Condensed answer: Carbon has damping properties, and therefore, it’s not surprising that some people report less “road buzz” upon switching to carbon bars.
However, there isn’t enough evidence to conclude with certainty that the softening effect is induced solely by the material.
Many argue that most of the extra comfort comes from the shape of carbon bars rather than some mysterious compliance.
How Do Carbon Handlebars Increase Comfort?
1. Vibration Damping
Carbon components are known for absorbing vibrations better than aluminum.
Many people report great improvement upon switching from an aluminum seat post to a carbon one. However, the perceivable effect is smaller when it comes to handlebars.
Some riders say that their carbon handlebars are of great help while others attribute the “comfort gains” to placebo.
The consensus is that there is some “softening”, but it isn’t as great as some are making it to be.
Carbon allows the production of handlebars in various shapes. As a consequence, it’s easier to come up with more ergonomic models.
For instance, the flat part of some carbon drop bars is wider and provides more wrist support.
Some riders find this characteristic very comfortable when covering long distances.
The Entire System Matters
The comfort of a bicycle depends on many parts. The material of the handlebars is low on the list.
The more important factors are:
A wider tire running at lower air pressure has a greater effect on comfort than handlebars.
If your bike feels harsh, consider putting the biggest tires that it can accommodate.
A bike with an aluminum fork often feels quite hard because the material isn’t as compliant as steel and carbon.
For that reason, many road models come with an aluminum frame combined with a carbon fork.
If you have a mountain bike, upgrading its suspension fork to a decent model would greatly improve the “plush” feel of the machine.
Longer stems have more flex and put the hands of the rider further away from the fork. As a result, fewer vibrations reach the wrists and arms of the rider.
In different, shorter stems are stiffer and place the hands closer to the steerer tube. This position increases the vibrations reaching the joints of the upper body.
Note: The market offers suspension stems too. Some people like them, some don’t. One thing is certain, though – the newer models are a lot better.
- Grips/Bar Tape
Bar tape with gel padding can make a set of handlebars feel softer and more forgiving.
If you don’t have access to similar tape, you can wrap your handlebars with two layers of ordinary tape.
The same holds true for grips. A softer, ergonomic model will make the ride a lot more pleasant for your wrists.
- Handlebar shape
The rise and shape of the bars affect comfort too. Taller, swept-back handlebars reduce the stress on the wrists tremendously.
The Model Of the Bars Is Very Important Too
Some carbon handlebars are extra stiff while others are extra”flexy”.
Before buying, read the reviews and/or seek advice from someone with experience that you can trust.
What Are The Downsides of Carbon Handlebars?
Carbon handlebars are a premium product present only on high-end bicycles where 50-100 grams weight savings make a difference.
The price of the product reflects that. Carbon bars are notably more expensive than aluminum and steel models.
Carbon handlebars have a high fatigue limit, but their impact resistance is lower than that of aluminum and steel.
There have been numerous reports of carbon handlebars failing catastrophically. Sometimes the failure is sudden and complete; other times, it’s partial.
To avoid unpleasant surprises during races, many professional cyclists stick with aluminum bars despite the weight penalty.
Aluminum has a higher resistance to impact than carbon and is a lot less likely to fail in the same spectacular fashion.
FAQ: Is It Possible For Carbon Bars To Fail Without a Major Crash?
Yes. Many riders have reported sudden carbon failure. And no, this doesn’t apply just to unknown manufacturers. Failures do happen even when the bar is made by a reputable brand.
Carbon components have to be inspected for cracks periodically. This makes the maintenance of drop bar handlebars a little tedious because the bar tape has to be removed. If you don’t, you risk developing a crack under it that could later become a source of a nasty surprise.
The stem has to be tightened with a torque wrench to the numbers listed by the manufacturer. If you don’t respect this part, the stem could easily crush the bars because carbon has poor resistance to clamping force.
You will also need a carbon saw if you plan to resize your handlebars.
Carbon saws have abrasive material on them which makes the cutting of carbon easier. The final cut looks clean and has no burring.
4. Low weight savings
Carbon handlebars are usually up to 100 grams lighter than aluminum ones. Unless you’re a pro cyclist or trying to build the lightest possible bicycle, you’re unlikely to notice the difference.
5. Lack of Stiffness During Climbing
Some carbon bars have a noticeable flex when pulling on them during climbs. This is considered a negative quality because climbing is easier when the bars are as stiff as possible. Bar flexing results in loss of energy and thus slows you down.
6. “Stealth Damage”
It’s impossible to examine the internal state of a carbon component without an X-ray. For that reason, many avoid buying second-hand carbon components.
FAQ: Do Carbon Handlebars Reduce Joint Fatigue?
The damping properties of carbon and the ergonomic shape of the bars help with joint fatigue. However, as already mentioned, you have to look at the entire system – the tires, the grips/bar tape, the fork and the geometry of the bike determine the degree of stress on the joints.
Who Are Carbon Handlebars For?
Carbon bars are reserved for high-end bikes. Putting carbon handlebars on an entry-level MTB with a pogo-stick for a fork and expecting a soft ride is simply nonsense.
The same holds true for road bikes. The weight savings of a carbon bar don’t matter when you have a heavy frame and fork.
If the rest of the bike doesn’t match the carbon bars, you’re better off with less sophisticated options (aluminum alloy.)
Aluminum vs. Carbon Bars: What’s Better?
For average riders, a standard aluminum bar would be the more convenient choice because it’s many times cheaper, very durable and doesn’t require as much attention and caressing.
The main weakness of aluminum bars is that they don’t reduce vibrations as much steel or carbon. The result is a harsher ride. However, this could be easily compensated by switching to wider tires and placing softer grips or bar tape on the handlebars.
Another shortcoming of aluminum bars is that they’re heavier. The difference, however, does not impact recreational cyclists.
Tip: If you want your aluminum bars to be as compliant as possible, stick to 31.8mm or less. The fat 35mm bars are known to be wrist killers.
Carbon’s price, the marginal performance gains, and the required maintenance protocols make it more suitable for advanced riders who have enough money to “max-out” their bicycles.
- Carbon handlebars reduce vibrations as long as you get a model that’s “flexy”. The extent of the effect, however, is questionable.
The feedback is mixed. Some people claim that carbon helps while others attribute the improvement to placebo.
Before pulling the trigger on a specific carbon handlebar model, search for reviews. Focus on those giving an average score – they’re more balanced.
- The fork, the tires, the geometry of the frame, and the shape of the handlebars are the primary sources of comfort. The material of the handlebars isn’t as high on the list.
- Carbon handlebars are reserved for high-end bikes where 100 grams or so matter.