I like to imagine that before handlebars, some bespectacled inventor tried to steer a wheeled machine by way of a rudder. Perhaps they would have named this mythical device the ‘land whaler,’ since whaling was still an enormous source of the world’s energy and a lot of its literature. We’d all be whalers now, instead of cyclists, and maybe peg-legs wouldn’t have gone out of fashion like bar-ends or Lance Armstrongs.
There was a moment, during the fixie craze, when bars got so narrow, I thought they might become vestigial. I really thought there was an opportunity there to go to rudders, but it didn’t happen, and mountain bikers restored balance to the universe by deciding they wanted bars so wide they had to put French doors in their basements just to get their bikes out the door.
The first handlebars were made of solid steel or sometimes wood. Wood was a weight-saving move. It turns out that, even in the 1860s there were weight weenies, although they were called ‘density dogmatists’ or ‘poundage pedants.’ It wasn’t until the 1930s that Cinelli came out with the aluminum drop bar. Cino Cinelli was a real ‘pepperoni di peso’ to put it in the original Italian.
Like most other parts of the bicycle, the humble handlebar has been riffed on more than Smoke on the Water or Donald Trump’s insanely small hands. We started with flat bars. Then we got, in no particular order: drop, riser, aero, BMX, Bullhorn, Porteur, Upright, Bullmoose, Cruiser, Condorino, Whatton, Touring, moustache, and ape hangers, and of course dozens of variations on those, because one of humanity’s enduring challenges, apparently, is where to put your hands.
Having read that list (thanks, Wikipedia) I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “What is condorino?” Well, it’s a cheese, like parmesan or pecorino with a nutty start and a sulfurous (read: farty) finish, less popular for obvious reasons. It’s also something like a cafe racer bar you might see on a motorcycle, or a hipster’s face.
Possibly, you’re thinking, “What is a Whatton bar?” which is a natural question if you’ve not ridden a penny-farthing and aren’t familiar with the problem of having to leap from the top of your absurd mode of transport without catching your jodhpurs on a flat bar. That was before they started sewing chamois (plural) into jodhpurs. And of course, that turned out to be one of cycling’s evolutionary dead ends. It’s our platypus, our bike polo.
Ape hanger bars, which came from chopper motorcycles to chopper bicycles like the Stingray, were actually regulated by Congress in the late ’70s, via the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. That’s not a lie (although I’m not above lying if it’s funny). There was, apparently, a legitimate concern about how tall these bars could get before kids started smashing their faces against stuff at high speed. And you know, I’m not sure what that has to do with apes, or why someone felt inclined to implicate them in child face-smashing, but the whole idea, up to and including the smashed face, makes me chuckle.
I’m not proud.
Another head scratcher for me, really, is the drop handlebar. Like, a flat bar makes sense. A flat bar puts the “handles” where your hands normally fall when you lean forward. And I get that we want multiple hand positions, and even that a drop bar gives you those positions in a fairly elegant way. But I don’t think in a hundred years of thinking about it I would have invented the drop bar.
I think I’d have sunk my time into the rudder approach.
Look, none of us knows where we’re going in this life day-to-day. As they say, “The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray,” or end up with George putting a bullet in the back Lenny’s head behind the barn. But a handlebar, whatever its shape, gives you the illusion of control. Sure, you’re still likely, given enough time, to smash your face into something, but most days the handlebar is going to take you where you mean to go. And that’s a beautiful thing.
There aren’t too many questions a human person can ask themselves without ending up at the nexus of free will (yay!) and determinism (boo!). If the pedals represent determinism, the undeniable cause and effect, then the handlebar is an avatar of free wheel. It gives shape to your adventures and let’s you express yourself in a way not measurable in watts. Without the handlebar, what would we fly over during an endo? Without the handlebar, what would create those mysterious upper thigh bruises you discover a week after the aforementioned endo? And without bruises, is it even riding a bike?
For all my enthusiasm, a rudder just wouldn’t do those things for you.