uphills. Compared to alloy handlebars that I have used, the EC70 reduces vibrations from bumps on the trail.

Good quality bike parts are expensive so I like to shop around for bargains. Sometimes, I have been able to find great discounts on handlebars from reputable brands like Easton, Ritchey, Race Face, and Crank Brothers.

Bicycle Handle Bar Materials

Mountain bike handlebars are made of aluminum alloy, steel, carbon fiber, or titanium.

Most mountain bike handlebars are made of aluminum alloy, which comes in varying strengths, or carbon. If you are a more casual rider, you can probably get by with a less expensive alloy, but if you are a more aggressive rider, you may want a stronger aluminum alloy. Carbon fiber handlebars are another option. They are lighter and reduce vibrations, but are more expensive.

Steel is very strong, durable, and inexpensive. If it does undergo too much pressure, a steel bicycle handlebar will usually bend rather than snap, which lessens the potential for injury. Downhill and freeride mountain bikers often choose steel handlebars. Titanium is also very strong and durable, but much lighter than steel. It is the most expensive option.

Handle Bar Width

Mountain bike handlebars come in varying widths. The general rule of thumb is to have your handlebars around 4-6 inches wider than your shoulders. This is a good starting point, but should be varied based on your comfort and riding style.

Longer bars give you more control when riding downhill because you have more stability and leverage. Narrower handlebars are more responsive for sharp turns and are more comfortable for climbing. Choose a width that offers a good balance based on your riding style.

Adjusting Height of Handle Bars

A common question is how high you should have your mountain bike handlebars in relation to your seat. A good starting point is to start with them at about the same height as your seat, but this is really a matter of preference.

If you are mostly going to be climbing, you will have better performance if they are lower. If you are mostly descending gnarly downhills, raise them up a bit. Put them where they are comfortable and where you feel like you have good control of the bike. Make adjustments based on your type of riding. I have my handlebars a couple inches below the level of the top of my seat because I need all the help I can get with climbing.

Most newer mountain bikes have spacers that are located above or below the stem as shown on the diagram to the left. These spacers can be moved in order to adjust the height of the handlebars. This set-up is called a threadless headset.

To adjust the height of your handlebars, loosen the small bolts that attach the mountain bike stem to the steerer tube. Then unscrew the bolt that is on top of the steerer tube. Pull the handlebars off the headset being careful not to pull or bend the cables, and then add or remove spacers below the stem so handlebars are at the desired height.

Tighten the big bolt on top of the steerer tube before tightening the small bolts on the stem. It is helpful to stand over your bike while tightening the bolts so that you are able to see whether your handlebars lined up correctly with your front wheel.

Some riders believe that it is better to have the mountain bike stem sitting right above the headset, rather than having spacers in between, because it adds stiffness and strength. If this is a concern for you and you need your handlebars to be higher, riser bars may be a better choice than flat bars.

Many older mountain bikes have threaded headsets. In order to move the handlebars up or down, loosen the bolt at the top with an allen wrench and then move the handlebars to the desired position and tighten the bolt.

If the mountain bike handle bars can't be raised to the level you want, then you may either want to get handlebars with more of a rise or change out the mountain bike stem for one that has more of a rise.

For more information on choosing, adjusting, and replacing your mountain bike stem, please visit our page on Mountain Bike Stems

Distance from Seat

Having your mtb handlebars further forward gives you more pedaling power. Further back puts you more upright and is more comfortable. A good starting point is to have the mountain bike handlebars positioned so your back is straight and at around a 45 degree angle. If you are having neck, shoulder, or back pain, make adjustments as needed.

You can make slight adjustments in the reach to your mountain bike handle bars by moving your seat backward or forward, but you want your knee to be roughly above the pedal axle on your front foot when your pedals are parallel with the ground. If you need to move your handlebars forward, you can change out the mountain bike stem for a longer one. If they need to go back, try a shorter stem.

Rotation of Handlebars

The position of your mtb handlebars can also be rotated in the stem for the most comfortable position on your arms and wrists. In order to move them, loosen the screws that hold the handlebars to the front of the stem. Move the handlebars around and see what feels best and then tighten up the screws.

For more information on fitting your mountain bike, including adjusting the bicycle seat, setting shock preload, and frame size, please visit our page on Mountain Bike Fit

Return from Mountain Bike Handlebars page to Mountain Bike Parts page

Return from Mountain Bike Handlebars page to Mountain Bike Buzz home page

Get Your Free
"How to Mountain Bike"


Receive this eBook, "How to Mountain Bike" absolutely free when you subscribe to my free monthly newsletter, "Attack the Singletrack!". It's loaded with mountain biking tips.

Check out examples of previously sent newsletters.

Enter your E-mail Address
Enter your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Attack the Singletrack!.

Contact Us

Questions, comments, feedback?
We would love to hear from you!

joomla statistics