Bullhorns – The perfect touring bike handlebar?

Do you dare steer away from touring tradition? They come as standard on almost every touring bike but have you considered anything other than conventional drop handlebars?

I never gave my handlebar choice a second thought. I had drop bars on my first tourer and I still do on my road bike. I know I don’t get on with straight bars as even half a day on my mountain bike will leave my hands numb and shoulders achy.

Some time ago I snapped up a bargain Surly LHT on a certain internet auction site. The spec wasn’t great but the wheels and frame alone out-weighed what I paid for the bike. It came with some badly wrapped time trial style aero bullhorns, this was obviously one of the ‘to go’ components, that was until I nipped out for an evening spin around the block.

Bullhorns - The perfect touring handlebar

When riding with drop bars I was relatively comfortable. I had spent a fair amount of time tweaking my bike fit and after a lot of trial and error I had it just about right. The only slight niggles I had when riding were two points of discomfort. The first was a pressure which developed in to a numbness in my hands and wrists, this would usually kick in somewhere after the thirty mile mark and was impossible to to shake off without  taking a decent rest break. I realised this pain/numbness was a result of not swapping my hand positions regularly enough and it could be avoided by using the tops, the hoods and the drops of my handlebars. The only problem was that I’m not a fan of riding in the dropped position, especially not when touring, I want to be taking in the vista not the tarmac.

The second moan was I never felt like I could stand tall enough when out of the saddle, especially noticeable on a hill climb.  I have quite a long torso and very long arms and to stand up out of the saddle and really straighten out would put the handlebars out of reach. I would find myself pinching the very top of my brake hoods and would still have my back slightly hunched to stay in contact with the hood tops.

As I circled my neighbourhood on my night time test run of the ‘Surly’ I noticed the ‘TT bars’ were surprisingly comfortable, so much so I decided to use the new bike the next weekend for a one hundred and forty mile round, over-night camp trip.  After the first forty miles I realised the numbness wasn’t effecting my hands at all. In fact, I didn’t suffer a single niggle all the way to my campsite or all of the way back home the next day either.  I had set up the bike exactly the same as my other tourer and the geometry wasn’t dissimilar. The only clear difference was the ‘TT’ style handlebars compared to my normal drop bars.

Bullhorns - The perfect touring handlebar
Uncluttered, cable-free cockpit

I agree that a set of drop bars does present the rider options;  you can sit bolt upright and take in the views using the tops, stretch yourself out slightly reaching to the hoods or battle a head wind and duck for the drops. But, if like me, you rarely use  your dropped position then I would recommend you give some consideration to a set of bull horn bars.  The big benefit for me is the out and out comfort. They provide the rider with multiple hand positions, so you can keep swapping your grip without missing the view. The first two positions are the same as that of traditional drop bars but the ‘TT’ bars third position the ‘bullhorn’ section has a further two benefits.  It allows the rider to stretch out further forward, lowering the rider to take on a head wind and remain facing forward without dropping their arms and line of site downwards. An additional benefit to the ‘bull horn’ position is a rider can stand tall and really get out of the saddle stretching out fully which during a long ride is a relief as well as being efficient.

Another advantage of these bars over the traditional drop bars is the forward position of the bar end shifters. Drop bars fitted with bar end type shifters isn’t much of an improvement on the old ‘suicide’ down-tube shifter position, the rider has to take one hand from the handlebars and drop their shoulder to operate them. Until the rider is familiar with the shifter it usually means looking down too, which can be unnerving. Fitted on the ‘bull horn’ bars the shifters are right in front of you and using them is a joy, there’s no need to take your hand off the bars or look down. It also allows very neat routing of both gear and brake cables especially when compared to the normal loop of cable flaring out of this type of shifter when used with drop bars.

Bullhorns - The perfect touring handlebar
New arrangement of the bullhorns with bar end shifters

So, are there any downsides? The only negative comments I’ve had was the shifters are in a vulnerable position if the bike should fall. I disagree, when a bike falls sideways the front wheel turns which means the handlebars and shifters will point skywards. In fact, I consider this another advantage of the forward shifter position, bar end shifters fitted to drop bars are much more likely to hit the ground if the bike should drop IMO.

“How will you fix punctures now?” was another question I was asked, to which I replied “with the bike on the stand”. I was intending to add a double leg stand until I read bout ‘Surlys’ chain stay issues. So I now have to find another way around this. If laying the bike on its side when changing tubes isn’t practical then I’ll fashion a small lightweight packer to clip on to the handlebars to keep the shifters clear of the ground which will also save the bar tape from spoiling when the bike’s upturned.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed riding with the ‘TT’ bars on my ‘tourer’. Position-wise I’ve been perfectly comfortable and I feel like I can battle head winds efficiently by stretching out to the end of the bars.  If you’re comfortable and happy in all three positions of your traditional drop bars then stick with them.  I can report, so far I’ve not yet missed my drop bars and I can still get my drop bar fix from a run out on my road bike.     Of course the next question is “can anyone let me have a go on their ‘butterfly’ bars?”…..to be continued!

7 thoughts on “Bullhorns – The perfect touring bike handlebar?

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for this post. I had been riding my Surly LHT with the stock drop bars for 3.5yrs, & had been finding the braking to be tough on descents. Finally gave it some thought after a rides in the hills couple of weekends back. Figured I should try bullhorn handlebars, & when I searched on the net, came across thia blog post. Cannot tell you how much your thoughts resonated with me. 🙂 I changed to bullhorns last weekend; pretty much identical setup to what your pics show. Will see how the new setup feels, in the coming weeks, esp on steep descents. But initial review from a city ride is that it’s more comfortable, & gives better braking.

    Thanks again for this post.

    rgds, -{db}.

  2. I can never seem to really get a grip on the levers when braking from the hoods on my road bike and I don’t use the drops much. Do you find braking is better with this set up?

    • The braking position is very good with the bullhorns, the levers are pulled / squeezed against the bars. When braking from the hoods on a drop bar set-up it’s more of a pushing motion. Pulling brake levers is a much stronger, more natural action than pushing from the hoods in my opinion. Let me know how you get on.

    • Hi, no I’ve not ridden with the bars reversed but is seen bullhorns set up this way. I’d imagine they’d work equally well. It’ll also be worth adding a set of small brake levers to the straight part of the bar.

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