There have been so many things that have changed drastically in the mountain bike world from an equipment standpoint. Frame material, brakes, suspension – all of these things make a ’14 trail bike a completely different animal than what you would have bought in 1991.
Another thing that’s now totally different; handlebars.
I found this picture of a fairly typical – though I think definitely rider customised – setup from roughly 1991. It’s all Syncros, with a 150mm stem, a Syncros flat handlebar, and Syncros bar ends. I’m guessing on stem length to be honest, but nothing was shorter than 140mm back then, and stems were made as long as 170mm – which has probably blown a couple of non-vintage minds. I really can’t tell which bar that is from this angle, but Syncros made a 0 degree backsweep bar back then. More minds blown. At least the bar ends are inserted to the handlebar – a lot of them forced you to move grips and levers inboard – saving a bit of precious room for controls.
Though as you can see, there is barely enough room for the cables to exit the brake levers. And I’ve seen far worse than this. I’ll bet there were plenty of people that ran their levers just slightly above and below each other so that the cables had room. Bars were typically about 22 inches wide – 560mm – and cut down from there.
Today, riser bars run as wide as 820mm – the Bontrager Rhythm Pro is one I found, but I’m sure there are others – which is 32 inches, and I recall seeing someone show a prototype 880mm bar at a show recently. Rocky Mountain’s DH bikes come with a 780mm (30 inches) Easton bar, and the Thunderbolt trail bike sports a 730mm (28.7 inches) bar.
Cut down 560s and the 820 Bontrager are the two extremes obviously. In practise, probably not that many people cut down their already tiny bars in 1991. And I’m sure the majority of riders buying bikes today are happy with a 28 inch bar. But I’ve seen some things that really make me wonder.
Yesterday I got the (excellent) Niner News newsletter from Niner Bikes, and this picture of a racer really stuck out for me. He looks very natural and, for lack a better term, “right” on the bike. Except that he’s got a good six inches of handlebar sticking out past either hand that he’s not using. A lot of the trend to wider bars is specific to the riding discipline (wider for DH and fast, open Enduro racing), so you have to wonder why he has such a wide bar for a short-track XC race.
I’m not saying that this dude should be running a 20 inch bar, or that anyone should be, but I don’t see all riders benefiting from the wider-is better trend. I’ve seen guys on the trails that just look ridiculous because of the width of their bars. If you have a slack head angle, a short stem, and you’re racing downhill, then sure, an 800mm bar is probably what you want. If you’re rolling around on the paved trails, then no, you don’t need that.
I bought a Chromag bar that’s 730mm, and I really liked it on my 29er Altitude. I bought another that at 780mm just felt wrong. It’s not as simple as wider-is-better. In mountain biking, you just can’t cover the entire thing with one blanket.
But, as so often happens with cycling, it’s more about fashion, and what people want as opposed to what they need.