Here we go with a Form vs Function issue again.  Handle bars and stems need to fit you if riding comfort is the goal.  Handlebar width and drop are the two primary handlebar fit considerations, while reach can be defined, in part, by stem length and saddle fore aft position.

Handlebar width is a fairly easy one to deal with.  A general rule of thumb suggests that the handle bars width, measured center to center, should be a wide as your shoulder joints. However, handlebar width varies with ride requirements.  A wider bar will allow for better breathing opportunity but prove to be a bit restrictive in the aerodynamic sense.  In other words, you will be more comfortable but experience more wind resistance.  Unless you are planning to race your vintage road bicycle, focus on comfort rather than speed and seek a wider handlebar.

I have a fairly wide torso and the perfect handlebar width for me is 42cm.  I have run a slightly narrower handlebars (40cm) and found them to be OK but I prefer the extra width for comfort's sake.  I am not all that interested in going fast but I do like to go far.  Since I spend several hours in the saddle at a time, I opt for comfort rather than performance.  That said, I do experiment with different handlebar sizes and styles, always seeking the set-up that works best for me.

I am an old fellow and I do not want a set of bars with a big drop.  The drop, for ease of explanation, is nothing more than the height of the handlebars.  The more drop, the more race oriented the bars are and the more aerodynamic your riding position will be.  Great for racing but perhaps out of place for the touring or recreational rider.

There are of course different styles of drop-handlebars, each designed to optimize a particular type of riding, be it racing, touring or simply recreational in nature.  I have experience with three basic drop style designs and two non-drop models.

The Maes handlebar style is the most common of all drop bars.  The top of the bar is quite flat until it begins its forward curve. This flat portion on the top of the bars leaves plenty of room for the hands to rest when riding out of the drops.  Most of my bicycles are set-up with this style of handlebar and they have proved to be the most comfortable for me.  Generally, I prefer a smaller drop distance to a larger one.  Again, racing is not my purpose.  I rarely spend much time in the drops to begin with.

The Randoneer handlebar style targets touring interests.  These bars have a top that curves up slightly as it approaches the forward bends.  This extra curve is ssupposed to increase the number of different hand positions available, with hopes (I guess) of reducing rider hand fatigue.  I have used these bars on two bicycles.  I won’t use them on a third.  Neither do I like the feel, nor the looks of the Randoneer handle bar.  But, then again, I don't actually tour with my vintage road bikes.

The Track Handlebar is a bar designed to optimize performance for a specific style of racing.  The Track design sees the top begin to slope almost immediately, as one moves away from the middle of the handlebar.  This offers no really comfortable place to rest one’s hands.  Of course, the words racing and rest rarely surface in the same sentence and one has little business resting one’s hands when racing.

I have one bicycle wearing a set of Track bars, my mid seventies Marinoni.  These bars are lovely, old logo Cinelli units and there is not a mark on them.  Though I love the appearance, they are probably destined for the shelf.  Comfort is important to me when I am out for a ride.  The Track bar is just not designed, considering the curved tops and deep drops, with comfort in mind.  But they do look good – did I mention that?  However, I have spent quite a bit of time riding the Marinoni and the handlebars are beginning to grow on me.  Perhaps I will give them another chance this riding season.

A fourth handlebar is quite common with the Single Speed and Fixed Gear crowd.  The "Bull Horn" nickname is appropriate.   The Bull Horn bars when mounted, look somewhat like a set of bull's horns.  I have built up one bicycle with Bull Horn handlebars and found them to be very comfortable for city riding.  They offer a more upright riding position, which is good for stop and go traffic conditions.  Additionally, the position of the brake levers, is about as appropriate as one can get, for street riding.

Sadly, I did not ride the Gardin 400 that I mounted the Bull Horns on for long.  On the first ride out a stranger approached me and indicated an interest in the bicycle.  The long and short of the story is that the Gardin 400 and I said goodbye to each other that day.  The offer was too good to refuse.  But I do plan to build up another city bike with Bull Horns mounted since I liked the feel so much.

The last handlebar style that I have been lucky enough to try out was a set of moustache bars that I fitted to a mid seventies Falcon that I converted to Single Speed design.  (To be honest I am not even certain that the bars are genuine moustache ones.)  Once again, I did not have much opportunity to ride the bicycle for long.  Another enthusiast snapped the Falcon up shortly after I put it on the road.  In all honesty, I didn't really like the feel of the moustache bars.  My riding position seemed to be much too upright.  The Falcon felt a bit unstable, thanks probably to the higher center of gravity created by my riding position.  And the brakes levers, though comfortably positioned, threatened to bang into my knees as I was riding.  They never did but I did feel concern about it happening.

The moustache bars looked very vintage and I just might set another bicycle up with them.  The intention would be to give the handlebar style a fair opportunity to prove itself in my riding book.  But I am in no great hurry to do so, even though I have a few sets stored away in the Old Shed.


Most vintage steering stems are the same length but are available in a variety of reaches.  Differences in reach are available, in order to allow for adjustment of distance from saddle to handlebar positions.  All six foot tall riders will not necessarily have the same inseam measurement, hence the required difference in frame sizes.  Nor will they have the same upper body proportions.  Some will have longer arms, while others will have longer torsos.  The steering stem helps to accommodate these upper body proportion differences.  A long reach stem, say 120mm, will be better suited to the person with long upper body proportions.

Stem reach does not refer to how far the stem fits into the steering tube of the front fork.  That we will call the stem length.  And be very careful when inserting the stem into the fork steering tube.  There is often a minimum insertion mark and I urge you to always insert to that mark or more.  Failure to do so is dangerous, both to you and the bicycle.  A stem that is not inserted far enough into the steering tube might snap right off.  Or, when tightened up excessively, it might damage delicate steering tube threads.  Always ensure that the stem is inserted to the "minimum insertion mark, if there is one.  It there is no mark, insert at least half of the stem length distance.

The stem reach is the horizontal distance from the center line of the stem to the center line of the handlebars.  Common sizes, or reaches are in the 95mm to 120mm range.  Shorter (60mm) and longer (130) reach stems are available, for those who need them.  Getting just the right stem is a trial and error process for me but I always begin by ensuring that the saddle position is correct before beginning to set-up a steering stem.  Also, keep in mind that as the stem is moved upward, the handlebars move closer to the saddle.

Stem fit, once again, is a personal issue but the rule of thumb is:  When riding with your hands on the drops, you should be able to look down and not see the front wheel axle.  This is supposed to be optimal.  The question is, optimal for what kind of riding?  Racing?  Touring?  Recreational?  I prefer a shorter stem reach than would be considered optimal since I am not into the racing scene as a rule.  For me, I cannot see the front hub when my hands are on the bar tops.  It took me a while to discover that I am far more comfortable with a shorter reach steering stem.

The second method for testing stem set-up is to grip the bars in your normal riding position and then put your hands behind your back.  A proper position will allow you to do this without you falling forward.  In other words, your stem position should allow for your riding position be be balanced.  I still have trouble finding just the right spot right away and it takes time to get the position perfect.  I do, however, urge you to take the time to find the exact perfect spot for you on your bike, even though it will take some trial and error to do so.

Please do not think that I am an expert, when it comes to fitting anyone, including me, to a bicycle.  There are many websites that will attempt to explain how to set your fit up.  I have looked at a few and found some interesting suggestions.  The best thing for the beginner to do is research this topic, learn about the different considerations pertaining to fit and rider position and then experiment.  The result of perfect fit and rider position will be worth the effort.

Of course having just the right fit and riding position is of little importance when you have to slam on the brakes to avoid the whatever that just jumped into your path of travel.  With this in mind, being able to stop in an efficient manner is of paramount importance.