Drop handlebars look cool. When you see a bunch of serious cyclists riding, it’s easy to miss the little details on their bikes. Handlebars, however, are big, bold, and extremely visible.
Whether you’re on a trail, on the road, or hanging out in a public place, the distinctive curved shape of drop bars stands out strongly and helps sell the idea that a cyclist is serious.
Mountain bikes don’t usually come with drop handlebars.
If you use your mountain bike for less technical riding (like long stretches of dirt or gravel trails, road riding, commuting, travel or crossing grassy fields for fun), you might find that the flat handlebars on your bike don’t offer all of the riding positions you want.
With drops, you’d be able to get low and stay comfortable for long stretches of pedaling over smoother terrain. But can you switch? How difficult is it to replace your handlebars, and how expensive is the project?
Let’s take a look at how drop bars perform on mountain bikes, what the conversion process looks like, and how economical it is for the average rider.
Why Convert From Flat Bar To Drop Bar?
Drop bars are not perfect. Before we discuss the advantages of drop bars, it’s important to mention that there are situations in which flat handlebars are basically unquestionably better.
These situations largely occur during technical sections on difficult trails.
Any sort of riding where you need a lot of handlebar input, you’re moving the front end of the bike a lot relative to your body, or you’re standing up on the pedals is likely going to be a lot easier and safer with flat handlebars.
If you do a lot of riding on particularly loose terrain, especially with rocks, you regularly ride over obstacles, you ride trails with drops (the ones where your bike goes off of a raised section of terrain and falls for a bit ).
You bunnyhop or manual regularly, or you otherwise do the sort of things that you’d expect to do on blue square or harder trails, drop handlebars might not be for you.
Many riders don’t do those things — and that’s totally fine. Others have multiple mountain bikes, so converting one to be something a bit closer to a gravel bike makes sense.
A few might simply be changing locales or life situations, causing their previous purchasing decisions to make less sense in light of the different styles of riding they intend to do going forward.
For these sorts of riders, drop bars can make a lot of sense.
Drop Handlebars Are Better For Going Fast
Flat handlebars usually aren’t very low. Drop bars, by contrast, have multiple riding positions. One of these utilizes the curved sections of the handlebars that extend below the stem.
By bending over and holding these lowered handlebar sections, riders can minimize their aerodynamic profile and dramatically reduce the wind resistance caused by their body.
This helps you go fast. Properly adjusted drop bars are very comfortable to use over long distances, making it easy to ride quickly and efficiently by taking advantage of this reduced drag.
More Holding Position Means Better Comfort
There aren’t a lot of ways to hold flat handlebars. Drop bars, by contrast, have at least three distinct riding positions.
You can use the drops, you can use the flat part of the bars, or you can use the small hoods found on most drop handlebars that extend from the end of the bars.
Some riders will get extra inventive and grip the transitions between these areas.
Regardless of your preference for regular riding, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy having the ability to utilize these alternate grips for specific situations or to simply add some variety to your ride.
Drop Handlebars Are Great For Endurance
The “correct” biking position involves a flat spine, slightly bent elbows, and a relaxed upper body.
While you can hold this position with flat bars, it takes some effort and hard to maintain for longer rides. But a drop bars make it easier to hold to this position allowing more relaxed rides in long run.
The lower handlebars help relax your elbows and upper body, helping you stay comfortable for longer.
When you combine this with the better aerodynamics of drop bars, you see a big impact on how fatigued a rider gets when they switch to drop bars.
Experienced cyclists can usually go both faster and farther with drop bars than they can with flats.
This comes at a cost of hand fatigue; drop bars tend to put a bit more pressure on your hands. But you’ll usually feel better in your legs, knees, and back after riding on drop bars.
How Do I Put A Drop Bar on My MTB?
Putting a drop bar on a mountain bike is an involved process that should not be undertaken lightly.
Drop bars change the way a rider sits on a bike substantially, which means that you’ll often have to purchase a new stem in order to keep your bike’s reach where you want it.
Simply throwing a set of drops on your existing stem usually stretches you out more than you want, especially if you’re not careful with the type of handlebar you purchase.
Even after you’ve taken the time to figure out what style and size of handlebars you need to keep your bike’s geometry within reasonable limits, you’ll probably need to purchase new brake levers and shifters.
Brake levers and shifters that are designed for drop bars tend to be used on road bikes, which means they work with road bike brakes, derailleurs, and cassettes.
This often means that you’ll need to replace those components as well or purchase additional components to get your new shifters and levers to work with your existing hardware.
You can dodge some of these issues by getting special parts, like wireless shifters or dedicated mountain bike drop-style bars (like Surly’s corner bar), but these are pricey and can limit your options substantially.
Assuming you manage to navigate these hurdles (which you can, it’ll just be a pain), you simply unhook your cables, pop your handlebar out of the stem, put your new bar in the stem (possibly replacing your stem first), put your new components on, hook your cables back up, and then apply bar tape to the ends of your bars.
The process isn’t necessarily simple, but it’s definitely something that you can manage with the right tools, some patience, and plenty of breaks for internet research.
It’s worth noting that the total costs of a project like this aren’t too far removed from the cost of a used gravel bike, especially if you can find a good deal on a mid-range frame.
You can often save a bit of money converting your existing MTB to use drop handlebars, but by spending a bit more, you can have a second bicycle instead.
What Kind of Drop Bars Fit Best On An MTB?
The best drop handlebars for your mountain bike are ones that fit your stem, your seat position, and your preferred riding position.
Before buying drops, try getting on your bike and miming out where you think the best place for your handlebars to sit would be. From there, all that’s left is for you to find a combination of stem and bars that put your drops right about where you’ve imagined them.
If you’re considering options, going with wide bars and shallow drops usually makes the conversion process easier.
You won’t get quite the same aerodynamic benefits as using narrow, deep drops, of course, but they’ll be a lot closer to the bars they’re replacing in terms of reach.
Be sure to consider the effect of the drops on your riding position and adjust your stem as necessary.
While these aren’t necessarily traditional drop handlebars, they tend to be much more compatible with mountain bike equipment, making the conversion process much simpler.
If you just want a few more riding positions without the headache, consider putting a set of bar ends onto your flat handlebars.
Bar ends come in multiple angles and styles, including straight bar ends that mimic hoods and curved bar ends that mimic drops. It’s incredibly easy to install a set of bar ends on your handlebars quickly, and they can be easily removed if you decide you don’t like them.
The big disadvantage is that you can’t access your brakes and shifters while you’re using the new riding positions opened up by these options.
They should, however, be one of the first things you consider if you’re thinking about putting a drop bar on your mountain bike.
Drop Handlebars on MTB: My First Experience
A friend of mine took the time to complete a conversion project on his Explosif hardtail, and I’ve had the chance to try it out on some light trails.
The bike feels very much like a nice gravel bike in many meaningful ways, giving you a bit more comfort and speed than a traditional mountain bike while still giving you the power to traverse some rough terrain.
My friend much prefers the riding position that his drops give him for the sort of riding he does, and I’m inclined to agree. The bike handled the smoother sections of the trail impeccably, and I had lots of fun playing with the different grip positions.
I did, however, scare the heck out of myself with the brief forays I took into more technical riding.
There’s a fairly tame 2′ drop onto a mild hill that I was convinced to ride down, and while I made it down the drop fine, I did so by utilizing the familiar flat sections of the handlebar.
When I went to find the brakes a few moments later, I nearly panicked before I remembered where they were.
I was lucky to be in a situation where I was familiar with the terrain and reaching for the brakes long before I actually needed them.
Had I been on an unfamiliar trail, my lack of experience with the bike’s controls meant I probably would’ve crashed.
For riding on smooth dirt and gravel, however, the bike felt excellent, and my familiarity with gravel bikes meant there were no surprises on tame terrain.
I’ve no doubt that if I took the time to familiarize myself with technical riding with my friend’s bike I could make it work for light stuff, but my friend and I agree to stick to light trails and city riding for the time being.
How Much Does it Cost To Replace Bicycle Handlebars?
Bike handlebars tend to be $30 to $200 in round numbers. If you’re simply replacing a set of handlebars with a similar set, you won’t spend much more money than this.
You might want to purchase some new cables (perhaps $6 per cable), some bar tape ($20-$30), or some new grips ($10-$30), but you won’t need anything else other than tools.
If you’re looking to convert your flat bar to a drop handlebar, however, expect to spend several hundred dollars.
You’ll probably need to replace your brake levers and shifters, change out your stem, and possibly switch out your brakes, cassette, and derailleur to accommodate your new control hardware.
If you know exactly what you’re doing and can find cheap parts, you might be able to complete project on budget.
If you want higher-end parts, you realize partway through the project that something isn’t compatible with something else, or you’re not as patient to hunt for good deals, you can easily spend $400 or more.
Is Drop Bar Conversion Worth It?
Performing a drop bar conversion on your mountain bike can improve the bike’s comfort and handling on easy trails, gravel, and pavement.
You’re essentially turning your bike into something close to a gravel bike, a class of bike that’s becoming increasingly popular for going fast on less technical trails.
Riding on a converted mountain bike is fast, fun, and comfortable. The conversion project itself is not cheap, however, and it’s often a substantial fraction of the cost of a used gravel bike.
In many cases, it’s much smarter to simply sell your mountain bike and pick up a gravel bike or purchase an additional bicycle.
Drop handlebars are ultimately a thing of personal preference, and spending a lot of money to undertake a complex and difficult project is not for everyone.
If you like drop handlebars, you’ve got a great mountain bike frame, you’ve got spare drop handlebars or road bike parts, and you enjoy DIY projects, converting your mountain bike to drop handlebars might be right for you.
If you don’t tick off many of these boxes, you should think twice before attempting a conversion project.
Instead, try out a gravel bike and consider purchasing a used bike that comes with drops pre-installed. You’ll get a similar experience without all of the headache.