Cyclocross bicycles have tougher frames, greater tire clearance, higher bottom brackets, and more upright geometry than road bikes due to the rough terrain included in CX races.
However, despite the off-road segments, cyclocross bicycles still rely on drop bars instead of the flat and riser handlebars found on mountain bikes. Why would that be?
Cyclocross bikes use drop bars because the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has a strict rule for keeping the width of the cyclocross bicycle under 50cm. This requirement alone eliminates the possibility of implementing flat or riser handlebars while preserving their full functionality. Drop bars, on the other hand, are about 44cm wide and fit within the regulations.
The original quote from the Clarification Guide of The UCI Technical Regulation (ARTICLE 1.3.012) is as follows:
A bicycle shall not measure more than 185 cm in length and 50 cm in width overall.
Since the widest part of a bicycle are its handlebars, this regulation directly limits the width of the bar used in the sport to less than 50cm.
Flat Bars < 50 cm = Low Utility
Back in the day, you could find mountain bikes equipped with 600mm (60cm) flat bars, but this is no longer the case. Wide is the name of the game. Modern mountain bike bars are wider than ever and combined with a short stem for increased control on difficult off-road sections.
Even cross country models often come with 740mm (74cm) bars. And when you explore the more aggressive disciplines (e.g., downhill), you will find people riding with 800mm (80cm) bars.
The purpose of wide bars and short stems is to increase precision and stability when riding over rough surfaces through greater leverage.
But even if we travel back in time, we would have a hard time finding a pro mountain biker riding with flat bars under 500mm as required for cyclocross. Such a bar would be just too short for most people.
The bicycles on which you’re the most likely to see ultra-short (<50cm) flat or riser bars are urban fixie bikes. Fixed gear riders sometimes cut their bars significantly to acquire a narrower profile and facilitate aggressive riding through city traffic.
Putting such short bars on a bike meant to cope with the terrain of a cyclocross race wouldn’t be very wise because it would be difficult and tiresome to control it. Also, the riders will have to rely a lot more on leaning when steering due to the lower maneuverability.
Some comfort handlebars may also fit into the under 50cm category, but they would be impractical for a bicycle race since the riders would be too upright, and climbing muddy hills would be a comical sight.
The only type of bars that preserve their functionality while being under 50cm are the drop bars found on road bikes. Therefore, by the process of elimination, that’s the only legal and logical choice left for cyclocross riders competing in UCI-sanctioned events.
What’s the Width of Drop Bars?
Compared to modern or even retro MTB bars, drop bars are very narrow. They usually vary between 380mm and 440mm (38-44cm) measured from one center of a drop to the other.
A few reasons come to mind:
One of the main motives to keep road bars narrow is extra “clearance” when competing in tight packs.
Wider bars greatly increase the chances of bumping into another competitor and causing a collision.
Drop bars are more aerodynamic than wide riser bars thanks to their narrower profile. And since road bikers are obsessed with minimizing drag, drop bars are welcomed with open arms.
Other Benefits of Drop Bars
Multiple hand positions
Drop bars provide more hands positions than all the other classic bars. You can place your hands on the hoods, on the flat portion of the bar, or the drops. In comparison, MTB bars offer a single “official” hand placement – on the grips.
Of course, you could also put your hands on the mid-part of the risers or flat bars, but this position is highly unstable when racing.
The hoods on drop bars make climbing easier because they permit riders to put more of their weight on the front wheel.
Faster out-of-the-saddle acceleration
Drop bars facilitate acceleration out of the saddle.
The drops on road bars offer a more aerodynamic position which results in faster sprinting and descending.
A cyclocross race is significantly shorter than a road battle, but all of the mentioned characteristics of drop bars are still beneficial to the participants because there could be many straight sections encouraging the riders to do aggressive sprinting.
Another benefit of the tucked aero position that drop bars provide is the improved performance when facing a heavy headwind. “Going low” makes it easier to cut through the wind.
What About Alternative Bars Such as Bullhorns or Pursuit bars?
Bullhorns and pursuit bars, which are essentially bullhorns with a built-in drop position, fit the width requirements since they’re pretty narrow, but their shape makes racing on them too dangerous.
During an accident involving multiple riders, the bullhorns may stab someone and live up to their name.
Also, it’s easier for bullhorn-shaped bars to come in contact with an external object and bring the cyclist down.
Hence why bullhorns and pursuit bars are excluded from the available options and so are all other forward-facing handlebars.
Cyclocross Isn’t Mountain Biking
Even though cyclocross competitions are more “muddy” than road biking, the terrain isn’t as extreme as what we see in MTB races. Subsequently, the extra precision that risers and flat handlebars can offer isn’t needed.
Cyclocross riders are not required to do drops and other extreme maneuvers such as manuals, flips, wheelies, and bunny hops – movements that are significantly easier to perform with flat handlebars. This peculiarity decreases the incentive to use flat bars in cyclocross even further.
MTB Are Allowed In Non-UCI-Sanctioned Events
Hardtails and full suspension mountain bikes are banned from official UCI cyclocross events, but small local competitions usually welcome all sorts of cycling machines to popularize the sport.
If you have a mountain bike, chances are that you’ll be able to participate in some amateur cyclocross races.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why don’t cyclocross bikes use short, flat MTB bars with bar ends?
Flat handlebars with bar ends are technically forward-facing bars and are therefore prohibited in cyclocross competitions.
Bar ends are considered dangerous due to the possibility of hurting yourself or another competitor. One can argue that the hoods on a drop bar can also stab a rider, and that’s certainly true, but they aren’t as pointy as bar ends and enforce greater “handlebar awareness” because the hands of the riders are almost always covering them.
This technicality increases the alertness of a rider to a greater degree and reduces the likelihood of unexpectedly coming in contact with someone since there are always nerve endings covering the surface area.
Bar ends are a different story. Most of the time, they’re used for climbing, and you can neither deploy the breaks nor shift gears when holding them.
Consequently, riders spend less time on them than they would on the hoods of a drop bar. This style of riding reduces the rider’s alertness and boosts the risk of involuntarily hitting an object or a competitor.
Are there drop bars specifically designed for cyclocross and gravel bikes?
Yes. They’re called dirt drops and have flared hooks (drops).
Dirt drops are engineered to encourage riding in the drop position even when cycling on rough terrain since the flared drops effectively elongate the bars and provide more leverage.
For that reason, riders coming from a mountain biking background may find it easier to adapt to a set of dirt drops.
The downside of dirt drops is that they turn the hoods diagonally and thus could make the top position uncomfortable.
If you are unsure whether dirt drops are for you, be conservative and select dirt drops that aren’t extremely flared.
Note: Not all dirt drop bars are UCI legal. Some are wider than 50cm.
Are there drop bars wider than 44cm?
Yes. Wider drop bars are getting more popular, especially among bicycle tourers and gravel riders.
The advantages of wider drop bars are:
- More comfort. Some people find regular 440mm drop bars too narrow
- More leverage. A wider bar equals a longer lever.
- More space. Wider bars permit the installation of larger handlebar bags.
However, touring and cyclocross are two very different aspects of cycling. Cyclocross races are fairly short, aggressive and involve a lot of people whereas touring is calmer and focuses on endurance.
Furthermore, touring cyclists have to carry gear on their bicycles whereas cyclocross racers do their best to keep their machines as light as possible.
Don’t drop bars make it harder to use the brakes?
Drop bars have some downsides when braking.
For example, braking from the hoods requires more effort because the two most powerful fingers (index and middle) are in a disadvantageous position in relation to the brake lever and have to apply more force.
Hence why some people report wrist and forearm strains during prolonged descents.
Reaching the brakes when riding in the drops could be problematic too if you have short fingers, and the bars aren’t optimal for your size. However, compact drop bars and dirt drops greatly reduce the likelihood of this problem.
Conversely, braking on flat bars is super simple and effective because the levers are always at your fingertips. Having said that, the braking performance that drop bars offer is certainly enough for cyclocross races. After all, cyclocross isn’t downhill mountain biking.