Ride UK Tech Columns

#80 Handlebars

(This article first appeared in Ride UK issue No.80 and is reproduced here by kind permission of Ride UK.)

Handlebars, Bars, Steering wings. Call them what you like we all need them.
Personally I always find changing bars to be a bit of an ordeal. Not just because I have to wrestle the grips on and not because I have to switch the brake levers, and the cables are inevitably no longer the ideal length. Simply because it changes the feel of the bike so much and I find it hard to adjust. When I finally decided to cut my bars down to a more modern narrow width about 2 years ago it took me the longest time to get fully used to it.
There isn’t much anyone can write to help you acclimatise to the feel of some new bars but hopefully the following blurb will help with everything else.

To minimise the acclimatisation it helps if you can get the new bars on at the same angle as the old ones. To help with this, you can try to measure the old bars before you take them off. Since what really matters is where your hands are, I would suggest measuring from the seat post clamp to the middle of each grip, this will give you an approximate target to aim for with the new set. This is the sensible approach but it never occurs to me until I have already taken the old pair off and am trying to adjust the new ones…
Once you have your new bars in place it is well worth marking a scratch on the stem and the clamp tube so that if they move you can put them back or if you want to adjust them you can tell where you started from. Obviously when adjusting bars do not loosen the stem bolts all the way off, just do it enough that you can tap the bars into the new position without them falling right down…

If your bars are slipping then check the knurling on the bars first. This is the most common cause. Although you might be able to see the knurling clearly enough, a good powdercoat job will follow the troughs and ridges so well that it could still be a very thick layer, and paint is pretty damn slippery. So if your bars wont stay put you need to strip this paint off.

A common mistake with stems is to use the wrong size Allen Key. The Allen Key should fit really well, if it wiggles by a tenth of a turn or so then the chances are you are using the wrong sized Allen Key. Maybe you should be using a ¼” (quarter inch) key (which is 6.35mm) but instead you are trying to use a 6mm metric key, this will inevitably round out the heads of the bolts long before the stem clamps properly.

The width of your bars will have a big influence on the feel of the bike. Bars can be cut down but they cant be cut “up” (thank fuck I am here to point out the bleeding obvious)... Because of this, bike co’s tend to make bars a bit on the wide side of the average and leave it to you to cut them down. So there is a good chance you will at some point want to cut your bars down.
Ideally you would use a pipe cutter for this. With its big hardened wheels you whizz it round the tube like a pizza cutter tightening the pressure until the end falls off. The problem with this is that most pipe cutters are made for nice soft copper plumbing pipe or mild steel conduit, NOT heat treated 4130. A basic pipe cutter will probably die after one or two cuts, so most of us will instead be looking at the hard-work-end of a Hacksaw.
Now by Hacksaw I mean a full sized hacksaw with a 12 inch blade with nice sharp teeth, NOT a junior hacksaw! Remember GOOD tools are GOOD, and SHITE tools are SHITE.
To stick with the cliché theme this month; measure at least twice and cut once. To that you can add, cut carefully, cut straight and for fuck’s sake don’t cut your fingers off…
Measuring can be tricky too. If you are judging your cut length by measuring the old bars, then remember that the width will measure slightly narrower at the side towards the rider then the leading edge. If you put your old bars on top of the new ones and mark the ends you could well end up cutting too much and leaving them too narrow.
To get a straight line to cut, simply take a piece of paper with a straight edge and wrap it round the tube, if the ends of the straight side meet up then the edge is nice and perpendicular to the axis. Mark it and cut along it.
Once you have cut the bars down take the extra 30 seconds to file the burrs off.

Brake levers.
If anyone else out there is still using these quaint old things then you might want to put them on before the grips, particularly if they don’t have a hinged clamp (though thankfully the days of the non-hinged lever seem to be numbered)
Where you run the levers will depend on the width of the bars and how far from the grips you like them. But if your levers are going to be on or close to the bend then you may hit some snags. You might well need to bend the “blades” of the lever out to give you some decent space to pull them.
Thankfully this will have very little effect on how they work... Unless you snap them off…
Most people bend their levers out with them still on the bike, and as long as you just need a little tweak this is fine. Just slip a ring spanner over and very slowly and gently bend them out to suit. Keep checking the feel and if in doubt STOP. If you bend them too far then bending them back again is often much riskier and this is when they fail…
If you need to put a really big or complicated bend into the lever then a little bit of heat can be necessary to avoid snapping. But bear in mind that most levers hinge on little plastic bushes that will melt long before the blade is hot enough to help it bend. Brake levers are almost always aluminium and aluminium takes a lot of energy to raise it’s temperature, (high specific heat capacity) so if you are using a blow torch to warm your levers it will take a surprisingly long time to have any effect.
Rather than ruin your plastic pivot bushes and maybe set-fire to your grips, I suggest you take the blades of the levers out and do this in the bench vice. The downside of this is that you cant easily keep checking the shape of the bend without waiting for the levers to cool-down then re-fitting them to the bike. Remember that high specific heat capacity will mean that they take quite a while to cool down and the high conductivity means that they will be hot all along the length and will burn you quite well!

If you do heat your levers to bend them then give the brakes a couple of days to return to full strength. Aluminium “age-hardens” so (depending on the exact alloy) it wont regain all its strength straight away.
There are no guarantees when bending your levers, it’s a risky job whether you do it hot or cold, if you don’t do it very carefully, and even if you do, it might suddenly snap with very little or no warning so don’t come crying to me…
You can now buy several levers that are “pre-bent” so one of these might save you a lot of hassle.

Grips are also a very personal choice, one mans faithful favourite is another man’s bed of nails. I tried some new grips a while ago and they literally tore my hands apart. Within just a few hours riding I had massive blisters in places I hadn’t got calluses before because I had never really gripped with that part of my hand before.
But whatever grip you choose chances are it will require a good deal of wrestling to get on or off.
Grip wrestling is going to be an Olympic Demonstration Sport in 2008 at Beijing; and by 2012 it is likely to be fully adopted. So there is half a cat’s chance in hell that you could see Russians with huge fore-arms lining up somewhere in dock-lands to put a brand new pair of ODI long-necks onto an Olympic regulation pair of Gay Bars… OK so maybe that’s a bit far fetched… London has no chance of getting the 2012 Olympics…

There are as many opinions on how best to fit and remove grips. Chris Radford (he of the unlimited nose manual circa 1992) used to swear by the “dry” technique. No lube for him, just a good half hour of fighting, which inevitably left the grips not only firmly fitted and ready to ride immediately but perfectly worn in!
Dry is undoubtedly the ideal, but very few people have the shear bloody-minded-ness to pull it off. If you have access to an air-compressor then it becomes an effortless job. Simply work the grip on with a constant flow of high pressure air from a suitable nozzle keeping the grip “inflated” round the bar. Removal is equally simple, with a quick blast of air more than adequate to break it free and float it off.
Surprisingly a lot of people think the purchase of a £100+ compressor a trifle excessive for fitting a new pair of grips maybe twice a year, including me.

Leaving aside the dry or air-lubed options most of us reach for an aerosol. I have heard of people using pretty much anything that comes in a pressurised container with varying degrees of success.
WD-40 is, of course, king of the aerosols. It is the aerosol equivalent of the urban rat, you are never more than 30 feet from a can of WD-40 though you may never know it.
Not surprisingly therefore it is often pressed into service for fitting grips. A job it was never designed for but can sometimes do pretty well. With some grip compounds it slowly attacks the “rubber” and turns them into a slightly gooier stickier compound that sticks pretty well, so it can lubricate the fitting process and eventually “dry” to help hold them on. Unfortunately it is way too easy to use too much and have a bad case of “revver grip”…

Another common choice is spray paint (well it is in a spray can). Allegedly paint will glue the grips to the bars nicely but again you need to wait for it to “set” and if you use too much that could be a long wait, it is also worth remembering that paint overspray can look rather like some idiot has been spraying paint about all over the shop, so probably not best to do it in the living room…

The classic is of course, hairspray. I have a dented can of Harmony “extra hold” that I picked up from those bargain “to clear” shelves of damaged goods in Safeway about 10 years ago which is still half full and has only ever been used on grips. It works great but dries fast so you need to be quick. It also has the undesirable side effect of making your hands smell like a hairdressers in wet weather.

Water also works but takes a very long time to dry.

The common error is washing up liquid… Seriously you do not want to use it. At first it can seem fine, grips go on smooth, but expect permanent revver-grip and if you ever get caught in the rain you will have kids running after the trail of pretty bubbles that are emerging from your bars…

Once you have your bars cut to width, the angle set, your levers bent to perfectly match your grip position, and your grips firmly installed; there is one further job. FIT SOME BLOODY BAR ENDS!!!!
Bar-ends weigh next to nothing, cost very little and could seriously save your life, or someone else’s. As a man who has had a peg punch a chunk out of his hand trust me on this. An unplugged tube is more than capable of causing you serious injury, and a bar-end, even those crappy plastic ones that come free with nearly all grips, could be the difference between getting back up off the floor to try again or rushing to the hospital to have your spleen removed and a lifetime of medication to make up for its absence….

Post Script.

I have had a few e.mails on the subject of grip wrestling since the article came out... This one struck me as being a particulalrly good idea:-


I got fed up with "Grip Wrestling" so came up with my own way of getting grips on and thought it might help out other folks if you wish to publish it.
As the coefficient of friction between rubber and metal is high and the coefficient of friction between metal and metal or plastic and metal is reasonably low, you can slide 2-4 brake cables, zip ties etc through your grip before sliding your grips easily onto the bars and then simply pulling out said brake cables, zip ties. as long as both your grips and bars are pretty clean before hand they stick like a treat.

Hope this can be shared

Mike Wilson

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