There’s a classic, time-honored technique to help you evenly position your drop-bar brake levers by using a ruler or straightedge. If you know, you know. But handlebars have changed, and the ruler method sometimes won’t apply. So, Travis Engel is here to share a bike hack to help keep the brake lever positions symmetrical on today’s shallow or oddly shaped gravel bars. There’s no ruler involved, but you will make use of some items you may already have in your home office.
I’m picky about my touchpoints. Whenever I bring in a bike for review, I swap out the grips and saddle before my first ride. And if it’s a gravel bike, it seems like I tour my neighborhood for a half hour before I find the proper interaction between bar tilt and brake angle. I came up with a secret weapon to simplify some of the trial-and-error. It’s a new twist on an old shop trick for making sure your left and right brake levers are resting at the same angle.
That old shop trick involved simply holding a straightedge underneath one of the drops. It would extend forward along the plane where the tip of the lever blade should rest. For most bars and levers, if you just slide the lever down so the tip just barely touches the straightedge, you’ll end up with a pretty ergonomic transition between hood and handlebar. And it still works fine with classic road bars. It just doesn’t work so well with today’s aggressive, flared, or shallow drops.
So many bars are no longer meant for the “drops” to be anywhere close to horizontal. And it’s great. They allow your hand to hit them more perpendicularly and add a lot of security for rough descents. But try to use the ruler method outlined above, and you’ll end up with your hoods pointing at the sky. For a while, I would cheat it a bit by bumping the tip of the ruler against the back of the lever blade and trying to match it at the same point on the other side. But that method falls apart on some 1x setups, where the rear-facing surface of the lever may not be the same on the left and right. Plus, there were too many variables. Mainly, it introduced a fair bit of human error. Again, maybe I’m more picky than most, but something usually felt a little off. So, I thought of a tool that could replace my trusty ruler.
I started with some 1/16” x 1/2“ metal flat bar that I had leftover from another project. A 36” section should be about $6 at your local hardware store. You’ll only need about 10” of it, but you never know what you’ll use the rest for. Or, if you want to save yourself a trip, you can use an old hacksaw blade. Whichever way you go, you want to measure the distance from the lower tip of your bar to the lower tip of your brake lever. Add a couple of inches on each, and that’s the length you need.
The next step is to bend it. I recommend finding a point about four inches from one end. No need to be too precise, but you don’t want it in the middle and you don’t want it at the tip. If you’re using the 1/16” flat bar, you should be able to do it with your hands. Just put one end on a sturdy table, hang 4” off the end, and push down. You want about a 10-degree bend. Now, lay it under the drop and slide it forward until it intersects the lever blade as if you’re using the ruler method, and if you’re flush against the bar, touching the lever, and have at least an inch of extra material on each side, you’re off to the right start.
Then, you’ll need two movable markers or “stoppers” to line up with the tip of the bar and tip of the lever. You can use rubber bands, magnets, or you can even adhere measuring tape along the upper surface of the tool. Any way to identify fixed points on either end. I like using these small binder clips. Now, it’s time to pick your lever position. Before installing the bar tape, set up the levers about where you think you’ll want them. Make sure your brake cables are hooked up and tensioned, and if you have adjustable reach, make sure each side is set where you’ll want it.
Then, with the lever clamp tight, line up the tool underneath one side of the bar, and slide your markers flush against the tip of the bar and the tip of the lever. Making sure not to bump them out of place, move them over to the other side. Adjust that lever position so that the bar tip and lever tip hit the bumpers the same way they did when you set it up.. Double check that each lever clamp is tight, and check the alignment again. Now, you can wrap your bars with a little more peace of mind.
Of course, there may be handlebars out there that this method won’t work on. Maybe your drops flair at a different angle than your hoods. Maybe you’ve got a semi-flat curved bar that’s nowhere near a traditional drop bar. Maybe you’ve got something cool I don’t even know about. But for all the other neurotic setup snobs out there, hopefully this will calm your nerves next time you ride and worry that there’s something asymmetric going on. If you do, it’s probably ‘cause your stem’s crooked.