The wintertime (known to some among us as the “off-season”) is a great time to experiment with your bike setup and few components can transform the ride of a bike like handlebars. Unlike many so-called “performance” upgrades that claim to offer weight savings, greater precision or improved efficiency, different handlebars change the way your body relates to the bicycle in a fundamental and important way. The wrong handlebar can make the finest bicycle nearly unrideable. The right handlebar can enhance comfort, control and confidence. The Jones Loop H-Bar does just that. As many of the Surly bikes we sell (in addition to many other touring bikes) come with drop bars and bar-end shifters, I thought I’d share my experience converting my personal bike from drop bars to H-Bars. I’ll get more into the details and technicalities of the process – especially the fit aspect – in a future post, so stay tuned for that.
I built my dirt touring bike – the RandoGnar – around drop bars. I had the wide-open and reasonably smooth gravel roads of north-central Oregon in mind when drawing up the plans and laying out the cockpit. The position is very similar to what I’ve used on my cyclocross bike to provide a good balance of comfort, aerodynamics and pedaling efficiency for long, mixed-terrain rides and ‘cross racing. This setup performed admirably on the Oregon Outback in May, 2014 and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. However, on rough descents or technical singletracks, the hand and body positions offered by drop bars leave something to be desired. When riding in the drops – the preferred position for descending – my weight is shifted far forward over the front wheel which tends to generate a feeling of “oh-crap-I’m-about-to-get-pitched-over-the-bars”. This leads to tension throughout the my body, causing fatigue and a diminished ability to ride lightly over rough surfaces.
Upon moving to Idaho and sampling some of the unpaved roads and singletracks in the central part of the state, I found myself wishing for a different handlebar. Descending on a loaded bike through rough, rocky, loose terrain can be sketchy on any bike but I’ve had some harrowing moments on rutted, washed out mountain roads and trails down in the hooks of my deep drops.
Anyone who has ridden a modern mountain bike can tell you that a short stem and wide, flat handlebars yield enhanced control in challenging terrain. It is easy to keep the front wheel light and approach steep terrain with confidence. So for mixed-terrain bikepacking and touring – where we ride long hours on loaded bikes in widely varying conditions – we need a middle ground. We like the range of hand and body positions offered by drop bars but miss the confidence and control lent by a flat bar with things get rough. The Loop H-Bar treads this fine line better than perhaps any other handlebar available.
Your list of necessary parts will vary, but here are the parts I needed to effect the conversion.
– Thomson X.4 Stem, 90mm x 0-deg
I replaced my 100mm, -10 degree stem with a 90mm, 0 degree version to bring the handlebar clamp up closer to level with the saddle height for a nice, balanced riding position. I am now able to rotate my hips back slightly and rest my weight lightly on the saddle with most of my body supported by the pedals. The stance is upright and controlled but with enough forward reach possible to tuck under the wind. On the road, the forward extension offers a very similar perch to riding on the “ramps” of my drop bars. On singletrack, the extra width and rearward extension provides a very strong and confident stance to attack steep terrain with one finger tucked in the crook of the brake levers. The overall look is a little cruiser-y but the bike feels much more at home in singletrack.
These bars are now the widest I have on any bike. The extra leverage and control is remarkable.
ODI’s classic Longneck BMX grips pair well with the Jones bars. The extra length covers more of the handlebar section than a standard mountain bike grip. I prefer to trim the flanges off for additional shifter clearance. We also offer the ESI foam grips which are designed for the long grip section of the H-Bars.
Also, I found (in corroboration with Jeff Jones’ guidelines) that the ergonomics of this setup are much improved by adjusting the brake levers’ reach screws in slightly to bring the lever blades closer to the bars. Those with extra-long fingers may not need to make the adjustment but the levers are easy to reach with the first finger even when at the farthest rearward position on the bars. The BL-R550 levers deliver a very strong pull to my cantilever brakes and a comfortable lever shape for one or two fingers.
The sweep and width of these bars has transformed the Rando-Gnar from a dirt road crusher into a singletrack slayer. I’m able to ride much faster and more confidently than I ever thought possible on a rigid bike. In addition to the range of hand positions, the 45-degree sweep of the bars offers excellent leverage for lifting either end of the bike over obstacles in the trail. This is especially helpful when the bike is loaded and requires more effort to maneuver.
Thomson’s X4 stem pairs perfectly with the Jones bars. Even the alignment marks align with the edges of the clamp jaws.
On the first few shakedown rides in the Boise foothills, I had to consciously keep my speed in check any time the trail pointed downhill. The riding position inspired so much confidence that I quickly outran the available traction from my close-knobbed tires in loose corners. With my weight shifted over the rear wheel and my hands out wide, I was able to leverage the bike around downhill corners with ease and maintain a comfortable, relaxed posture. When climbing, I could easily shift my hands forward to keep the front wheel down.
Overall, I’m quite happy with the comfort, control and multiple riding positions the Jones bars offer. On longer stretches of smoother terrain I find myself missing the aerodynamic position offered by the drop bars, but feel that the off-road confidence and control more than makes up for the slightly decreased efficiency on the pavement.
Overall, the Jones H-Bars are an excellent alternative to a drop bar for touring bikes that are regularly ridden in more technical and demanding situations. I’d recommend them to anyone who wants to blend the confidence and control of a flat bar with the comfort and hand positions of a drop bar. I’ll be taking a closer look at the setup process in a future post, so feel free to chime in with any questions you’d like to have answered or ideas you’d like to see explored. Thanks for reading!