Condensed Answer: It’s possible to install mountain bike handlebars on a road bike. The switch will require a replacement of the current brake levers and shifters. The user may also have to buy a new stem to adjust the reach of the bike.
Components Needed For The Conversion
Switching from road to MTB bars will require the following parts:
- New Handlebars and Grips
The user will have to purchase a set of flat bars or risers as well as grips for them. The new bars will have to be compatible with the stem that will be used.
Tip: If you have some bar tape left, you can use it instead of grips. For more information on this practice, check out this post.
- Flat Bar Brake Levers
Drop bars operate with hooded brakes which can technically be installed on flat bars if the user wraps a shim around the bars. However, road bike brake levers on flat bars result in poor brake actuation because the levers bottom out against the bars unless their travel is reduced significantly.
If the user reduces the brake travel, the braking modulation (control over the braking force) will suffer.
Ultimately, hooded brakes and flat bars don’t work well together because they aren’t designed for each other (read more). For that reason, it’s recommended to purchase flat bar brake levers.
Important note: Most road bikes rely on caliper rim brakes. Those brakes offer a smaller mechanical advantage than the V-brakes found on MTBs. Consequently, the brake levers of road bikes are designed to pull less cable to prevent quick lockout of the wheel.
As a result, brake levers built for long pull brakes such as V-brakes do not operate well with road brakes.
Make sure that the flat bar levers that you purchase are short pull and thus compatible with the road bike brakes on your bike.
For more information on the topic, consider reading the following posts:
Can You Use V-brakes With Road Levers?
Are Cantilever Brakes and V-brakes Interchangeable?
- New Shifters (potentially)
If the road bike that you’re converting is fairly modern and has shifters integrated into the hooded brakes (e.g., STI), you will need new shifters too.
Unfortunately, one cannot use MTB/trekking shifters for this conversion if the drivetrain is operating with two chainrings and has a cassette with more than 9 gears because:
a. Front road derailleurs designed for double chainrings require a different pull and thus can only work properly with a road shifter.
b. MTB and road rear derailleurs above 9-speeds use a non-matching rear shift ratio (the derailleur moves a different amount per 1mm of cable pulled or released by the shifter).
Note: Even if you have a triple chainset, the front derailleur may still create some issues and may have to be replaced with one marketed as a “flat bar model”.
If your drivetrain isn’t within the mentioned guidelines, it’s best to purchase flat bar road shifters designed for the number of speeds that your bike has to minimize the chances of incompatibilities.
If you don’t want to do that, you could of course replace the entire drivetrain with an MTB/trekking one and use MTB/trekking shifters.
This decision will increase the number of required parts and the amount of labor needed to complete the conversion. However, it will make future upgrades easier and cheaper.
If the road bike is older and uses downtube shifters, you won’t have to purchase new shifters because the existing ones operate independently of the handlebars.
There are compatibility issues only when the user relies on index shifters. Index shifters pull or release a pre-determined amount of cable which each click and thus reduce the input needed from the rider.
Friction shifters, on the other hand, move as much as the user tells them to. This makes friction shifters compatible with all kinds of mixed drivetrains because the rider can compensate for derailleur differences via the shifters.
For this particular conversion, one can use thumb friction shifters that can be easily mounted on flat bars. The downside of friction shifters is that they require more tinkering with each shift. They’re slower too.
- New Stem (potentially)
Since the main motivation to put MTB handlebars on a road bike is to increase comfort, the user may also consider using a new stem that elevates the bars and/or brings them closer.
Another reason to get a shorter stem would be to make steering snappier when using wide flat bars. That said, shorter stems have a downside too – they make the bike less stable at high speeds.
The Benefits Of Converting a Road Bike to MTB Handlebars
A conversion from road to MTB handlebars has the following benefits:
Flat handlebars put the rider in a more upright position and thus reduce the stress on the back. People who ride for fitness reasons or leisure often use flat bars for that reason.
Flat bars are at least 540mm wide whereas drop bars are about 440mm. Wider bars give more leverage and control.
MTBs don’t use flat bars simply for the looks. Flat handlebars offer a lot more precision than drop bars. This makes them better for riding on technical terrain.
- Compatible with More Front Racks and Bags
It’s possible to install a flat rack or a handlebar bag on a bike with drop bars, but the narrowness of the bars and the presence of the drops limit the options and make it more difficult to transport cargo.
In different, flat bars are among the most convenient option for front racks and bags. Hence why many bicycle managers continue to rely on flat bars or risers for their work machines.
The Disadvantages of Converting a Road Bike to MTB Handlebars
- Money + Time
The conversion from drops to flat bars can become expensive, especially if the user wants to use a drivetrain with more than 9 speeds.
The final fee will be even higher if you have to pay a mechanic to perform the procedure.
Flat bars create drag for two reasons – they’re wider and put the rider in a more upright position. This will hurt the top speed of the bicycle.
- Wider Profile
Drop bars are narrow and facilitate passing through traffic. Conversely, flat bars are wider and make it more difficult to pass between cars.