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Recently, a client wrote me an email and asked if it was worth upgrading from his $100 aluminum bars to a $300 carbon fiber handlebar (for his road bike). I wrote the following response, maybe you will find it helpful.

Here are the pros of carbon vs. aluminum handlebars:

Carbon pros:

  • lighter (170g)
  • carbon absorbs more shock and gives you a better ride quality (see my comment below)
  • bling factor, if you think carbon is bling
  • “stiffer” than aluminum

Carbon bar cons:

  • if your bike falls over in the driveway, at a coffee shop, or in a parking lot, the bars can break at the lever (this is pretty common actually, as carbon fiber has great fatigue resistance but typically poor impact resistance, and many times it has been weakened at the brake lever from over tightening)
  • risk of cracking carbon if the stem or lever clamps are over tightened
  • big price increase over aluminum

Aluminum pros:

  • if the bike falls over, or you have a minor crash, the likelihood of needing to replace the bar is much lower
  • less $$$ than carbon

Aluminum cons:

  • heavier (250g vs. 170g for carbon)
  • “less stiff” (see comment below)
  • lower bling factor, assuming you think carbon = bling

Comments:

1. there is all kinds of talk on the internet about how a carbon bar absorbs more shock and gives you a better ride, but I have never found this to be true, and now that more people are riding wider rims and tires with lower pressures, I think if there was a noticeable difference, its probably insignificant relative to tire pressure. If you ride at 90 psi on a 28mm tire, and then ride the same bumpy road with 85 PSI, this will make 30x more difference in your ride quality than switching from aluminum to carbon bars IMO. No science behind this, just 30 years of cycling and racing crits on 19’s at 125psi.

2. There is a belief in cycling that stiffer = always better but if something flexes and does not break or bend, that means it returns to its original position, which means it “gives the energy back to you” minus a small amount lost in heat. So what? This “wasted energy” is much smaller than most people conceptualize it as, and it doesn’t have any real impact on your riding unless you are talking about trying to sprint fast or climb a steep hill with a wet spaghetti noodle as a handlebar. Have you ever felt your handlebar getting hot from it flexing after a town limit sprint? I didn’t think so.

Think of all the components of your bike as springs, and some are simply springier than others. Does this springiness slow you down? Maybe in some scenarios, yes, but probably only in competitive situations under maximum torque, which are not actually that common in cycling, and virtually non existent if you don’t race.

IF you are the type of guy who lives for town limit sign sprints and you want to wax your buddies on your training rides every chance you get, then the carbon bar makes sense, you would probably feel the difference in a back to back test.

IF you are the type of guy who wants to build a project bike that is as light as you can make it, and you are counting grams, and you have the money, then the carbon bar makes sense.

IF you are the type of guy who lives to race his buddies up SuperFlagStaff once a week and you want your bike to be a super lean climbing machine, the carbon bar makes sense.

IF you just want a really nice bike that rides well and is built with quality components, and you don’t give a crap about the three things listed above, go aluminum. It is cheaper, more durable for everyday use, and still a quality product.

The bottom line question is: will upgrading to a carbon fiber handlebar change your fundamental ride experience? If the answer is no, then don’t do it.

Hope this helps.