Mike Varley’s ‘Dropping In’ Article from 1991


Mike Varley’s ‘Dropping In’ Article from 1991

We’ve got a story coming up tomorrow that references this Mountain and City Biking article written by Black Mountain Cycle‘s Mike Varley from 1991 about drop bars on mountain bikes. Also known as dirt drops, Mike discusses the benefits of the unique riding position offered by these off-road drop bars in the original article text below…

Drop bars. Discuss them in conjunction with road bikes, and it’s no big deal. Talk about them in relation to a mountain bike, and people think you are crazy. They tell you that you do not have any control with drops. “Oh sure,” they’ll say, “you can climb better, but you can’t descend.” Well, you can descend. In fact, with drops you can ride in any situation you want to, and be more comfortable.

Drop bars off-road should not be feared. I will explain how drop bars came to be on my bike. Rumors will be dispelled that there is no control and that drop bars are uncomfortable. A list of what you will nced to convert will be supplied to help you in your quest to attain the Holy Order of the Drop Bar.

I have been riding on drops for four years. When riding with friends on downhill sections, I lead out, or at least hang in with the fastest guys. My friends definitely don’t consider me a wimp for using drop bars. On the contrary, I think they respect my ability to ride as well as I do on drops. Both of my mountain bikes are outfitted with drops, no flat bar options for me.

Five years ago, at the Coyote Canyon Clunker Classic in Borrego Springs, California, I first seriously thought about the use of drop bars off-road. I had seen a friend using them, but dismissed it. After all, a motorcycle doesn’t have drops, so why should I put them on my mountain bike?

After riding through 15 miles of washboard, rock strewn, sandy trail, I started thinking how great it would be to have the different hand positions that a drop bar would provide. Riding continuously in these harsh conditions was more than my hands wanted to take. Usually on group rides we ride to the top of a hill, stop, and wait for everyone to catch up. We ride down the hill; stop and wait for everyone to catch up. And so on. This gives your hands and body plenty of time to recover.

However, by not giving my hands a rest, they were starting to complain. “Let’s go, they said, “Give us a rest.” I tried. But I just couldn’t ride with no hands over washboard.

Several months later, at Fat Tire Bike Weck in Crested Butte, I met a guy with a Steve Potts mountain bike set up with Wilderness Trail Bikes drop bars. After talking with him about the drops and riding his bike, I knew drop bars were in my future. (If you own a pink and white Steve Potts with drops and were in Crested Butte in 1987, thank you.)
Back home the next week, with advice from Chuck Hoefer at Pacific Coast Cycles, I set up my Salsa with WTB drops and WTB modified Suntour friction shift levers.

My first ride the next day was at one of the premier off-road rides in San Diego. This ride throws everything at you: ruts, rocks, steep uphills, steep downhills, fast singletrack, forests and deserts. I finished the ride with blisters on my thumbs from the shift lever’s position.

(Moving the levers took care of the blisters.) But what was important was the fact that I was totally jazzed by “my” new discovery. Drop bars are bitchen off road!

The history of drop bars on off-road bikes is well documented. Just one look at a cyclocross hike will confirm this. Cross races are notorious for their adverse conditions. Yet racers consistently fly around mud-glommed corners at high speed. Watching cross racers, it is amazing how smooth and in control these guys are.

Drop bars were also prevalent on the mountain bike race circuit in the early days of NORBA racing. Some of the members of the original Team Stumpjumper raced on drops. Jacquie Phelan has been racing on drops for years. Let’s not forget John Tomac. He showed up last year at the starting line with drop bars and had a successful season. Ross Shafer of Salsa Cycles, Charlic Cunningham, and Steve Potts are builders of some of the hottest bikes on the planet. All ride drops.

It has even been possible to buy an off-the-rack bike with drops. Bridgestone’s MB-1 in 1987, and Specialized’s Rock Combo in 1989, came with drops. Currently Ibis Cycles, Charlie Cunningham and Steve Potts all offer drops on their bikes. Even Klein, in 1986, had a model called the Klein Race that was available with drop bars.

One of the greatest advantages to a drop bar setup is increased braking control. When I ride other people’s flat bar bikes, I need at least two fingers on the brake levers to control the speed.

However, with my drops, all the braking that I need can be accomplished by my index finger. On flat bar bikes, the brake levers are usually positioned close to the grips to give better access to the shifters.

The result is your fingers (assuming you brake with your index and middle fingers) end up near the fulcrum of the lever where leverage is decreased. A road bike brake lever, on the other hand, is mounted in a way that when in the drops, your fingers are at the end of the lever where leverage is highest. By having this advantage, your hands and arms will not be as prone to wearing out from squeezing the brakes.

“But road bike brake levers are not as durable as their mountain bike counterparts.” So what?! When installing any brake lever, it should not be mounted so tight that it will not turn when hit. Brake levers should be tight enough to stay put in normal circumstances, but loose enough so that they can move in a crash and not break. This will save you from buying a new set of levers when (not if) you crash.

There is a learning curve associated with drop bars. That curve was also present when you first ventured off-road on your new mountain bike. You learned how to anticipate shifts, use the brakes to control your speed, corner in different terrain, and most importantly, you found where your limit of control was. Drop bars will alter that limit. At first you may not be able to do everything that you did on flat bars. Once you get used to the drop, you will be able to do everything you were able to do on flat bars. But you are ahead of the game because you already have the basic off-road skills mastered.

Physiologically speaking, the advantages of drop bars are very comforting.

Not only do you have at least four different hand positions, but your hands are in a more natural position when in the drops.

Let’s examine this for a minute. Stand with your hands at your side. Now, bending your arms at your elbows, raise your hands and forearms so they are parallel with the ground. Your hands are now naturally where they would be in the drops. In order to accommodate your hands for flat bars, you will have to turn your hands 90 degrees.

When riding on flat bars, the radius and ulna bones of your forearm push into the carpal bones of your wrists. This puts pressure on the nerves leading to your hands and fingers and can result in tingling or numbness of the hands. To take the stress and weight off your wrists, your body will put more emphasis on using the muscles of your lower back to hold yourself up. The balance of weight supported between your hands and back is then upset.

Drop bars, on the other hand, allow you to vary your hand position. In fact. they encourage it. By changing your hand position, your hands will not be subject to the same jarring forces that a flat bar gives you. With your hands in the drops, the stress is taken off the carpal bones.

This is achieved by allowing your elbows and forearms to act as shock absorbers, whereas the shocks on a flat bar are your wrists.

A mountain bike outfitted with drop bars is capable of so much more than just playing the role of a mountain bike. Install racks and panniers and Viola! a touring bike. Put on light wheels with skinny slicks and Presto! a road bike. Change to a fatter slick or dual-purpose knobbies with fenders and Alakazam! a commuter.

Drop bars are not without their drawbacks off-road though. The obvious problem is that with bar end shifters (the most common system with drops), shifting and braking simultaneously is not possible. Riding very technical trails cleanly will be a little more challenging. This is where having the shifters close at thumb will help. It is harder to grab a gear on drop bars when you cannot afford to move your hand from the brakes. Due to the changing demands of the terrain, you will learn how to anticipate shifting better than ever on drop bars. (See sidebar.)

Another hitch in a drop bar system is cost. Figure on spending anywhere from $150 to $300 just for parts. Your bike will be lighter, but so will your wallet! But hey, compared to the cost of titanium bar ends, this is a bargain.
Recently clip-on bar end attachments have become the craze. “Give your bike more hand positions, climb better,” the ads boast. What they don’t tell you is that they add weight to the bike and you can neither shift nor brake from the bar end position.

A typical $1000 bike handlebar setup (Deore XT 2-finger brake levers, XT top-mount shifters, aluminum bar, welded steel stem, grips and steel bar ends) weighs three and a half pounds. A drop bar setup with an Ibis bar and stem (including steerer plug), Shimano bar end shifters, Dia-Compe brake levers and Off-The-Front grip lape weighs two pounds eleven ounces. How would you like to save over three quarters of a pound and add four hand positions to your bike? You would? I thought so!

Now that you are ready to convert, my advice is do it. First find a shop that has knowledge in drop bar conversions and access to all the necessary parts. Here is a list of some of the parts you will need:

Obviously you will require a new bar and stem. Bars are available from WTB, Ibis and Nitto. The Ibis and Nitto Dirt Drop (available from Bridgestone) have a slight, approximately twelve degree, flare of the dropped portion of the bar. To provide plenty of forearm clearance when in the drops, the Ibis is shaped similar to a road criterium bar.

With 25 degrees of flare, the WTB bar has the most radical look. A shallow drop and wide flare gives the WTB a hand position fairly similar to a flat bar, hence its popularity. All of these bars share the same clamp diameter enabling them to be interchanged in the same stem. (Drop bars made for off-road use are made with thicker walls than road bars and are heat-treated for added strength. I do not recommend drilling the bars for internal cable routing, especially off-road where the added stress riser of holes can weaken the bar. Broken bars do not make pretty neckties.)

Stems for these bars can be had from Salsa, Ibis, Nitto and Specialized. The Salsa and Ibis are welded steel. Both Salsa and Ibis have several different sizes of stems available from stock. They will also make a custom stem to your exact measurerents or from the numbers taken from a Cunningham Fitfinder stem. The Nitto Dirt Drop is a one-size only model.

Specialized offers several different sizes of their stem. Both the Nitto and Specialized are cold-forged aluminum. Charlie Cunningham makes an ingenious tool for locating your optimal stem position. Greg LeMond has used it. I have used it. Need I say more? With the Cunningham Fitfinder stem, you can create a stem position that suits you perfectly.

By riding your bike with the stem installed, you can alter your position until you come up with the perfect stem size. You can then use that position to match up a stock stem as closely as possible. If you want to spend the extra dough, you can get an exact replica of the stem size you decided on. The Fitfinder has two numerical scales.

Armed with the numbers from the scale, you can order a stem through your bike shop from either Salsa or Ibis that will be exactly what you want. Before the Fitfinder was available, stem selection was a hit and miss operation. I personally went through four different stem sizes on my first drop bar bike before I got the stem dialed in with the Fit-finder. Make sure you go to a shop that has one of these.

Shifting systems are many and varied.

I have seen shifters positioned in just about every possible position on drop bars.

There are shifters for the end of the bar, shifters positioned to the inside of the brake lever, I have even seen one guy use his top-mount flat bar shifters on the top of the drop bar.

For all practical purposes, bar end shifters or shifters that mount to the inside of the brake levers work best on off-road drops. Shimano and Suntour both have indexed bar end shifters. The system that you have now will determine which manufacturer to use. They are both excellent. Grip Shift is also another option for either a Shimano or Suntour system.

Wilderness Trail Bikes makes a Shimano SIS thumb shifter adapter that neatly positions your existing shifter body to the inside of the brake lever. This permits shifting while braking and is very popular because of its ease of operation.

Let’s not forget about stopping the bike. I feel that the aero-style brake levers work best. There are no cables to get your hands hung up in and the light return spring in the levers enhances the feel of brakes that have adjustable spring tensions. Dia-Compe brake levers are lightweight. In addition to the standard reach lever, Dia-Compe levers are available in a short reach size to fit smaller hands.

Used with Dia-Compe BRS cables and housing, you will get very solid, low friction braking. Be sure to use an in-line cable adjuster. There is no cable adjuster built in on road brake levers. The in-line adjuster will take up the slack of excess cable stretch.

Depending on your stem choice, you may need a cable hanger for the front brake. Dia-Compe, Ritchey and WTB have beefy, no-flex cable hangers available.

After everything is set up and the controls are where you want them, use some cut-in-half foam grips on the top half of the drop. Then, taping over the pads, you will have a nice comfy place for your hands. You are riding off-road now. As you negotiate your favorite trail, smoothness oozes from your body. You can do no wrong. Everything is clicking just right.

You feel as if you are gliding through corners. Your tires barely touch the ground. Time seems to stop, allowing you to feel as if this moment can go on to infinity. But the trail ends and someone marvels at how well you were riding. How do you ride like that with those drop bars? You just do it.