A Strategy For Integrating Upright Handlebars In a Road System

Description of the situation:

1. You have a road bike with classic drop handlebars which put the rider in an aggressive forward position.

2. The bike is fast and efficient on the road, but the stretch created by the handlebars and the frame’s geometry causes discomfort and fatigue.

3. You want to switch to upright/city/comfort handlebars but don’t know if that’s an option.

Condensed answer

It’s possible to install upright handlebars on a road bike, but the conversion often requires a substantial number of new parts and changes to the drivetrain.

Brake Shifters and Drop Bars

STI Brake-shifters

Modern road bikes use brake-shifters which allow the rider to change gears and slow down without moving their hands away from the handlebars.

The engineering is perfect for drop bars but creates several issues when switching to upright handlebars.

The ergonomics and shifting mechanism of brake-shifters make them compatible only with drop bars and their variations (e.g., dirt drops).

Installing road brake-shifters on regular city bars (the type that you find on “town bikes”) is not an option because the hands of the rider will be placed in an uncomfortable and unstable position.

Ultimately, flat bar road shifters are the most straightforward solution if you want to minimize the number of new parts needed for the conversion.

If the bike has 9 speeds or less, you can use an MTB shifter for the rear derailleur because up to that point (9 speed), road and MTB derailleurs have the same rear shift ratio.

This means that the derailleur moves an equal amount per mm of cable pulled or released by the shifter.

For the front, however, you will need a shifter that matches the type of derailleur (road or MTB).

A set of new brake levers will be needed too. Road brake levers are short pull. You can combine them with road caliper brakes, cantilever brakes, Mini V-brakes, and mechanical road disc brakes.

However, road brake levers do not work with regular V-brakes and MTB disc brakes.

Another option is a switch to an MTB drivetrain. You will have to replace the bottom bracket, the crankset, the shifters, and potentially the front and rear derailleur.

A Word On Old Friction Shifters

Shimano Bar End Shifters

Some of you may be looking to install upright handlebars on an old road bike with downtube friction shifters.

In that case, the conversion is a lot simpler because friction shifters allow you to mix MTB and road components.

Mustache Handlebars

If you insist on keeping your road brake levers, you can look into mustache handlebars.

Mustache handlebars are unorthodox swept-back handlebars that operate with road levers.

If you want to pursue this option, you will need а shorter stem because mustache handlebars stretch the rider a bit.

Note: You can install brake-shifters on mustache bars, but the shifting experience will be poor because the levers would be horizontal – a position that they weren’t intended for.

For that reason, many people combine mustache bars with downtube or bar-end shifters.

The Stem

The bar-clamp diameter of the stem should match the clamp-on diameter of the bars.

If the bike stem has a 31.8mm bar-clamp diameter, the new upright handlebars should be the same size.

Another option is to use bars with a smaller diameter plus a shim. For convenience and stability, it’s best to avoid this method if possible.

If you have an older road bike with a quill stem that you want to keep, you will need 22.2mm, 25.4mm (the most common sizes), or 26mm bars.

If you want to change the stem for a more up-to-date model that supports bars of larger diameters, you have two options:

a. Convert to a threadless headset if the bike’s head-tube supports such an option.

b. Use a threadless adapter to install a threadless stem.

A Note On Aggressive Stems

Vintage Stem with a Negative Angle

If you have an aggressive stem with a negative angle, you could consider replacing it because the design contradicts the goal of upright handlebars.

If you decide to keep the stem, you may need handlebars with a very high rise to achieve the elevation that you’re looking for.

The Saddle

Upright handlebars make the back angle of the rider more vertical.

As a consequence, more of the cyclist’s weight is shifted to the rear wheel. The result is more stress on the sit bones.

Road bike saddles are firm and minimalistic to minimize friction during aggressive riding.

The design works fine when the bike is used as intended, but when you turn it into an upright machine, the small surface and lack of cushioning cause discomfort.

If you look at dedicated city/urban bikes which put the rider in a very upright position, you will notice that they have soft wide saddles with springs. The goal is to increase comfort when pedaling with a vertical back.

If your road bike is giving you sore sit bones after converting it to upright handlebars, consider changing the saddle if the problem doesn’t go away on its own after an adaptation period.

The Benefits Of Putting Upright Handlebars On a Road Bike

Installing upright handlebars on a road bike has the following benefits:

  • A relaxed riding position

Upright handlebars allow the rider to assume a more vertical stance which encourages relaxed riding.

  • Less stress on the back

Classic road bikes place the rider in a very aggressive bent-over stance that stresses the back. Upright handlebars reduce the strain on the back by promoting a more natural stance.

  • Less Wrist Stress

Upright handlebars are more wrist-friendly because the rider is holding the bars with a neutral grip.

Also, the wrists have to support less mass because less of the rider’s weight is on the front wheel.

  • More handlebar bag and basket options

The narrow and protruding shape of drop bars limits the number of baskets and bags that you can install on your bike.

Upright handlebars fix that problem because they’re wider and do not have hoods. In consequence, you can install almost any handlebar bag or basket that you want. This property makes upright handlebars a better choice for commuting.

  • Extra visibility

When you’re riding with an upright back, you’re taller and therefore easier to see in traffic.

The Downsides Of Putting Upright Handlebars On a Road Bike

Upright handlebars have the following downsides when installed on a road bike:

  • Poor aerodynamics

The more upright you are, the more drag your body creates. Hence why road geometry puts riders in such forward positions – it’s a necessity, not a choice.

The extra drag is the reason why upright handlebars are never found on bikes designed for speed.

  • Poor climbing

Upright handlebars make climbing inefficient by placing the rider’s weight on the back wheel and lowering the comfort when riding out of the saddle.

For that reason, you would be hard-pressed to see such bars on a touring bike built to efficiently cover as much ground as possible.

All Variations

The tables below contain all pathways that could be used to add upright handlebars to a road bike:

I. Brake-shifters

If you have brake-shifters, the options for converting to upright handlebars are as follows:

Option 1: Flat Bar Shifters
Required PartsNew handlebars
Flat bar shifters
(You could use an MTB rear shifter for a cassette with 9 or fewer speeds.)
Short pull brake levers
Brake and gear cables
Brake and gear housing
New stem (potentially)
New saddle (potentially)
Pros:Straightforward, no changes to the drivetrain
Cons: Road bar shifters are expensive
Option 2:Conversion to an MTB Drivetrain
Required partsHandlebars
MTB shifters
MTB crankset
MTB cassette
New rear derailleur if using more than 9 speeds or a very large cassette
New front derailleur if running a 2x or 3x set-up
Gear and brake cables
Gear and cable housing
New saddle (potentially)
ProsCheaper to maintain in the long run
ConsExpensive; requires many new parts and lots of mechanical knowledge
Option 3Moustache handlebars
Required partsNew bars
Shorter stem
New bar tape
Brake and gear cables
Brake and gear housing
New saddle (potentially)
ProsSimple, relatively cheap
ConsUncomfortable shifting when using brake-shifters
The rise may be insufficient

II. Downtube or Bar-end Friction Shifters

Option 1:No Shifter Change
Required partsNew bars
Brake levers
Brake and gear cables
Brake and gear housing
New saddle (potentially)
ProsSimple, cheap, fast
ConsLess than optimal shifting experience
Option 2:Flat Bar Shifters
Required partsHandlebars
Flatbar shifters
(You could use an MTB rear shifter for a cassette with 9 or fewer speeds.)
Brake levers
Brake and gear cables
Brake and gear housing
Downtube cable stoppers
New saddle (potentially)
ProsFairly simple
ConsThe conversion could get expensive
Option 3:Conversion to an MTB Drivetrain
Required partsHandlebars
MTB shifters
Brake levers
New rear derailleur if using more than 9 speeds
New front derailleur is using a 2x or 3x set-up
New bottom bracket + cranks
Gear and brake housing
Gear and brake cables
New saddle (potentially)
ProsCheaper to maintain in the long run
ConsExpensive; many parts and mechanical expertise required
Option 4Moustache Handlebars
Required partsNew bars
Road brake levers
Bar tape
Shorter stem
Brake and Gear Cables
Brake and Gear Housing
New Saddle (potentially)
ProsSimple, relatively cheap
ConsThe rise may be insufficient

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