This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of riser bars and spacers as means to improve bicycle comfort.
The Advantages of Riser Bars
Riser Bars Do Not Decrease The Effective Reach
The reach of a bicycle is the horizontal distance between a vertical line going through the middle of the bottom bracket and another one cutting the head tube in half.
Ultimately, the reach determines how stretched the rider is on the bike. More reach results in a more stretched position.
Relying on spacers to raise the handlebars will decrease the effective reach of the bike because the headtube and consequently the fork’s steerer insert at an angle.
The more spacers you use under the handlebars, the longer the steerer has to be.
The longer the steerer, the closer the handlebars get to the saddle. As a result, the rider is more “squished” on the bike.
The intensity of this effect is determined by the head tube angle of the frame. The head tube angle is the angle formed by the head tube and the ground (image below). The slacker the headtube angle is, the smaller the cockpit will become as a result of using spacers.
Since modern MTBs come with a slacker head tube angle than previous generations, the cockpit decrease could be significant.
Technically, this result could be minimized by installing a longer stem to compensate for the reduction. However, the new stem may have an unwanted effect on the steering.
For example, if you ride an MTB with a short stem and get a long one to compensate, you may find the steering less sharp and subpar on technical terrain.
Conversely, riser handlebars do not decrease the effective reach unless of course, we compare them to alternative or drop bars.
If you want to preserve the original dimension of the cockpit while still benefitting from high handlebars, it’s recommended to avoid the use of multiple spacers and acquire the extra height via bars and/or a stem with a greater degree of rising.
Since the steerer tube on which the spacers slide is at an angle rather than vertical to the ground, the risers’ height does not fully translate to a vertical increase.
Or in other words, 30mm of spacers do not equal 30mm of elevation. If you want a 30mm rise, you will need more or taller spacers.
Conversely, the rise that one gets from riser handlebars translates fully. Riser handlebars with a 30mm rise will elevate the grips by exactly 30mm.
Riser bars are a lot more aesthetic than a stack of spacers under (or over) the handlebars. If the lines of your bicycle are important to you, spacers lose to risers every time.
The Downsides of Riser Bars
The elevation of riser bars is pre-set and unchangeable. If you are not satisfied with the rise, you will have to buy a new unit.
Conversely, spacers give you flexibility. You can remove or add spacers to decrease or increase the height of the handlebars any time you want.
The only condition is to avoid cutting the steerer tube too short.
One Handlebar Type
Elevating the grips by relying solely on riser bars limits you to one handlebar type.
Meanwhile, elevation based on spacers allows you to use all kinds of handlebars.
Thus, if you want taller handlebars but do not want to use risers, one option is to leave the steerer tube long and rely on spacers.
The Advantages of Spacers
Flexibility and Experimentation
Using lots of spacers isn’t the most aesthetic solution, but it gives flexibility and freedom to the rider in the search for the most comfortable handlebar position.
People who share bicycles may also find this property appealing.
Affordable + Easy Installation
Spacers do not cost a lot of money and can easily be added or removed.
Higher Resale Value
Once the steerer is cut, there is no going back. The bike immediately becomes adjusted to a specific person.
But if you let the steerer tube longer than needed and use a spacer to make up for the dead spot, the bike and the fork will have a higher resale value thanks to the additional customization.
The Disadvantages of Spacers
It does not matter whether you use ordinary or carbon spacers – a stack of spacers never looks slick.
As already explained, elevation based on spacers results in a smaller cockpit that could make the rider feel uncomfortable.
As mentioned in the section explaining the advantages of risers, the elevation that results from using spacers is partially reduced because the steerer tube is at an angle. Thus, you get a less effective rise per 1mm of elevation.
FAQ: What about combining risers and spacers?
Technically, this combination will give you the best of both worlds – the direct elevation of risers plus the adjustability of spacers. The downside is the lost style points. The bike won’t be aesthetic.
Summary: What You Need To Know
The advantages of riser bars are:
- Elevation without “downsizing” the cockpit
- The rise of the bars directly translates to taller grips
- Clean and aesthetic look
The cons of riser bars are:
- No customization unless you buy different units
The advantages of spacers are:
- Flexibility (the bike can accommodate more people by readjusting the spacers’ arrangement)
- Higher resale value (the steerer tube remains long and thus capable of fitting more people)
- Can be combined with different handlebar types
The cons of spacers are:
- Smaller cockpit (the steerer tube inserts at an angle rather than vertically)
- The rise per 1mm is reduced because the steerer tube is at an angle