Bar ends are an emblematic retro MTB accessory dating back to the 80s.
For a little over a decade, they enjoyed strong popularity among mountain bikers, but then the feelings got cold.
Today, you have a higher chance of seeing a bell on a modern mountain bike than a set of bar ends.
The interesting question is: what happened? Wasn’t it real love?
Bar ends disappeared from mountain bikes shortly after the introduction of wide riser handlebars. The extended width and height of risers provided additional leverage when climbing which duplicates one of bar ends’ main advantages – efficiency during ascents.
The other three factors that sealed the faith of bar ends were their unaesthetic appearance when installed on modern bikes, the danger of using them with wide bars, and MTB’s focus on descending rather than climbing.
What Was The Main Purpose of Bar Ends?
Inspired by road bikes, retro mountain bikes had long stems paired with extraordinarily short handlebars by today’s standards. 540-560mm wide bars were the norm.
Believe it or not, this was considered long at the time because road bikes have drop bars that usually go up to 440mm in length.
But mountain bikes couldn’t rely on drop bars because flat bars offer better control on technical terrain.
Short flat bars, however, have their own shortcomings, namely a single hand position and lower efficiency when climbing in comparison to drop bars due to the lack of hoods.
Bar ends were engineered as a way to fix those issues. They provide additional hand placements and facilitate climbing for the following reasons:
More weight on the front wheel. Bar ends protrude forward and allow the rider to lean and shift more of their bodyweight on the front wheel.
More leverage when riding out of the saddle. Bar ends make climbing out of the saddle easier by decreasing the distance between the rider and the handlebars.
Also, the wrists are in a neutral position which is anatomically stronger when pulling because the brachialis and the biceps can contribute more than they do when relying on a pronated (regular) grip.
For the same reason, one can usually row more weight with a neutral than a regular grip.
Additional Benefits of Bar Ends
Faster acceleration out of the saddle. Some people find it easier to sprint with bar ends as they mimic the hoods of a road bike’s drop bar.
Also, moving the bike from side to side is easier with the neutral wrist position that bar ends offer.
Hand protection. Bar ends could act as a car bull bar for your hands.
Extra comfort during emergency repairs. When you flip your bicycle upside down, the bar ends protect the handlebars, the grips, the shifters, and the accessories attached to the bars from dirt and scratches.
Why Did Wide Riser Bars Shrink the Market of Bar Ends?
Modern riser bars are long and have elevated grip parts. The extra length and height provide additional leverage when climbing. As a result, the need for bar ends diminishes.
Nonetheless, wide riser bars do not offer all the benefits of bar ends. You don’t get an extra hand position nor the pulling force that the neutral wrist alignment can provide.
But those two extra points aren’t detrimental from the perspective of modern mountain biking and cannot bring back bar ends into the sport on a mass scale.
Another reason why wide bars lowered the use of bar ends significantly is the increased risk of accidents when uniting the two.
Ultra-long handlebars combined with bar ends greatly increase the chance of hitting an external object (e.g., a branch, a tree) and falling down.
The two main reasons for the increased risk are:
Extra width. Modern bars widen the profile of the rider greatly and thus boost the possibility of hitting an external object and falling. Adding bar ends to a 740mm bar is riskier than doing so on a 560mm bar.
Lower awareness. Aside from some alternative shapes, bar ends do not increase the width of the handlebars. However, bar ends come with another severe downside – they are not covered by nerve endings (the rider’s hands) most of the time because one cannot shift or brake from that position.
This peculiarity reduces the rider’s awareness of objects in great proximity to the bar end.
Bar Ends and Risers Don’t Mix Well
Bar ends are rarely if ever seen on modern risers bars due to the following factors:
Redundant functionality. Wide risers provide extra leverage.
Unaesthetic appearance. Bar ends on riser bars are an unattractive combination. And since looks matter just as much as functions if not more, your chances of seeing a modern MTB with risers and bar ends are slim.
Increased danger. The MTBs that we see today are significantly more potent than the machines on which bar ends were born. The retro MTBs were closer to what we now call gravel bikes rather than mountain bikes.
The modern geometry and suspension allow mountain bikers to ride on harder trails that would’ve been considered unmanageable in the past. The more technical terrain further increases the possibility of catching a tree or another obstacle with a bar end.
Furthermore, bar ends are practically pointless for mountain bikes designed primarily for descending and freestyle since the extra position would rarely if ever be used in those disciplines.
Regulations. Bar ends are considered dangerous during collisions as they may pierce a rider. Hence why some events ban bar ends.
Mountain Bikers Don’t Climb As Much as They Used To
Another reason for bar ends’ decline is modern mountain biking’s focus on descending rather than climbing.
The extreme downhill riding enabled by the newest tech and the use of ultra-long riser bars bring down the need for bar ends to nearly zero.
The dedicated trail compounds, the use of lifts and cars to get to the top of a hill, the aggressive, slacker geometries, the “boosted” tires and the advanced braking systems found on modern machines reflect that goal.
In the past, this wasn’t the case as retro bikes were used a lot more on roads and gravel. The mountain biking infrastructure wasn’t as developed, and it was practically impossible to ride modern downhill trails with rigid bikes.
Gravel Bikes – The Silent Bar End Assassin
Gravel bicycles are designed for light offroad terrain and fairly long distances. Hence why they unintentionally target many of the cyclists that could have potentially installed bar ends on their handlebars.
But since gravel bikes come with drop bars that already offer multiple hand positions, the need for bar ends decreases even further.
Other forms of adventure bicycles with drop bars have the same impact on the market of bar ends.
Bar Ends Are Not Dead…Yet
Bar ends won’t return to mountain biking because the modern version of the sport has no place for them. But their usefulness is still high enough to prevent them from disappearing completely.
The variety of bar ends still available on the cycling market reveals that there is still demand for the product.
The usual buyers are people who want to add another hand position to their handlebars due to joint discomfort and numbness.
In most cases, this limits the demographic of bar ends users to older individuals with a calmer cycling style.
Hence why ergonomic handlebar grips with built-in bar ends (e.g., Ergon grips) are so popular today.
Those products represent a form of bar end evolution as they’ve effectively isolated and satisfied the current demand for bar ends.
Bicycles Candidates for Bar Ends
Commuters and Retro MTBs
Retro mountain bikes could be great commuters thanks to their durable steel frames, rigid forks, and the eyelets for racks and fenders. They could also serve as cheap gravel bikes. Plus, they were the original host of bar ends anyway.
Of course, other forms of commuter bicycles that don’t already have handlebars with multiple hand positions make for a great bar end candidate too.
Hybrids with Flat Bars
Hybrids with short flat bars can also benefit from the extra leverage and hand placements that bar ends provide.
A set of bar ends on a touring bike that doesn’t have drop bars could be very useful thanks to the increased wrist comfort which is always greatly appreciated when covering long distances.
Fitness bicycles used primarily to burn calories rather than to commute from point A to point B could also profit from a set of bar ends.
Bar ends installed on those bikes help when climbing out of the saddle and in a higher gear by providing greater leverage and comfort.
Frequently Asked Questions
In what case are bar ends worth it?
If you have a bicycle with flat handlebars, and you’re riding long distances, then bar ends can be beneficial to your set-up.
However, if you already have drop bars, butterfly bars, or another type of handlebar that comes with multiple hand positions, bar ends are practically useless and incompatible.
If you have a modern mountain bike and plan to use it as intended, it would be wiser to stay away from bar ends.
Why do some bar ends have curved shape?
Some bar ends have a slight curve to prevent them from hooking around an external object. The curve is supposed to reflect rather than to catch.
This type of bar ends offers one more hand position than the straight ones.
I have wrist pain from riding. Will ergonomic bar ends help me?
They certainly could because they encourage neutral wrist alignment and offer an extra hand position.
Nonetheless, wrist pain can also be a result of improper bicycle fit or handlebars installed too low.
Buying a stem with a more upright angle and/or switching to more elevated handlebars is another effective way to decrease the stress imposed on the wrist during riding.
Ultimately, you will have to experiment to know with certainty whether ergonomic bar ends will help you.
Are bar ends good for winter riding?
If it’s genuinely cold outside, you would have to cover the bar ends with some form of insulation (e.g., bar tape) if they’re made out of metal. Otherwise, your hands will freeze when you’re holding them because steel and aluminum are good cold conductors.
If it’s really cold, and you’re riding with cycling pogies, you will probably have to remove your bar ends to fit the pogies. A set of shorter bar ends may work in a similar situation.
Tip: If you don’t have bar tape or don’t want to buy some, you could wrap the bar ends with a piece from an old inner tube. It’s not the best option due to the smell and the feel, but it’s better than nothing and certainly beats frostbite.
Is it wrong to use the bar ends inside the grips instead of outside?
Some people like the “inside the grips” bar end set-up as it resembles the popular Velo Orange crazy bar which has an integrated bullhorn section for smoother roads and headwinds.
To know if this set-up will work for you, you’ll just have to try. It’s not a popular choice, though.
I like bar ends and think that my riding would benefit from them, but I fear the looks of disgust that I may meet. What should I do?
If you think that bars ends could be beneficial to your riding, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting.
Truth be told, most people don’t care about you as much as you think. We live in an era of self-obsession. People are too focused on themselves to pay attention to you.
Besides, if bar ends improve your cycling experience, you’ll quickly lower the importance of external opinions. In the long run, functionality beats appearance when it comes to commuting.
I experienced a similar dilemma when wondering whether I should run full fenders on my MTB commuter. Tired of getting needlessly dirty, I decided to go for it despite the fashion police. It was the correct decision for my style of riding.
The value that full fenders provided turned out too high to ever give them up.